Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Seventh Thesis Attributable to Aristotle:  The Wisdom of the Crowd

August 25, 2022

Seventh Thesis:  The Wisdom of the Crowd

For it is possible that the many, no one of whom taken singly is a sound, man, may yet, taken all together, be better than the few, not individually but collectively, in the same way that a feast to which all contribute is beter than one supplied at one man’s expense.

—-Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xi, 1281a39

            Aristotle was not an unqualified fan of democracy.  After all, his father had served in the royal court of Phillip of Macedon, and Aristotle also served the king and tutored his young son, later known as Alexander the Great.  When Alexander led his armies into Persia, Aristotle settled in Athens and founded a school to rival Plato’s Academy, which he was able to do in part because of his connections with the monarch.  And yet, despite his past and continuing benefit from royal patronage, he actually writes more favorably about democracy than does his former teacher.  He’s not utterly devoted to democracy, but he’s not a strict monarchist or aristocrat either.  He mostly seeks to see the strengths and weaknesses in every form of government, and seeking to describe how each monarchy, oligarchy or democracy can be the best of its sort possible.

            Aristotle’s mentor, Plato, famously argued that politics should be the domain of a political elite, the Guardians, with highest authority resting with a philosopher-king:  only when philosophers are kings, or kings consent to become philosophers, will society be well-led and the people be truly happy.  While the majority are necessary as producers, and a society can’t exist without farmers, crafters and others, these represent the belly of the state; just as an individual must have food but shouldn’t be ruled by their stomach, so too the state needs all those producers who are led by their appetites and who in turn feed the state literally and economically, but it should be led by its mind—-that is, the educated, self-disciplined philosophical elite.  The majority, he says, are led by their desire for money and things, and within limits should be allowed to pursue these things as their activity sustains the state; but in an ideal society, they would be permanently banned from political power.  The few who lead the state, by contrast, are fit to lead precisely because wealth and glory alike mean little to them; they desire to know and understand, and this understanding both gives them the temperament to lead for the good of the state rather than personal gain and gives them the ability to do so competently.

            Aristotle agrees that the absolutely ideal state would be one led by a morally perfect king, with the wisdom and self-discipline to do what is best for the state in every situation.  However, such a moral exemplar would be like a god among us mortals, and gods are rare these days.  It is difficult even to find and identify the best and the brightest by our more ordinary, incomplete human standards.  So while a philosopher-king might be the ideal, and a moral aristocracy nearly as good, more generally we have to deal with ordinary people and such political accomplishment as is practically achievable.  And for this, he says, the wisdom of the majority is often as effective as a supposedly select elite group of decision-makers.

            It is clear that Aristotle is not arguing that the majority has some sort of privileged status.  He’s not arguing, as Locke did centuries later, that political power is only legitimate when it reflects the will of the majority and thus that a political mandate flows solely from a collection of free individuals consenting to elect representatives to express their collective will.  And he’s certainly not advocating, as seems to be the trend today, that the “elite” are evil, corrupt and/or stupid oppressors and the ignorant, emotional masses are the sole arbiters of truth.  Man is not the measure of all things; there is truth, and truth is not only desirable but necessary for good political decision-making, and often truth is known by one or a few.  But in a large group, such as the entire collection of free citizens in a democracy, one person will be expert at one thing, and another knowledgeable about another.  Farmers will know more about feeding the state, soldiers and officers about defending it, philosophers about educating it and about justice, and so on.  If you have enough people together, someone in the group is going to be well-informed on whatever issue the group is discussing.  Therefore, allowing everyone to speak and have input is as likely to lead to sound decisions as selecting a small group of experts to make all the decisions.[1]

            Aristotle goes on to point out another advantage to letting the majority have a voice in major decisions.  If we confine government to those who are considered “the best,” we are inevitably shutting out the majority.  This can become a source of internal dissent and division within the state.  If everyone has a voice, everyone has a stake, and has more assurance that the government will look out for their interests too.[2]  At the same time, an expert’s knowledge matters in many areas.  A ship relies on its captain; armies are led by the generals rather than popular opinion; a doctor is more likely to know something about medicine than is a random group off the street.  The solution which Aristotle cites, following the example of Solon and other past lawmakers, is the scrutiny.  Let experts hold sovereign power in whatever areas of state government require specific knowledge; but at the end of their term of office, the people as a whole can evaluate their work, and either praise their good leadership or hold them to account for their failures.  In this way the people have a voice, but not in a way that drowns out or devalue actual expertise.  And if someone should complain that it is unjust or foolish to let some dumb yokel stand in judgment over an actually knowledgeable expert, Aristotle points out that it is not one person who stands in judgment, but the whole citizenry.  In addition to his earlier argument that a large group will contain as much collective wisdom as is likely in a select few, the fact is that they are the ones who have to live with the results of the leaders’ decisions.  As he says, the one who lives in the house has more to say about its comfort than the architect, and the diners rather than the cook decide whether the meal is delicious.[3] 

            This sort of debate continues from ancient Athens until today.  In Republic, when the listeners complain that the proposals would make the people miserable, Plato has Socrates reply that the theories they are laying out are not aimed to make any individual happy, but to create a happy state overall.[4]  To do this, he says, it is necessary to have each person stick to what he or she does well, and not meddle in the tasks of others; traders should stick to business, farmers to farming, soldiers to fighting, and the philosophers, educated in virtue and general knowledge, should lead.  To the individual who complains that this is in fact a miserable state, Plato says they are wrong, mistaken, because they think too highly of their own limited perspective and interests.  Aristotle by contrast says it is the residents of the state that know what it is like to live there, and thus they have the requisite knowledge to know whether the state is doing its job of providing an environment where humans can flourish. 

            There can be no doubt that, on the whole, Aristotle’s political philosophy is more congenial to modern representative democracy than is Plato’s.  Plato’s Republic and Laws assume leadership by a intellectual and military elite, basically Sparta with philosophy, with a centrally planned economy limiting the size of large plantations, restricting the numbers of citizens, severely limiting immigration and the numbers of resident aliens, and requiring leaders to live lives of strict austerity with little personal property.  While Plato aims to imagine a smoothly running state, Aristotle pays more attention to the individuals within it.  For Aristotle, the state exists so that the people in it can achieve full happiness; while he and Plato would agree that the citizens should be temperate and socially responsible, he is less inclined than Plato to denigrate the importance of the happiness of individuals or to sacrifice their enjoyment and prosperity to some ideal of social harmony.  Plato’s republic seems more like the People’s Republic of North Korea than it does like the United States of America, in that it rejects giving the majority any say in government, embraces national poverty and collectivism over either private or national prosperity, and is largely isolated culturally and economically from the rest of the world.  Aristotle is much more inclined to see the state as an environment where each individual can pursue their own happiness, in community with others.

            Plato’s model is a rather idealized vision of Sparta, as a land ruled by an aristocracy devoid of personal material interests, where the leaders live for the state and serve in the public interest and in return are supported by the state with their meals, shelter and basic needs provided, but little else.  Aristotle by contrast points out that the actual Spartan leaders often chafe at the restrictions on private wealth and are in fact quite open to corruption and bribery due to their natural desire for some private wealth and their inability to gain it legitimately.  This in turn points to another problem with Plato’s political philosophy:  he seems to rely on a false vision of human nature.  Republic starts as a thought experiment:  to get a better idea of what the good individual would be like, let’s imagine the perfect state, a sort of individual magnified, look at the divisions of function in such a state, and then look at the individual again to see how that structure would be reflected in the person as microcosm of the State.  It makes sense to say that the state is a mixture of mind, passion and appetite, the Guardians, Auxiliaries and Workers, and then to see the individual as mind, heart and body with the mind ultimately (ideally) in control; but when we imagine a group of philosopher guardians and their philosopher-king as individuals solely motivated by thought, we’ve entered fantasyland.  Aristotle’s leaders are real people, each with passions and desires as well as (hopefully) education and temperament to control these and lead effectively, if not perfectly.  Aristotle looks to the wisdom of the crowd partly because he recognizes that no one is completely devoid of reason, and partly because no one is completely ruled by reason, either; in a world where everyone is part fool, the safest course is a political system that can bring many perspectives together as mutual corrections on one another. 

             Even in his own day, though, Aristotle’s support for democratic principles was qualified; and if he could see conditions today, he’d have many worries.  While Aristotle thought it was best for political stability if the majority felt involved in and invested in their society, he was not a fan of just anyone having an equal voice.  First, he notoriously accepted slavery and patriarchy, which even Plato rejected.  So even the freest city-state Aristotle could envision would deny any vote or voice to well over half its population.  Plato by contrast embraced gender equality, even proposing women participate in the same exercise regimes as men and serving in the military, probably not as hoplites since that takes greater upper-body strength but as more lightly-armored archers.  Plato also had no use for slavery, since slaves were foreigners and he imagined a state where ideological purity was important even for the workers, and slaves only exist to create wealth for the lazy. 

            It is possible to reject Aristotle’s sexism and racism as not essential to his overall political philosophy, and to find value in it.  Even disregarding these repugnant traits, Aristotle still had concerns with giving too much power to the uneducated, undisciplined many.  This was why he cited with some approval the practice of restricting the vote to people who met some minimum property requirement (a common practice also in the early days of our own republic).  Aristotle proposed limiting the vote to those who owned their own weapons and armor to serve as hoplites.  This would have two benefits.  First, as Robert Heinlein later argued, those who serve in the military to defend the state have shown they are willing to take responsibility for its welfare even at the risk of their own; and second, the armor and weapons of a hoplite aren’t cheap, and anyone who could afford them definitely had some significant wealth.  The majority would be unable to vote, though they would have the hope of doing so if they could earn enough money (and then, by leaving their arms to their heirs, insure their children would be able to vote and be full citizens themselves). 

            While I think Aristotle’s insights can be reconciled with our more egalitarian understanding of people of different genders and nationalities, I don’t think he could accept the impact of social media.  Indeed, even some in the social media business worry about its corrosive effects.  In Aristotle’s day, two sides would stand before the assembly and make their speeches, each getting a chance to argue.  It wasn’t a perfect method; after all, Socrates and his accusers had argued before an Athenian jury of 501 randomly-chosen male citizens, and Socrates was condemned and executed; but a similar assembly had been convinced to go to war with Sparta, which proved to be an absolute disaster.  But at least both sides had their “day in court.”  On the internet, more often “truth” is a simple numbers game.  If a thousand ignorant, emotional fools say one thing and a dozen informed, rational experts have a different opinion, the dozen will scarcely be heard; the thousand will simply drown them out with a cacophony of insults, memes, Straw Men and other fallacious arguments, and threats of violence.  The state that sets its policy based solely on the majority opinion of such a misinformed, malignant mob will be like a ship steered by a committee of the blind.  Actually, it will be worse; the blind crew of the ship would at least recognize they’d hit rocks and were sinking, while time and again we see voters who flounder the state and, faced with the very disasters they were warned against, either are completely confused or refuse to even admit the problem. 

            The “wisdom of the crowd” does not require extraordinary wisdom in any one person, but it doesn’t happen spontaneously either; the mere existence of a crowd does not guarantee wisdom.  After all, as Kierkegaard pointed out, the crowd killed both Socrates and Christ.  But Aristotle is pointing towards something that political philosophers and political scientists, together with students of group psychology, have noted repeatedly:  that groups that have effective mechanisms for communication have a better track record than do authoritarians.  Dictators and tyrants, whether it be in politics or business or almost any field, have blind spots, and tend to be ruled by their own fears and appetites; unchecked by others, the CEO often bankrupts the company on foolish gambles, the Leader wastes money on monuments to himself and lives on military conquests, and the Hierarch burns the heretic whose words change the world.  Both Plato and Aristotle recognized that extreme democracy and mob rule opens the door to demagogues who turn into tyrants, and that the tyrants have no interest in the welfare of the state; the tyrant rules only for his own profit and comfort, lacks all self-discipline and self-awareness, and misrules through arrogance and an active warfare against the very citizenry he claims as “his” people—in much the same sense that a callous shepherd sees the flock as his mutton.  In this time of rising calls for authoritarian leaders, we would do well to remember that they generally fail, and when they do they fail monstrously, taking many with them; while the wisdom of the crowd and a more democratic constitution may avoid extremism and chart a humbler, more careful and deliberate course.


[1] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xi, 1281a39

[2] 1281b21-1281b32

[3] 1282a14

[4] Plato, Republic, Book IV

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: conclusions (pt. 2)

April 16, 2022

            Democracies, by contrast, aim for general prosperity if they know what’s good for them.  In modern history, it is often noted, most revolutions occur in times of rising prosperity, when the majority feel that they are not gaining the economic and political benefits they deserve fast enough.  Aristotle would expect this, and would add that democracies become unstable when people find themselves suddenly poorer.  If the majority has enough now and some reason to expect as much or better in the future, they are generally content.  Also, a democracy is not tied to the welfare of a single individual, or even a small group.  The Clintons or the Bushes or the Trumps could be forever eclipsed, and our democracy would be none the worse; in fact, it would arguably be strengthened.  In a democracy, power rests with the many, so a regular rotation of the particular office-holders is healthy; thus, it is to a democracy’s advantage that as many people as possible have the education and power to participate in politics.  In fact, for Aristotle that is the very definition of a citizen:  one who both rules and is ruled, who both helps make the laws and obeys them.  If one has no meaningful vote, one is not a citizen; in a tyranny where only one person makes the rules, there is one citizen and everyone else is a slave, or if you prefer, a subject. 

            So, for a democracy, the best political strategy is to strengthen the middle class, to provide educational opportunities to as many people as possible, and to promote the general prosperity of all, the exact opposite of the interests of the oligarchy or tyranny.  The democracy will seek to include, perhaps not all the residents, but as many people as possible, since the more voters and participants in the democracy, the more people will feel they have a stake in the welfare of the state and thus the less factional infighting, subversion and crime will threaten social stability. [1]

            Democracies have one other, substantial advantage over other forms of government:  the wisdom of the crowd.  Aristotle says that the best sort of government, if it were possible, would be to have a perfect king, the wisest and most virtuous person, to rule over the rest and lead them in growing morally as well as practically; but such a god among men is at best vanishingly rare.  More often the one or the few who lead an authoritarian state are no wiser or noble than the rest, and too often worse.  But if you have a group, it is more likely that some will be more knowledgeable on this matter, others wiser on that, some more patient, others more decisive, and so on, and the ones who are wiser concerning the matter at hand, or have characters more suited to the situation may be able to persuade the others or at least prevent disastrously bad choices.  As we know, sometimes this “wisdom of the crowd” doesn’t pan out; sometimes the better ideas get shouted down, either by an ill-informed mob or a clever demagogue.  But often the worst decisions, the really world-historical cock-ups come from authoritarians, whether it’s Napoleon invading Russia, Russia invading Afghanistan, Trump’s decision to make the states fight each other for resources to fight COVID-19 or whatever.  Democracies have made atrocious decisions, particularly morally; but again, it takes a number of people and institutions to go wrong at the same time for a democracy to go astray, while an oligarchy may collapse through the failure of a few or one person. 

            Less anecdotally, Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for Economics for research that supports this claim.  For example, he points to Costa Rica and Brazil, two countries that had similar cultures and similar GNPs in the 1970s.  Costa Rica was a democracy, however, while Brazil was ruled by a military junta.  As a democracy, Costa Rica had to provide for its people, so it largely scrapped its national army and spent is resources on health care, infrastructure and other things the people wanted.  Brazil was an oligarchy, and only had to please the military elite and a few wealthy backers; so they spent a far greater percentage of their national budget on weapons, on big development projects that make money for the owners of big construction companies, and so on.  The average life span of a Costa Rican was ten years longer than that of an average Brazilian.  Again, remember, there was no meaningful difference between the wealth of the two societies; each had the same amount of money to spend per citizen, but the democracy spent the money in ways that benefited more people.  Sen also researched several modern-day famines, such as the Bengal Famine of 1943.  At that time India was not a functional democracy; power rested with the colonial occupiers, not with the people.  As in famines generally in the modern world, there was in fact food available; it was just too expensive for many people to buy, and the government didn’t care enough to feed them all because it didn’t need to care.  Sen is careful to point out that he is discussing real functional democracies:  those that have not only free and fair elections, but also free markets, a free press, and rule of law.  If the country is hamstrung by corruption, or monopolies allow a few people to control all production, or the press does not provide the people with complete and honest information on which to base their desires and their votes, merely having a vote every few years is meaningless; but where all the institutions are healthy, democracy and the wisdom of the crowd generally lead to policies that are better for the majority and for the health of the body politic.

            If an oligarchy wants to stay in power, it must weaken the people, keep them ignorant and poor, and frightened.  Nothing makes the school tighten up like a shark.  So the autocrat wants the people in constant fear; nothing aids a tyrant as much as a crisis.  But for the most part, a real problem demands real solutions, which the autocrat has little interest in providing and generally little competence; so instead the oligarchy or tyrant seeks to gin up class hatreds, religious bigotries, racism, conspiracies and so on.  Once the monsters of the people’s imaginations are unleashed against them, a faux savior can step forward and say, “I am the only one who can fix this.”  If Capt. Bligh could have kept his crew constantly on the lookout for sea monsters, H.M.S. Bounty would doubtless have returned to England with her cowed, obedient crew, some even grateful for having been saved from the imagined terrors.  Instead, they saw the warm, welcoming islands and the people who lived without floggings or scurvy, and mutinied against their true enemy.

            A democracy (or better, a polity, to use Aristotle’s term) is most safe when the people are happy.  It depends on as many citizens as possible feeling invested in the welfare of the nation as a whole.  Its leadership does best if it can demonstrate competence.  The leaders of a democracy know that would-be tyrants are always lurking in their midst, ready to seize power by presenting themselves as the people’s only savior.  Hobbes’ leviathan always seeks to overthrow the promised land where every one sits under their own fig tree.  So the leaders of democracy have little motive to panic the people with bogeymen, and every reason to solve the real problems—or at least the problems the people feel are real. 

            To put it bluntly and in today’s context:  the tyrant, oligarch and would-be autocrat will seek to ignore or cover up dangers such as climate change, pollution, a threatened epidemic or other such threats that would require a collective response, as this would mean empowering experts to plan, and the people to implement the plan, dispersing power away from the autocrat.  The tyrant seeks to divide the people, make them loathe and fear their neighbors, so the tyrant can step forth as the only one who can protect them.  The tyrant creates the monsters and then promises to slay them, for the small price of your soul.

            By contrast, the democratic leader, the public servant, needs to keep the people happy rather than afraid or angry.  Such a would-be “good shepherd” needs to find and solve real problems, so that things continue to go as comfortably and steadily as possible.  And such a leader needs cooperation and buy-in from the people.  It is not an accident or genius that Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.  We are the change we seek,” while Trump said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”  This is the essential difference between the democratic (small “d”) and autocratic forms of government:  one seeks to both please the majority and to move it to solve its problems, while the other requires only passivity from the masses while it sees to the desires of the leaders.  That is why one party frets about climate change and the associated droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, increased epidemics and other disasters predicted by An Inconvenient Truth and increasingly prevalent today, while the other worries about CRT, mosques, trans people and whether the parental rights of rapists are being properly respected.

            If you want a government that at least attempts to provide prosperity for the majority, at least tries to identify real problems and real solutions, and mostly supports a stable legal system, you have to fight for democracy.  The alternative is a government that actively seeks to harm, impoverish and oppress, that makes actual problems worse while manufacturing others in addition, and which twists the legal and economic systems to benefit its leaders.  Aristotle told you over 2500 years ago, so don’t act all surprised.


[1] Aristotle is practical about this; he does not favor “open borders” without qualification, and mentions as an example one city-state that let a large group of immigrants settle in its borders who later overthrew the government.  In Greece in his day, there were multiple Greek-speaking states, each with its own distinct political culture and values; if you were a Spartan with a long history of ascetic militarism in reverence to the war god Ares, you wouldn’t want a bunch of merchants from Aphrodite-loving Corinth moving in and demanding the laws be changed to accommodate their more hedonistic lifestyle.  It was not uncommon for there to be communities of resident aliens, who did not have the rights of citizens even though they were expected to obey the same laws, just as there are today in most wealthy democracies.  Before a foreigner became a citizen, you would want to make sure they accepted the values and traditions of your society; and in the relatively small states of the day, you would likely want to limit the numbers of new citizens coming in at one time lest you literally change the demographics, and thus the society itself overnight.  One thing the United States does better than just about any other nation is turn immigrants into citizens, who often have more knowledge of the national heritage and more devotion to the national project than many so-called “native sons.”  But even in this “melting pot” we have some border controls, and a system one must submit to if one wishes to become a citizen.  Aristotle would say that we are broadening our democracy and thus giving it a more stable foundation, but he would also approve us not just allowing any resident to vote who had not first learned what it means to be a citizen of this nation, and shown their willingness to accept our key values.  Aristotle says the purpose of education is to train citizens in the knowledge and virtues they need to support the state; thus a democracy must teach democratic virtues, an oligarchy must teach oligarchic virtues and so on, and a state that brings in new citizens faster than it can properly educate them is bound for instability and ultimately for collapse.

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: conclusions (pt. 1)

March 29, 2022

Theses Attributable to Aristotle:  Conclusions

            I’ve been working through Aristotle’s ­Politics for awhile, trying to lay out some principles to understand our situation today.  However, recently I’ve begun to suspect we may have hit the snooze button on the ol’ Doomsday Clock once too often, and that if I have anything I want to say, maybe I’d better say it now.  Besides, it’s not a bad practice to write the conclusion of a book (paper etc.) first, and then go back and do the argument, and then the introduction where you confidently predict you’re about to prove what you know you’ve already written.

            There’s a lot in Aristotle we need to just throw out.  His views on slavery and women, to name two notable examples, are rooted in his time, and in fact weren’t even particularly enlightened 400 years before Christ.  Plato, for one, advocated for equality of education between men and women as well as political equality and, with some adjustments, even physical training and military service; and in Meno he famously has Socrates discuss geometry with a slave, demonstrating that even a slave has the same innate ability to learn as any citizen.  In fact, since Plato argued that all learning is in fact recollection, he was saying that even slaves have the same innate knowledge that all humans have.  Aristotle by contrast thought only free-born Greek-speaking males were really human.  But if we accept that Plato was right, we can find that Aristotle’s other views are quite independent of his more notoriously parochial and oppressive prejudices.

            Let’s start with his linkage between human nature, ethics and politics.  Aristotle believed that there was one human nature.  We postmodernists may debate this today, but I think the question is not whether, but how much commonality there is between people, and how important it is.  Scientists tell us that across the globe, humans have certain qualities in common.  Obviously, we are all physical beings, as Aristotle says, we are animals, capable of movement and sensation, and thus requiring a certain level of physical satisfaction to be fulfilled (what Aristotle calls “eudaimonia” and we commonly translate “happiness”).  But we humans are also innately social; for example, deny humans access to other humans, say by locking them in solitary confinement for a long time, and they may go insane.  We need to see other human faces.  Children can suffer permanent damage if they aren’t talked to, looked at attentively, and physically comforted as infants, even if all their physical needs for nutrition and health care are met.  And as well as being social animals, we are thinking animals.  There is some debate among scientists as to how unique this is in nature, so some would challenge Aristotle’s claim that humans are unique in being rational animals; but whether we are unique or just rare, it is true that humans are rational as well as social animals.  Thus, we are not living a fulfilled human life unless we are part of a community that allows us to sustain ourselves physically and mentally.  We live in groups because no one of us alone can fully satisfy their needs; we need to live in groups, to trade with one another, to learn from one another, for mutual protection and cooperation.  The purpose of society is thus to provide each one with the conditions they need to thrive and be satisfied.  That doesn’t mean all need to be equal, and in fact humans generally divide up their tasks so that some produce food, others primarily craft, and generally some are leaders either for some joint task or for overall cooperation in the community.  This, too, seems to be natural, as indicated by studies of human cultures and those of social primates such as bonobos.  So a good society is one that allows for the flourishing of the social, rational animals that live in it.  This includes citizens, who are those who have a part in making the laws and in following them; it also includes those like children, resident aliens and perhaps others who contribute to society and depend upon it, but may not have any direct part in making its laws.

            Since a good society provides a sustaining environment, it must include attention to the economic divisions.  A large wealth gap divides the society and creates factions.  Aristotle was strongly (or primarily) concerned that society be stable, and a stable society is one where the people mostly felt they had a stake in the status quo.  There are bound to be richer and poorer, and these two groups often have antithetical interests; but where the poor are still able to live fulfilled human lives and the rich still feel some kinship with the poor, any struggle between them can be confined to the politics of the group itself, without either side feeling the need to overturn society as a whole. 

            This is also part of Aristotle’s discussion of the various forms of government.  He mentions the classic types known to Greeks:  monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.  He also divides these between “deviations” where the society is governed by the whim of the ruling power and exists solely for its benefit, versus proper forms of government that follow the rule of law and exist for the welfare of everyone.  Thus you can have a kingship, with a single ruler who governs for the welfare of the nation and according to the settled laws and norms of the society, with due attention to his various counselors and other officials; or you can have a tyranny, where the rules bend or break to satisfy the desires of the dictator, and everyone else exists only to please and enrich him.  You can also have a ruling class of the best and noblest aristocrats, or an oligarchy of the richest governing in order to protect and increase their personal wealth.  And you can have the mob rule of a democracy where the poor use their combined strength in numbers to plunder the rich, or a constitutional democracy (what Aristotle calls a “polity”) where the laws are made by the majority but for the welfare of the state, and it is settled law rather than the passions of the crowd that determine the actions of the government.  Ultimately, though, Aristotle says that this three, or six, or maybe more (if you mix and match characteristics) comes down to two forms of government:  rule by the many (who tend to be the poorer) or rule by the richest (who are the fewest, and perhaps ultimately only one). 

            Aristotle says you want a stable society; humans can’t live their best lives if the society is in constant turmoil of faction, crime and revolution.  And to achieve this stability, the government should aim not at the welfare of the rich or the poor, but at those between these two extremes—in today’s parlance, the Middle Class.  Whatever form of government rules the state, if the middle class is strong and feels valued and protected, it will be a force for stability.  When the poor are too strong and the society starts to turn on its “best and brightest,” to “eat the rich,” the middle class will feel threatened and side with the rich; when the rich decide the poor need to be “taught a lesson” and seek to crush the majority with harsh laws or to impoverish them with excessive taxes and demands, the middle class will side with the poor lest they find themselves impoverished by those same oligarch-sponsored policies later.  Ultimately, then, a society that aims at the middle will be more stable than one that aims to promote the interests of either the rich or the poor, and ultimately all three groups will get what they really need:  a stable society that is fair to all, and thus where all can fulfill their needs and be as happy as their health and personal circumstances allow.

             Here’s where we get to the part that really interests me today.  Ever since the rise of authoritarian populists like Trump, Duarte, Bolsonaro, Farage and others who seem to prefer the policies of Putin and Xi and other “strong” leaders, there has been a lot of chatter in the press and social media about the “death of democracy.”  I am no prophet, or if I am then I’m Cassandra since no one believes me anyway; so I won’t say whether the authoritarians or democrats will ultimately prevail over the next century.  I will say, without reservation, that if the authoritarians win, it will be a disaster for the human race.  This was obvious long before Trump botched (and intentionally sabotaged, according to some of his own family and administration) the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was obvious long before Putin’s debacle in Ukraine, which was supposed to be a surprise lightning conquest and now will be either a Pyrrhic victory or ignominious defeat for Russia, tarnishing its national reputation at every level.  It was obvious long before Brexit promised the English national prosperity and prestige but instead delivered the economic chaos which the economic experts they despised had predicted.  It was obvious, largely, due to the words of Aristotle.

            Ultimately, Aristotle said, there are two factions in every state.  The poor favor democracy, since there are more of them, so naturally they claim that the majority should wield more power and the government should be in their control; the rich favor oligarchy, since they are few but individually rich and powerful and thus argue that they do more for the state and thus should control it.  If you follow the oligarchic logic to its conclusion, the two end-points on the political spectrum are tyranny and democracy.  Any oligarchy is just tyranny by committee or by clique.  And while we can hope the tyrant or oligarch will seek to gain and hold power by ruling justly and beneficently, it is not obviously in their advantage to do so.  More generally, the few or the one seek to weaken the many, by keeping them as poor, ignorant, miserable and powerless as possible.  Aristotle said that in oligarchies, the government officials take vows to treat the people (that is, the majority) as enemies.[1]  Furthermore, oligarchies are inherently less stable than democracies.  While a democratic state is likely to have an oligarchic faction, an oligarchy will have both a democratic faction and factions within the oligarchy itself, with rivalries between the various ruling families.  Thus the authoritarian has less incentive to make the state prosperous, wise or powerful, since these things could wind up creating challengers for the throne. 

to be continued…..


[1]Aristotle, Politics, Book V, chapter xi, 1310a2.  Today, our oligarchs and tyrants almost always claim to be saviors of the people (a pattern reaching back to Rome) even when their actions do nothing but harm and oppress.

Fifth Thesis Attributable to Aristotle: Which Form of Government is Best?

January 25, 2022

Which Form of Government is Best?

It is clear then that those constitutions which aim at the common good are right, as being in accord with absolute justice; while those which aim only at the good of the rulers are wrong.  They are all deviations from the right constitutions.  They are like the rule of a master over slave, whereas the state is an association of free men.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter vi, 1279a16

            What is the best form of government?  This was a real concern for Aristotle.  On the one hand, he was teaching in famously democratic Athens; on the other, his father had been physician to the king of Macedon, and Aristotle owed his own career to his connections to the Macedonian royal court.  He had also studied under Plato, who was an Athenian himself but born to the aristocracy, and distrusted democracy.  Aristotle preferred to observe the world, collect opinions from disparate sources, and then draw conclusions; and he had a wide range of experiences and philosophical influences from which to draw.  And while this gives his political philosophy a prima facie practicality that Plato’s rationalist idealism lacks, it may also explain the problem with answering this question; for before we can say which form of government is best, we have to know which forms there are, and Aristotle is not particularly consistent on that point.

            Aristotle describes six forms of government in his most intentional list.  Government, he says, can be rule by one, a few or the many; thus the three legitimate forms of government are monarchy, aristocracy or what he calls “polity.”  These are the three “correct” forms of government, when the governing body acts primarily for the welfare of the state and all the people.  For each of these, there is also a “deviation,” where the government acts not for the good of society but for the benefit of the governing power:  tyranny, oligarchy or democracy.  The deviations are also the forms where the government acts without constraint from laws or customs, at the whim of whomever controls the levers of power; these written and unwritten laws really are the state, so a government which seeks to preserve the state will obey the rule of law rather than any human or group.  A king is a single ruler who acts within the prerogatives of his office, with respect to custom and his council, for the good of the kingdom; a tyrant is a single ruler who acts in whatever way benefits him personally, without regard for any legal or institutional constraints.  Aristocracy is rule by “the best,” the wisest and most virtuous, the elite minority who act for the good of the whole; an oligarchy is government by the rich and for the rich.  Democracy, in Aristotle’s terms, is rule by the mob and demagogues, for the many (which means “the poor” since there are always more poor than rich), regarding anyone with any sort of superiority as an enemy, whether it be riches or noble birth or even virtue.[1]  A “polity,” by contrast, is rule by the majority, but with rule of law rather than rule of the mob, and with an eye for the welfare of all rather than what we’d call “class warfare.” 

            But having worked out this classification in Book III of The Politics, Aristotle doesn’t stick with it.  For one thing, these six are ideal types in a sense; many constitutions actually mix elements from two.  For example, Sparta was a monarchy, but the Ephors were elected by the people and had considerable power.  Aristotle himself favored a mixture of aristocracy and polity, so that both “the best” and “the many” had a voice and each side had to work with the other.  So if asked which of the six forms of government is best, it seems Aristotle’s answer is that none of them are; the best is a combination of the best elements of rule by the few and the many, so that neither the rich nor the poor might exploit the other but both should work together for the good of the state. 

            At other times, Aristotle seeks to simplify his discussion down to its barest essence.  In a sense, rule by “the one” or “the few” is just a matter of degrees, so at times he conflates them.  In any state, he says, the rich tend to favor oligarchy, since they benefit from rule by the richest few; the poor, being most numerous, favor democracy, since rule by “the many” favors them.  Both sides argue that they are the strongest and best able to govern the state, and thus deserve to rule.  When discussing this debate/power struggle, Aristotle writes as if there are essentially only two forms of government:  oligarchy or democracy, rule by the few (rich) or the many (poor).  But again, elsewhere he has extensive discussion of tyranny and the strategies of the tyrant/monarch, including different forms of tyranny. 

            So, Aristotle presents a formal classification of six forms of government, but at times lumps the “correct” and “deviations” together to make three, other times lists two, and still elsewhere discusses how actual city-states often don’t strictly conform to any of these types and thus present an indefinite number of “mixed” constitutions.  And he does not dismiss out of hand the claims of any to be the “just” form of government.  He writes:

            It has already been stated that while all men have some kind of justice in their claims, not all of them have a claim that is just in an absolute sense.  (a) The rich argue that they have a greater share in the land, and the land is of social interest; and further, that they are more to be relied upon to fulfill their contracts.  (b) The claims of the free and well-born are closely related:  the more nobly born are more fully citizens than the non-noble, good birth being held in esteem in every country; and the offspring of the better sort are likely to be better men, for good birth is excellence of stock.  (c) Next we shall mention the equally just claims of virtue, for we always speak of justice as a social virtue, and one which is sure to bring all the other virtues along with it.  (d) And surely the majority have a better claim than the minority, as being stronger, richer and better, if we balance the larger numbers against the smaller.[2]

Aristotle concedes that all of these have some claim to rule the state, but that only one has an absolute claim—and that one is humanly impossible:  rule by a person of the highest virtue.  A person of absolutely superior social virtue would be as a god among men, and “there is no law that embraces men of that caliber.”[3]  Such a leader is the law to themselves, and ought to be law to all the others.  If such a person, motivated entirely by the good of the society and with no personal ambition, could be found to run the government, of course we’d have a government that aimed at the common good.  Since the virtue of a citizen is both to rule and to be ruled, to order and to obey in turn, this absolute paragon of virtue would not be part of the citizen body since such a person would obey nothing but his own virtue; for the perfect person to obey anything else would be to obey the lesser. 

            However, such superior virtue is vanishingly rare, essentially nonexistent.  Instead, in the actual states we live in, we find a mixture of rich and poor, more and less virtuous, established families and obscure houses, a variety of claimants with some just claim to rule.  Therefore, the best state is going to be one that can accommodate all of these, balance their demands, and incorporate them into the government together.  A correct constitution is one that aims at the common good; and in the real world, that includes the welfare of rich, poor, superior, mediocre, as many different persons and backgrounds as possible.  For this reason, the best form of government is going to be a mixed constitution, neither purely oligarchic nor purely democratic, but giving enough to each side so that neither feels shut out or endangered and thus no one has reason to oppose the welfare and stability of the society.

            This idea is also behind our own Constitution.  We have a House of Representatives, which is designed to give “the people” the most direct representation practically possible.  With short terms of office and every member up for reelection, its members have to constantly appease the mob or be voted out of office.  The Senate has higher standards of membership, requiring thirty years of age and nine years of citizenship, as opposed to twenty-five years old and seven years’ citizenship for a Representative.  Its members serve longer, and turnover is staggered, allowing for greater stability.  There are fewer of them, which encourages more collegiality and discussion.  And essentially, Senators represent the states, not the people directly; for the first 125 years of this nation’s history, Senators were appointed by state governments rather than elected by the people.  Even today, with Senators elected by the people, they were always expected to be the thoughtful and dignified body, even if the House was comparatively more raucous and volatile.  The Senate is, by design, more oligarchic than the House, with the intention of giving both “the mob” and “their betters” a voice and a share in government.  The Founding Fathers didn’t want a monarchy, nor did they want an Athenian-style democracy with every matter decided directly by the people; they wanted a representative democracy with aristocratic elements to put a brake on runaway popular passion if need be.  Their historical model was an idealized version of “the People and Senate of Rome” from its republic, or more historically the English model with the House of Commons and House of Lords (with the “lords” replaced by patricians serving temporary terms of office). 

            Of course, for this system to work as intended, the Senate has to live up to that responsibility as the long-term, greater-common-good thinkers as opposed to the immediacy and parochialism expected of the House.  When people speak of “the breakdown of decorum in the Senate,” that is the real problem they are noticing.  The problem isn’t that Senators are being rude or even dishonest with one another; that’s only a symptom.  The problem is that instead of one legislative body of partisan demagogues, we have a political party of partisan demagogues in both Houses.  The fact that Secretary of State Clinton was targeted by eleven Benghazi investigations over the deaths of four people, while Republican Senators and House members join together to oppose any investigation into an armed mob overrunning the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow a duly elected President and impose minority rule, is all the evidence needed to show that many Senate Republicans have abandoned even the standards of responsible behavior they would have insisted upon just a few years ago.  Because of this, the Aristotelian idea of a détente between those who proclaim themselves “the best” and “the many” is breaking down; the former elite (White males, esp. with money) and the majority are losing trust in one another, with White male Republicans increasingly calling for a second Civil War rather than allow “liberals” to take control simply because they keep winning elections.  And in a sense, they’re right.  Tyranny of the majority is still a form of tyranny, and the increasingly minority, former majority White non-college males who dominate the Republican base, and the primarily White male billionaires who dominate the Republican donor list, have a right to demand protection from undue attacks.  That does not mean the rest have to accept their understanding of “undue,” but it does mean that reassurances and a commitment to consideration of their concerns is necessary.  Sometimes just showing some respect and listening to the other can go a long way.  Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by appealing to White rural voters, not because he’s one of them but because they felt that Democrats talked down to them.  Despite being a silver-spoon elite who’s said repeatedly that billionaires like himself are genetically superior to working-class drudges who lack ambition and vision, his language and his emotionalism seemed to be talking to and for them instead of down to them, while people like Hillary seemed condescending despite her own blue-collar roots because of her law-school background and numbers-heavy policy proposals.  No one is going to trust a government that seems to regard them as inferior, and most people will respond to feelings, such as a candidate who “speaks my language” at least as much as to what the candidate has actually said.

            For a government to fulfill its function, which is to support human flourishing and happiness (eudaimonia) by giving citizens a community that nurtures a good life, it has to be reasonably reasonable, supportive of the virtues while inhibiting vices such as corruption, and stable.  Aristotle says people need a certain kind of life to be fulfilled and content:  not just consumer goods and pleasures, and not just individual autonomy since that much they could have outside of a community.  These things are important, but they are not all, and excessive luxury or excessive individualism can be as destructive as the absence of these things.  Humans are social animals; they cannot fulfill their human nature without a community of individuals and households relating to each other, trading goods and services, discussing each others’ insights on life, marrying one another, and mutually working to determine the best ways to live together.  A state where people are generally content and mostly believe the government is fair will be stable, allowing such social goods to flourish; one where a great many of the citizens do not trust the state to treat them fairly or to provide such social goods will become increasingly volatile, and eventually liable to social strife and revolution.  Much of Aristotle’s advice centers on the chief causes of political instability, and how any form of government can prevent “a change of constitution.”  While changes of constitution can be gradual, too often they involve violence and chaos that render any real human happiness impossible.  His study of politics is thus not merely “academic;” it is a search for political stability.  The causes of the downfall of governments, and how to prevent these, will be the subject of the next chapters.


[1] Democracies such as Athens used to exile any citizen who seemed so powerful that he could possibly take over.  In Athens, all the free citizens voted, once a year, who should be exiled.  The story is told that one year an illiterate citizen wished to cast his vote to exile Aristides the Just, and approached a stranger on the street to write the name for him.  It just happened that the person he asked was Aristides the Just himself.  Aristides asked the citizen if Aristides had ever wronged him.  The man replied, “No, I don’t even know him.  I’m just tired of hearing ‘The Just’ all the time.”  So Aristides wrote his own name on the ballot and gave it back to the man, who cast his vote.  Enough other Athenians agreed with him, and Aristides the Just was sent into exile—for being too famously honest.

[2] Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter xiii, 1283a29

[3] 1284a3

Theses Attributable to Aristotle: Fourth Thesis–The Rule of Law

October 28, 2021

Fourth Thesis:  Rule of Law Totally Rules

We begin by asking whether it is more expedient to be ruled by the best man or by the best laws.

—–Aristotle, The Politics, Book III, chapter XV, 1286A7

         It has long been debated whether a “benign despotism” is a better form of government than any other.  In this regard, even Plato’s philosopher-king seems to be an example:  take the best, wisest person of all of us, and empower that person to make decisions; by definition the best person will be the one who makes the best decisions, so this wisest and most benevolent despot will make better judgments than any group of lesser souls ever could.  J.S. Mill takes pains to argue against the notion of benign despotism, precisely because it seems so logical and is so often accepted, at least tacitly.  People may say democracy is better because no one person has the wisdom and benevolence to wield unlimited power; but often they go on to say or wish that if such a one did arise, that person should be given sole rule and the power to back up their decrees. [1]  In Christian political thought into the Enlightenment, monarchy was often assumed as both the most natural form of human government, and as reflecting God’s own reign; Jesus is the King of Kings, raised from lowliness and from death to rule, and your local king was Christ’s viceroy.  Whether the secular humanist or theocratic model is preferred, the agreement is that the ideal government would be one where a supremely good person had supreme power as well, and was free to make decisions and set policies for society unchecked either by lesser persons or by the dead letter of the law.  Aristotle, too, discusses such arguments.  He uses the analogy of a doctor; wouldn’t it be better to have a doctor who was well-trained and perceptive who could prescribe treatment based on the unique problem at hand, rather than one who read the treatment from a book? 

         But while there are arguments in favor of the benign despot, Aristotle rejects the notion.  Ultimately, he says, the best society will be one that is run according to written laws and unwritten customs, with individual case-by-case human judgment kept to a minimum.  Returning to the analogy of the doctor, he says, suppose you feared your doctor might have been bribed by your enemies; in that case, wouldn’t you prefer that he treat you according to previously-established rules and procedures?[2]  This is the situation in the state.  The supposedly “benign despot” still has appetites and desires that may run counter to yours, or even to the good of the nation as a whole.  Furthermore, every group has its own interests:  the poor want power given to the many since they outnumber the rich, while the rich want power restricted; the military, the agriculturalists, even the tradesmen all have their own agendas.  A stable government is one that is accepted as just and beneficial by all, or at least by the overwhelming majority.  If the state is run by a king who is furthermore unchecked by laws and customs, each person will fear that the decisions of that king are bought by their competitors.  The law, Aristotle says, is “intellect without appetition.”[3]  It is both general and, usually, long-established, and the same for everyone; it is what has been.  Everyone knows “the rules of the game,” as we say today, and can accept that there’s “nothing personal” when things don’t work out in their favor.  Aristotle even goes so far as to say, “he who asks law to rule is asking god and intelligence and no others to rule; while he who asks for the rule of a human being is importing a wild beast too; for desire is like a wild beast, and anger perverts rules and the very best of men.”  So even though he says elsewhere that if it were possible to have a single morally superlative ruler, that would be like having a god who should be obeyed unquestioned, in fact he claims that in a realistic society with realistic people we should be governed by good laws.  It is these laws which will in turn educate the citizens and leaders, turning them into the kinds of people who can know how best to apply these general principles to actual cases.

         While Aristotle discusses this primarily in relation to monarchy, his comments about rule of law apply to all governments whether they be rule by the one, the few or the many.  A “correct” government is one that rules in the interest of the state as a whole; a “deviant” one rules in the interests of the rulers.[4]  And it is rule of law that protects against arbitrariness and self-serving government.  In fact, the laws (written and customary) reflect the constitution.  Aristotle’s definition of the “constitution” of the state is the organization of the citizen-body:  who has authority, who holds what offices and so on.  The laws reflect this organization, laying down general principles whereby this authority is exercised.[5]  So rule according to the laws precisely is rule that seeks to preserve the state, and thus the only justified government at all. 

         In Aristotle’s time, it was an established practice that someone leaving office would present an account of his tenure; if he was found to have failed or acted corruptly, he could be punished.  In our day, President Trump sought to overthrow those “unwritten” laws, norms and customs of government, as well as many of the written laws, in an attempt to subvert the established principles of our government on January 6th, 2021.  In response, he was impeached by the House, but was not sanctioned by the Senate.  This is despite the words of Mitch McConnell, then leader of the Senate, who said, “”Former President Trump’s actions (preceding) the riot were a disgraceful – disgraceful – dereliction of duty,” and, “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day.”[6]  In an Athenian “scrutiny,” this would have been all the cause needed to punish.  In fact, though, the entire administration had been one of ignoring both written and unwritten rules, particularly when the financial profit of some government official was at stake or the political and personal feud of some person was being pursued.  And in fact, there are still many cases when politicians of both parties use government information to profit in the stock market, use their power to protect their personal investments, condemn in their opponents what they praise in their allies and otherwise put the interests of themselves and their faction over the welfare of the state as a whole.  Whereas Aristotle considered the unwritten norms and customs of the state to often be even more crucial in decision-making than were the written laws, today the unwritten norms are shredded if it suits the power of demagogues.  And too often, those who think themselves championed by some demagogue not only tolerate violations of law and custom:  they demand it.  Now, it is largely the “conservatives” who seem least interested in “conserving” our traditions of government; recent polls have indicated more than half of Republican voters are ready to abandon our Constitution’s democracy in favor of some vision of “America” that better suits them.  When I was in college, I heard that same sort of rhetoric from self-professed “liberals,” who referred to the government’s written laws (whether it was student government or national) as a “toolbox” from which the leaders could select whichever “laws” would help them promote their agenda, while leaving the rest aside.  Always, whether it’s liberal or conservative, the impulse to abandon rule of law, norms, and rituals of government represents a faction and its leaders putting themselves ahead of the health of the nation.  There is no true “enlightened” or “benign” despot; anyone with governmental power and office is either a servant and executor of the laws of the nation, or its enemy.


[1] John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, 1861

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, chapter xvi, 1287a32

[3] 1287a23

[4] Politics Book III, chapter vii, 1279a22

[5] Book IV, chapter I, 1289a11

[6] MacKenzie Sadeghi “Fact Check:  Yes, McConnell Said Trump Was ‘Practically and Morally Responsible’ for Capitol Riot;” USA Today February 16, 2021 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/02/16/fact-check-mcconnell-said-trump-was-responsible-for-capitol-riot/6767311002/)

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.