Saturday, October 7, 2017

Does Everyone Deserve Democracy?

Under President George W. Bush, the neoconservatives became infamous for attempting to export liberal democracy to the Muslim world. They used the 911 terrorist attacks as a pretext for invading Iraq, eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime, and installing a pliable democracy. Instead of respecting liberal principles which had no historical basis in the Middle East, the elected government under Al-Maliki was beholden to certain religious tribes; Transparency International called Iraq’s government the most corrupt regime in the Middle East; and far from serving as a beacon of freedom as the neoconservatives had hoped, there’s been a global backlash against liberal democracy and a rise of neo-fascists in Europe and the United States.

The Complementarity of Culture and Government

Those developments raise some interesting questions. Is democracy for everyone or do cultural differences provide for a better or a worse fit for certain political systems? What sort of culture and thus what sort of people would be ideal for democracy? The modern basis for democracy derives from the Enlightenment philosophy of humanism. Humanists turned inward to determine how the human nature of Europeans could put an end to their Dark Age and recapture the greatness they found to have existed in ancient Greece and Rome. In particular, these humanists posited the power of reason to liberate a person from natural hardships as well as from repressive institutions such as a monarchy or the Catholic Church. Democracy as rule by the majority conformed to the scientific, egalitarian value of sharing knowledge and power. The assumption was that a ruling cabal of elites in which political power is concentrated is inevitably corrupted by its privileges, and so those elites end up exploiting the majority and holding back technological progress that would otherwise improve living standards for the majority. Thus, the modern plan was to posit human rights, educate the people, and equip them to fulfill their potential to rationally determine their future.

The new world of North America was settled largely by religious extremists who wanted to escape persecution in Europe, and by those searching for gold. Neither motive was a flawless expression of the Enlightenment ideals. Although religious extremists such as the Puritans wouldn’t succeed in forming a theocracy in the United States, the capitalist impulse displayed in the gold rush distorted the burgeoning American democracy early on by ensuring that the nation would protect free enterprise at all costs. The extreme Protestants would be able to worship as they wished, but only under liberal constraints, which meant their faith could never come to fruition in the New World until God chose to reveal himself fully and end all things. Until those End Times, the ruling ideology in the US would be secular, because the government would have to be neutral on religious matters, to guarantee the rights of those practicing opposing religions.

All by itself, though, capitalism, the amoral maximizing of profit has arguably rendered American democracy dysfunctional, and that’s because the economic system shapes the culture at large. So while the United States may once have been relatively well-suited to democratic rule, because of the prevailing Enlightenment values of egalitarianism and thus of maintaining a healthy middle class, cultures change—even if the political system won’t adjust. American egalitarianism eventually led to the abolition of slavery and to the recognition of women and minorities as equal in personhood to white males. Mind you, capitalism, too, likely had a hand in the American transition from having an economy based on a slave trade to having an industrialized one dependent on a workforce of wage slaves. The latter cost less overall than the former, so there were amoral reasons for ending the old kind of slavery. Still, the founding documents of the US and even the Greco-Roman architecture of its government buildings attest to the Enlightenment philosophy which has made most Americans proud to think of their country as democratic. For long stretches of the twentieth century, during the New Deal and American global hegemony after WWII, the American middle class prospered, although African-Americans and women were often still not treated as full persons.  

In any case, those decades of egalitarian prosperity were exceptions to the rule, as implied by Kurt Anderson’s book, Fantasyland: How America went Haywire: a 500-Year History and by Morris Berman’s Why America Failed. As Anderson says, “Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the last half-century, Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation, small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us.” The two sources of this dubious American ethos, which appears to have metastasized in the frauds of Trumpism, are religious extremism and capitalism. The impact of Christian ignorance, irrationality, and demonization is obvious, but capitalism too thrives on fantasy. As Berman says, America was from its infancy a nation of “hustlers.” Once a minimal level of civilization is achieved, in that the masses have secured the necessities for their survival, the capitalist must turn to selling items that are at best only wanted, including every conceivable variety of bogus merchandise that’s thinly-disguised trash. To profit under those unseemly conditions, the capitalist resorts to fantasy and fallacy in advertising her products, to drum up interest. This explains everything from the sale of snake-oil, to the cigarette industry which for years hid the nasty facts of nicotine addiction. 

Thus the weeds that eventually may have strangled American democracy were planted from the country’s inception. But American culture has been warped especially over the last century by its economic, military, and media supremacy, and so we have the recent steep decline of its democracy and the unveiling of its plutocracy. See for example the gerrymandering, the lobbying industry, the revolving door between the public and private sectors, the grotesque economic inequality, the endless political campaigns and the private fortunes invested in candidates, the death of unions and the middle class, the lack of a livable wage for tens of millions of working Americans, and the advent of the gig economy. And see the 2014 Princeton study which concludes that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

Voter turnout in the US elections is another indicator of the superficiality of American democracy: for presidential elections, turnout ranged from well over 60 to 80 percent in the nineteenth century and fell to an average of around 60 percent in the twentieth, and the average turnout for midterm elections is 40 percent. Americans are suspicious of intellectual elites, because their versions of Christianity are explicitly opposed to reason. Consumers have been saturated with infotainment from the corporate media, operating first on radio and then ramping up to the more addictive and mind-numbing television, internet and smartphone. Moreover, much like the early Catholics who found themselves in charge of the dwindling Roman Empire, Americans accidentally acquired global supremacy after WWII and the end of the Cold War. How strange it must be for an American to take pride in her ideal of freedom, but then to hear daily stories of her country’s military adventures abroad. What is a purported democracy still doing with such an absurdly powerful military machine? Is their vast military footprint a sign that Americans are always selflessly fighting to liberate foreigners from oppressive regimes, like Superman? Is it political freedom that Americans really believe in or is it rather economic freedom, the decadence of competing to perpetrate the best fraud for profit which has evidently consumed Americans’ attention?

If the United States leads the free world, that nation should provide for the most telling predictions of democracy’s fortunes elsewhere. And so it’s become plain that democracy isn’t suitable to all cultures, because democracy is no longer appropriate even in the US. There should be no expectation that a society, which grew rich from an unbridled application of capitalist inhumanity in the slave trade, was ever ripe for democratic republicanism. The democratic prospects are even bleaker for a country which developed into the world’s only superpower, populated largely by gun-toting imbeciles, bigots, and a blinkered consumer class. Although we may point to certain inalienable human rights as having a biological underpinning in our species’ high intelligence, the right to political self-determination isn’t among them. To help rule our nation, we must first rule ourselves, which requires more than the innate intelligence that makes us all biologically human. We must be critical thinkers and able to laugh off the vitriol of demagogues, instead of immediately enthralling ourselves to them at their first pushing of our buttons. Capitalism undermines democracy by instilling hucksterism, demagoguery and thus irrationality in the society’s base of consumers. The infotainment industry exacerbates that widespread ignorance and illogic, by fostering a craving for fake news. When the military is used for Machiavellian ends, militarism warps the power elites and the authoritarian mob so that they confuse warmongering with patriotism. Assaulted from all sides, Americans have indeed had to hustle just to survive, the upside of which is that the United States has been a world leader in technological innovation and myth-making. The downside is that Americans seem no longer deserving of their democratic republic.

The Superficiality of Real Democracy

Maybe the link between democracy and the Enlightenment is more subtle, however. There’s a difference between possessing the virtue of self-mastery, a victory to which not even many ascetic sages can lay claim, and needing to pretend that you’re thusly liberated to shore up your self-esteem. Is the personal autonomy needed to sustain a functional democracy inherited as a birthright, so that everyone deserves the right to vote as long as they’re trying to enlighten themselves? Or must we pass certain tests beyond the ability to memorize and then quickly forget certain national facts for citizenship, to be able to contribute to a sustainable democracy? Maybe an authentic democracy isn’t the true goal in the United States; maybe all that matters is the fa├žade of self-rule so that Americans can muddy the waters in any evaluation of their society. 

Suppose, for example, the US came to be ruled by a manipulative oligopoly of private enterprises, as might seem just for a culture that’s already been captured by capitalist values. Imagine that every form of work is privatized and all goods are sought strictly for profit, including healthcare, policing, war, and government. Is such a libertarian “paradise” what Americans deserve? More precisely, could that sort of dystopian society sustain itself, given the average character of Americans? If capitalism does promote fantasies, the transparency of official corporate control of the masses by a dozen or so plutocrats could overload Americans with a sense of the obscene depths to which their culture must have sunk to have invited such a regime. If Americans are taught to fool themselves as soon as they begin watching television, they might be expected to balk at such indisputable evidence that they worship money and greed. They might need to pretend that their country has a loftier ambition than to profit off of lies. In that case, if only to protect themselves, the capitalist rulers would have to disguise the true nature of American society, such as by creating the illusion that Americans in general are in control, that the liberty to choose between brands of cereal somehow equals the power to influence the political decisions of corrupt and insulated plutocrats who always seem to fail upward. The pure capitalist society would have to be perceived superficially as a democratic republic, to nourish Americans’ self-esteem. But this may be the actual dynamic between American capitalism and democracy, not just a thought experiment, which is why the US is a plutocracy with the trappings of democracy. Contrary to the fantasies of orthodox economists, for example, were capitalist values universalized, some plutocrats would be expected to amass political power since a capitalist economy tends to eliminate competition unless that self-destructive trajectory is reversed by regulators (by their enforcing of antitrust laws).

Are we always saddled with the political system our culture deserves? And if Americans are fit only for the show of democracy, which culture would merit the genuine kind and which would merit the opposite, pure tyranny? No sooner is the latter question asked than it answers part of itself, because pure tyrannies are found to operate only on animals in the wild. Human tyrannies are always dressed up with pretty myths to preserve our dignity, because we’re the star of the show we’re always telling ourselves, and no one wants to believe they’re the villain or that they’re voluntarily associated with evil. If a despot conquers a population and doesn’t justify the tyranny, by providing the people some material benefits, the preposterous power asymmetry won’t endure in the long run. The despot will be overthrown or his rule will end with his death or with that of his family. For thousands of years, religions have been instrumental in defending the grotesqueness of tyrannies, since the psychopathic rulers were equated with the gods whom the population was directed to worship.

The latter question must be, then, not whether a population with a certain history or ethos deserves plainly to be toyed with and preyed upon by a tyrant, but whether some populations deserve a tyranny propped up only by undemocratic rationalizations. The illusion of democracy must be welcomed especially by a frail sort of people, by those with an aversion to accepting harsh reality. The pioneers who colonized America were hardy and adventurous, but in so far as they were religious zealots or obsessed with enriching themselves on the backs of slaves, they were also monumental self-deceivers. By contrast, a population that deserves to be tyrannized with a mitigating ideology would had to have lost hope in being enlightened, preferring to be passively entertained by political theater than to be truly independent. Monotheism would naturally pave the way, as it does in the Muslim world, but so too would a history of hardships such as you find in Russia. As for the kind of society that would deserve genuine democracy, I doubt there’s ever been one. The ancient Athenians were slave holders and only Athenian adult males could vote (at most 30 percent of the population), so their democracy was a sham. The problem is that autonomy by way of rational enlightenment, the kind of rising above nature which doesn’t stop until everyone else is similarly ennobled is exceedingly rare. In any society, emphatically including the United States, those who’ve earned the right to help govern their society, because they’ve mastered their animal nature, are in the minority and so rule by the majority would be to their disadvantage. Democracy is thus as utopian as communism.

So does everyone deserve democracy? This is like asking whether everyone deserves eternity in Heaven. Genuine, sustainable democracy doesn’t exist, just as self-regulating capitalism is a myth. Real democracy goes the way of the United States, to oligarchy, or is safeguarded by weeding out the seeds of capitalism (greed, materialism, ignorance, gullibility), in which case the country will be economically weak on the world stage and will be overshadowed by rival nations. We might all wish we were morally perfect so as to belong in paradise in an afterlife, but the myth of such paradise itself is the product of vices. And we liberals might all be proud of our democratic republics, as we look askance at the despotism in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. But that pride depends on our ignoring that those dictatorships are typically installed and backed by liberal democracies which play at building empires.

We do seem to have the form of government we deserve, because political ideas are part of the culture which is shaped by our ethos, by the values that define us as a people. Instead of scapegoating their politicians, Americans should be asking themselves why they’ve been beset by a dysfunctional democracy. The answer is that just as the Soviets weren’t altruistic enough to deserve communism, Americans aren’t rational enough to be worthy of real democracy.


  1. Your point about neoconservatives trying to export liberal democracy reminded me of a press conference I watched years ago where President George W. Bush and Pakistani head Musharraf were behind the podiums. Bush said, "Musharraf is our key ally in the fight for democracy."

    I thought, "Well, Bush lost his election and Musharraf took power in a military coup. These guys are the best democracy has to offer?"

    My dad said to me once, "The US didn't need slavery. Room and board are expensive. This works way better for the rich folks."

    1. The neoconservative point of spreading democracy was to experiment with another way of creating client states that would be friendly specifically to the United States. If the majority in a foreign country is hostile to American interests, then of course the US prefers a dictator to rule there, as opposed to setting up a democracy to express the anti-American will. Indeed, the anti-American sentiment is created by the US support of dictators, which is why it's hard for the US to be involved in transitioning these dictatorships to democracies.

      Similarly, it was hard for the US to end Guantanamo prison, because the US created many of the terrorists in the first place, by rounding up innocent people (based on hearsay regarding their guilt) who were then radicalized in the prison. It's all maximally ironic, like the war on drugs which does the opposite of what it's supposed to do, increasing the American demand for drugs, by locking up so many people who then need more drugs to mitigate the shattering of their lives by the American government.