Monday, March 7, 2016

                                Death of Democracy

In Mitt Romney’s frontal attack on Donald Trump you can find this interesting paragraph:

“Ronald Reagan used to quote a Scottish philosopher who predicted that democracies and civilizations couldn't last more than about 200 years. John Adams wrote this: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide." I believe that America has proven these dire predictions wrong for two reasons.” (http://www.politico. com/story/2016/03/full-transcript-mitt-romneys-remarks-on-donald-trump-and-the-2016-race-220176#ixzz41xdjpx5E) Mitt Romney cannot, of course, take James Madison’s ominous prediction seriously. Being a politician, he must insist that our democracy is as vigorous and flourishing as it was in 1789. But it is very important for us to try to understand what Madison had in mind and to consider his forecast more seriously than Romney does.

We frequently think of democracy as an electoral system in which the citizens have to go to the poll one day every two years to select their Congress persons, one day every four years to elect a president and one day every six years to elect their senators. That is not very burdensome but, if that is all citizens do, ours  is going to be a fairly poor sort of democracy.

Citizens going to the polls by itself will not accomplish a great deal. If citizens are not well informed about the issues before the voters, if they have not considered their decisions carefully in the light of the best information available, political elections differed little from the Grammys or the Oscars or some other popularity contest. The original idea of our democracy was not  that people choose the most popular person as their leader, but that they chose the person they regarded as the most competent, the person with the best judgment, the person with a suitable calm and impartial temperament to make the difficult calls that most presidents and Congressional leaders will confront in the course of their political careers.

Citizens have to be well informed. That means that they are willing to dedicate a good deal of time and energy to reflecting about the issues confronting the nation. They have to be willing to discuss current issues with people who have different opinions. In these conversations they need to be open-minded. They need to make real efforts to understand what moved their political opponents and what shapes their thinking about current problems.

This requires a serious commitment to democracy, to self-government by all the people. Sometimes that is boring. Sometimes it is enormously aggravating to listen to people whom you can't help regarding as prejudiced, ill-informed, irrational and overly emotional. Participating in a democratic government is not all fun and games. It involves a willingness to work hard for the sake of the general well being.

And this brings us to the heart of Madison's dire prognostication about the death of democracy. The democratic process works if people are willing to do things they themselves don't particularly like but which they believe to be important for the common good. Democracy works only if people think about what is good for everybody and not just about what is good for them individually. Frequently when people talk about democracy they talk about people voting their interests. Madison was quite clear that a people whose citizens vote their own interests will soon lose their democracy: "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” (http://www.veterans violent-death/) The citizens of a democracy must be moral, they must be willing to put the common good ahead of their private interests. A functioning democracy is run by active hard-working citizens who are interested in taking measures that benefit everybody even if those might be against their own private interest.

Madison was clearly aware that this made extraordinary demands on human beings. Democracy makes extraordinary demands on all of us. Those demands are even more difficult to fulfill in a country like ours dedicated to capitalist competition. The central dogma of a capitalist economy holds that a country flourishes when everybody pursues his or her private interest. In his praise of the free market, Adam Smith, an early advocate of free markets, pointed out that we are supplied with bread and meat not "through the benevolence of the butcher and baker," but because each was doing what was best for them and their business. The leaders of capitalist enterprises must put the interest of their own businesses above everything else.

Our children are brought up to work in capitalist enterprises and if they are fortunate to lead them. They must learn to be good competitors and to look out for themselves. But, as democratic citizens  their orientation must be the opposite of their orientation as capitalist enterprises. As citizens of a democracy they must look for what is good for everybody. They must be, in the words of James Madison, "moral"-- not self-interested by dedicated to what is good for all.

James Madison thought that it is hard for fallible human beings to be good citizens. He did not live long enough to see that being a good citizen of a democracy is particularly difficult for those living under capitalism because they are constantly being steered to consider their own good at the expense of that of everybody else. People like that may thrive in capitalism and become billionaires--not mentioning any names--but they are not suited to be good democratic citizens.

Where everyone pursues his or her own private interest, agreement is very difficult to reach. Few people want the same thing and the more people are involved in decision-making the more different interests have to be reconciled. In order to get a capitalist democracy to work, it is best to reduce the number of people who have real decision-making power. Most members of Congress count for very little. Their leaders are, to put this very bluntly, bribed to take positions favorable to large corporations. In the end the number of genuine decision-makers becomes quite small and the affairs of all American citizens are run by a very limited number of corporate leaders. Democracy comes to an end.

James Madison's prediction of the death of democracy foretold with precision what would happen to a self interested citizenry. It has come out just as predicted.