September 22, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Democratic Mirage, Part II
MUCH IS MADE of the “civic sense” which might lead a citizen to become a politician. It is presumed—one really has to presume here, if one is to be a sensible proponent of democracy—that democratic leaders in the main are not numb to genuine feeling for the commonweal. Anyone must acknowledge, of course—it is even in its way the founding insight of the very republican form of government which we are here considering—that some among the politicians will be actuated by rank ambitions, selfish interest, or even deeply asocial motivations; one cannot neglect the presence in the political arena of unwholesome elements. The famous institutional strength of republican government arises here: it contains, through “checks and balances,” precisely these excesses of human weakness. Nonetheless it is clear that institutional safeguards have limits to their efficacy within the individuals to populate them. Not the most wisely arrayed institutions in all the world can long survive if they are composed exclusively of the worst kind of human beings; not the most sophisticated checks and balances will long have power if the better part of the men beneath them are corrupted. Kant’s notorious boast that he could build a just society of devils, only supposing they were clever, is ingenuous in the extreme; quite the contrary is true. Such devils should have to be all of them quite mediocre in mind and spirit; and that is little enough to be hoped from the true nature of the infernal regions.
The disproof of Kant’s happy (and happily Enlightenment) idea, is simple. All institutional and legal remedies to the problem of human corruption will fail unless the individuals who dwell beneath them desire to obey these remedies, or are forced to obey them. From a nation of devils one can surely not hope for the desire; one must expect from the outset that these devils will do whatever they may to coopt the institutions and laws which bind them. Then they must be made to obey these institutions and laws quite against their will. But lacking the basic reverence of law without which any democracy is as boneless as an octopus, it is only a matter of time before these devils will find the way of escaping their institutional caging by “transcending” it, either through subtle malice or through open alliances with like-minded devils, or the slow unification of the ruling classes contra the ruled. Since the “rules of the game” do not favor them, they will, to quote precisely such a devil, become “particularly interested in changes in the rules of the game.” The last best hope for binding such devils as that, is then in producing a system which mimics as much as is possible the laws of nature itself; a system, that is to say, in which these “institutions” simply cannot be gotten around, because they either permeate or perfectly encapsulate society. One wants, that is to say, either a technocracy, or else a single world government. (We have elsewhere, and in particular in our essay “The Truth Shall Set You Free,” noted the necessity of a final goal of single world government for the “success” of Enlightenment schema.) Lacking these conditions (and perhaps precisely given these conditions, as we have suggested in the aforementioned essay) no self-respecting devil will be constrained by mere institutions to behave as if he were anything but what he is.
Given all of this, it is accurate to say that republican government is premised on awareness of human vice, folly, and meanness; but it is premised much more deeply on the belief that the rulers, owing to the difficulty of their arrival in the vertices of power, will generally be malleable by publicly-minded moral standards—or else that they can be forced to act according to such standards through their dependence in the power vested in the people. To put this last point otherwise: the fact that the people has the power of the vote, and can hold this like a guillotine over the necks of its politicians, will persuade even the least savory of those politicians to bend his selfish instincts for the most part precisely toward the perpetuation of democratic forms and the good of the people. The idea here is essentially that institutions, and not the people who fill them, are the fundamental political fact. Kant, in the same essay “Perpetual Peace” cited above, went so far as to turn the truth directly on its head by claiming that “A good constitution is not to be expected from morality, but, conversely, a good moral condition of a people is to be expected only under a good constitution.”
Such is the necessary presumption of democratic politics. Let us see if it bears water.
Laying aside for a moment a society which has newly become a democracy—in which, one can suppose, an older morality and an older sense of duty still hold sway with the majority of the upper classes—what will be the motivation of any man who seeks out a high office in an aging democracy? In general, what sort of character can one reasonably expect from one’s politicians, here and now? It is clear enough that only two passions might be strong enough to propel a man to seek by his own initiative the offices of public governance: ambition on the one hand (meaning the desire to attain fame or power) and idealism on the other (meaning the desire to better one’s society). These two qualities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. On the contrary, we may state generally that idealism without ambition is wont to be insufficient for political life. There are countless clashes in any political activity between practice and ideal, and the ideal must sometimes cede, for example, in compromises with the popular will, with other powers or politicians, or with the limits of reality and actual conditions themselves. One must have the will to navigate these labyrinths and the realistic pragmatism to squeeze what good one can from them. That is more to be expected from an ambitious man than an idealistic one. The candid soul of the pure idealist is liable to many things in this world; but the dirty rough-and-tumble arena of democratic politics is not the native environment for such a candid and delicate soul.
On the other hand, ambition is perfectly able to exist in the absence of idealism. That politician who, in order to get to the top, is willing to throw any and every moral precept overboard and to betray even those human beings nearest to him—such a politician is eminently possible in this world. Ambition, we may say, is more self-reliant than idealism; it is at once the necessary and sufficient condition of the democratic politician.
That is not all. Both the purely ambitious and the mostly idealistic alike will see clear and unambiguous benefit in appearing as completely idealistic as possible, for the people will interpret raw ambition, and but seldom erroneously, as the sign of a mercenary and meretricious attitude, which is easily corruptible and all too likely to sell the popular will to the highest bidder. Every politician will then appear or will strive to appear more interested in the public welfare and the public mandate than he in fact is; every politician will be a kind of actor. Some will be better actors than others; but the poorer will be weeded out at the lower levels by the natural mechanism of the vote, for the higher they ascend in the ranks of power, the less they will be able to convince ever larger segments of the public of their authenticity. This is true in any time and any clime, but today it is absolutely inescapable in account of the ubiquity of video.
Before the advent of the television, a prospective politician had the better part of his contact with his constituency through writing; for he could not go to every town in the nation, nor look every voter in the eye. Speechifying before comparatively small crowds was the closest he could come to pure demagoguery in those days, and so the size of a given nation was to some extent a counterbalance to the worst tendencies of politicos, as indeed the writers of the Federalist Papers well knew. (See, for instance, Federalist Nos. 9 and 10, “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection.”) Even in those days, it was not uncommon to associate democracy with a degree of histrionics; and since it was commonplace even then for a politician to rise to power from the comparatively local levels of government in relatively unpopulated areas up to the more federal, or national, the point of departure of most political careers certainly gave a strong push to the thespians of the nation. This effect, however, was somewhat dampened at the higher levels, at which the abilities to navigate complicated political relationships and persuade on a one-to-one basis were more important than the ability to widely manipulate the minds of the voters. More: because these politicians generally began at a more local level, one could also count to some extent on the mere acquaintance that the locals had with any given politician to counterbalance the worst forms of ambition.
These saving graces of the large republic have been utterly abolished by the advent of universal technology, which has led to the most unhappy result that each politician now has the insidious power of “speaking directly to every citizen,” which cannot help but reduce every politician to the role of a performer standing perpetually in the limelight. One recalls the presidential race between Nixon and Kennedy, which featured the first televised debate. Nixon, whose personal nemesis might even be said to have been his half-noble lack of the popular instinct, refused makeup and insisted on appearing as he was; Kennedy had no such scruples. Though radio listeners largely felt that Nixon had won, the television viewers overwhelmingly gave the day to Kennedy. He won the game of democracy, which is essentially the game, not of substance, but of appearance; and it is precisely to appearance that our “technology” in all its forms most fundamentally applies itself.
Such was the character of the medium at its dawn; and watching old footage of all such events, one cannot help but feel that those participating were but children in the manipulation of the medium, compared with the masters of today. It would be unforgivable naïveté to suppose that our politicos have not been hard at work in perfecting their exploitation of television, video, and internet toward the manipulation of the masses. Even the best of them must play at this game if they are to survive and ascend. And thus the mechanism by which politicians at the top are gradually sifted out for certain of their qualities cannot help now but lead to the selection first and foremost of the slyly deceptive, if not of outright liars. And in precisely the contrary mechanism which preserved republics in an older time, this unwholesome process of selection is stronger, the larger the nation is; for the larger the nation, the more likely it is that the citizens will know their politicians exclusively through the media of television, internet, news, etc.
We have said that ambition must be the predominant passion to incite politicians to their politicking; it is likely then that men of a more or less corruptible ambition will be more common to democratic government than will politicians of a generally idealistic bent. But let us for a moment once more grant our democracies the benefit of the doubt; let us suppose that these two groups are more or less equally represented. It would appear that there are then two unofficial factions constituting the rank of the ruling class today: the corrupt or corruptible political climbers on the one hand, and the relatively civic-minded or socially conscientious on the other. And this would in its way be a hopeful or at least not hopeless scenario. But let us dig the little deeper before we rest at even so qualified an optimism.
Ambition can be craving for the love and esteem of the people (as in the desire for fame or for a vulgar kind of glory) or it can be craving for influence and control (as in the desire for power and pleasure). The first is a species of monstrous vanity, and it is especially prevalent in democracies, whose defining vice may even be said to be vanity. Both the one and the other are connected necessarily to a love of money—in the first case, for the envy that money incites, in the second, for the utility of money in expanding one’s “domain.” Both kinds of ambitious men have need of money toward the end of propelling themselves toward the highest positions they can reach. But to dedicate oneself to the political life is simultaneously to limit one’s time and means to amass a personal fortune. One needs money, as much as can be got, but one is not in any position to get it by one’s own act and light; for fundamentally, one seeks something else, and has been blinded by a kind of monomania into believing that what one desires is to be had through political avenues alone.
This is an error: lasting fame (insofar as this is not a contradiciton in terms) is much better won in, for example, the cinema, and power, as we shall see, is necessarily clandestine in this day and age. This error reveals on the part of the politician either a fundamental and troubling lack of discretion, or else a lack of ability in the true arena of power, or else an essential vulgarity and extraordinarily petty vainglory. The true state of affairs is revealed immediately by the fact that these politicians, in order to nourish their presumed gains, must turn to the wealthy to do so; for they have need of money which they themselves generally have not the time and perhaps not even the capacity to secure. They must turn, that is to say, from the political domain to the economic domain, and they must transform themselves into the creatures of super-affluent patrons.
In past and undemocratic eras, great wealth and great political power tended to coincide in the rulers. Contrary what we tend to believe, from our fundamentally skewed and vulgar point of view, wealth in past times was infused with its dignity and power by its connection to noble blood, rather than being given power intrinsically and for itself, as is the case today. He who “made money”—the merchant, the burgher, the vender, to say nothing of the usurer and moneylender—was held in contempt or at least in aloof indifference by the ruling orders, and could not hope to buy power through a lucre which was conceived of as essentially ill-gotten (for in nobler epochs all riches stamped with the mark of avarice were held to be ill-gotten). Be he ever so much wealthier than this or that nobleman, yet his rank and influence remained limited to his station. The noble classes meanwhile were constrained from seeking wealth themselves by an invincible aristocratic scorn for the low business of wealth-getting. The dynamic during the decay and corruption of such a society is portrayed excellently by Tomaso de Lampedusa in The Leopard; for our purposes, it suffices to say that the monster avarice in past ages was bound with platinum chains.
In such a society, the influence of money and of the money-seeking was essentially restricted to a minimum, as much as this influence can be restricted, given the velleities and the weaknesses of the human heart. The political class, the ruling class, far from seeking patronage, were themselves patrons: patrons of artists, of scientists, of promising but poor youths. (Consider what even that essentially democratic soul Dickens revealed about such relations in his book Great Expectations.) Power was as it were perfectly visible, perfectly “transparent,” as we are wont to say, in the sense of being for the most part patently and unambiguously invested in certain universally-known personages. This was indeed so common that it became the immediate object of rumor when it seemed that the visible rulers were being unduly influenced by some “power behind the throne.” The existence and degree of such influences could almost even be taken as an index of the extent to which the ruling powers had grown weak and unstable. (Consider for instance the great to-do made of Rasputin in the latter days of Tsarist Russia, or the remarkable reputation that Talleyrand was able to cultivate for himself around the Revolutionary Period in France.)
In our day, not so. Democracy is essentially tied to capitalism—the latter being nothing more than democracy in the field of “economics”—and capitalism, despite the rhetoric which is often spent on obscure and poorly-defined notions of “meritocracy,” works toward the economic favoring of a certain kind of man. This kind of man, who may be described as the super-affluent, is none other than the patron of our contemporary politicians. But it is needless to say that the super-affluent, as opposed to our politicians, have absolutely no need to stand in the limelight. On the contrary, they are generally favored by a degree of anonymity; they, like the Solifugid, thrive in the shade. The very order of the establishment, both psychologically and practically, forces our politicians to seek the support of men whose names we do not know, whose faces are invisible, and whose agendas are perfectly opaque, standing as they do perfectly behind the evidently broader figures of our more public figures. We often do not even have the benefit of being able to guess at their identities—for often enough we literally do not suspect their existence. The power they exert over the ruling class, the influence which they enjoy, is like that exerted by some dark star upon the planet.
And because the influence of such men is likely to strongly effect if not utterly determine the balance of power between the ambitious and the idealistic politicians in a democracy, it would be well then to attempt to develop some idea of what kind of man, what kind of domain, these must be.