Democracy Imperiled?

For a variety of reasons, Plato was suspicious of democracy. The idea of majority rule could lead to excesses that undermine the body politic, he noted. His alternative of rule by the intelligentsia is equally flawed in my judgment, but at the moment in which fractures in this democratic republic are increasingly apparent, it seems appropriate to assess the conditions that have given rise to our problems.

First, and perhaps most notably, a democratic republic depends on an educated populace and adherence to certain norms of behavior. It is evident, however, that Americans have a far greater interest in amusing themselves than in educating themselves. Even the extraordinary number of college graduates reveals little about educational attainment since so many are trained in incapacity. Many colleges in the United States are only faintly related to education at all, and many that purport to train simply instill an ideological canon on their students.

In a recent ISI survey on civil knowledge, a majority of college graduates could not name the three branches of government.

While democracies confer rights, these rights only have meaning when understood against concomitant duties.  The duties of citizenship fall into the categories of understanding, work, loyalty, trust, and sacrifice. If individuals are so self-absorbed that they cannot assist others, democracy cannot succeed. The sinews of the state are dependent on civil understanding and cooperation.

At the moment, many Americans suggest the government must do something to assist them. As one Obama supporter noted at the end of the presidential campaign, “Maybe now someone will pay for my mortgage and assist with my bills.” But democracy was not conceived as the “nanny state,” nor can it survive attempting to care for all its citizens. The idea that government must “provide” is a phenomenon that emerged from officials as arbiters to officials as implementers. A “me generation” now expects the resources of government to be allocated for its specific benefit.

Second, a government that assumes enlarged authority over the economy can browbeat those in the private sector to accede to its desire. It is now evident that the Obama administration played hardball with banks involved in the Chrysler deal because it had leverage through TARP funding. The presumption is that expanded government action was necessary to bolster an economy teetering on the brink of disaster. But this new definition of government’s role means in effect that Washington has replaced New York as the financial capital of the nation. It means as well that the government which has insinuated itself into the automobile, insurance, housing, banking, and financial services industries now controls most of the means of production.

Third, the power of demagoguery is enhanced by a press corps that engages in cheerleading. The truth is nothing more than what the president says it is. President Obama speaks soothingly of nonpartisanship on his watch, yet invariably acts in a straight-forward partisan manner, and as one might expect in the present environment, no one calls him on it.