Tuesday, November 06, 2012

“The Mechanisms of Democracy”

In a nation where the few who really rule must get some show of popular consent, a special class arises whose function it is, not to govern, but to secure the approval of the people for whatever policy may have been decided upon by that inevitable oligarchy which hides in the heart of every democratic state.  We call this class of men politicians.  Let us not talk about them.

The politicians divide into parties, and align the people into hostile camps.  The natural party-spirit of mankind makes such organizations easy; they are a survival of warlike tribal loyalties…

Now party organization is expensive, and requires angels—realistic idealists who pay the costs of pool-rooms, club-rooms, excursions and campaigns, and are satisfied, as their reward, to select the candidates, secure certain contracts and appointments, obtain protection from the enforcement of absurd and irksome laws, and play a quiet role in the arduous tasks of legislation.  “They who nominate govern.”  The people cannot nominate any one, even at primaries.  For they are unorganized and uninformed; they may be trusted to divide their favors with approximate equality; and a small but well-organized minority, by casting its votes entirely on one side, can usually decide a convention, a primary, or an election.  The “machine” triumphs because it is a united minority acting against a divided majority.  Perhaps this is what Carlyle meant when he said, “Democracy is by the nature of it a self-cancelling business, and gives in the long run a net result of zero.”  “A true democracy,” said that passionate democrat, Jean Jacques, “has never existed, and never will exist; for it is against the natural order of things that the majority should govern the minority.”  All politics is the rivalry of organized minorities; the voters are the bleacher athletes who cheer the victors and jeer the defeated, but do not otherwise contribute to the result.

Under such circumstances voting is superfluous, and is carried on largely to grease the grooves of social control by establishing in the minds of the people the notion that the laws are made by themselves.  In democracies, said Montesquieu, taxes may be greater than elsewhere without arousing resistance, because every citizen looks upon them as a tribute he pays to himself.  L’etat c’est lui—he is the state, and the president is the chief of his servants.  Tickle a man’s pride and you may do anything with him.  The Romans ruled the people through panem et circenses; our masters need only give us a quadrennial circus—we will provide the bread for ourselves, and pay for the circus.

About the only advantage which an election has in these premises is the educational opportunity afforded by the aroused attention of the people.  But in most cases this is nullified by a clever concealment of the actual issues at stake; a politician is worth nothing if he cannot invent some interesting and unimportant issues to divert the eyes of the populace from the problems actually involved…A good show-window will sell any kind of political shoddy.  Elections become a contest in fraud and noise; and as sound arguments make the least sound, truth is lost in the confusion.  Add to this the gerrymandering of city districts to keep the power with the conservative rural communities; the vast floating population which is disenfranchised by its mobility; a degree of dishonesty and violence at the polls—and you get democracy.  Under such conditions “a vote becomes as valuable as a railway ticket when there is a permanent block on the line.”  Is it any wonder that the proportion of actual to legal voters decreased from 80% in 1885 to 50% in 1924?—or that intelligent men refuse to stand in line an hour for the privilege of voting—that is to say, the privilege of choosing between A and B, who both belong to X?

Nevertheless, suppose that we have voted.  The election is over, stocks rise, and the elected senators and representatives go down to Washington (some months later) to form our Congress, our Parliament or Talk Shop, our National Palaver.  Nothing could be more disconcerting than the surprises which meet these elected ladies and gentlemen.  It is not merely that when men come together in assemblies their ears instantly grow longer.  They have been chosen for political ability in the American sense—i.e., the ability to get themselves nominated, advertised, applauded and elected; they possess the sort of ability in a highly developed and specialized form.  Normally they are subservient people, amenable to discipline, elastic of conscience, and free from dangerous originality or genius; nothing would so readily disqualify them for office (or for the devious approaches to office) as genius of any kind—above all, genius in statesmanship.  It should be apparent by this time that a man has a better chance of arriving at high office if he achieves a reputation for mediocrity…

…Mediocracy has won.  Everywhere intelligence has fled from the hustings of democracy as from an engulfing torrent.  Fools are in the saddle and ride mankind…

Will Durant, The Pleasures of Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, Is Democracy A Failure?, III. The Mechanisms of Democracy, Simon and Schuster, New York, Fifth Cloth Edition 1964, pgs. 294-297

Posted by John Venlet on 11/06 at 01:07 PM
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