Democracy, Birds, And Snails
April 7, 2005
I wonder whether liberal democracies do not follow an ordained trajectory into the muck, ripening like fruits, having their arteries harden, and falling, plop, to be eaten by birds and snails. (That was a two-animal medico-vegetative ballistic metaphor, not so much mixed as homogenized, almost colloidal. Patent applied for.) I note that the English-speaking countries are doing to themselves exactly what the United States is doing, and the Europeans, though better educated and more cultivated, follow. Maybe there is a pattern.
Now, any time I refer to the United States as a democracy, I get mail, from people vaguely remembering high-school civics, who tell me that the US is not a democracy but a constitutional republic. In fact it is neither. A democracy is of course any governmental system in which ultimate power rests with the people; direct democracies, parliamentary democracies, and constitutional republics are all examples of democracy. In America, the people are nearly powerless, in large part without knowing it. The trick has been done by giving them furiously fought elections that don’t mean anything. This distracts them and gives them a sense of participation, while maintaining their proper role as consumers.
The United States is not the country it thinks it is. It moves fast toward a curious comfortable despotism. This is of course precisely what people want. A few observations:
America does not have a free press. The media are big business and speak for those who own big business. They lie and distort and always have. Now, however, they all lie and distort identically; here is the rub. Their function is to herd the sheep. The public knows only what it is allowed to know, except for the tiny few who go to the internet. “Political correctness” is not an annoying fad. It is a deadly serious means of preventing public discussion of things that those in power do not want discussed (for example, race, affirmative action, illegal immigration.)
In the words of the great political philosopher Fredwitz, democracy is communism continued by other means. Pretty much, anyway.
Though it may run counter to intuition, the press itself has little interest in freedom of the press; this is why freedom is so easily denied. Journalism is first a job. It is second a job with rich perquisites: A reporter travels abroad, attends exciting events, enjoys privileges unheard of among mere citizenry. It’s a racket. Only a cantankerous few would risk these wonders for the sake of telling the truth. They are soon weeded out.
The will of the people? Hardly. Americans do not determine any policy that matters. (E.g., regarding race, affirmative….) The techniques for guaranteeing an unnoticed helplessness are simple but brilliant. First, people are never permitted to vote for policies, but an only for one of two essentially identical presidential candidates who prate identically about Getting the Country Moving, and No Child Left Behind. The results determine not policy but patronage. Second, power is concentrated in remote anonymous bureaucracies, rendering policy impervious to attack. Third, there is the federal tactic of taxing the states and returning the money in exchange for obedience.
The people do not rule. Nor do they have freedoms inconvenient to the government. But then, they do not want freedom.
We are seeing I think that letting people govern themselves doesn’t work. I don’t say that it is undesirable, but merely impractical. (Letting them think they have power, however, is splendidly sensible, as it keeps them quiescent.) More succinctly, democracies aren’t stable. They tend toward well-fed dictatorship. Why? Because the bright, grasping, and conscienceless inevitably rise.
The people lack the intelligence to govern any entity larger than a very small town. Particularly in the United States they read little, think less, know almost nothing of history, geography, the nature and politics of the world beyond the borders. They are thus easily swayed, frightened, enraged, gulled, and led into dog-pack patriotism by those, far smarter and more aware, who understand the levers of power. They so quickly give up liberty to those who offer to protect them. They are eager to do it. Look around you.
I have seen it said that the national character of the United States safeguards the country against despotism. I doubt it. National character may exist at a given moment, but it is easily changed. A spirit of hardy independence, of “Don’t Tread On Me” and so on, cannot outlive the independence itself. America is no longer a nation of rifle-toting frontiersmen or self-sufficient farmers. It is a nation of employees. On average they are heavily indebted, imprisoned by the retirement system, unable to farm, fish, hunt, defend themselves, change their spark plugs or build a shelter. They cannot live without the state, which leaves…who in charge?
A curious phenomenon, of uncertain provenance though I have heard many theories, is the national promotion of psychic weakness as a virtue. Some of it surpasses parody. I see that teachers are eliminating red pencils for grading papers because the violence of the color might shock the sensibilities of the students. There is much of this. Presumably the effect, and perhaps the intention, is a cowering race of pitiable and self-pitying weaklings unable to withstand, well, much of anything. A red pencil, for example. Dreadful things, those pencils.
People want neither freedom nor democracy. They want a soothing mother domestically and an outlet, preferably overseas, for anger.
While political democracy does not exist, cultural democracy does. It can exist because it does not threaten those who govern. The common run of humanity has no interest in learning anything or in any sort of intellectual betterment. They resent anything they see as indicating superiority in others, though, and want assurance that, as kids used to say in Alabama, “you ain’t no gooder’n me.” The degradation of the schools serves to eliminate obvious distinction, improve docility, avoid unwanted study, and make people consumers of witless amusement provided from above, as for example terrible music and awful movies.
All of the foregoing I believe serve to make the public a somnolent mass paying taxes, buying things, and directing little attention to larger matters. The only freedoms most want are the freedom to drive nice cars, watch 300 channels on the cable, drink beer, and take an occasional vacation. Freedom matters to intellectuals. For most, prosperity suffices.
A friend recently returned from China and told me, “As long as you don’t screw with the government, it doesn’t screw with you. It’s not Burundi. I hate the bastards, but the economy is getting better and people go along. It could be lots worse.”