The U.S. national existence has extended through nearly 25% of one century, two full centuries, and 20% of a fourth. Now, just six years shy of a quarter of a millennium old, the world’s oldest constitutional democracy has many old European anxieties, including this: Elites are inevitable; therefore, so are populist resentments.
In 1911, Robert Michels (1876-1936), an Italian political sociologist, published “Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy,” postulating the “iron law of oligarchy.” Michels, who sometimes used “oligarchy” and “aristocracy” interchangeably, argued that no democracy can avoid oligarchies because of human nature and the nature of parties.
Ghia Nodia, a political scientist in Tbilisi, Georgia, says populism is not an ideology but an “attitude,” a resentment arising from the alleged appropriation by elites of the power of the people. Writing about Michels in the January edition of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy, Nodia says that the careless unrealism of the common description of democracy guarantees an increasing tempo and intensity of populist dissatisfactions with democracy.
Democracy presupposes an impossibility: “the people” being in charge. Michels, writes Nodia, considered the masses naturally passive and predisposed to accept decisions made by the few people with the interests and skills to participate directly in politics and governance. And the principle of representation – the people do not decide issues, they decide who will decide – inevitably opens what Nodia calls a “mental and cultural gap between the rulers and the ruled.” Hence a “democratic deficit” is inherent in democracy.
Michels banished his disappointment about representative democracy by joining Benito Mussolini’s fascist party, for populist reasons he never renounced: A charismatic autocrat can provide “direct” democracy, bypassing the chimera of representation by embodying the will of the people. When Mussolini criticized democracy, he meant the parliamentary sort, not the glorious “democratic” fusing of the leader (Duce, Fuhrer, Mr. “I alone can fix it”) and the led.
Mussolini was an echo of the French Revolution, in whose trinity of values – “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – the third means the solidarity of tribal, blood-and-soil nationalism. The Revolution reverberates in today’s Europe, where the European Union includes two authoritarian regimes.
Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama, also writing in January’s Journal of Democracy, says that after the upheavals of 1989-1991, “the former ‘captive nations’ embraced the democratic part of liberal democracy, but not necessarily the liberal part... The result was the emergence of illiberal democracy in places such as Hungary and Poland.” Illiberal democracy is a species of dictatorship.
In the United States, illiberal democracy, seeping from campuses, is abetted by a technological disappointment – the failure of the Internet and social media to be instruments of enlightenment. Martin Gurri, writing in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, says “the information sphere today contains an immense universe of voices interested in talking about ever-fewer subjects.” It “has taken on the traits of an obsessive-compulsive personality; its fixations, always mistaken for public opinion, will wander again, leaving would-be revolutionaries baffled and outraged.”
Social media addicts, left and right, “stand ferociously against” – against the present as “a nightmare of injustice,” the right glorifying the past’s utterly vanished greatness, the left rejecting the past as a pollutant of the present, and everyone adopting “the web’s rhetoric of the rant.” Today’s arsonists and looters are acting out the protesters’ principles that the nation is founded on genocide and slavery, and is dominated by white supremacists. If so, why not burn it down?
In the current disorders, Gurri says, mayors and governors have succumbed to “infantile panic”: Many state and local officials are liberal Democrats who share the ideals of the protesters and are “paralyzed by fear of doing anything that might transform them into villains of the narrative.” Of today’s “demonstrable failure of our political elites,” Gurri says:
“Those in charge continue to bleed out authority, and the democratic institutions they represent have begun to totter. Since we, the voters, elevated them to office, the supreme lesson of this troubled moment should probably be how to replace them with competent grown-ups.”
Elections produced today’s floundering elites; fresh elections promise an infusion of more of the same. Harvard political philosopher Harvey Mansfield says: “An election as opposed to selection by lot is an essentially aristocratic device (because it presupposes that some people are better than others – a point to be learned from Aristotle).” Try to believe this when you morosely contemplate your choices on this year’s ballot.