U.S. Democracy: Defined and Discussed

Democracy.  I’m not sure I understand what it is entirely, and I’m not sure anyone does.  I sometimes even doubt that the US government is a Democracy.  In the US, Democracy has become identified with the concept of the Free Market and in the last century the Federal Government has become indistinguishable from the Military-Industrial Complex.

When Fascism was the top enemy, the prevailing mood in the US had a Socialist bent.  When Communism was the top enemy, the prevailing mood in the US switched to a faith in Capitalism.  Democracy is always trying to find the balance between Fascism and Communism, big business and big government.  In modern US Democracy, the main choice isn’t between centralized power vs localized power.  Both Republicans and Democrats are for centralized power.  The choice is whether a Federal Government has power over Mega-Corporations or else that Mega-Corporations manipulate the Federal Government to their own ends.  In reality, it’s probably both at the same time because the same people are working in both sectors.

Originally, the main choice the Founding Fathers faced was between centralized government vs localized power.  The Republicans used to be Libertarians, but Libertarianism was also mired in an agrarian capitalism based on slavery.  Many of the Founding Fathers believed that slavery needed to end.  They chose not to end it themselves because they thought the inefficiency of the system would lead the Free Market to end it with no intervention.  They were partly true (with the help of other governments illegalizing the slave trade), but there refusal to stand up for civil rights in the face of what was big business of the times meant that a couple centuries of African-Americans suffered as second-class citizens.  Despite its failings in the past, Libertarianism does seem to be needed to offer balance in US Democracy.  With the increased ability of citizens to organize locally because of technology, maybe there will be an increase in Libertarianism… but it will take a major shift before the public can loosen the grip of the Federal Government and Mega-Corporations (to simplify, they can be referred to in their singular form as the Military-Industrial Complex).

Part of my point is that Democracy isn’t limited to any one thing.  Or rather Democracy is a little bit of everything.  I suppose it fits in with the Melting Pot ideal.  The original immigrants came from many different countries and cultures, and so they had very different views about government.  By voting, supposedly the best ideas and people would rise to the top.

The reason it doesn’t actually work this way in reality is because the Founding Fathers were ultimately creating a Plutocracy rather than a Meritocracy.  American Plutocracy is essentially a limited Meritocracy that serves the wealthy and powerful.  It relates to the ideal of the Disinterested Aristocracy.  These men were supposedly the best of the best and so deserved their power.  And the corresponding idea was that the poor and powerless were obviously less worthy.

How this works is that power remains in the hands of a specific elite class by being handed down the generations within the same set of families (list of United States political families).  This is why many presidents were either of royal lineage or married to someone of royal lineage (list of United States Presidents by genealogical relationship).  This is also why Obama (the proclaimed underdog representing Afrcan-Americans) has 6 US presidents as cousins including his seeming ideological opposite Bush jr.  I’ve even heard someone recently make an argument (a very old argument I should add) that Social Darwinism is based on Genetic Darwinism.  Basically, the rich and powerful theoretically have better genetics.  The argument is that centuries of a self-imposed breeding program of inter-family alliances has breed a class of superior humans.  I know this sounds silly or even scary, but it wouldn’t surprise me if many people (in power) believe in some variation of this.  It should be kept in mind that before the US became involved in WWII, many Americans were proponents of the Nazi ideal of eugenics.  Eugenics had even been practiced in the US on a small scale for a time (through forced sterilizations).

I want to shift the focus here.  Many argue that Democracy is a bad system that just so happens to be better than all of the other possibilities.  That is a cynical response that actually resonates with me.  Maybe Democracy is good enough despite its failings.  The problem with Democracy is that any form of government can appear like a Democracy and yet only be a facade.  A Democracy could even originally have been genuine and be taken over by un-Democratic forces and few people would likely notice.  Some would argue (myself included) that this might’ve already happened here in the US.

A major criticism of Democracy is that it’s inefficient and only shows positive results (if at all) over long periods of time.  It’s hard to know if a Democracy is actually working at any given moment because all of the disagreement makes it hard for anything to get implemented.  If and when things do get implemented, they no longer even look like the original proposal and nobody is happy with it.  Socialism and Fascism are much quicker methods of creating change.  Centralized power has the benefit of getting things done often with very positive results (in the short run at least).  The trains arrive on time and whole economies can be lifted out of slumps by a single decision.  Democracy forsakes quick fixes for a long-term vision of social improvement.  The theory is that it’s better to protect the Democratic principles than to sacrifice them every time a problem arises.  Unfortunately, politicians want results because their popularity depends on results (or appearance results).  Everyone wants results… especially when people feel under pressure or under threat.  There is nothing like collective fear to inspire people to throw Democracy out the window and to give politicians leeway to take actions they would never dare to do in other situations.

Many examples can be given.  Much of the US politics in the 20th century was a constant undermining and endangering of Democracy.  It was the century when the alphabet agencies gained immense power.  The issue with these agencies (and the same for the military) is that they’re non-Democratic entities (in that they’re not a part of the voting system).  Also, it’s hard for the Democratic parts of the government (such as Congress) to provide appropriate oversight of agencies that operate through secrecy.  Often the Federal Government has their own personal reasons to ensure the alphabet agencies’ secrecy.  For example, Obama didn’t want (and didn’t want his name involved with having) certain information shared with the public because it would create a negative mood (towards his popularity and towards his political agendas).  The question is whether the CIA, military, or private contractors broke the law (national or international), but this can only be answered if there is an investigation (which Obama doesn’t want).

The problem is that Democratic civil rights and state secrecy are on complete opposite ends of the spectrum… one functions to the degree that the other doesn’t. It’s true that state secrecy is a practical necessity, but I would add that it’s also a very dangerous slippery slope and for that reason should be used sparingly.  A Democracy in order to survive has to protect itself from non-Democratic influences and sadly this means it must at times use non-Democratic methods.  For example, to fight terrorists we have to be willing to fight dirty when there is no other alternative.  However, we should never forget what we’re fighting for.  If we sacrifice our ideals and standards, then the enemy has won by causing us to become like them.

Furthermore, we have to be patient because I pointed out Democracy works best when the longterm vision is kept in mind.  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to get pulled into just reacting to the momentary situation.

To illustrate, I’ll discuss the torture issue which is specifically what motivated me to write this post.  Yes, we face dangers from terrorists, but it’s important to keep in mind that torture hasn’t saved us from any imminent threats.  By torturing, we are sacrificing our ideals and standards, and also just plain going against national and international law (or at best walking on the knife edge of legality).  Plus, as the most powerful nation in the world, our example holds great weight.  What we do gives moral justification for others to do the same.  This of course includes what others will do to US soldiers when they’re captured.  By torturing foreigners, we endanger our own soldiers (and also citizens travelling or living abroad).  If we are making such massive sacrifices, we better be sure we’re gaining some massive benefits.  So, exactly what are the benefits?  Maybe we’ve gained some intel, but it isn’t clear that we’ve gained much that is usable in and of itself.  Without traditional intelligence gathering (such as spies and informants), information gained by torture is useless because it can’t be verified.  The problem is that the US has supposedly been reducing in recent decades traditional inelligence gathering techniques.  The advantage of these latter techniques is that they don’t require us to sacrifice our ideals and standards nor do they require us to break laws nor do they require us to endanger the lives of our soldiers.

Also, if we had emphasized traditional intellgence gathering techniques in recent decades, we’d have been more prepared and might’ve even prevented the 9/11 attack in the first place.  Torturing, at best, was our agencies trying to play quick catch-up which is a very bad way of going about things.  On top of that, there was the problem of information not being shared between agencies.  That is the problem of secrecy.  Even these secretive agencies end up keeping secrets from eachother because holding secrets means holding onto power.

There are very good reasons that we have these ideals, standards and laws… other than basic morality and civil rights.  The world learned the hard way why torture is a bad thing.  During WWII, there occurred some of the most gruesome fighting, terrorism and torture the world has ever seen.  Governments realized that there needed to be rules of war because when given free reign people do very horrible things to each other.  The history of WWII makes serial killers look like child’s play.  Trust me, we don’t want to see a repeat of WWII.  International laws against torture were created for very very very good reasons.  I can’t emphasize that too much.  Enough said.

Anyways, torture is as anti-Democratic as one can get.  Leave torture to the bad guys and let’s try to retain our moral highground (whatever is left of it).  Some might ask why we should care if our enemies are tortued.  I would respond that history shows us how easily and how quickly a citizen can become an enemy of the state.  If you think it can’t happen to you, you are sadly naive.  Go study some history.

There is always an uneasy truce between violence and Democracy.  Freedom when threatened has to be defended by force.  That is how the US became a Democracy.  But that very same force can easily be turned back against Democracy.  The Founding Fathers  and Americans in general were wary of having a standing army.  After victory, the Continental Army was quickly disbanded except for two remaining regiments to guard the Western frontier and West Point’s arsenal.  What protection was needed was given by state militias.

This would’ve been fine if the country had remained small instead of expanding, but conflicts with Native Americans required re-establishing a standing army.  The standing army served the purpose of Manifest Destiny.  Our country had a vision and everyone better get out of our way.  The standing army was mostly used to establish and defend the ever expanding frontier.  But it was only a few decades after defeating our external enemies that the standing army was turned against internal enemies.  The Civil War gave the Federal government power like never before.  The Libertarian country established by the Founding Fathers was officially ended.  In it’s place, the US government started toying with the idea of international power and in a few decades the US was becoming a player in the game of international war.  We were no longer just defending our freedom but were now extending our power.  Afterall, you can’t just let your standing army sit idle.  When you have power, there is strong allure to find justification for using it.  What good is power if you don’t use it?  The Founding Fathers offered some intelligent answers to that question (here are some of Jefferson’s opinions on the subject of democratic freedom and military power).

The Founding Fathers preferred not to have standing army at all during times of peace, but they were especially against a standing army being entirely under the control of the President.  Because of this, Congress was given the sole power to declare war.  However, you may have noticed that Presidents such as Bush jr have bypassed Congressional oversight by starting wars without having them declared.  Pretty sneaky.  The purpose of Congress is to enforce oversight so this doesn’t happen, and yet Congress willingly bowed down to this usurpation of power.  This is how collective fear combined with powermongering slowly erodes away Democracy.  It’s interesting that Bush jr superficially played the traditional role of the Disinterested Aristocrat who rules by serving the greater good (idealized by the Founding Fathers) all the while gathering power to the presidency and undermining Democratic values.  The ideal of Disinterested Aristocracy (which I wrote about previously) sounds lovely and maybe worked in early America when the Federal government had very little power, but in contemporary politics it has great potential for abuse.

Democracy.  So, what exactly is it?  That is still uncertain to me.  There is a more important question to ask.  What is our Democracy becoming?  What are we collectively becoming?

Democracy: Disinterested Aristocracy vs Educated Public

I have a theory.  It may or may not be true.

If people are informed, they are more likely to make rational decisions that will lead to moral behaviors.  If given the chance, people are able to think for themselves.  In a democracy, public education and a free press theoretically serve the purpose of not only giving people valid information (rather than propaganda/misinformation) but also teaching analytical thinking skills (which would help individuals see past propaganda/misinformation).  It would seem that a democracy can’t function (except as a superficial facade) unless the education system and media effectvely serves this purpose.  To the extent they fail, people aren’t capable of making rational decisions that lead to moral behaviors.

This failure leads to ideological justification by those in power not to inform the public and to actively misinform the public.  Many in power believe it’s outright dangerous to share too much information with the public.  Also, it’s simply in the personal interest of those in power to not encourage the general public towards independent thinking.

So, this is why democracy makes a wonderful ideal but tends not to live up to it’s own idealism.  Despite what some claim, democracy isn’t based on the ideal of enlightened selfishness for in reality what is in the personal interest of those in power is too often not in the best interest of the average person.  Democracy, in reality, can only work if people are willing to sacrifice their personal interest for the greater good.  But this has to be willing because if forced it’s just something like communism (although an authentic democracy could be socialist and I would argue that any authentic democracy inherently has aspects of socialism).  So, what would actually cause politicians to act for the greater good?

The Founding Fathers believed in a disinterested aristocracy (but it should be mentioned that this doesn’t conflict the populist strain within American society; public education existed early in US history and Benjamin Franklin helped start one of the earliest public libaries).  The idea of disinterested aristorcracy was that, by being above the troubles and responsibilities of the common person and by being above the capitalist entanglements of the businessman, the professional politician could be objective about what is truly good for all.  The idea is that being a politician is a social role one plays and not a personal career move.  This attitude of the Founding Fathers was genuine and became established when George Washington refused to become a life-long ruler as many expected (and as some hoped).  George Washington stepping down of his own freewill from the reigns of power was simply unheard of in the world at that time.  Maybe this worked in early America because the Federal government was so small and people had great freedom to make their own decisions.  The aristocracy could remain disinterested because they lacked extensive power.  It’s been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The problem with America is that it couldn’t remain a small agrarian culture forever.

There was one other attribute of Founding Fathers as disinterested aristorcracy. The Founding Fathers were the intellectual elite of American culture. They may have made their money in various professions, but what they’re remembered for is being great thinkers. They were well educated and they saw part of their role as helping educate the public (for example, they started public libraries and published newspapers). Along with being intellectuals, they were also inventors and scientists. Benjamin Franklin became famous and helped America’s cause through his inventions and scientific discoveries. Some of the Founding Fathers embodied the ideal of the Rennaisance man who knows a little bit about everything. This is very different from today. Politicians no longer are considered the intellectual elite of our culture. Most present politicians didn’t start their careers as professors and intellectuals. And science, for sure, doesn’t seem to be of great interest or concern to the majority of politicians these days (except as it applies to military technology).

Modern America still has a disinterested aristocracy but it just no longer is the politician who plays this role.  In their place, scientists and media reporters became the new class from which we expected objective insight and guidance.  During much of the 20th century, Americans idolized scientists and reporters.  These authority figures were fully trusted.

However, now even this has changed because all of society has changed.  In particular, technology has changed.  With the internet, information is now widely and easily accessible by the common person.  We no longer need a disinterested aristocracy to mediate information for us.  In fact, anyone who tries to mediate our information is looked upon with wariness.  At the same time, propaganda and advertising has become increasingly advanced.  Those in power are becoming more subtle in their ability to manipulate people, in their ability to manipulate public opinion.  The government is learning from it’s mistakes, but it’s surprising how little changes in many ways.  Human psychology is the same now as it was a hundred years ago.  The government keeps repeating the same propaganda techniques even as it refines them.

Is the disinterested aristorcracy a dead ideal?  Or will a new group of people take up this role?  In the information age, who will the coming generations trust?

Interestingly, the Millennial Generation seems to trust their own peer group more than adult authority figures… which I suppose is a phenomenon that started with the latchkey kids of Generation X who perfected the attitude of mistrusting authority.  Millennials trust what they hear repeatedly from their friends and from internet buzz.  They’re less likely to trust a single source.  It’s been a long time since the whole nation sat rapt in front of their televisions all listening to Walter Cronkite say “And that’s the way it is.”  Can you imagine people trusting the opinion of a single person so blindly?  Uncle Cronkite said it and so it must be true.

Nowadays, we’re overloaded with viewpoints.  Gen Xers especially learned to always check for opposing views and to look at the data to decide for ourselves… maybe because we’re such a small and under-represented group.  I’m not sure about the generations growing up now, but the very idea of a disinterested aristocracy goes against the whole mood of Generation X.  Rightly or wrongly, we post-Boomers tend to believe we can think for ourselves.  Why should we expect politicians, scientists and reporters to do our thinking for us?  Why shouldn’t authority be questioned?  Even the Founding Fathers understood that freedom requires eternal vigilance.

I have one last thought.  I have noticed that some people still idealize the concept of the disinterested aristocracy.  Mostly, I’ve noticed this with the Boomer Generation but I’m not sure it will die out with them.  The biggest proponent of this is the Boomer Ken Wilber who is a proponent of Integral Theory which borrows heavily from Spiral Dynamics.  A major idea in this Wilber’s worldview is that there are different levels of development and the higher the development the more clear one can see previous stages.  According to the theory, this is a particular distinction between what is called 1st tier and 2nd tier.  Once someone has developed to 2nd tier they can see the whole structure of 1st tier and will thus make the ideal leader.  They can speak to people on all different levels because they’re not attached to any of them.  Essentially, the 2nd tier person is the ultimate disinterested aristocracy.  Only a small percentage of people have developed 2nd tier enough that they can take up this role.  So, it’s up to them to guide the lesser developed general public.

I have no particular opinion about whether this theory is true or false, but I do wonder about it’s implementation.  Even though a 2nd tier person may think they’re perfect material for the disinterested aristocracy, they still have to convince the self-interested lower classes.  Some might find it of interest that a few well known politicians are fans of Wilber’s work.  A notable example is Bill Clinton… yet another Boomer.

I suppose there will always be people who will justify their power as disinterested aristocracy.  That is of little interest to me.  What fascinates me is the view from the crowd.  All political power is based on a social contract whether overt or implied.  What causes people to believe or disbelieve that those in power actually have their best interest in mind and are capable of acting on it?  Do people even care?  Or is there just something in human nature that wants to believe in some wise and good authority figure, be it God or a politician?  Is the only thing that matters is that someone, anyone fills the role? And, if the role is filled even marginally, will people always follow obediently?

Has technology actually changed the game or not?  Even in this age of information, do people actually want the whole truth whatever that might mean?  We’ve all grown up being lied to by so many authority figures that it seems normal.  Even the liar has to convince himself in order to tell a convincing lie.  Deception seems to be normal human behavior.  Would we even recognize the truth if it were offered to us?  What would a society look like that was based on an open sharing of unbiased knowledge?  Is such a thing even imaginable?

Some believe that people have to be saved from themselves.  Some people believe that democracy is in danger of being destroyed by the crowd.  Are these beliefs true?

 * As a note, I’d guess that the idea of disinterested aristocracy originated with Plato’s Philosopher King.  The general idea probably became popular in many cultures during the Axial Age.  As for democracy, it’s interesting how two models influenced Western thought.  Athenian democracy was always romanticized with it’s participatory citizenry and it’s engaged public debate.  This represents the ideal of democracy, but the reality of modern democracy tended to take a different direction.  Western governments have often been more drawn to Spartan democracy with it’s elite governing class who rules by military force but which protects itself from being taken over by a dictator through the division of power.  US democracy, for certain, is closer to Spartan democracy… but maybe the Founding Fathers were originally trying to establish the Athenian model.  However, the pull between the two types of democracy is ever present.  If we become too cynical about the ideal of disinterested democracy, do we risk going too far in the direction of militant democracy?