Platitude of the Day

I am forever seeing posts and columns by conservatives who speak of the need to defend the democracy established by the "founders" of America. The United States were not founded as a democratic nation but as a confederation of republics run largely by educated aristocrats. To the extent that political leaders like Lincoln and FDR used the language of democracy, they were acting as demagogic dictators in defiance of law and custom. There has probably never been a real democratic state, and, if there were, it was ancient Athens, which as a moderate republic joined republican Sparta in repelling two Persian invasions but as a democracy attempted to walk in the shoes of the Persian Empire.
Democracy, in practical terms, is virtually impossible in any country larger than Luxemburg, partly because most people are contenty to run their own lives and have neither the interest nor the wisdom to exercise authority, and partly because of what was once known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy. All governments are inherently oligarchical, because no single man can rule without a cadre of loyal cronies and because any group of men, including Boy Scout Troops, the PTA, and lynch mobs are ruled by a few dominant personalities. A long time ago, George Fitzhugh pointed out that any nation based on the principles of "liberty and equality" would concentrate all power in the hands of the ruthless seekers of power and would exploit and subjugate the weaker and more virtuous citizens.
This was self-evident 150 years ago, and it is astonishing that so many well-intentioned people are still celebrating the political fiction by which they are enslaved.  Another enslaving illusion is the cult of liberty.   Liberty and freedom are tricky words. In a political context, the Greeks thought first of the independence of their cities which they contrasted with the enslaved communities of the Persian Empire. They secondly thought of the distinction between slaves and free men. The Greek phrase the Romans translated as artes liberales, the liberal arts, originally designated those skills and activities that feee men engaged in--literature, music, philosophy, oratory. Now, Greek philosophers of various types liked to argue about who was really free. Were slaves to appetite free? Slaves to prejudice? Greed?
To my argument, I sometimes get the response that this or that person prefers a different form of government, monarchy or aristocracy, but if democracy, apart from certain ancient Greek cities, is a mythical beast--one used to terrify children into obedience-- it is not a question of what system one prefers but of acknowledging reality
On a more practical level, Aristotle recognized certain common ethical qualities among free people--that is, Greeks--and is said to have advised Alexander to treat the barbarians as free, the Greeks as free. To be free requires some degree of economic autonomy, which in turn encourages moral autonomy, which makes possible spiritual autonomy. TV watchers and sports fans, no matter how many times they vote for Donald Trump or watch Fox News, can never be free in any sense of the word the ancients or Jefferson would understand. (I am not referring to people who watch television occasionally or root for their home team but to the habitual abusers of popular culture, including Facebook.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

16 Responses

  1. William Shofner says:

    Both Tocqueville and Acton warned us about the tyranny of the majority. But then they both told us that the cure for such tyranny was secession. It worked once (1776) and then failed once (1861). Maybe secession will succeed next time. (The way things are going now, the States united just might have another shot here. Hope so.)

  2. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Concentrations of power suppress freedom. If we want more freedom we need to weed out concentrations of power, root and branch.

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    What is the difference, if any, between an oligarchy and a plutocracy? My understanding is that they are roughly equivalent except that an oligarchy is overtly run only for the benefit of those who control it, the rest be damned, while a plutocracy, while run by the wealthiest, allows for the others, not of the controlling group, to also prosper. Regardless, any elite that separates itself as if it is a separate people, culturally, like the Francophone Russian aristocracy or the current gang (much, much worse), who, apparently consider themselves to be genetically superior even to those of the same stock is intolerable, equivalent to a foreign occupation, and must be resisted to the utmost, but, it is to be hoped, preferably short of violence.

  4. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    It is not the time for political theory. We need to address the present. Our first step is to vote out the people who want to control us and everything else. Things will only get worse if we cannot do that.

  5. Thomas Fleming says:

    Political theory is an academic exercise. An understanding of political reality is the fundamental requirement for any program for productive change. There is a great deal of undirected passion these days but, because it is not rooted in any comprehensive understanding, it results in foolish escapades. Voting in most cases changes nothing. Here in Illinois, “conservatives” voted twice for Adam Kinzinger, because, having no basic principles, they could not recognize a complete phony when they saw him. Until taxpayers understand they have to disenfranchise tax-consumers, they cannot dream of chagning anything for the better.

  6. Gregg Zuman says:

    I’ve been contemplating production of a weekly series called Euthanizing Euphemisms, in which a trendy transmogrified term with a long tail/tale is identified, mined for etymology, stripped of modern mumbo jumbo, and reconstructed tastefully. The list, of course, is endless…

  7. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    But voting is the one thing we can do in the short term to change anything. If you think a Biden victory with Democrats holding a slim majority is no different than a Trump victory I think you have it wrong. You have not changed our culture for the better during your lifetime. We need a different approach. First step is to stop as much of the destruction that is going on now.

    Polls seem to indicate that many are starting to understand now. If you think that complete understanding is necessary before we can make any improvements you can just stay home and write more sermons to the choir, all to little effect. Just my opinion.

  8. Thomas Fleming says:

    Anyone who thinks we can vote our way out of this mess is, as Popeye would say, cruisin for a bruisin. Nearly 50% of the eligible voters are a dependency of the Democratic Party: a majority of blacks, immigrants, unmarried women, and government employees. The other half of the country are so ignorant and confused that they don’t know which way to turn, and among them are most of the better Republicans including Trump. Action without a sense of purpose or strategy is not only a waste of time: it is dangerous. Dangerous, because anarchy is usually worse than tyranny, and more dangerous because the Left likes nothing better than the occasional outburst from the populist right. These outbursts always give them the power to crack down even harder. Among the few politicians to recognize this was Umberto Bossi, who used to say that the Italian ruling class liked illegal immigrants because the crimes they committed and trouble they caused justified the growth of the state. And no, a majority of Americans is not waking up. They are annoyed by the lockdowns and COVID rules and frightened by BLM, but few of them are ready to repudiate the panoply of special minority privileges that empower the government. They are too busy watching their televisions. Opinion polls hardly mean anything apart from revealing the agenda of the people who design the polls. We are going through a dark period in our history, and it gets darker every year. Carrying a water-logged book of matches in your pocket is not going to light up the darkness. In any event, I established this website on the simple principle that I was tired of no-exit discussions of news and politics and preferred, now that I had been set free against my will, to concentrate on the things that matter to us even if we are living in a tyranny. Once, after I had given a talk on education at the Philadelphia Society, a conservative professor objected to my reference to music as a part of education (a reference I made only in answer to a question!). “They played Beethoven in Auschwitz,” he cried out. Since he was a distinguished scholar whom I respected, I contented myself with pointing out that enduring misery and facing death, Jewish musicians took consolation in playing the music they had devoted their lives to.

  9. Thomas Fleming says:

    Gregg, give us a good example.

  10. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Have it your own way Dr Fleming. I disagree.

    I believe that the people fleeing from red states to blue states are not going to try to make them red. I believe that the immigrants who are fleeing from banana republics looking for a better life do not want America to become a banana republic. Everything is always changing. Change can be guided to some extent and adapted to. Politics is how we do that.

    I think in response to the giant power play that is happening we are going to have a giant opposite reaction where more people wake up and insist on less government control and more freedom.

    The world is never going to be perfect but it can be better than it is now.

  11. Thomas Fleming says:

    I’ll make it simple. I scratched out a brief post, initially for Facebook, in which I pointed out that nostalgia for an illusory democratic America is mistaken and harmful, because in general the rhetoric of democracy is generally used–by French Jacobins and American Lincolnians, for example–as a justification for the usurpation of power. That is the point I made, and that is the point I am prepared to debate and discuss.

  12. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    Staying safe inside the box will never lead to creative ideas for possible solutions. Better to play with words and kill some useless ones.

  13. Thomas Fleming says:

    Irrational outbursts and ad hominem attacks don’t contribute a great deal. I do my best to be patient, but there are limits, If Mr. Van Sant has anything to say about the post, I shall be delighted to read it.

  14. Gregg Zuman says:

    A few euphemisms to euthanize – and the constructs they appear to be evading:

    Our democracy? Federal-level representative government, including approximately 650,000 citizens somehow “represented” by each House of Representatives member.
    Automobile? Fuel-powered motor-driven vehicle
    Affordable housing? Government-funded barracks incorporating endless job security for unionized maintenance workers
    Gay? Homosexual man
    Dollar? IOU Nothing from a coterie of private banks
    Native Americans – Autochthonous peoples of myriad nations of Turtle Island
    Driver – Motor-driven vehicle operator

    Just a few euphemisms here to kick around for starters. Each one is a Pandora’s Box awaiting to be opened and unpacked – and the list goes on and on and on…

  15. William Shofner says:

    More democracy does not lead to better government; it leads to more government.

    Look what Lincoln and his democratic thugs did to this Republic ….all in the name of the people, of course. As the great Mel Bradford noted, “Lincoln did not save ‘the Union as it was’. Rather, as the scholarship tends to agree, he played the central role in transforming it forever into a unitary structure based on a claim to power in its own right, a teleocratic instrument which, in the name of any cause that attracts a following, might easily threaten the liberties of those for whose sake it existed.”

    ~”Against Lincoln; A Speech at Gettysburg”, 17 American Spectator, Dec. 1984, pp. 37-39

  16. Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks, Wes, for the passage from an honored friend.