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Monday, September 30, 2013

Democracy's inherent weakness...

There is much to admire about democracy.  Allowing people a direct say in how their government is run is in many respects a good thing.  That being said, there is a weakness inherent in democracies that must be acknowledged because it can (and has) caused the downfall of democracies in the past.  That weakness lies in the human tendency to view the world in us v. them terms.  The other problem is that a democracy can also give rise to one of the most dangerous types of people: the demagogue.  Both of these problems have been on display over the past few years in the U.S.

I have spoken in the past about the Tea Party and the danger it poses to the U.S. because the members of the Tea Party refuse to compromise (there was a wonderful opinion piece about this recently in the Washington Post).  The far right (and to an extent the far left) in this country has come to view the world in a massively oversimplified way and have allowed themselves to be snookered by demagogues who come along and tell them how the country is going to sink into a socialist morass because of (pick an issue).  The Tea Party has come to view the world through the lens of good v evil with the Tea Party being good and therefore all who do not agree with them are evil.  And yes, that is as dangerous as it sounds.  When the world is views through this sort of oversimplified lens, it is very easy for people to lose sight of the fact that the other side of the debate may in fact have a point and that the members of the other side are human.  Dehumanizing the opposition is an incredibly dangerous step because by dehumanizing someone, you have made it ok to do whatever is necessary to stop them.

This sort of attitude also makes it ok to take whatever steps are necssary to accomplish your goals.  After all, if you are on the side of good, whatever you do is in the service of all that is right and good and therefore it is acceptable.  If people are made to suffer, it is for their own good and will make them better people.  After all, the other side is evil and is aligned with all that is wrong with the world, so your duty must be to resist this with every bone in your body.  This type of view also makes it very easy to fall into a sense of self-righteousness and arrogance (trust me, I actually went there when I was in college!).

Look, I am not saying that the Tea Party is evil, in fact I honestly think that most of its members honestly feel that they are doing the right thing and are operating out of what they consider a place of compassion.  The problem is that their view of the world is so myopic that they don't consider the impact that what they do has on real people.  Principles are wonderful things, but they shouldn't come at the expense of living, breathing people.  Abstract notions must take a back seat to actual people.

Throughout history, demagogues have posed a danger to republics and democracies, which is why the Founding Fathers wisely put barriers in place in order to contain the shifting passions of the populace and the damage that these passions may cause if a demagogue were to come along and use them for his/her own ends.  By diffusing and decentralizing power, the Founding Fathers tried to ensure that it would be harder for a single person or group to seize too much power.  From having the Senate selected by the states to having the Electoral College and not a direct vote select the president to having the courts be independent of popular whims, the Founding Fathers did what they could to ensure that the United States would not suffer the same fate that many other republics throughout history had.  From the late Roman Republic and other republics, the Founding Fathers saw that a single person (or a small group of people) could manipulate the populace to ensure that they get power and thus destroy the very republic that set them in place.  In modern days, look at Hitler and Mussolini.  Both of them were legitimately elected to power and then, through demagoguery and other methods, managed to destroy their republics and replace them with dictatorships.

If you are thinking that I have a bleak view of the common human, you would be correct.  I have read too much history and seen too much to trust the common person too much.  I know that there are good people out there, but when you put people into a group, their brains fly right out the window and they go along with what their peers want.  They often fail to consider things reasonably and instead they just react.  We all know how dangerous that can be.

To be honest, I don't really have a solution because I do not think that there really is one.  Ideally, I would like to see some of the safeguards that the Founding Fathers put in place restored, but I do not think that will happen.  People have come to associate some of these safeguards (rightly or wrongly) with reactionarianism and wouldn't stand for them.  I do hope that we take the time to consider some things before we plunge headlong into change.

My biggest worry is that the courts will become elected positions, a move that would be disasterous on an epic scale.  In order for a court to function properly, it *MUST* be protected from the shifting passions of public opinion.  That is not to say that the courts should completely ignore the public, but the courts must be free to make unpopular decisions if those decisions are in fact in the best interest of the nation/state/city/municipality/etc. as a whole.  At the same time, we must have a way to remove people who are clearly unfit for the bench whether it be from illness, mental capacity, or other such measures.  That is why the Founding Fathers set in place measures such as impeachment, to ensure that there was a way to discipline judges if need be.  But impeachment should be used rarely and only if there is no other recourse, not as a weapon that can be unsheathed at any point.

I am not saying that the Founding Fathers or their ideas were perfect (can we just talk about slavery?), however I do think that they do have some very good ideas that deserve a second look.  While their ideas are by no means a cure-all, they will be helpful (I think) in making things run a little more smoothly.