The ancients thought that Democracy was the second worst form of government. Tyranny was the worst. Democracy was second worst because democracies always evolved into tyrannies. In their observations, the demos--the people--were easily manipulated by demagogues who used them as the means to an end, which was the acquisition of tyrannical power. Has the American experiment in democracy proved the ancients wrong?
The prognosis is unclear. The patient is sick, but it remains to be seen whether the illness is terminal. Are we in a death spiral or are we suffering through a painful transitional period waiting awkwardly and confused until a new sense of who we are as a people emerges. Waiting for the American Republic version 4.0. Let me explain.
The American experiment was based on the idea that a self-reliant, well-informed, vigilant citizenry comprising mostly farmers, tradespeople, and small businessmen, had come of age on the American continent, and that it would be capable of governing itself. A big part of the rationale behind the development of public education in the 19th century was to make good citizens of the increasing number of immigrants who had no idea about American traditions of democracy and self-rule. The newcomers needed institutions to socialize them into the American way, and most of the newcomers embraced it because any healthy human being longs for the dignity and freedom that was embodied in this republican ideal of the American citizen.
We can argue about how much reality this ideal ever really had, but I would argue that it was something decent Americans understood as the ideal toward which the society aspired. But now even this ideal has diminished in its power to be a guiding star, and the reasons for that are complicated. The necessary embrace of cultural diversity and pluralism has diminished the whiggishness that was the inspiring cultural impulse at the heart of this ideal. That whiggishness defined for a long time what it meant to be an American, and that has all but been lost.
I don't think that there is any question that this is a something-gained-something-lost predicament, but that something has been lost needs to be acknowledged even if it can no longer be clung to. Nativists and people like Pat Buchanan have always feared that its loss meant a loss of American identity and with it the traditions and the sober republican discipline that the traditional idea about what it meant to be an American acculturated in its citizens. I understand their concern, but it's akin to the concerns the imams who worry about the loss of Muslim identity as their societies modernize.
Societies evolve, and with that evolution comes painful losses with the important gains. Every society, including ours, must learn the trick of what to hold onto and what to let go of. It's not easy. The extreme cultural right is the party of hanging on no matter what; the extreme cultural left is the party of letting go no matter what. Most people live mostly unconsciously in the conflict between the two tendencies, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes the other. Sane people in the middle have to find a way to consciously, artfully synthesize the two tendencies. That's what it means to me to be a centrist--the center is defined by this integrationist project, which is very different from just splitting the difference between the extremes. Integration in this sense is a spiritual activity, but that's a subject for another time.
I think the bigger reason for the weakening of the American republican ideal has to do with the huge structural changes in the economy as it industrialized, especially in the period following the Civil War. This period between the Civil War and World War I is one in American history that hardly anybody knows anything about, and it was critical transitional era that dramatically changed what it meant to be an American citizen. Industrialization in every society, including ours, has meant the displacement of people who worked on the land transforming them into a traditionless, landless, powerless proletariat. The proletariat that came into being as farmers and tradespeople were forced into becoming factory workers and created a different kind of citizen who was no longer self-reliant in the old sense.
This was Jefferson's nightmare, and we're still living it today. We've accepted it because it's a comfortable nightmare for most of us. But few of us are self-reliant in the Founders idea of it. We may not think of ourselves as among the proletariat, but most of us are workers for large corporate or governmental agencies, and we have little control over our economic destinies except to change jobs and work for other large corporate or governmental agencies. I know there are plenty of people who don't fit this description, but they do not play the major or dominant role in shaping our economic landscape, and in one way or the other they are implicated in and dependent on these huge systems.
So we still have a democracy--our votes matter, sort of. If nothing else, 2000 has made that clear (in the sense that if Gore had won, we would not be in the current mess). But the real power in these huge social systems have become Frankenstein like. They are human creations but they operate according to a will of their own and resistant to human control. Is there anybody who thinks it's possible to control, for instance, this huge system we call the military-industrial complex? Is there anybody really in charge of it, or is it that the people who think they are in charge are simply the system's most obedient servants? These systems have a way of promoting only those who will serve it and rejecting those who would try to rein it in.
So if power is the capacity to impose one's will, whose will is being served by a system like the military-industrial complex? Was it the will of the American people, for instance, to invade Iraq? Or was it the will of this system--its need to be fed--that demanded some rationale dutifully supplied by its servants du jour, the neocons, for the invasion? Are the Democrats any more capable than the Republicans to control it? At best they have some ambivalence about it, but they know what happens to those who oppose it. It's this ambivalence that makes them vulnerable to be branded "weak on defense," which is a political death sentence. They know that the fulfillment of their political ambitions requires that they do their part to feed the beast. That's what it means these days to be a political realist.
But the point is that the will of the people really no longer plays a role in shaping American destiny because relative to the systems that control most of our lives, that will is powerless. The people are confused and disorganized, and their will is impotent. As a people we are divided and conquered. And so these systems grow stronger by default. No counterforce is organized and powerful enough to control them.
The realist in me just gives a shrug of the shoulders and says, "What can I do except live with it and carve out the best life I can for my family and me?" The idealist in me finds such collaborationist tendencies repugnant. But mostly I'm disturbed by the fundamental powerlessness of our situation in the face of what's happening. We can't do anything about earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes--it's just duck and cover. But we should be able to exert some control over the social institutions that structure our lives, and yet in reality we are just as powerless in influencing them as we are in preventing the inevitability of these natural disasters.
During the holiday break, I've been watching the remarkable 1969 documentary about the genesis of the French resistance during WWII entitled "The Sorrow and the Pity." One of the most surprising things I learned from it was how at the beginning the French people were generally pretty accepting of their defeat in June 1940 and of Petain's collaboration with the Germans. "What can you do?" seemed to be the attitude. There were plenty of right-wing Frenchmen who were inclined to accept strongman rule, and lots of Frenchmen bought into German anti-British propaganda and the idea that the Germans were there to help
the French to clean up the mess that the Third Republic had created. Better to align with the the Catholic and Franco-like Petain than with Popular Front socialist Jews like Leon Blum or atheistic communists.
At the beginning, nobody had a clue how bad their situation had become. But gradually many French people realized what had happened to them, and toward the end of 1942 a resistance movement emerged intent to win back what had been lost. But those in the Resistance that we celebrate as heroes today was composed mostly of a minority of oddballs and communists, people who just couldn't get along or bend to authority. According to those interviewed in the film, most of the French didn't think very highly of those in the resistance during the war. They were called "terrorists" at the time. DeGaulle was the symbol of Free France for some, but most French embraced the demagoguery that Petain as the saviour of the nation.
In France, it would seem, republics are easy come, easy go--they're up to five now and counting. But maybe that's a sign that they are more adaptable than we Americans, and maybe eventually Americans must experience something similar --the dramatic loss of the democratic republic to tyranny in order for them to realize that they must fight to restore it. I've been arguing on this blog that we're in a situation much like that of the French in the early phase of their occupation in which they did not realize the true implications about what had happened to them, when most believe the Petainist propaganda. I know the U.S. is not occupied by a foreign power and that our freedoms have not been taken away from us by a dictator. Nevertheless, they are being slowly eroded, and most of us Americans don't realize what is happening. And my guess is that there will not be the will to do anything about it until things get uncomfortably bad.
The ancients were pretty smart about human nature, and they were probably more right than wrong in their assessment of democracy's poor track record in preserving human freedom. The French went through several cycles to prove their point. And maybe despite all the instability, the French are better off for it--it has made them more aware of how easily their freedoms can be lost, and they have learned to be more adaptable and experimental.
I'm not knowledgeable enough to know whether the French Republic version 5.0 is a significant improvement over version 4.0, but insofar as the American republic is structured in such a way that it no longer reflects the real needs and the deeper will of the people, it needs an upgrade. Perhaps you could argue that the post Civil War period in effect was version 2.0, and the New Deal was version 3.0. But whatever version we're in now, it is stodgy, obsolete, and unresponsive. Can the will to upgrade come only after we have the current version forcefully taken away as 3.0 was taken away from the French? Or can we muster the will to make the changes because it's simply the right thing to do?
Update/Credit Where Credit is Due: After writing the above post I remembered that I probably got this idea of the different republics from Michael Lind's 1995 book, The Next American Nation, from which I have previous quoted. See here. I generally like Lind, but I don't remember what he said well enough to say whether I agree with his ideas about the what the fourth republic to be. But it's probably worth another look.