The Pathos of Politics (86-2) Democratic Attitude


There is one salient dysfunction in democracy, regardless of form: an inherent temporal corruption in its bias toward short-term performance. The frequent elections that characterize democracies are entirely of the moment in approval. There simply is no long view.

The societal effect has been profound, in creating ping-pong policies between successive parties in power. This short-termism has been a major propellant in the increasing divisiveness and dissatisfaction that has become the norm for democracies in much of the world.

Democratic Attitude

Direct democracy has an equitability in its approach: everyone has a vote on policies, which are proposed by citizens. Direct democracy encourages discussion and participation, thus engendering a sense of community. This partly explains the vibrancy in 5th century bce Athenian politics, and the relative societal cohesiveness in modern Switzerland, where direct democracy is still practiced.

The existence of an electoral system supplies a vivid, public, and continuous imparting of the moral lesson that the only tolerable authority is a deliberately chastened authority. ~ American political scientist George Kateb

Representative democracy evolved in medieval Europe from Roman inspiration. Representatives from estates were chosen to advise the monarch.

Monarchism gave way to democracy in Europe in representative form during the 17th century. Despite the antagonism that led to revolution, colonial America largely followed British tradition in selecting its polity.

The fundamental institution of representative democracy is the electoral system, where office holders face periodic potential chastening. This humbling by election is reinforced by arrangements and processes inherent in a representational democracy, most notably a constitution which delimits the powers that officials may exercise. No other form of government subjects political authority to such unremitting discipline.

Skepticism to authority naturally arises in representative democracy, abetted by the incompetence and corruption so commonly displayed by elected officials. This loosening of authority’s hold fosters an independence of spirit and sense of autonomy to which government officials bristle.

Reluctance to defer to authority stiffens the resolve of authorities to enforce their will. The obviousness of this is apparent in any encounter where a policeman is not instantly obeyed. From such encounters, division between authority and its subjects widens.

Representative democracy induces or encourages a general attitude toward all authority in society. ~ George Kateb

It is unsurprising that representative democracy and capitalism go well together. The dynamic alignment is such that the 2 systems essentially feed off each other: both in mutual regard between business leaders and political officials, and in the slosh of money which flows from political contributions by the wealthy and is returned in kind by government largesse toward those who need it least.

It is melancholy to observe how much, even in this free country, the course of public events depends on the private interests and passions of individuals. ~ John Quincy Adams in 1828

Authority figures in both the public and private sectors chafe at restraints on their will. In both sectors, fulsome use to the point of abuse of power is so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

90% of politicians give the other 10% a bad name. ~ American diplomat Henry Kissinger

Just as voters and workers learn to look with a jaundiced eye upon their leaders, so too those in power quietly nurture contempt for those below their elevated station. Few veteran politicians think much of the acumen of voters, just as any corporate executive takes “good help is hard to find” as axiomatic.

Lip service becomes a norm, furthering everyman skepticism against the system. Thus, representative democracy subtlety fosters societal division, and disrespect for the institutions of government. As Aristotle anticipated, the societal dynamic of representative democracy has shown itself to be self-erosive.

The vote seems to matter less and less, because nothing can be done. ~ American voter Eric Riehm

I’m so disillusioned over what goes on. All politicians are doing is slinging mud at each other. If they would just stop the squabbling and think of the people. ~ American ex-voter Lula Hill, who first voted in 1952, and gave it up in 1996

The world grew more democratic after the 2nd World War. In 1941 there were only a dozen democracies. By 2000 only 8 states had never held an election.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the spread of democracy regressed as the masses realized that democracy is plutocracy in gauzy disguise. Immigration was an additional issue: xenophobia amplified by a feeling of competition for jobs.

Strongmen who promised muscular correction found favor with the rubes who make up voting majorities. Autocracy is appealing to the ill-informed and xenophobic. A father figure is something simpletons can understand.

Democracy and liberalism are separable. Whereas voters like the idea of democracy, they can be illiberal about its exercise, irrespective of ideology. Voters may elect a government that promises to censor speech they dislike, or support a referendum curtailing the civil rights of an unpopular minority.

Whereas democracy can be illiberal, liberal institutions can be undemocratic. Unelected judges may overrule elected politicians. Liberals view this as a crucial constraint on the government’s power: even the people’s chosen representatives must be subject to the law. In a liberal democracy, power is dispersed in a check-and-balances scheme to check corruption. Sometimes it works.

Democratic politicians are not just accountable to voters. They are also kept in line by courts, journalists, and interest groups. The loyal political opposition recognizes the government as legitimate, but decries many of its actions, and seeks to replace it at the next election. There is a clear boundary between the ruling party and the state.

The paradoxical system of illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberality is now under siege by voters who have been ill-served by it. They don’t understand the theoretics, which don’t really matter. What does matter is that the system is rigged against them. For those struggling to get by, a strongman promising to give them a break by breaking the system seems like something long overdue.

The transition from ostensible democracy to autocracy is becoming a well-worn path. As most people agree that democracy is a good thing, leaders do not openly admit their plan to strangle it. Instead, modern aspiring autocrats subvert the essence of democracy while maintaining its outward appearance.

There are 3 steps to felling a democracy. 1st, create a crisis if one is not already at hand. 2nd, cite enemies to overcome. 3rd, nobble institutions that might get in the way. By then, a state may pose as a democracy and be anything but.

Hungary illustrates. Prior to the 2008 crash, many Hungarians took out absurdly risky foreign-currency mortgages. When the Hungarian currency crashed and they lost their homes, they were furious. Fidesz, formerly a liberal party, won an election in 2010 by blaming the previous government and vowing to make borrowers whole.

The 2nd shock to the conservative Hungarian mind was the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015–2016. Hardly any Syrians settled in Hungary, but thousands passed through on the way to Germany, so Hungarians saw them on television. This gave Fidesz’s leader, Viktor Orbán, 2 handy enemies: the Muslim hordes and the liberal elite who wanted to let them in.

Pointing to foreigners as foul is a common ploy. Russia’s Vladimir Putin goes on about a Western conspiracy to humiliate Russia. President Nicolás Maduro blames America for Venezuela’s troubles.

Parties of the nationalist right learned from the left how to exploit identity politics. Both favor amorphous “group rights” over those of individuals, though for polar reasons: the left to empower minorities, the right to repress them.

The Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened, and developed. ~ Viktor Orbán in 2014

In its potential for unleashing mass violence, stirring up ethnic hatred is incredibly dangerous, so rabble-rousers often use dog-whistles. Rather than disparage whites in general, South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, denounced “white monopoly capital.”

Many leaders pick on small, commercially successful minorities. Zambia’s late president, Michael Sata, won power after railing against Chinese bosses.

As no one likes them, criminals make ideal enemies. Rodrigo Duterte won the Philippines presidency in 2016 on a promise to kill drug dealers and dump their corpses in Manila Bay, to “fatten all the fish there.” 12,000 extrajudicial slayings later, the country is no safer, but Duterte’s government has an approval rating of 80%.

In his bid for the presidency, Donald Trump concocted a combo of hate: calling Mexicans that come to the US criminals and rapists and vowing to build a great wall on the nation’s southern border to keep them out. As president, Trump ruthlessly targeted immigrants, barbarously tearing families apart for indefinite detention.

Would-be autocrats also posit a positive agenda. They often pose as defenders of an identity that voters hold dear, such as their nationality, culture, or religion. Poland’s ruling party waxes lyrical about the country’s Catholic way of life, lavishing subsidies on big families, who are likely to be rural and religious. In the US, Trump pulled a similar trick with white nationalist nostalgia: his campaign slogan was “make America great again.”

In a bid to stay in power, the autocratically inclined impede the independent institutions which uphold democracy. A prime target is the justice system. Rodrigo Duterte forced out the chief justice of the Philippines after he objected to Duterte’s abuse of martial law. Poland’s conservative ruling party – Law and Justice – shoved out 2/5ths of the nation’s jurists. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega commandeered the supreme court to abolish presidential term limits, and create shell “opposition” parties, to simulate a choice for voters while repressing genuine opposition.

Autocrats invariably attack an independent press. US President Donald Trump derides unfavorable media coverage as “fake news.” Despots such as Putin and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan slapped spurious fines or tax bills on the owners of independent media, forcing them to sell to loyal tycoons.

Getting the security forces on one’s side is essential. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former president, took their loyalty for granted and was tossed out. Savvier strongmen are less complacent. To keep the men with guns content, Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, lets them loot the national food-distribution system. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi turns a blind eye to the police topping up their salaries by robbing civilians.

With the courts, press, and armed forces in his pocket, a strongman can set about neutering other institutions of import. He can sideline the legislature, redraw the electoral map, limit voting, and bar serious opponents from politics.

Whatever ideology professed, autocrats are often opportunistic. Daniel Ortega seized power in 1979 as a revolutionary Marxist. He lost an election in 1990 partly because he was anti-Catholic. So, Ortega rebranded himself as a devout Catholic, and was reelected in 2006 against a divided opposition. In 2017 Ortega installed Rosario Murillo, his wife, as vice president, thereby establishing a dynasty resembling the dictatorship he once overthrew.

None of Ortega’s chipping away at democracy in Nicaragua sparked unrest. It was only when Ortega’s Sandinistas looted public pensions that citizens rioted. The regime clung to power only by shooting people.

The US used to promote democracy. With President Trump scorning liberal allies and embracing dictators, the timbre of American politics harshened well beyond the partisanship which already racked the republic. Any residual foreign admiration of America evaporated as Trump got in stride.

Most authoritarian regimes are filthy. Though dime-store by comparison in terms of raking, Trump was typical with his relentless self-promotion, profiteering, nepotism, and cabinet performing like pigs at a trough.