Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Third Thesis: A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

July 22, 2021

Third Thesis:  A “citizen” is one who both obeys the laws and has a part in making them.

But surely men praise the ability to rule and to be ruled, and the virtue of a citizen of repute seems to be just this—to be able to rule and be ruled well.

—–Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter iv, 1277a25

            Aristotle’s Athens and the United States of America have at least one thing in common:  both had to think about what it means to be a “citizen.”  The USA had to think about citizenship because the nation was born out of revolution; and in defining the citizen, the State and the relationship between them, its Founding Fathers drew explicitly on the intellectual history of which Aristotle is an important part.  Aristotle, and the other thinkers of his day, had to reflect on the nature of citizenship because the ancient traditions were not so universally accepted as they had been.  Greece itself was governed by different, often warring city-states, with different political institutions and different views of government and citizenship.  Greek merchants traded with empires and nations that differed even more drastically from the Greek assumptions.  Western philosophy began along the coast of present-day Turkey, where Greek and non-Greek cultures, religions, moral and political assumptions from different nations collided on a daily basis.  At first, the earliest of those we now call “philosophers” primarily focused on scientific questions, such as how the world was made; living in a region where Zeus and Marduk and others all claimed the title “Creator,” some Greeks decided to try to use human reason to answer the question instead of relying on religious traditions and myths alone.  Later, this rational, humanist approach to seeking truth was extended even to morality and politics.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers lived as the Athenian way of democratic government was collapsing; Aristotle’s own student, Alexander the Great, would go on to destroy the independent Greek city-states once and for all.  It was a world in political transition, and transition demands attention.  What is a citizen? 

            Rather than rely solely on tradition, or on the laws of his own city-state, Aristotle sought to look at all the various definitions and to define what “citizen” meant in all of them.  To be a citizen, he said, was to be eligible for “honors,” that is, public office.  One who was a citizen had the right to have a part in making the laws, or in carrying them out by participating in the civic institutions.  This, he said, was what it meant to be a “citizen” whether one lived in a monarchy or some more representative state.[1] 

            At the same time, though, to be a “citizen” in a properly-run state is more than just giving orders and rendering judgments.  Aristotle argued that a properly-run state, whether it was governed by one person, a small group or by the majority, was run according to rule of law.  If the leaders acted according to the state’s constitution and for the good of the nation, it would be a healthy, stable society where its members could practice their personal virtue and strive for eudaimonia as well as their nature was suited; if the leaders acted without regard to the laws and traditions of the society, seeking their own good rather than the good of the society, it was a “deviation.”  Even a monarch needs to rule according to the laws and traditions that define the monarchy; for example, the Spartan kings had clear limits on their power, with institutional checks such as the Ephorate.  A king with no limits is a tyrant, acting only as suits his own whim.  Likewise, a government by “the best” could be an aristocracy, led by the most noble and virtuous persons respected by the society as a whole, or an oligarchy, rich property owners ruling the state in whatever way made themselves more money.  Majority rule could be democracy, where the people vote on whatever pleases them without regard for the overall health of the state and without limits on their fiat; or, Aristotle said, they could vote and govern within the limits laid down by their constitution, following the laws and traditions of the society that would ensure stability and the overall good.  Aristotle describes this sort of nation as a “polity.”  In each case, whether the nation is ruled by one, a few or many, the good option is the one that aims to carry out the laws and constitution, acting on prerogative only where the law is not sufficiently precise; the deviation is where the rulers replace law with their own will.

            Thus, even in a healthy monarchy or aristocracy, a citizen must be someone who is eligible to exercise civic authority, and also obey authority—even the monarch is bound by the constitution.[2]   But this understanding of “citizen” is particularly true in a democracy/polity, where all citizens are equally entitled to office, and the same person alternates between being ruler and ruled.  I myself, in today’s society, could be called to be a juror and thus to carry out the laws of my community, exercising judicial authority; that is one sort of ruling.  I choose the leaders of my society, who act as delegates for me and the other voters; that too is authority.  I could run for office; as we have seen, the requirements for public office today are surprisingly low.  In all these ways even I must alternate between being ruled (most of the time) and ruler.  That is the essence of a democratic polity.  And according to Aristotle, it is also the essence of statesmanship:  only one who is capable of being ruled is fit to rule free citizens.[3] A leader who cannot also obey, who has never known what it was to be under authority, is a tyrant, fit only to rule over slaves, not free people.[4]  Slavemasters or tyrants need not understand those under their command; they need only know how to use them effectively.  The leader of free people must know what is it to be a citizen, and must understand those they lead, in order to exercise authority for the good of the citizens.

            If we take Aristotle’s thoughts seriously, we much that is relevant for understanding democracy in the USA today.  In 1980, at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas, Republican strategist and activist Paul Weyrich delivered a speech where he argued against the prevailing wisdom that Americans should support democratic participation in society.[5]  Until then, it had been part of our nation’s culture and education from childhood that to be a citizen was to vote; it was your “patriotic duty.”  Yes, sadly, much of our politics has also involved voter suppression, suppression of immigrants, of Black people and so on; but this was not so much inconsistent as it was a recognition of the principle that to be a citizen was to be a voter—racists and religious bigots didn’t want those “others” to be citizens.  This idea of fighting to keep citizens from exercising their civic duty to vote was the way Republicans should work to win power was different.  Now, people like me, who had attended compulsory Civics courses in state high school so that we’d be good citizens, who had grown up hearing that our nation was “the arsenal of freedom” and “a shining city on a hill,” were now to be kept away from the polls and discouraged from even wanting to vote.  At first, these efforts seemed small; Republicans began fighting against voter registration drives by nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters, they began fighting against candidate debates sponsored by neutral parties and so on, seeking to make it harder for potential voters to learn about candidates or register to vote or become interested in politics, so that the most likely voters would be the older and more reliably Republican base who would, as they said, “crawl over broken glass” to vote against anything labeled “socialism.”  They founded FOX News and other partisan “news” organizations to not so much inform listeners from a particular ideological perspective, but rather to un-inform them, to rouse the emotions rather than feeding the mind.  These were attacks on the spirit of democracy, and attempts to weaken civic engagement in the majority.  These tactics aimed to promote apathy and non-participation, but didn’t directly attack the practice of democracy by people who sought to do so; it was most often a psychological warfare against democracy.  But in the last few years, Republicans have turned from attempting to dissuade people from voting or informing themselves, to actively seeing to stop even qualified and motivated people from voting.  Repeated efforts to “clean up voter registration rolls” or “fight voter fraud” removed tens of thousands of eligible, registered voters in Republican-dominated states.  Research was done to see where non-Republicans were most likely to live and what sorts of identification non-Republicans, and non-whites in general, were likely to carry, and to ban these as proof of voter eligibility; at the same time, gun permits and other sorts of ID which White Republicans were thought more likely to carry were declared the only legally acceptable proof that one was a voter.[6]  From the Republican perspective, this is just politics, doing what you can and must to win.  This is also why Republicans denounce efforts to allow more American citizens to vote as a “partisan power grab;” their own efforts in the opposite direction are a long-term strategy to grab and hold power, not by having the most supporters or even the most voters, but by disallowing and disenfranchising anyone who seems somewhat likely to vote against them.

            But while all of this may seem to Republicans like mere moves in the political game, from the Aristotelian perspective they are changing the constitution of the state itself, and attempting to strip millions of Americans of their citizenship.  The constitution, as Aristotle says, is not just a piece of inscribed parchment in a museum; it is the arrangement of offices in the state:  “the citizen-body is the constitution.”[7]  Who is eligible to hold office, and what those public offices do, is the constitution of the state; and who is eligible to hold office is a citizen of the state.  For most of us, the only public offices to which we aspire and for which we are undoubtedly qualified are voter and juror.  As voters, we delegate our authority to make laws, wage wars, enforce justice and otherwise govern on our behalf to proxies who take oaths of office to act on our behalf, not for their own selfish benefit.  As jurors, we act to give a voice to We The People in how those laws are applied to our fellow citizens.  Stripping someone of their right to vote, whether it’s based on their race, their zip code, or some more subtle method selected, as the courts said, “with surgical precision” to disenfranchise them, is denying them their citizenship.  Republicans like to talk about the Right to Bear Arms as a “sacred” right, enshrined in the Constitution; but the right to vote, and as a registered voter to be eligible for jury duty, are the true sacred rights of citizenship.  They are the very definition of citizenship.  What the Republican Party is engaged in today, with hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures dominated by Republicans, is nothing less than a strategic campaign to strip citizenship from millions of taxpayers, millions of people who either serve in our military or have family who served, millions of people either born in the this nation as the children of citizens, or who have undertaken to study and learn and withstood an examination of their worthiness more rigorous than any which many Republicans could possibly pass.  It is, as Aristotle says, an attempt to change the constitution, not through the prescribed method of amendment, but through skullduggery, corruption, intimidation and deception.  It is far more serious than what we often think of as “political games,” which reasonable people often ignore; and the results could be far more serious than those who are carrying out this plan want to admit, or even realize.  It is an attempt to drastically curtail, if not eliminate American democracy, all for the sake of winning one more round against the Democrats. 

            If you think democracy is important, if you think it matters, you must do everything possible to break the GOP, to either crush it into dust or to force it to reform itself.  This can only be accomplished if American independent voters, Democratic voters, and even Republican voters who love their country and their democratic (small “d”) heritage, vote straight Democratic in every possible election.  Not voting, or voting third party, will not accomplish this.  Voting for the “good Republican candidate” in the general election is still to vote for someone who made their peace with this decades-long plan to subvert not just the democratic process, but to undermine civic participation and patriotic duty for all citizens.  Whether liberal, moderate or true conservative, we must “mindlessly and mechanically” vote against literally all Republican candidates, including those who run in ostensibly nonpartisan races like School Board but whose public statements or voting record show them to be QAnon, Neoconfederate, “very fine people on both sides” Republicans—because all Republicans, at this point, have declared that both Nazis and anti-Nazis are either equal or the Nazis are better, simply by remaining in a political party where Nazis are welcomed, given tours of the Capitol by sitting Congressional representatives days before attempting a putsch, and whose crimes are covered up by elected Republican officials and their party information/propaganda outlets such as OAN, FOX News, etc.[8] 

            On the other hand, if you don’t value democracy, then perhaps you should continue voting Republican after all.  What, if anything, might Aristotle say to persuade someone on this point?

To be continued…..


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter 1, 1275a22

[2] In the United States, and many other nation-states today, the “constitution” is a written document, the founding charter of the nation, spelling out the foundation of the laws and the political institutions.  Aristotle’s definition is looser.  While most states had a historical or mythological lawgiver, Aristotle only specifies that the arrangement of the offices of the country is its constitution; thus even a nation with no written constitution, governed by longstanding tradition and legal precedent, would have a “constitution” in Aristotle’s sense—so, good news for Great Britain.  Also, it is common for authoritarian regimes to have a written “constitution” that promises all sorts of rights, while the reality is very different; in this case, Aristotle would say that the actual constitution is what is actually done. 

[3] Politics book IV, chapter iii, 1277b7

[4] 1277a33

[5] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch September 24, 2015 (https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

[6] Rebecca Leber, “In Texas, You Can Vote with a Concealed Handgun Permit—but not a Student ID;” The New Republic October 20, 2014 (https://newrepublic.com/article/119900/texas-voter-id-allows-handgun-licenses-not-student-ids) ; also Camilla Domonoske, “Supreme Court Declines Republican Bid to Revive North Carolina Voter ID Law;” NPR May 15, 2017 (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/15/528457693/supreme-court-declines-republican-bid-to-revive-north-carolina-voter-id-law), as well as other efforts in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, which historically have led to tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters being purged, only to subsequently proved only a few hundred were actually ineligible.

[7] Politics Book III, chapter vi, 1278b6

[8] Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, “Boycott the Republican Party;” The Atlantic March 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/)

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

May 13, 2021

Democracy Versus Authoritarianism:  Political Philosophy in a Time of COVID

 For since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which everyone designs secure by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making, whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience…

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Civil Government

Since the first shots of the American Revolution, this nation has been devoted to the notion that only representative government is just and morally legitimate.  With somewhat less unanimous affirmation, we have also held that representative government was the best.  As one of our former overlords, now believers in democracy, put it:  “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time..”  By contrast, others have argued that democracy might be “just” but that it was just too inefficient to survive; and still others have declared that democracy itself is not only inefficient, but also in some sense immoral and corrupting of its citizens.  Fascists, for example, complain that democracy makes a nation “soft” and “effeminate,” too peace-loving, coddling children and putting families ahead of the national economy.  Theocrats claim democracy is too “secular” and turns people away from God, specifically the theocrat’s own religious dogma and organization.  The rich complain that democracy allows the rabble too much power, failing to protect the powerful from victimization by the poor.

When the Berlin Wall fell, it was heralded as the final victory of democracy over authoritarianism and oppression.  The contest was settled; freedom had won.  Some called it “the end of history.”[1]  But with the rise of Islamist dictatorships and insurgencies, and Christian Dominionist and nationalist populist movements in the West, the longed-for golden age of prosperity and peace vanished before our eyes.  Instead, 2016 saw Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro and many other retreats from the free politics and free markets that were supposedly triumphant, and a worldwide rise of isolationism, xenophobia, protectionism, racism and authoritarianism.  Nowhere was this more visible, or more catastrophic than in the United States, where a shallow, decadent, close-minded, deeply ignorant, deeply fearful egotist backed by oodles of inherited wealth took over first one of the major political parties, then the presidency, despite multiple scandals, ties to hostile foreign governments and losing the popular vote.  Despite the obvious lack of a serious mandate, he and his fellow business cronies threw themselves into reversing decades-long national priorities, undermining allies around the world while appeasing generational foes, and rewriting policies in ways that enriched themselves and their business interests.  Other nations looked on, our traditional democratic allies in dismay, dictators and strongmen in triumph.  In a few years the political conversation in the popular culture went from “Is history solved for all time?” to, “Is democracy dead?  Has the age of the authoritarian finally arrived?”

In 2019, the author of the notion of “the end of history” expressed disappointment about the rise in religious and populist authoritarianism, which seemed to refute his optimistic claims.  In the meantime, authoritarian governments had grown steadily bolder and more boastful over the supposed failure and imminent collapse of democracy.  Even the U.S. government chose people for important posts who said things like, “I’m not a big fan of democracy.”[2]  However, this year which supposedly showed the failure of democracy actually showed the ultimate weakness of authoritarianism.  If the authoritarians win, 2019 has shown us that the ultimate end of civilization, and possibly humanity itself could result.

As 2019 drew to a close, a doctor in China noticed a SARS-like virus in some of his patients.[3]  He sought to warn his fellow doctors, in an online conference, to take extra precautions to avoid infection.  The government of China, an authoritarian regime which prides itself particularly on its superior efficiency compared to the chaotic, individualist West, responded by immediately threatening him with prison for spreading seditious rumors.  By the time they finally admitted he was right, and that his efforts were heroic and patriotic, it was too late; the doctor himself had become infected and died of COVID-19, one of the first of what soon would be millions.  Donald Trump, who had earlier disbanded the NSA group formed to fight pandemics because it was an Obama initiative, declared that concern over the coronavirus was “the Democrats’ new hoax.”  While he initially seemed to be saying the the disease was real but the worry was politically motivated, his followers heard “hoax” and insisted (and still do) that the disease was fake.  Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said COVID-19 was just the common cold.  FOX News called it a “hoax.”[4]  All echoed Trump’s claim that the virus would never become a problem in the United States; we had 15 cases and soon it would be zero.[5]  Anyone who said otherwise, Trump, the Republican Party and the right-wing media proclaimed, was just trying to stir up trouble for political gain—pretty much what the Chinese government had said to silence the doctor who tried to warn others about the new virus.  By the end of his presidency, Trump’s non-response to the epidemic ravaging the nation had wrecked the growing economy left him by Obama, killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, sickened millions, left many thousands with long-term or permanent disabilities, turned states against each other to compete for resources to fight to save their citizens without direction from the federal government, polarized the nation and left most of his base still convinced that the whole thing is just  hoax, and anyone who says otherwise or seeks treatment or a vaccine is a traitor.

Brazil is still a young democracy, having rid itself of a military junta in 1985. In 2019, right-wing populist and former military officer Jair Bolsonaro was elected President, and in 2020 he, too, faced the threat of the oncoming pandemic.  His response has been no different than the other authoritarians:  deny, suppress, scapegoat, and fail.  Brazil was on track to surpass the United States for the worst response to COVID-19; then along came India.  India, the world’s most populous democracy, initially seemed to fair pretty well against the pandemic, and its leader boasted about his nation’s superior response and mocked the nations who had warned of India’s vulnerabilities.  Instead, the authoritarian leader of the right-wing HIndu nationalist BJP, like his political ally Donald Trump, continued to hold massive political rallies, push for huge public gatherings, while failing to consistently advocate for masks, social distancing and other measures that are proven to provide cost-effective protection for the people.  As I write this, the Indian health care system is collapsing under the strain of literally countless multitudes of sick and dying patients; the dead pile up faster than they can be cremated, and bodies are being thrown into the Ganges river rather than being left to rot on land.[6]

None of this should be particularly surprising, and it points to the fundamental, often fatal flaw in authoritarian politics.  This nation is a 200+-year old philosophical experiment, attempting to prove that the theories of representative government laid out by such thinkers as Rousseau and John Locke are workable, despite all that was said against them at the time and since.  The guiding principle of Locke, and the revolutionaries inspired by him, is that legitimate government authority derives from the people themselves, and it is the task of the government to enact the collective will of the people.  Locke’s “social contract” style of thought has dominated American political thinking from the time we were arrogant colonials casting off the ties God had forged binding subject to king.  But Locke’s thought is itself partly founded on the previous Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes, an apologist for absolute monarchy.  Hobbes argued that the government was based on a tacit agreement or “covenant” between the people and their government; they would give up certain rights such as the right to personal revenge against anyone they felt had wronged them, and agree to obey the laws of the government and trust in its justice; in exchange, the government (or “sovereign”) would protect the people’s fundamental, “inalienable rights.”[7]  Outside of such a commonwealth, every individual had a right to do or act as he pleased;[8] but since everyone had such a right, no one had any duty to respect the rights of others.  Without a strong outside force to bludgeon the rest of us into line, there would be unending conflict, war of each against all, and life would be nasty, brutish and above all, short.  The sovereign creates the laws of the commonwealth, imposes them upon the rest of us, and crushes opposition; we accept this because the alternative is miserable anarchy.  And since the sovereign creates the laws, it is not itself subject to them; it is above the law. 

Hobbes acknowledged that “the sovereign” could be a group as easily as an individual, but favored an absolute and unitary monarchy over a divided and hence weaker government.[9]  One reason he gives is that a king will be more attentive to the welfare of the kingdom.  Every person is most concerned with his personal wellbeing; if the national interests conflict with the personal interests of a leader, the personal will win out.  In a oligarchy or democracy, multiple leaders compete against each other and their interests will thus often be at odds with those of the nation as a whole; but a king’s personal interests are identical with those of the nation since it is his nation.  His ego is tied up with its success; its glory is his glory, its wealth his wealth.  Thus an absolute monarch will, Hobbes says, strive for the welfare of the people, not because he must or owes it to them, but because it is more glorious to rule over a rich, enlightened, peaceful, literate and artistic nation than over a vulgar, dirty, impoverished rabble.  The pride of the authoritarian leader is the motivation for national policy and guarantor of the national welfare.

This doesn’t work, but it does make one valid point:  authoritarians are motivated by their own egos, not some slavish devotion to “the common good.”  That is why Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, and so many others held super-spreader rallies during a pandemic, where they could stand before thousands of adoring worshippers willing to risk their lives, and the lives of their families and neighbors, to stroke the Dear Leader’s ego.  It’s also why showing any concern for public health is denounced as disloyalty; it implies that something matters more than the leader’s glory.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-winning research in economics, fully-functional democracies (ones with a free and independent press, rule of law, free and fair markets and easy access to a meaningful vote) don’t have famines, and generally have longer life expectancies, because they must; if the people have power, the government must see to the people’s welfare or be voted out.  Where there is a compliant propaganda press, leaders who ignore the law without consequences, markets dominated by a few powerful monopolies controlled by oligarchs, and elections rendered meaningless by manipulation or flat-out fraud—-as we increasingly have under Republican policies, particularly during the Trump years——the government feels free to tell people they should be proud to die to keep the economy humming and to support the president.[10] 

In fact, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, the authoritarian cares about holding power; this might mean seeking to be loved by the people, but often means instead weakening, depriving, harassing, oppressing, and essentially warring on one’s own people.[11]  Kim Jung-Un is only one extreme example of this sort of tyrant; for every one “benevolent despot,” there are scores of Amins or Kims.  If the people are terrified, or simply too hungry to muster the energy to rebel and too ignorant to imagine any other possibility or figure out how to resist their oppression, the tyrant is safe.  And above all, the authoritarian wants to feel safe. 

The paradox is that the more power the authoritarian can seize, the closer he or she comes to being a full-blown tyrant, the less secure the authoritarian is.  The true patriot, who cares about the nation, its laws and traditions, can feel the most secure precisely because the true patriot considers power something to be used for some worthy goal, not something to be grasped for its own sake.  There is likely no one who fully meets that ideal, but some come closer than others; those are the ones who can lose magnanimously, win humbly and gratefully, lead or follow as required, and rejoice when the nation prospers regardless.  Plato’s ideal leader was one who didn’t wish to lead at all, but who recognized that the price of good persons refusing power is to have bad ones in charge over them.  Aristotle defined a “citizen” as one who both had a hand in making the laws, and was bound to obey them, capable both of leading and following as required.  But anyone who starts to love the power and the status will start to fear losing it.  Saddam Hussein, after becoming undisputed master of Iraq, predicted that if he ever lost power they wouldn’t find even the tip of his fingers intact; his enemies would cut him to pieces.  He had near godlike control over his subjects, with fifty-foot tall idols of himself and multiple palace complexes, but he lived in fear every day.  Aristotle observed that a stable country is one where as many people as possible feel they have a stake in its stability[12]  Locke said that the ultimate foundation of a true civil society is the will of the majority of the people.  Both are making much the same point:  that the state, and thus also the leaders, are actually stronger when power is shared.  The authoritarian fears their own people; that is why, Aristotle says, tyrants recruit foreigners as bodyguards, while in democracies the leaders are guarded by their own citizens.  The tyrant, and any authoritarian to the extent that they approach maximum personal power, is at war with their own people. 

Trump’s followers like to claim that he was a very successful president until he wasn’t, and that he can’t be held responsible for that because his wildly successful presidency was derailed by an unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophe.  The principle facts of this claim are disputable; Trump’s success through 2019 was not as stellar as he boasted, and many warned his administration of the dangers of a possible pandemic and even left a “playbook” for fighting one, which he threw away.  But these disputed facts aside, the real lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that authoritarian governments will fail to protect their people in the event of a catastrophe.  They do not feel themselves answerable to the people, so they look first to their own preservation and enhancement of power; the first instinct of the authoritarian is to regard warnings of disaster to be attacks on the leader’s image and power.  First, they will seek to silence the prophets of doom; next, they will seek to cover up the crisis when it occurs; then they will deny they were warned and/or deny that they refused to act; and at last they will grow impatient with the cries of the victims who make the leader look ineffective and too weak to fix the problem.  Whether it was a pandemic in 2019, or a war, or recession, there was always going to be some crisis.  And in a crisis, while a democracy might stumble as various groups try to wrap their collected heads around the problem and find a response based on multiple perspectives and interests, an authoritarian can be trusted to act swiftly and decisively—-for the protection of the leader, and against the needs of the people. 

I would like to believe that the failure of Trumpism to handle even a predicted crisis for which our government had spent years preparing and which we had months to see coming would lead to a world-wide recognition of the weakness of authoritarianism, and a return to the pro-democracy trends we saw towards the end of the 20th century.  However, the eagerness of Republicans to first act surprised at an attempted coup despite many warnings, then to ignore it and ask everyone to forget it and “move on,” and finally to justify it with false claims about the election, does not give me much confidence that they’ve seen any fault in the authoritarian model.  In 1980 Paul Weyrich argued before the National Republican Convention in Dallas that Republicans do better when people don’t vote, and therefore it was in the party’s interest to work against the democratic principles this country claims to champion.  Since then, the Republican party has worked vigorously to make voting as difficult and as pointless as possible, to undermine people’s confidence in the democratic process, to discourage civic interest or participation by the majority of citizens, and to convince their base that any fact that didn’t fit their preconceived notions, whims or prejudices was simply politically motivated “fake news” from “liberals” and should be ignored.  The culmination of this forty-year project has been to create a conservative electorate that lives in its own alternate reality, rejects science and history and any other expertise while blindly obeying any party mouthpiece, denies that it is even possible for them to lose an election, and is willing to resort to violence when counting the ballots tells them otherwise.  Republicans are so far from the principles of representative government that they openly work for minority rule, and embrace a failed coup leader as their best chance for victory—-victory for their party and the oligarchs who back it, regardless of the fate of the nation. 

I don’t know if the authoritarians will ultimately succeed, or if freedom-loving patriots will put aside previous partisan divides to defeat them.  What I do know is that there will continue to be crises that threaten this nation, and even this world.  And I know that authoritarian governments will not meet these crises.  It is in their interests, and in their nature to ignore bad news, cover it up, blame others for their failures, make bad things much worse and corresponding good fortune less beneficial for any but the ruling elite.  Eventually the people lose all faith in their government, which suits the authoritarian fine when things are going well since an apathetic and dispirited populace is more easily ruled.  However, when the government finally realizes that it must act, it will find that not only is it too late to avoid disaster, but the people will likely refuse to cooperate.  I cite as example the experience of Liberia during the Ebola crisis; the people had been lied to so often that when the government really needed them to undertake basic safety measures, they refused, and turned a crisis into a catastrophe.  As J.S. Mill wrote in his essay “On Representative Government,” even the most “benign” despotism tends to infantilize its subjects.  People under an authoritarian regime become passive, detached, and thoughtless.  And I would argue, authoritarianism also infantilizes the leaders.  We mature by encountering others with whom we must reckon and negotiate; but the authoritarian will not tolerate equals and thus never encounters an “other.”  Instead, as Aristotle said, the authoritarian surrounds himself with flatterers and sycophants.  A functioning democracy is a society of adults, who argue in good faith, who accept reality, who strive to be rational and just.  A despotism is a nation led by an overgrown toddler, who seeks to bully the other children on the playground.  In a high-tech, fast-changing world such as ours, with an unending stream of crises small, large and existential, we will not long survive as a race of toddlers.


[1] Tamer Fakahany, “‘The End of History’?  30 Years on, Does That Idea Still Hold Up?” Associated Press Nov. 7, 2019)

[2] Peter Wade, “Trump’s Fed Nominee Isn’t a ‘Big Believer in Democracy;’” Rolling Stone April 14, 2019 (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/stephen-moore-democracy-comments-822153/)

[3] Stephanie Hegarty, “The Chinese Doctor Who Tried to Warn Others about Coronavirus;” BBC 6 Feb 2020 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-51364382)

[4] JM Rieger, “Sean Hannity denied calling coronavirus a hoax nine days after he called coronavirus a hoax;” Washington Post March 19, 2020 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/19/sean-hannity-denied-calling-coronavirus-hoax-nine-days-after-he-called-coronavirus-hoax/)

[5] Mary Papenfuss, “It’s Been 1 Year Since Trump Boasted 15 COVID-19 Cases Would Soon Be ‘Close To Zero’” Huffington Post Feb. 26, 2021 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-15-covid-19-cases-anniversary_n_6039a526c5b601179ebd8ccc)

[6] “Amid India’s COVID-19 Surge, Dozens of Dead Bodies Found Floating in Ganges River;” CBS News May 11, 2021 (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/india-covid-ganges-river-bodies/)

[7] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part II, chapter 17

[8] I say “he” because Hobbes meant “he;” he treats women not as citizens themselves but as one of those things men fight over.

[9] Leviathan chapter 19

[10] Bess Levin, “Texas Lt. Governor: Old People Should Volunteer to Die to Save the Economy;” Vanity Fair March 24, 2020

[11] Aristotle, The Politics, Book V, chapter xi

[12] Politics Book II, chapter ix

GOP Politics Are Killing Wisconsin Democracy, and Wisconsinites—and they’re coming for you!

October 12, 2020

GOP Politics Are Killing Wisconsin Democracy, and Wisconsinites—and they’re coming for you!

“Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort.”

—–Amartya Sen

            U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis described the states as “laboratories of democracy.”  In our federal system of government, the states have considerable autonomy from the national government, and can implement many policies as chosen by their own voters and governments .  If something works at the state level, the nation may well implement it later; if it fails, the state can reverse course more quickly while the nation avoids the misstep in the first place.  In this analogy, Wisconsin’s health system is the frog in Ang Lee’s Hulk

            For decades, the Republican Party of the United States of America has expressed deep misgivings about democracy, and has sought to both legally restrict the ability of citizens to vote and to more informally discourage the majority of people from even trying.  The more informal, or even illegal methods they have adopted have included intimidation by “poll watchers” to threaten and harass legal voters, stealing absentee ballots in North Carolina, repeatedly purging voter rolls of thousands of legal citizen voters who live in primarily Democratic areas, and so on.  In Wisconsin, the GOP is carrying out its grandest experiment yet.  In 2010 they gerrymandered the state so thoroughly that even though 53% of Wisconsinites voted for the Democratic Party, 64% of the seats in the state legislature went to Republicans.  Democracy, rule of the people and by the people and for the people, is dead in Wisconsin, at least on the state level.  Instead, they have minority rule.  Republican politicians even admit that they are not representing the majority and see no need to do so; they only want to enact the desires of the “conservative voters” who sent them.  The disproportionately white, rural, and less educated minority will dictate to the more diverse, more urbanized and more educated majority, with little knowledge of or interest in the needs of the majority of the citizens. 

            Wisconsin has thus become the laboratory for the grandest experiment in democracy possible:  what happens when you abolish democracy?  What happens when you take the national priorities and policies of the Republican party, to reduce voter participation and weaken democracy itself in order to defeat the Democrats, and carry them out more ruthlessly than has been possible previously?  There are many states where the Republican party gerrymandered themselves an overwhelming majority in the legislature when the electorate was in fact only marginally Republican in the 2010 reapportionment period, but Wisconsin locked in not just a dilution of the will of the people, but its utter subversion.  We get to see what would happen across the nation if other states, and the nation as a whole, follow Wisconsin’s example and allow Republicans to replace functional democracy with the sort of “managed democracy” employed by Putin and other 21st century autocrats.  And the result of that experiment has been a disaster, not just for Wisconsin but the nation as a whole.

            Wisconsin has had the worst response to the COVID-19 pandemic of any state in the nation.  To be more accurate, they have had no state-wide response at all.  The only actions by the Wisconsin state legislature and Republican-dominated Wisconsin Supreme Court have been to block any attempt by the Democratic governor to implement common-sense policies such as those enacted by neighboring states.  The state legislature seized control of the state’s pandemic response, and then basically shut down.  As a result, Wisconsin’s coronavirus numbers are climbing higher and faster than anywhere else.  Wisconsinites are sickened, some injured for life, and others dying because the Wisconsin Republican Party cares more about scoring political points over the governor than they do about actually governing the state.  They grabbed the wheel, popped open a beer to celebrate, and promptly passed out and let the car careen over a cliff.

            None of this should have surprised anyone.  It was all explained by the Nobel-prize winning work of Amartya Sen decades ago.  At a time when many economists were looking towards centrally-controlled markets like China and the USSR as the way of the future, Dr. Sen’s research showed how political structure, more than GDP alone, could foster the well-being of citizens.  His study of the Bengal famine of 1943 showed that the problem was not food production.  There was enough food, but the poor couldn’t afford it.  The colonial government could have helped them, but chose not to; they were appointed by the British Empire and were answerable to the Crown, not the Indian people.  Even when cultures and GDP were similar, as in Costa Rica and Brazil in the 1970s, life expectancies could vary by ten years or more; in Costa Rica the government was answerable to the people, while Brazil at that time was ruled by a military junta.  In a functional democracy, the government must keep the people’s support, and must listen to them quickly when their bellies grumble.  Colonial powers, military strongmen or other oppressors are generally deaf to the cries of the suffering; they have other priorities.  So while other economists were looking at the Chinese Communist regime with the hope that the country’s rising GDP would lead to greater freedom and a more humane government, Sen argued (and had the statistics to back up his claim) that this was backwards; democracy in fact drives economic development, and has other benefits for the citizens even beyond material prosperity, which leads to health, the elimination of widespread hunger, and so on. 

            When the Republican Party in Wisconsin turned its back on democracy, it likewise turned away from sound government that responds to the needs of the citizens.  Instead, it became a mechanism for the rural minority to rule over the majority.  Since epidemics hit urban areas first and filter into rural, less populated areas more slowly, the Republican base didn’t see any need to address the coronavirus pandemic.  The suffering it caused was far from their farms, and the people who were infected were strangers to them even though they were fellow Wisconsinites.  As the GOP politicians themselves said, they weren’t there to represent or worry about all Wisconsinites or even about the majority of them; they were only elected to serve the interests and desires of their conservative base.  This meant out-of-state billionaires like the Koch brothers, and the social conservatives who see the more liberal, educated and diverse populations of the cities as cultural enemies and intellectual contagion.   Better to keep their moral and mental purity, and let the virus finish off their opponents for them.  Just as drug use was only treated as a public health problem when opioids ravaged the white rural and non-college educated base of the GOP, so too COVID-19 was treated as a problem of the corrupt Democrat cities, and the Wisconsin state legislature is perfectly pleased to let the virus ravage people who didn’t vote for them in the first place.  It’s callous, short-sighted, even stupid, but it’s also perfectly natural, a pattern repeated across the globe and throughout history.  The more democratic a government, the stronger its commitment to free and fair elections, widening access to the ballot box, to rule of law and fighting corruption, to free markets not dominated by either excess regulation or to monopolies and cronyism, and to a free press keeping the people informed, the better its response to crises affecting the people. 

            The GOP Wisconsin experiment in extreme gerrymandering, voter suppression and pandering to billionaire donors and populist ressentiment has led to the result which even a passing understanding of political and economic philosophy predicted:  a government with no interest in actually governing, no motivation to take notice of the needs of the people it governs, with disastrous impact on the health and life expectancy of the people.  In the name of economic prosperity, the GOP rejected one of the primary drivers for true prosperity, namely democracy, and now the Wisconsin economy is hamstrung by the sickening of its consumers and work force.  What is worse, the public health infrastructure is nearing collapse, with the state already preparing to open a massive field hospital to handle the ever-increasing load of coronavirus patients. 

            Wisconsin’s Republicans have shown the nation the inevitable conclusion of Republican policies for the nation, if they are allowed to continue pursuing the strategy they mapped out in 1980 of relying on voter suppression instead of voter recruitment.  Just as Gov. Brownback in Kansas showed the utter idiocy of Republican economic theories by nearly bankrupting his state, the Wisconsin GOP has shown the moral and functional bankruptcy of GOP politics.  Republicans were not always “the Stupid Party,” as Bobby Jindal named them.  The Republicans I went to college with in the 1970s were, by and large, intelligent, thoughtful, patriotic and committed to the freedom of the individual expressed through voting.  That party is largely dead, and is not coming back anytime soon.  If and when Donald Trump, his family, his cronies, and his enablers have all been removed from power, and true, responsible conservatives return to lead a pragmatic conservative party, then it will be safe to vote Republican again.  Today, and next year, and likely for some years to come, the only way to protect the economy, the public health, and the security of this nation is to vote against every Republican candidate from the Presidential candidate down to county clerk, until they get the message that even conservative voters want responsive, responsible government committed to democracy and the public good.

SOURCES

Editorial.  “Cries of Voter Fraud Should be Aimed at Those Committing It:  Republicans.  Las Vegas Sun, July 16, 2020.  https://lasvegassun.com/news/2020/jul/16/cries-of-voter-fraud-should-be-aimed-at-those-comm/

Blue, Miranda.  “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote.”  Right Wing Watch:  a project of People for the American Way September 24, 2015.  https://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/

Lambert, Jonathan.  “Good News about Democracy:  It’s Good for your Health.”  NPR July 4, 2019.  https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/07/04/738477296/good-news-about-democracy-its-good-for-your-health?utm_term=nprnews&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=npr

Rauch, Jonathan and David Wittes.  “Boycott the Republican Party.”  The Atlantic. March 2018.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/03/boycott-the-gop/550907/

Romano, Andrew.  “Wisconsin is Battling America’s Worst Coronavirus Outbreak, and Wisconsin’s Broken Politics are Partly to Blame.”  Yahoo! News October 10, 2020 https://www.yahoo.com/news/wisconsin-is-battling-americas-worst-coronavirus-outbreak-and-the-states-broken-politics-is-partially-to-blame-143650745.html

Paul, Shantosh.  “Eclipsing Dissent and Democracy.”  The Economic Times, April 4, 2020.  https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/eclipsing-dissent-and-democracy/

First Post of 2019: A Little Game Theory About Building a Wall

January 3, 2019

This was a Facebook post that, as often happens to me, got a little out of hand.  When I realized I’d written an entire article, I decided to just post it here too.  Enjoy!

 

One of the basic elements of game theory is that you need to understand the goals of the players; that is, if you want to predict what a government will do, understand the motives of the people making decisions. Usually, leaders want to maintain power, so they make decisions that will preserve the regime.
 
It takes a lot of work to make decisions for the nation rather than one’s own faction or oneself; it takes effort to realize that one needs to preserve the nation if one wants to have something to lead, it takes effort to be humble and honorable enough to think first of the interests of the nation and of the majority of citizens, it takes effort to find what will help the nation and do that. It takes very little effort to act on one’s own whim, follow one’s gut, do what one’s own inner demons say will make one happy in the moment.
 
#Dolt45 proudly avoids thinking, acting on impulse. He and the entire GOP have been saying that unless he gets $5 billion for a wall that can provide his base with a visual aid, a sort of security theater that won’t do much but will make them feel safer & more powerful, then his personal presidency is over.
 
He understands that he’ll look foolish if he doesn’t win. His words to Schumer and Pelosi are like the first conversation he had with the president of Mexico, back in January 2017, when the Trump “presidency” was a week old: you have to give me what I want because if you don’t I’ll look foolish. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/3/16089160/trump-nieto-call-mexico-wall and https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2019/01/trump-says-hed-look-foolish-if-he-agreed-to-reopen-the-government-without-wall-funding.html
 
And THAT, people, is what all of this is all about. A foolish, impulsive, selfish person, who lacks the moral or intellectual ability to be aware of anything besides his own wants and needs, is aware of only one thing: that he’ll look foolish and lose power if he doesn’t get his wall, at taxpayer expense.
 
The fact that some rich donors are also getting richer through this fight—through for-profit prisons for immigrants, through the possibility of lucrative construction contracts and so on—-is just a helpful dividend, part of what helps him to get others to support his purely ego-driven “policy.”
 
Likewise, GOP (Greedy Old Partisans) like McConnell, who have become rich beyond the dreams of avarice through “public service,” see their own power, celebrity and, most importantly, money stream threatened if Trump goes down. They saw their own chances were best if a temporary CR was passed, so initially they agreed 100-0 to keep the government open; but now that #MoronInChief has publicly rejected that solution, they fear that he’ll fall if they stick to what they initially accepted, and that he’ll take them with him. They simply have no incentive to put Country Over Party, and every reason to stick to their partisan guns.
 
And the Democrats have learned that they are dealing with a pack of proven liars, bullies and thieves, who cannot be trusted to keep any secret deals and who, left to their own devices, will destroy the nation itself through mismanagement and even double-dealing with foreign enemies. And by “Democrats” I mean the Democratic base, millions of people, who are pressuring Chuck and Nancy to stop this wall because they know that giving in will show the GOP that bullying, corruption and terrorism work, that democracy and voting and majority rule are for suckers. So the elected Democratic leaders, who represent the majority of the voters in the last election, give in to the minority party, they could find themselves out of office.
 
So that’s the game that’s being played. You have a minority party with lots of institutional political power and the support of most of the rich vs. a new majority that is struggling to turn its majority status into actual political power. The GOP are the Deep State, placing the Democratic Party in the role of revolutionaries and reformers. The leaders of these two parties each want to win for their team and cement their own security by doing so. The GOP Deep State wins if it gets its wall, and loses if it doesn’t, no matter how little good having the wall would do and no matter how much damage they do to the nation and to the millions of people in this nation if the government remains shut down. After all, the majority voted for the Democrats, so hurting the majority of people means hurting enemies of the Republicans, right? And the Democratic leaders win if they stop the wall, making not only #ToddlerInChief but now, by osmosis, every GOP leader look weak and foolish. They would look bad if they seemed to be closing the government for political gain, but #StableGenius has already said he’s proud to own the shutdown; so they have no reason to save him from his own choices.
 
The only way this changes is if the game changes. Either Republicans have to decide it’s in their own interests to override Trump’s veto, or Democrats have to decide to knuckle under to GOP strongarm tactics, thus neutering their party in the short run and committing political suicide (and possibly national suicide) in the mid-to-long run.

Commentary Upon the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 2018

Have you ever read the whole thing?  Take a few minutes and do it now:  http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/

Of, if you aren’t into reading, listen:  https://www.npr.org/2018/07/04/623836154/a-july-4-tradition-npr-reads-the-declaration-of-independence

I don’t want to try to do a line-by-line commentary, but over the years teaching ethics and American religion I have come back to these words many times.  I have often heard them quoted or misquoted with reverence  but also at times with malice towards other Americans for whom these words were also written; for these words were written not just for those few alive to hear them the first time, but for all nations and all ages. 

In these times, I want to offer my own commentary, and what these words say to me now.

When in the Course of human events it become necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

These are often treated as throwaway lines, like the instrumental introduction to a favorite song, and we only start paying attention when the “real” text starts with “We hold these truths….”  That is a shame.  There is a lot in this paragraph that helps us understand what comes next.  First, they are clearly speaking to the world, not just other Americans.  It’s a big deal.  People didn’t just declare independence willy-nilly.  We’ve gotten rather blasé about redrawing lines on a map, but in 1776 this was seen by some to be tampering with the order of Creation.  God established the nations and fixed their boundaries, and the royal families inherited their right to rule through Adam.  Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government was devoted to refuting this claim, which would not have been necessary if it were not powerful.  And even if that sort of absolute “divine right of kings” was not always fully embraced by the English, there was still a strong reverence for the established borders and political powers.

The Declaration states that the former English citizens will “…assume…the separate and equal nation to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”  This shows the deep roots our nation has in John Locke’s philosophy, so it is worth the time to unpack it.  Locke belongs to that political tradition known as “social contract theory.”  It asks us to imagine all people as free and independent individuals, for that is what each of us is essentially even if we’ve never actually lived as free creature outside of a social structure.  What would life be like?  What is it about living as citizens in a society that makes it better than living in anarchy?  What is it that we can be asked to give up in order to be citizens of a civil state or commonwealth, and what is it that the state owes us citizens?  We are. Locke says, essentially free and equal, separate from one another unless we choose to be part of a community.  That is how Nature and Nature’s God created us.  “Nature” and “Nature’s God” are, for Locke, and for Jefferson (the primary author of the Declaration), and for most of the founding fathers, more or less the same thing.  Jefferson, like many of the Founding Fathers, was a religious liberal.  Some were liberal Christians, while others were more Deists.  Deism believed that God created the world to be good and rational, and that everything we needed to know about God could be found through using our human reason to understand the world that God created.  Deists like Jefferson and Franklin did not see any good from supposing that God regularly rips open the Heavens to help His favorites with miracles, that a guy dying on a cross could pay for your moral failures, or any of that supernatural stuff.  Study Nature, and you will understand Nature’s God.  Live a moral life as your human reason reveals it, guided by the religious and philosophical heritage of Moses and Jesus but also Socrates and Plato and (for Jefferson) even Mohammed and other sages, and you will do what God wanted you to do.  God gave us what we needed to live in the world, and left us and it to work things out.

Not everyone who signed that Declaration agreed with Jefferson’s liberal religion.  Thirteen were Presbyterians and one even a Presbyterian pastor, and the British referred to the Revolution as “that Presbyterian revolt.”  But that is who the Founding Fathers were:  religious liberals and conservatives, seculars and devout, aristocrats and plebeians, North and South, joining together despite their differences to risk their lives for a common cause. 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“  If they were “self-evident,” it wasn’t to everyone, or there wouldn’t have been a war.  Later peoples have wondered how Jefferson could have written these words while himself owning slaves, and while in fact women were legally little better than slaves themselves with no right to own property, to vote, or to pursue most of the activities we assume are natural for adult citizens without male permission.  The fact is, he was deeply conflicted.  His original Declaration included attacks on slavery, which were stripped from the final version to get Southern colonies to sign on.  Some, like John Adams’ wife Abigail, urged that women’s rights be respected, but it took another 145 years for that to happen.  To many, it seemed “self-evident” that nonwhites and non-males were NOT “created equal.”  History has slowly moved to catch up with the true promise of Jefferson’s words.

“That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—-“ Again I say, “Creator” does not mean “The God of Moses.”  It is Nature and Nature’s God that gave us these rights, not a supernatural voice thundering from a mountaintop; these rights are discovered by the light of Nature and Reason, not from reading them off a stone tablet.  That’s what he meant, and if you disagree that’s fine but don’t quote this document to back you up.  “Unalienable rights:”  what does that mean?  It means that you have certain rights that you CANNOT ever be said to have given up.  You always have those rights, even if you think you don’t.  Among those is the right to liberty.  “Liberty” is the right to live as you want.  You may voluntarily agree to limits on your freedom, but only in ways that enhance your overall ability to do what you want.  For example, you can agree to live according to laws and to let courts punish those who wrong you, but only if those laws protect you and others equally and only if you had a part in making those laws by voting for legislators who would write them and vote on them.  By agreeing to live as part of a group, each individual agrees to respect the will of the majority; if you don’t like it, you should leave if it is intolerable, or stay and try to persuade the majority to change its mind if you possibly can. 

This is a vitally important point today.  There is a powerful movement today called “Christian Reconstructionism.”  It was founded by Rousas Rushdoony in the early 20th Century, and had profoundly influenced Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the so-called “Religious Right,” as well as many conservative politicians such as Mike Pence.  It believes that this was a Christian nation, that its laws were not discovered by natural reason and natural religion but supernaturally revealed by God, that Christians should run it and should use the tools provided by democracy to overthrow democracy, denying most people the right to vote (and thus denying most of them their basic liberty) so that only fundamentalist Christians who endorse laissez-faire capitalism should be allowed any voice in government.  This violates the principles of the Declaration on several fronts.  As we’ve seen, it distorts the words “Creator” and “Nature’s God” to mean something they did not mean in the original document; it denies the idea that “all” people are created equal, since only Christians who subscribe to a particular theology which was not endorsed even by the most conservative Founding Fathers; and it treats liberty as something that is in fact “alienable,” capable of being lost or given away.  And this assault on everything for which our Founding Fathers fought is said to be justified because we were “endowed by our Creator”!

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—-“  Governments are human institutions, established by humans, for humans, according to human reason and traditions.  It might surprise you to hear that even the great Christian theologian John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion was the most influential theological treatise of the Colonial period, said the same thing.  In his view, while Israel received its laws directly from God, other peoples were taught general moral principles by God but left to work out the details of justice and social welfare according to their own understanding and historical heritage.  Ultimately, the signers of the Declaration of Independence say, all governments derive their power and legitimacy from the consent of the governed, not from the endorsement of a small body of clerics or hereditary nobles.  And because government is justified by the will of the people, it can be deposed and replaced by those same people.

What are the reasons for taking this extreme action now?  As the Declaration says, people generally will endure a lot of abuse from their government, rather than take the risk (not only of war but also lawlessness) of overthrowing it.  (This again is straight out of Locke’s political writings.)  Things must be pretty awful to make a large group of people rise up in rebellion, throwing aside the law-and-order of their established government to try to hopefully replace it with something better.  After all, until the revolution succeeds, there is really nothing in its place but the absence of government:  so what makes the government of King George III worse than nothing?

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…  He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance…”  Who could imagine such a thing?  Would any government, say, criminalize the use of marijuana, a naturally-occurring plant, even when the people and governments of a state think it would be wholesome and necessary for the public good to legalize and tax this substance?  Would any tyrant refuse to allow a state to require non-medical “abortion counselors” to tell their patients truthfully that they are not doctors or medically trained, but merely religious advocates for a peculiar and untraditional interpretation of Christianity?  Would any despot pledge to overturn laws established for forty-five years, even when a vast majority of the people support those laws? 

“He has endeavored to prevent the population of the States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, ….”  The Founding Fathers fought against King George III because he restricted immigration!  That may sound like a total non sequitur, but one of the common justifications for limiting immigration is because “Democrats” just want to import voters who will vote a certain way.  Or, to put it another way, we need to restrict immigration to prevent the increased populations even if, or especially if the people who live in that area now want those immigrants, just because the despot and his party want to limit the numbers of people who aren’t partisans of their group.  The Founding Fathers thought that particular regions and local governments should be allowed to recruit new residents if they wished. 

“For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:  For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment of any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of the States…”  LIke, say, Philando Castile?  We may not have “soldiers” living in our homes, but we do have armed people in neighborhoods who are not answerable to the people who they are sent to control, who kill some who are unarmed, unresisting and sometimes not even breaking any laws, and often those killers are acquitted in what seem to the people to be sham trials; and when the national government is asked to intervene to help prevent these killings, they refuse and even support the right of the armed forces to kill at their discretion.  And when some peacefully protest in an orderly manner by kneeling during the National Anthem at a commercial sporting exhibition, the tyrant calls them “sons of bitches” and says they should be stripped of citizenship and deported.  It’s not exactly the same as quartering soldiers in people’s homes, but it must feel the same for those who feel threatened and abandoned by their leaders’ abrupt reversal of policy from protecting unarmed people to protecting the armed ones

“For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:”  This is the important one.  This is the biggie.  This is the one that could quite likely lead to civil war.  Our country was literally founded on the principle that while taxes are acceptable and even in a sense good, they MUST be made with the will of the people.  And ever since leading Republican activist and leader Paul Weyrich said over thirty years ago that the conservative cause was better supported by stopping people from voting, the GOP has pursued a concerted, conscious and deceptive strategy of stopping as many American citizens from voting as possible.  It has done this by voter ID laws that refuse to look at the identifications that are known to be carried by young people or nonwhites, while accepting other forms of identification (such as gun licenses) that are more likely carried by conservatives.  In North Carolina the state legislature quite openly discussed what sorts of ID black people were likely to have, so they could ban those.  Conservatives have talked about raising the age required for voting and have said quite openly that it’s because they think young people don’t vote conservative.  There has been talk of taking voting rights away from people to protest in favor of “liberal” causes or who were once immigrants but have become citizens.  And our Declaration of Independence makes it clear:  when a government takes your money without giving you the right to vote for the people who write the laws to raise those taxes or decide how the money is spent, that is tyranny and you have a right, even a duty, to fight back.  Conservatives had a right to vote, they lost in 2008 due to their own incompetent destruction of the economy, and they still threatened to take up arms because they didn’t like the Democratic government chosen by the majority.  Now, thanks to gerrymandering and voter suppression laws, we have a government that received a minority of the votes imposing taxes on the majority, not helping even when some are murdered, praising the killers as “very fine people” while protestors are “sons of bitches,” cutting taxes for a small minority of wealthy people while the vast majority either are seeing their taxes rise or are seeing insignificant cuts at best.  If the majority is being taxed without consent, that is a recipe for revolt.  Now, many in the minority party which controls the government are talking about cutting Social Security, which was paid for with payroll taxes paid only by working people, to pay for the tax cuts given to rich people who don’t draw a paycheck and have never paid payroll taxes.  That would mean that the payroll taxes are being collected to give to the rich employers, not to the employees who were counting on using those to retire. 

  “For depriving us in many cases of, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Increasingly, people are finding themselves forced into binding arbitration to settle not just civil disputes but even criminal cases.  During the Iraq War an American contractor was gang-raped by several of her male coworkers, and told that she could not sue them under the terms of her work contract; the case had to be resolved through arbitration.  (https://www.thenation.com/article/kbrs-rape-problem/)  The company was well-connected, having previously been led by the then Vice President of the United States.  People who are injured or killed while on the job are regularly stripped of their legal protections by a government that is more concerned with protecting employers from bad publicity. 

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us…”  I went to school in Charlottesville.  Having out-of-state neo-Nazi and neo-Confederate paramilitary thugs supporting the tyrant parade through the city where my children were born, having them kill one and injure many more people, and having to listen to them being praised and defended as “very fine people” by someone who is paid by my tax money despite receiving fewer votes than his opponent is beyond offensive.  If anyone can be said to have encouraged and excited domestic insurrections among the American people, it is the despot who praises murderers and who attacks professional journalists while praising and being interviewed by right-wing agitators who urge their followers to take up arms against “liberals” whom they accuse, with total disregard for the truth of their words or the consequences of their deeds, of plotting civil war, child molestation or other nonsense—-while the supporters of the tyrant have been shown again and again, to have actually engaged in those deeds.

As Jefferson said, breaking away from one’s government is not a matter to be contemplated lightly, and thus prudence dictates that we should seek every possible other remedy first.  I am not calling for the violent overthrow of the American government, as some conservative governors and other politicians did when Obama was elected.  Despite the fact that the current occupant of the White House has hinted that he would delay national elections and a majority of his party said they would support him, that has not yet happened, and thus there are still peaceful ways to dissent and to struggle for justice.  But the stated goals, the policies and the actions of the Republican Party in its local, state and national chapters has for thirty years been to subvert the election process, to block legal citizens from voting if they seemed likely to vote Democratic, to oppose the rights of cities and states to enforce their own laws regarding marijuana, immigration or weapons if those conflicted with the desires of the GOP donor base, and generally to seek to undermine democracy under the guidance of pastors and politicians who have stated their goal of imposing a “fundamentalist” Christian theocracy.  It is ironic that a fictional television program about a Christian patriarchal dystopia should be so popular when millions of people are so intent on imposing it in reality, and when, with the financial and political support of foreign adversaries, they are so close to achieving their long-held goal. 

Today, the Fourth of July 2018, is the day that the insurrectionist agitator Alex Jones said that “liberals” intended to launch a second Civil War.  This was, of course, a lie.  Other lies told by Jones have led to the parents of murdered children being harassed and threatened.  Jones pushed one of his followers to fire a gun in a pizza parlor by repeatedly claiming that the DNC ran a pedophile ring in the basement.  The restaurant doesn’t even have a basement, much less a pedophile ring, but Jones didn’t care so long as some liberals got killed.  He promotes lies about racial crimes that have pushed his white Christian male listeners to massacre black church members and others.  And this insurrectionist and traitor is heavily promoted and praised by the tyrant occupying the White House.  He “warns” his followers that “liberals” will start a civil war to encourage them to attack the liberals first——and to spend money buying weapons and other products sold by his advertisers, thus making a multimillion dollar profit by “exciting insurrection amongst the people” with the support of the Despot of DC.  People could die from this.  It is as irresponsible and criminal as a mullah calling for jihad, except that the paramilitaries and insurrectionists who agitate for violence against “liberals” and against “feminists” and against ethnic or sexual minorities have the full support and backing of the Republican Party and the Religious Right.  We are on a road that leads to civil war, and the Republican Party is pushing hard on the accelerator.  There are still exits from this highway to disaster, but we the people need to take them. Start right now by making sure you are registered to vote.  You can check online and register in 37 states (https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote).  While state and local governments have made it more difficult in recent years to try to discourage people’s participation in their government, it is still legal and possible.  Remember that your parents and grandparents in some cases risked their lives so you could have this chance.  For others, like myself, the fight was further back, but my mother was in the DAR.  My family fought for freedom.  Now there are people who have sworn to take it away.  Let’s not let them.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

November 14, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

 

“And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.”

—–“Likely enough.”

“And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.”

—–Plato, Republic

 

 

One of the key elements of Plato’s idealized republic is that each individual does what he or she is best at. The best thinkers are set to solving problems and making plans for the society; the best and bravest soldiers are given jobs of defense and law enforcement; and the best businesspeople are empowered to make money and all the products that make life possible for all, and comfortable for themselves. Sometimes we carelessly call this a “caste” system, but it really is a meritocracy: each job is to be done by whomever is best at that job.

A second key element is that each person is to receive what he or she desires most. Thinkers want to think; makers want to make; warriors want to show their prowess. Therefore, the guardians are given the leisure to philosophize, theorize and investigate; the producers are allowed to make money and to enjoy the fruits of their labors; and the auxiliaries spend their time training and fighting for the sense of achievement and for the social recognition their honor demands. When Socrates describes the life of the guardians, with its lack of fame and creature comforts, Glaucon complains that he is making his citizens miserable. Socrates really has two replies to this. First, he says that the point of his exercise is to explore what would make the overall healthiest society, not to make any one person the happiest possible; therefore, it is irrelevant whether one group or another has everything that could be desired. But more importantly, Socrates/Plato is saying that in fact these people are getting what they really want, and what will really fulfill the longings of their true natures.

Thirdly, and just as vitally, no one gets what he or she should not have. The guardians are allowed to think, and have the satisfaction of seeing their ideas in action; though Plato makes it clear that true philosophers would rather focus on theory and only stoop to the distraction of implementing their ideas out of a recognition of their duty to others. But they do their work for the republic for nothing more than their own basic maintenance. They receive no riches, no fine mansions or spectacular clothes so that people should look at them enviously as they are carried about on palanquins; they live simple lives devoted to their work and to self-improvement to make themselves better at their jobs. And the guardians receive no fame, since that is reserved for the auxiliaries; the guardians are to do their work not so they can be loved and have their names emblazoned on monuments like a pharaoh, but simply so they can learn more and lead their society. Fame is reserved for the auxiliaries, whose ambition and sense of honor is their strongest drive; but they are not allowed any leadership role, nor are they allowed to accumulate riches. The auxiliaries are to be more educated than the producers, but still are temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to leadership; and they are not to collect creature comforts which would distract and soften them. And the producers, who so crave wealth and luxuries, are too undisciplined and selfish to be trusted either in the professional defense force or in political leadership. They may enjoy the wealth of the republic, but may not have any power or part in its leadership.

Plato indicates why this is important in Book VIII of Republic. There he imagines how this ideal state would eventually degenerate, since nothing human lasts forever. The point of this fiction is to show how each of the main political archetypes of his day vary from the ideal, and to rank them from best to worst. The first step away from the ideal resembles the Spartan or Cretan states, which Plato has Socrates affirm are generally considered well-run. There is no clear name for this sort of state, but Plato coins the term “timocracy,” or government by honor. This state resembles his republic in most respects, but the leaders are not philosophers. Instead, they are more like the people Plato had as auxiliaries: educated and cultured perhaps, but more passionate and ambitious and concerned for their personal honor. Lacking philosophic discipline and wisdom, they are prone to temptation and longing for the goods the guardians were denied. They are competitive with one another, seeking personal honor as much or more than the welfare of the state. When they are younger, this drive for honor is likely to be their primary motivation, and this to some extent keeps them honest and devoted to their service as warrior-leaders. When they are older, however, Plato says they are more likely to start to covet wealth. They are legally denied wealth and forbidden from farming, trading or other ways they could make money; so they may resort to extorting from their fellow citizens or other covert means of accumulating luxuries, and they become miserly over what they do have since it is so hard to acquire. Without philosophy to build and guide their characters, they start to love money more and virtue less.

The next sort of state is oligarchy, or government by a rich elite. In this sort of state, personal virtue and excellence have been largely dispensed with as requirements for leadership. Instead, leaders are those who are wealthy and powerful, and those who are politically powerful in turn use their position to gain more wealth. While the timocratic state of Sparta or Crete was still said to be “well run” and in fact the actual governments most approved by Plato, oligarchy is clearly corrupt. Love of virtue and justice has been replaced by love of money, and it is the rich who are respected rather than the wise. Furthermore, as there are separations between rich and poor, there is envy and crime as those without wealth attempt to get some by whatever means they can. Graft at the top, theft at the bottom, the oligarchy seems corrupt through and through.

However, oligarchy is in fact barely midway down Plato’s scale of corrupt states. Next is democracy, such as found in Plato’s own state of Athens. In this state, the pretense that some people are better fit to lead than others is thrown out completely; everyone competes for money and for power. The people have realized that their leaders are, in fact, no better than any of them, so they command little loyalty in times of crisis. The people chafe at any restrictions imposed on them by leaders who they regard as nothing special in themselves, so they revolt and establish a government that will allow the maximum liberty possible to the individual citizens. Being the freest in that respect, democracy also allows the most range of individual characters, from the virtuous to the positively criminal. And being so variegated and individualistic, the democracy lacks cohesion; mutual competition is everything.

Naturally, in such an environment there are some people who simply want to be free of all restraint, and others who will not be satisfied until they dominate everything. Therefore, democracy naturally slides towards tyranny. In tyranny, the confusion of economic and political power is complete, as one individual takes over the state and runs it for his own pleasure and that of his lackeys. The tyrant is thus the complete opposite of the philosopher-king in the ideal republic; while the guardians served the state and received only their basic needs in return, the tyrant demands satisfaction of his every appetite and expects the state to serve him. And while democracy promised complete equality as well as freedom, Plato argues that the greed and ambition of its citizens guarantees that both of these will be lost, resulting in the most unequal and repressive state possible.

In Plato’s terms, the United States is not a democracy; it is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy. The Constitution was written by men who had read Plato and read the history of Athens, and who shared many of Plato’s concerns about pure democracy. Instead of having the people set policy directly, the created a system where the people elect leaders who in turn set policy. But even with this sort of two-stage democracy, the tendency for tyranny has always existed. America’s detractors and lovers all agree that this is a society devoted to the making and spending of money. And particularly today, there is an unquestioned faith in the wisdom of the businessman. Plato says this is exactly the sort of person we should keep well away from power. Government requires long-term thinking; business can do very well planning year-by-year or quarter-by-quarter. Government requires an eye on the big picture, coordinating and prioritizing all sorts of needs of the citizens; business requires only a limited perspective. Businesses may profit and even be founded on a holistic approach, but it is not necessary. In Plato’s republic, all leaders were to be trained in music and in physical fitness, as well as in the intellectual skills directly relating to politics, because they needed to be well-rounded individuals, limber of body and mind. In American schools the focus is on training for the business world, and funding for the arts and for physical fitness (aside from team sports which are practically businesses themselves) is constantly under threat.   The idea of a “liberal arts” education, training everyone in a core body of knowledge to make each one a better citizen, is generally despised as useless; why learn about history or science or philosophy when you can just earn an M.B.A. and get rich?

Plato would say it is inevitable that a rich and powerful individual would emerge in a government like ours and set himself up as a strongman, that he would gain a loyal following by promising some group power over others, that he would play on their emotions rather than argue logically or factually, and that eventually the government would be taken down and fall into tyranny. This is always the danger of populism, and Plato saw nothing good in it. He believed in a government that gave the people what they truly needed and wanted even if they didn’t realize this themselves, but which did not give them a voice or power since they would inevitably misuse it. At the same time, he believed in a government that impoverished its leaders rather than enriching them, making them true public servants; government was to exist for the well-being of the citizenry as a whole, not just the ruling elite.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

October 20, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

—–Plato

 

 

The first and most famous writing in Western political philosophy is Republic, written by Plato around 380 BCE. It is not only a political writing, and arguably may not even be primarily such; it is a philosophical tour de force, discussing ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and esthetics as well as politics. Thus it is one of the most encyclopedic pieces of philosophical writing as well as one of the earliest, and for both reasons is often a cornerstone of “Philosophy 101.”

Plato’s answers do not always satisfy, and did not always satisfy even his contemporaries; but his writings set the agenda for philosophy down through the millennia. It is therefore fitting to start any discussion of political philosophy with Plato, hear what he has to say, and then examine how later thinkers have confirmed or rejected his claims.

No thinker writes completely in a vacuum, and Plato was particularly a man of his time despite his desire to speak only of the eternal Forms. He began his philosophical career as one of those young aristocratic men who followed Socrates around the Athenian agora, hanging on his every word as he interrogated the professional politicians, professors and other leaders of society. Socrates wrote nothing of his own, as far as we know, except perhaps a hymn according to one historical record; what we know of his actual beliefs comes to us through the writings and teachings of his students. As was common in the ancient world, his students were not shy about using the master’s name to try to give answers the master would have given if he had only thought about some problem, or if he had lived longer, and thus had explicitly taught on some subject he didn’t actually cover. They were not journalists in today’s sense, trying to capture the words and deeds of the great person without error or embellishment; they were more concerned with keeping the spirit of the great teacher alive so that he could continue to teach even after death. In the case of Plato, great devotion to the person of Socrates was joined to great literary talent and to great philosophical genius, the result being that we know that at some point Plato starts putting his own words into Socrates’ mouth but we don’t agree on exactly which parts are closer to the original Socrates and which are Plato’s thoughts attributed to Socrates. What we do know is that Plato wrote an extensive library of books, many of which survive to this day, and that almost all of them are written as philosophical conversations or debates in which Socrates is the main figure. They do not always agree with each other in content, and the style varies as well, reinforcing the impression that as Plato grew older his own thought became more independent of Socrates. But certain principles appear early and often in Plato, and are echoed in other writers who similarly knew Socrates. An early story is that the oracle at Delphi identified Socrates as the wisest man alive, and that Socrates decided that his only wisdom was to realize his own ignorance. Therefore, he devoted his life to exposing the ignorance of those who claimed to have knowledge, particularly the knowledge to tell others what was right and good. The professional teachers of his day, the Sophists, are generally remembered today as relativists; they taught as “good” whatever the local community said was “good,” while themselves noting that what was praised in one city-state was often abhorred in another. Socrates by contrast is said to have believed that there was indeed a real universal truth to be found, and a real sense in which “good” was an ethical principle that held true no matter what the society said. He thus claimed his own inquiries were his own attempt to educate himself, or to find a teacher who could show him the truth of how to live his life. However, he also quickly found that no one he encountered really knew this truth at all, since none of the important men he questioned was able to defend his views. He thus styled himself a “philo-sopher,” a “lover-of wisdom,” a perpetual seeker rather than an authority; and he called all his neighbors to become seekers as well.

History, including Plato’s own writings, reports that this did not sit well with the leaders he had interrogated and publicly embarrassed. Eventually, he was arrested and charged with corrupting the youth and not reverencing the gods. He was brought to trial in the waning days of Athenian democracy, when the Athenian people were fairly paranoid about finding enemies of the State and rooting them out. It is true that some of the young men who followed Socrates had turned traitor during the war with Sparta, which had ended a few years earlier with a humiliating defeat for the Athenians. At the same time, some of his followers had also proven to be patriots, and Socrates himself was nearly arrested by the pro-Spartan junta which briefly ruled before it was overthrown and democracy reinstated.

The trial of Socrates took place in the same way every important decision was made in Athenian democracy. A large jury, generally 501 randomly chosen free male citizens, listened to advocates for and against the proposition—in this case, the proposition that Socrates was guilty of capital crimes and should be executed. Normally, the defendant in such a trial would give as eloquent a speech as possible, often reciting one written by a professional. He would appeal for mercy, perhaps having his wife and children come on stage with him in rags even if they were in fact quite wealthy, to try to sway the emotions of the jurors. Socrates rejected that plan and refused the speech a friend offered him. Instead, he taught the audience and his accusers. He brought one of them up before them all and asked him to recite the details of his crimes, poking holes in his claims and suggesting that even his accusers didn’t believe what they were saying. Instead, he argued, they were simply embarrassed by his lifetime of needling them. He had made them look foolish by exposing their ignorance, and they wanted revenge. Instead, Socrates argued, he should be seen as a benefactor of the city, who sought nothing but the moral improvement of the citizens by teaching each one individually to seek the good. His questions were like the sting of a gadfly, which might stir a lazy cow to action; his only purpose was to make people think about what is good or evil so that they might act for the good. He therefore insisted that the charges against him were nonsense, insincere, and false; far from undermining the city, he was actually its chief benefactor. Still, the jury narrowly voted to convict. Under Athenian law, at that point both sides had to propose a suitable punishment. When his accusers demanded his death and the jury asked Socrates what alternative punishment he would recommend, he suggested they give him free meals for life like they would for an Olympic victor or military hero. Given those two choices, the jury chose death. He accepted the sentence, submitting to the laws of the State and the will of God, and was executed.

I would like to draw four main points from this story (which is drawn primarily from Plato’s Apology and also agrees with Xenophon’s account, both apparently eyewitness accounts of the trial of Socrates):

  1. Socrates, though avoiding usual “political activities” such as seeking office or making speeches in the assembly. Still, he regarded himself to be a political citizen and even a moral activist.
  2. He was brought up on political charges by leading politicians, so his trial and execution was a political event.
  3. He was subversive in undermining respect of certain leaders, but submitted to the laws of his country even to his own death.
  4. The overall impression of the presentations is that democracy failed. Democracy, not just particular individuals, tried and executed Socrates unjustly.

This last point is particularly important for the later development of Plato’s political philosophy. His writings, as well as Xenophon’s, depict Socrates as basically patriotic. Yes, he was unconventional; yes, he did embarrass some political leaders by exposing their ignorance and hypocrisy; and yes, some of his followers were disloyal and even treasonous. Still, he himself died in obedience to the laws of Athens. Plato came away from that thinking that democracy is inherently unjust. In democracy, demagogues driven by personal ambition, greed and vanity manipulate the mob, which is itself motivated by passions and appetites rather than rational thought. Neither the leaders nor the followers have any interest in justice or even a conception of what this is, so that they conspired together to kill their greatest benefactor and teacher. Therefore, Plato concluded, the only way a just society could ever exist would be if power is held not by the majority, but only by those few who have the moral and intellectual capacity for leadership.

To be continued….

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

October 10, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

 

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

—–Winston Churchill

 

 

In philosophy, it is generally considered a good and worthy strategy to start with a thesis to which everyone can agree, and see what can be learned from closely examining that notion. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that everyone in the other political tribe is a f—ing moron. Since the parties are pretty evenly divided (Democrats supposedly have more numbers, but Republicans have the Presidency, Congress, most state legislators and governors, and are currently cementing control of the Supreme Court for the next twenty or thirty years), that means that, if we provisionally accept this judgment as true, half the country are idiots, whose votes count just as much as the smart, moral, caring and good people who agree with you.

Why should this be? Or perhaps better, should this be? One news report quotes a professor of political science as saying:

 

We go in assuming a baseline among students, which is that they are uncritically, unreflectively fans of democracy, right? America is a democracy, we all love America. Democracy is good. This election season, that baseline—-my experience has been—-can no longer be assumed…[1]

 

 

Half the country, according to polls, believes that colleges are actively trying to subvert American democracy, and have been doing so for years. In fact, this professor and others report that until this year they’ve just been able to assume that their students had such immediate faith in democracy that there was no need to sell it. Now, a generation is coming into our colleges who are looking at the nastiness, the accusations of vote-rigging and vote-suppression and political intimidation and even violence, and those young people are basically ready to say, “Well, democracy had a good run; but I guess it’s time to find something that works.” And why shouldn’t they? Half our government—-the party that runs the Congress and most of the states and half the Supreme Court—-has been telling them for years that democracy has failed and is failing. Now, they feel they see the proof with their own eyes.

Philosophers have discussed the merits and demerits of democracy almost as long as “philosophy” has existed. The first sustained political treatise, Plato’s Republic, was written as Athenian democracy was collapsing. Later Greek and Roman philosophers wrote extensively about the relationship between citizen and State, rulers and ruled, and whether self-rule was desirable or even possible. As the Roman Empire transitioned from pagan to Christian, an entirely new tradition of political thought entered the conversation, and political thought in Europe became an ongoing synthesis of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and pagan traditions. Some of these traditions allowed for far more individual autonomy and social mobility than did others, but none were what we would really call “democratic.” Still, the notion of democracy did not vanish completely, returning in religious communities such as the Quakers that rejected human authority over others. After the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Enlightenment began the project of looking for human-based political theories to replace Christian theocracy. British Empricism gave us the totalitarian monarchism of Thomas Hobbes, the representative democracy of John Locke and the utilitarianism of David Hume, among others. As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth we saw the rise of Marxism and fascism. The Twentieth Century has been called “The People’s Century” because it saw the rise of democracy and the collapse of colonialism, and growing millions gained the freedom to exercise political power in their own countries; yet for much of that century it was openly debated whether democracy or totalitarianism would ultimately triumph. By the end, it seemed that democracy had won and the popular press tossed around terms like “the end of history;” the thinking was that humanity had resolved the tension between the State and the individual, and that the rights of the individual had been admitted to be fundamental. Even as the 21st Century began with religiously-inspired terrorism, no one seriously thought that they posed a serious threat. As Christopher Hitchens put it, terrorists could unleash events, but the progress of civilization would not be stopped. And the religious zealots themselves admit that the task of overthrowing democracy to establish theocracy is humanly impossible; they rely on a faith that God will miraculously intervene to slaughter all their foes and give them the ultimate victory and domination over others.

And then came the presidential election of 2016. Republicans routinely claim that the election of Hillary Clinton will mean the end of democracy and the end of the United States. Since this is the same group that claimed the same thing about Obama, that claim lacks credibility to most people; but to the 40% or so of Republicans who believe Obama is a secret Muslim sleeper agent waiting for his chance to destroy America, the vow by Clinton to “continue the progress made by Obama” sounds like a death threat.[2] On the other hand, Republicans have been talking about taking up arms to kill liberals since the beginning of the Tea Party Movement, including various threats by GOP candidates to use “Second Amendment” remedies to get rid of Harry Reid or Obama or Hillary Clinton, threats by Republican governors to call up the National Guard to fight off “federal overreach,” and a multitude of militias and Sovereign Citizens threatening or even committing violence and terrorism. Now, they have a candidate for President who openly talks about removing constitutional protections for free speech, who urges his supporters to attack protestors and promises to pay their legal bills, who regularly retweets posts from a variety of white supremacist militants. Almost overnight, then, we went from believing democracy was the ultimate culmination of the forces of history, which was opposed only by lunatics bent on some sort of magical return the Middle Ages, to a situation where millions of Americans believe that democracy is in fact under attack and could be destroyed in a few months. And even elected officials, such as the governor of Kentucky, talk about the possible need to resort to violence and force if the election turns out the wrong way and conservatives don’t win.[3]

Philosophers need to contribute to this discussion. It is clear that many millions of Americans have in fact lost faith in democracy. Hillary Clinton caught a lot of flak for labeling half of Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” but in fact polls indicate she is mathematically correct: on a variety of issues, about half of Donald Trump’s supporters express racist, homophobic, and otherwise intolerant views and delusions.[4] And as Clinton admits, about half of is supporters don’t. Perhaps, like Mike Pence, you don’t think racism or intolerance or contempt for America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants and nonconformists merits the word “deplorable.”[5] Or given that half of the conservative candidate’s base falls into this “basket of deplorables,” perhaps you don’t want to offend them. What cannot be denied, however, is that roughly half of Republicans think democracy is destroying America, because the majority is voting to weaken “traditional values” of white patriarchy. That’s millions of people. Add to that the millions more who think democracy is failing because it led us to the Trump candidacy and the empowerment of the deplorables, and that’s almost a landslide. In these circumstances, philosophy is needed. Political science tends to ask, “How is power gained and used?” in a value-neutral way. Philosophers need to step in ask, “SHOULD power be gained and used in this way?” Philosophers can ask the questions about value, whether and why democracy is “good” even if you don’t like the results of the last or next election. And they have a history of analyzing and debating these concepts that goes back thousands of years, which can inform and guide today’s debates.

To be continued….

[1] Sam Sanders, “How Do You Teach Politics during an Election that Defies Convention?” Morning Edition (NPR) Oct. 6, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/10/06/496826307/how-do-you-teach-politics-during-an-election-that-defies-convention)

[2] Louis Jacobson, “Do 59 Percent of Americans Believe Obama is a Muslim?” Punditfact Nov. 23, 2015 (http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/nov/23/arsalan-iftikhar/do-59-percent-americans-believe-barack-obama-musli/)

[3] David A. Graham, “Matt Bevin’s Apocalyptic Warnings of Bloodshed;” The Atlantic Sept. 13, 2016 (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/matt-bevin-clinton-blood/499754/)

[4] Charles M. Blow, “About the Basket of Deplorables,” New York Times Sept. 12, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/12/opinion/about-the-basket-of-deplorables.html?_r=0)

[5] Matthew Nussbaum, “Pence Declines to Call David Duke ‘Deplorable’”; Politico Sept. 12, 2016 (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/mike-pence-david-duke-deplorable-228049)

Commentary: Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

July 8, 2013

While I primarily seek to address philosophical and theological topics, sometimes I just want to write about politics.  I do try to apply my theological, philosophical and scholarly training to the situations I analyze.  I hope you enjoy, and maybe find something useful. 

Commentary:  Egypt’s Impending(?) Coup

Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.  Mark 12:17  (NRSV)

 

 

            I recently read an article on President Morsi’s failure as a leader, and how it has led Egypt to the brink of political collapse.  The author, Amotz Asa-el, argues that Morsi’s mistake was the same that John McCain made in 2008:  failure to recognize the importance of economics.[1]  It occurred to me that this seems to be a chronic problem for religious politicians, whether Muslim Brotherhood or the GOP.  —–“Now stop right there!  The GOP is nothing like the Muslim Brotherhood.  They aren’t trying to overthrow democracy or impose a state religion; they defend democracy and the Constitution from bloated government budgets and power-grabbing.” —- Yes, you are right.  There has been a lot of loose talk for years equating Republicans with the Taliban, as if killing a boy for flying a kite was somehow morally equivalent to offering tuition vouchers for parents who want to send their children to religiously-run private schools.  The GOP is not the Taliban.  For that matter, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the Taliban, either.  But in the politics of the Religious Right in the USA, there are faint echoes of other, more blatantly theocratic voices; and the lessons we can gain from Morsi might help the GOP as it undertakes its much-publicized self-analysis.  More importantly, though, it might help all of us understand our world and ourselves a little better.

First, liberals need to admit that Republicans are not trying to establish a theocracy.  Conservatives need to admit that there are many Americans, called “Christian Dominionists” or “Christian Reconstructionists,” who do openly express the desire to use the Constitutional protections of free speech and freedom of religion to, in their own words, overthrow that same Constitution and establish a Christian theocracy; and furthermore, much of the Religious Right supports their agenda either entirely or in part, and the Religious Right in turn is the driving force among “social conservatives” within the Republican Party, so the views and policies of Christian Dominionism have an inordinate influence within the GOP even when the true agenda of the original purveyors of those ideas is not recognized.  It is as absurd to say “Republicans are Christian Taliban” as it is to say “No Christian Taliban are Republicans.”  If “Christian Taliban” is popular shorthand for Christians who wish to impose a rigid, intolerant version of Christianity on the rest of the nation, either by force or initially through more subtle means, then there are “Christian Taliban” in the U.S. who are politically active within the Republican Party today; and there are many more who would not endorse their whole agenda or welcome the Dominionist end-game, but who wittingly or unwittingly ally with key parts of their agenda to impose their version of “God’s Kingdom” upon the individuals and social institutions of this nation (such as weakening “the kingdom of education” through government financial support of private schools and home-schooling, with the ultimate intention to replace public education).

So let’s admit that there are some relevant parallels between the methods and intentions of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and some U.S. Republicans.  Both groups are religiously motivated, and look to the next world rather than this one for their ultimate validation.  Both believe that God has called them to use the political structures of secular democracy to establish a society that is more “scripturally based,” though they disagree somewhat on what that means.  And while they disagree as to which Scriptures should provide the foundation for society’s laws and policies, the actual policies they advocate are very similar:  suppression of homosexuality, government control of women’s reproduction,[2] suppressing pornography,[3] suppression of scientific research and teaching,[4] laissez-faire capitalism,[5] and above all, suppression of religious nonconformism.[6]  If a government is in place that will enforce proper values, God will be pleased and will bless the nation; so this-worldly solutions to problems like economic decline, environmental collapse or crime are misguided and unnecessary.[7]  If a large portion of society seems to disagree and social unrest increases, that just shows how much we need to impose Godly rule on society; democracy leads to pluralism and disagreement, but if everyone would just convert to one religious code then all social unrest would cease.  Besides, if I have declared myself and my friends as the Party of God, then anyone who opposes us is not just a political rival with different economic or moral theories; my opponents are ungodly, evil, symptoms of the cancer that is threatening our culture, and compromise with them risks drawing down the wrath of God upon myself and the nation.

            I had written up to this point when the “threatened” coup became an actual “coup?” depending on the speaker.  Whether diplomats call it a “coup” or not, we philosophers of a pragmatic streak tend to fall back on the logical principle, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and lays eggs like a duck, it’s a duck.”  I’m seeing just now an interesting op-ed piece on the New York Times editorial web page, that is agreeing with much of what I had thought about the Egyptian situation.[8]  I am particularly struck by an argument which the author, David Brooks, borrowed from another author:  that the Muslim Brotherhood, and any Islamist, simply denies causality since to imply the world was a causal system would diminish God’s power.  Instead, the Islamist simply rejects any fact that does not feel right.  To switch to a Colbertism, the Islamist embraces truthiness rather than truth.  My concern is that this is a universal trait of all religious ideologues, and that this same trait now drives much American politics, and that if we wish to understand ourselves or others we must understand the problems with religious politics.  But I digress.

Morsi was done in by the fact that he is not a big fan of facts; he’s a big fan of principles, theological principles, having little connection to the rule of the material world he was attempting to govern.  My contention is that Morsi’s ignoring of economic realities is of one cloth with other religious conservatives who ignore science or history at their whim (and their peril).  A second problem with theocratic politics is that it protects incompetence in both theology and politics.  A good example of this is Iraq’s Muqtada al-Sadr.[9]  Sadr was never a good seminary student, never much of a theologian, but he had his father’s fame and his Iranian political connections to fall back on; in American terms, he sounds like the classic legacy student.  These connections allowed him to build a political party and a brutal militia.  And while the Sadrists were able to provide street-level services almost as well as the Americans could (and used their military force to prevent the Americans from providing better health and other basic aid to the people of Iraq, thus eliminating that source of competition), they were never very good at the basic work of government; but because so many of their followers are motivated by religious loyalty and piety rather than practical concerns, they have a solid political base.  So Sadr covers for his theological incompetence with political clout, and hides his political failures under his religious mantle.  He is not, however, the only current political leader to combine poor theology and poor management into a successful career, either in or out of the Middle East.

And thirdly, this is indeed poor theology.  “Theology” is the attempt to take the religious revelations and teachings about the divine and present them in some sort of rational structure.  Any sincere religious individual or community has had experiences where the simple, nursery-school theology that equates God with Santa Claus (or the djinn in the lamp, or whatever premodern, paganish gift-giving spirit is recognized in the culture) did not match up with the felt experience.  Ultimately, in most major religions this leads to an attempt to set religious experience in a wider cosmic context, seeking to see the value of what is because it is while still seeking to make it better.  Evil and suffering become not just uncomfortable facts to be ignored or misfortunes to be blamed on outsiders who don’t believe as “we” do; they become challenges both to our own egocentrism and our own moral complacency, calling us both to humility and to moral action.  But the same religious thinking that rejects causality also seeks to put God in a nice theological box, as if God alone were the only reality we could causally understand; if I do x, God will inevitably do y.  If I drive out the gays, God will protect the nation for hurricanes and terrorist attacks.  If I drive out the Christians, God will inevitably restore the nation to material prosperity and to its rightful, righteous place as the head of a worldwide caliphate.  If I commit suicide while killing a bunch of God’s enemies (who, big surprise, are also the very people I would have gladly killed on my own time), God will reward me with all the good things of this world which I didn’t have but always lusted after (the ascetic Muslim fanatic sees God as a pimp who will provide unlimited sex, while the humble Christian sees God as a political powerbroker who will make him a ruler in the Kingdom of Heaven, with a golden crown and a gleaming throne).  Instead of submitting to God’s will, the theocratic believer temporarily submits to God in order to get God to submit to him later.  That’s not piety or love; that’s trading.  Piety says, “Many of the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and yet still strives to be one of the good ones who is “first” not out of an expectation of always being “first,” but only out of love for the universe and its source and a desire to contribute to the task.

Both the Islamists and the American social conservatives have these shared traits:  a rejection of the causal laws and material requirements of this world while simultaneously demanding rulership of this world; a tendency towards political and theological mediocrity while using power in one sphere to impose its will in the other; and a fetishism that seeks to turn the numinous and the holy into a lucky charm giving power to attain quite worldly and egocentric satisfactions.  Morsi’s problems were, thus, “in the cards,” as an idiom based on another such fetishism would put it.  Does that mean his overthrow is a good thing?  Or is it the death of democracy in Egypt, and perhaps in the Arab world?

What is democracy?  I would say that it is primarily a mechanism to prevent civil war, by allowing political disagreements and struggles to be carried out through political mechanisms rather than by force of arms.  When the will of the majority is the guiding principle of the nation, and the desires of majorities are sufficiently met so that they still feel themselves to be part of the ongoing national project, the society works.  The Muslim Brotherhood loved the part about the will of the majority being the ruling power, as long as they were the majority; but there were many other groups that still had both a vested interest in Egypt’s national project and the power to express their desires.  When the democratic processes were not sufficient to allow the Christians, the liberal secularists, the middle class in general to participate in the life of the nation, the official democratic structure was overthrown.  But that does not necessarily mean a more informal democracy is not in action.  In the U.S. we went through a period of anti-sedition laws, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other crises before we hit upon the Bill of Rights, including free speech and Church/State separation, to protect the rights of minorities while respecting the will of the majority.  We still had a Civil War, which many millions felt was the death of democracy in America as the anti-slavery forces imposed their will by force upon people who thought their property rights over other people were both God-given and democratically established.  Democracy survived and grew despite, and even because of this breakdown in democracy.

I regret the coup in Egypt.  As someone more knowledgeable than I said some years ago, the Islamists have to be allowed into the democratic process, allowed to implement their policies, and shown to fail.  As long as authoritarian means keep them out of power, they can blame the world’s wickedness for everything.  But the Islamist strategy, among diverse groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and even al-Qaeda, has been pretty much the same:  promise an end to the endemic political corruption of their societies and provide basic social services from cooking fuel to hospitals, win elections because of the people’s confidence that they will continue to provide for their social needs, and then use that power to put all those social services on the back burner while the “important” work of earning God’s blessing by banning alcohol and requiring long beards and child marriage becomes the main national agenda.  When the people protest that they signed on because of the promises of social services and not for forced social conformity, the religious longing for a holy war is awakened and the popularly elected theocrats resort to violence and warfare against their “enemies” both domestic and foreign.  It would probably have been better to let the Islamists be defeated in an open election.  But if Egyptians themselves decide that they have learned the lesson themselves and are ready to try for a true democracy, they can still attain a stable and modern society.

And I would say that the social conservatives and Religious Right in this country follow much the same pattern.  In Texas, millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on repeated special sessions of the state legislature, all in an attempt to ram through the virtual abolition of the right to choose abortion which the Supreme Court of the United States has affirmed is protected by the Constitution.  The party that ran on the promise to save money is now spending it, not on badly needed social services but instead on a political power-play intended to impose a particular religious ruling on others.

Democracy works because it is responsive to the will of the people.  As Amartya Sen argued in his Nobel-prize winning work, democracy is economically more powerful because any democratic system has to provide material prosperity; an authoritarian system can spend money on guns, on largesse for the political elite, on whatever it wants, but democracies have to provide economic development.[10]  And democracy works politically because it creates buy-in among the citizens.  When all, or as good as all feel they have a vested interest in the society and that it respects and represents their interests, there is loyalty among the citizens and a willingness to work within the governmental institutions and informal cultural systems; when sizeable numbers feel alienated and disenfranchised, they are likely to choose to opt out of the social contract through violence, crime and parasitism, or to de facto form a new community and attempt to overthrow their oppressive overlords. Democracy works best when it is a system for seeking consensus, for trying to reach the broadest possible appeal consistent with implementing workable policies; it starts to break down when ideologues and demagogues promise one thing (economic prosperity) but deliver another (shelving economic concerns and focusing instead on winning “the culture wars”).

So is democracy dead in Egypt?  If the Egyptian people believe it is dead.  A true democracy would aim to create buy-in for Islamists, Christians, the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, men, women, everyone.  Democracy used as a tool by theocrats has failed, since consensus and practical solutions to real-world problems was never a priority for Morsi; but that does not necessarily mean it can never work.  Maybe this is more of a reset on the democratic project; I hope so, at any rate.  Only a society that is truly responsive to its people’s needs and in which citizens truly feel a sense of inclusion and joint responsibility can be truly stable.


[2] suppressing abortion of course, but also suppressing birth control generally, while limiting a woman’s ability to work outside the household for the same pay a man would get, and so on.

[3] which always thrives when suppressed, but is more easily controlled by men; look at the widespread prostitution and pornography available both in the Victorian Era and in the 1950’s

[4] specifically paleontology, evolutionary biology, astronomy and anything else that might lead to information conflicting with a prescientific, literalist interpretation of religious scriptures

[5] because socialism is unwarranted government interference on the rights of individuals and undermines the moral and religious value of charity, while government imposition of private virtue supports rather than subverts personal moral worth

[6] because “freedom of religion” means freedom of the right religion from oppression by all others; but freeing others from wrong religion, by law or force, is good; and the Islamist or Dominionist always is certain that his particular brand of religion is the unadulterated “good.”

[7] For example, Pat Robertson famously blamed feminists for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and homosexuals for Hurricane Katrina, because God would have protected us from these things if only the nation had been governed according to the religious teachings of The 700 Club.

[8] David Brooks, “Defending the Coup,” The New York Times July 4, 2013 (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/05/opinion/brooks-defending-the-coup.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0)

[9] Lucky Severson, “Shia-Sunni Conflict,” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly September 29, 2006 (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2006/09/29/september-29-2006-shia-sunni-conflict/1795/)

[10] This works, Dr. Sen argues, if the society is a true democracy, having not only free elections but also a free press, rule of law, and truly free markets not dominated monopolies (either government or private), foreign control (as in colonial India, which he analyzed extensively) or in any other way not really accessible to or controllable by the people themselves.