Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Idols of the Cave

Whence it was well observed by Heraclitus that men look for sciences in their own lesser worlds, and not in the greater or common world. (Francis Bacon, "Novum Organum")
After last night's discussion, I can't help wondering whether democracy is a failed experiment, or simply the worst form of government imaginable, especially if one judges our government by the quality (virtue) of the people who participate in its operation.  I am willing to admit, this may be an unfair judgment based on the rather biased impression created by mass media. Yet, when I hear people claim (as I did last night) that the proper role of a congressman is to satisfy the desires of the people who voted him (or her) into office, I begin to understand why both Plato and Aristotle had so little respect for democracy as a form of government.  I used to think that what people wanted in their representatives was a devotion to truth, morality and common sense. Now, I see that what people really want is someone who can influence legislation and public policy to benefit their own constituency. Forget about what is good for the country; just manipulate the system so that it benefits the people back in your own congressional district.
So, this is what democracy has become: the acquisition of power in order to exploit the federal government into giving as many tax breaks, jobs, welfare, porkbarrel or other concessions to local voters as one can force down the throats of the opposing party. In other words, democracy is just a political transaction in a zero-sum game of all-against-all. This sounds a lot like Darwin's model of natural selection. This is a model that describes how animals in nature thrive and multiply by adapting to the environment they live in, rather than by changing it.  So if people in Congress are thriving (i.e. getting re-elected over and over) by giving voters exactly what they want, then Congress is no longer an institution of government, but has devolved into a house of prostitution.  For it requires political courage to oppose the wishes of voters, especially when passions are inflamed over certain hot button issues like taxation, immigration, abortion, foreign aid, or environmental regulation. But if our representatives aren't willing to stand up to the pressures exerted by the media, lobbyists and various political action committees, then who will?
Most people are unwilling to serve in government because it takes a lot of time and money to run a political campaign in order to get elected. Then, before you've even had time to get comfortable in your new office, you have to start planning for the next election cycle, which means raising money for your campaign. That doesn't leave much time to become acquainted with all the issues concerning national policy. Most people don't have that kind of time to devote to all these issues concerning foreign policy, domestic policy, climate change, defense spending, same-sex marriages, capital punishment, drug enforcement, off-shore tax shelters, pollution, fracking, or consumer safety. Most people just want to go to their jobs, earn a pay check, then go home to their families and enjoy what little time they have before going back to work the next day. That doesn't leave much room for becoming politically informed about the issues of the day. This is why we elect other people to represent us in Washington. Yes, we have lots of opinons on things, but our opinions are often (all too often) based on half-truths, innuendo, rumors, and out-right lies which are given space on the pages of magzines and newspapers or web pages we glance at while drinking our morning coffee.
Democracy, to be effective, really needs a broad based constituency of people willing to get involved in the day to day issues. But as voting statistics show, fewer and fewer people even bother to vote. They either despair over the corruption in Washington or the sheer incompetence of the people they have elected. Either way, they have turned away from poltics to lose themselves in a relentless pursuit of pleasure. And who can blame them? People feel that the system is broken and they feel betrayed. They no longer believe that anyone in Washington is telling the truth, or is capable of making a difference. This is called disengagement. When people no longer care to even listen to what the pundits are saying, then the game is lost. Now, we can go back to our sitcoms, our sporting events, and our video games, and lose ourselves in a virtual fantasy realm in which everyone has enough to eat, and no one is going to bomb us or molest our children. We even have a word for it...malaise.  Malaise is the contagion of prosperity. It prevails when democracy has run its course. Then, when the truth becomes too uncomfortable, we buffer our pain with prozac, lithium, seconal or valium. Whatever it takes to get through the day.
Of course, this was all foreseen by our founding fathers who tried to build in a safety valve for our disenchantment. The balance of power in our consitutional system was supposed to innoculate us from our own worst tendencies-- our impatience and our tendency toward pessismism. Madison was well aware that people are easily led astray and become infatuated with prophets. These are the people who rise up in times of despair to promise deliverance from our troubles. But when these charletans are unable to bring us to the promised land, the people become jaded and think the whole system is rotten. This generally happens when the economic cycle goes around and the next wave of misery unfolds. Before you even know what happened, the stock market crashes, banks become insolvent, jobs disappear, factories close, people lose their homes. Then the crime rate goes up and our prisons fill to capacity. These are the times that try men's souls, the winter of our discontent. This is when democracy either survives through the integrity of its institutions, or succumbs to the next incarnation of political imposters pretending to have a cure for what ails us.  It doesn't matter if the prophet is named Huey Long, Dewey, Roosevelt or Reagan. There is no magic bullet or cure for what ails us. Even Moses could not restore prosperity when faced with an utter collapse of faith.
Our sytem of government rests on a delicate balance between fear and apathy.  This is probably why Jefferson believed that every 20 years or so, the people should start over and form a new government. Not because they are bored, but because the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots. You don't know (or appreciate) what you have until you lose it.
But do we really need a revolution every 20 years in order for democracy to survive? Not all calamities have a happy ending. Look at Germany in the 1930s when their currency became infected with runaway inflation. They ended up with Hitler. But there was no coup d'etat; they voted him into office.  The German people put Satan on the throne and worshiped him. So there is no guarantee that democracy will survive in the long run.
Our own government is a work in progress. It is not the government that Madison, Jay, and Hamilton envisioned for us. They could not possibly have imagined the bloated, buraucratic welfare state that we see today. They had something much smaller in mind, a modest conception of a republic that did not presume to world domination, much less become the savior for other backward economies and peoples who neither understand democracy or desire its effects. From our limited vantage, it is unclear whether we shall eventually triumph and overcome the temptations of pride, or fall from the world's stage and be remembered as an interesting but failed experiment in the history of freedom.


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