October 3, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Democratic Mirage, Part IV
THERE REMAINS IN ALL OF THIS only a single last safeguard to the honest operation of the democratic system: that is, fittingly, the vote, popular elections, and, at bottom, the popular will. The people, informing themselves of the true situation through alternative sources, or perceiving for themselves the degree to which the ostensible “ruling class” is compromised and poisoned against their interests, might punish that class for its transgressions and bring another and more directly popular set of representatives to reign in their place.
In the first place, one is permitted to really wonder about the feasibility of such a hope after a certain degree of corruption has been reached at the highest levels of government, for at that point the very mechanisms which are in an “ideal republic” supposed to select for the most knowledgeable, capable, and perhaps even virtuous statesmen for the highest echelons of rule, are co-opted by dark powers to filter for their own traits of cold asocial avarice, until a certain point is reached that these powers are so entrenched within the system that they cannot be extracted from it again; nor would even a widespread crisis of institution or of social order likely suffice at such a point to drive them out, insofar as they themselves are in a position to expect and to manipulate precisely such crises for their own gain. In such a case it is best to work toward quite other things than “democratic” manipulations of the system.
Be this as it may—what of those comparatively “healthier” democracies in which the corruption has not become endemic, and there are still legitimate hopes for some kind of “reform”? What is the salutary role of “popular will” in such cases?
But we must really pause a moment to look the beast honestly in the eye—supposing such can be done with so Argos-like a creature as the popular will. For in the first place, what we nicely wrap up in a single word as if it were a unitary and single-spirited thing, is for the most part nothing but the multiform, protean, and perfectly arbitrary addition of each individual “will” (itself a complicated and often irreducible thing) to every other, toward the composition of what must certainly be a fictional whole. One can speak of a unified society, because one can specify precisely in what principles and aims it is united; but there is no principle which unites the popular will save this or that accidental passion or desire, or else precisely such principles as are embodied in the society to which it pertains (but which cannot however be considered to “compose” it in any meaningful sense, because it is but the redundant expression of these principles). Its aims are always determined ex post facto from the vote, which means, one never really knows what they are, inasmuch as they might change from one year to the next. This popular will is, at best, an ephemeral arithmetical result; more generally, the “popular will” is nothing but an abstraction derived from chaos.
Is there anything at all that can be said then about the probable nature of this abstraction?
The average individual in normal times in a democracy, so far as his “vote” is concerned, is always “looking out for number one,” as the Americans quaintly put it. That is to say, he votes primarily for his own interested, and only subsequently for his “morals,” meaning for what he believes should happen to society, even if it harms that interest. Now there are many things which pertain to the “personal interest” of a human being, some lower and some higher, in reflection of his state “between beast and god.” These things include family, work, love, gain, hate, etc. But it is clear that the only portion of these interests which are widely and easily generalizable in the form of elections or laws are those pertaining to his material well-being. The “economic” factor of human life is that which is “expressed” in the vote, and thus it is that the “economic” factor is that which the powers-that-be must seek to keep stable, if they would retain their positions of power. For one almost never sees scandals or upsets at the poll booths when conditions are stable.
It would seem that the extant powers should seek to keep things stable. Yet this precisely is what one does not see. All of the great crises of the past hundred years, certainly all of the economic crises and commonly enough also the political ones, have been deliberately engineered or at the least happily welcomed by extant powers, which have subsequently profited handsomely of them. It seems then that these powers periodically risk precipitating the very conditions for those uprising on the part of the people that they should most like to avoid. And in this, we find truly the “last best hope” of democracy, its final, its first, its most essential mechanism for bringing the democratic system to really yield, if not the best system of government, then at least the “least of all evils”: namely, that the people, perceiving the outrages being perpetrated against them, might rise up in display at last of a true and truly unified popular will which extends beyond merely monetary concerns, and punish the self-serving politicasters, enshrining once again the principle of popular sovereignty in government, establishing honest men in the highest positions of power, winning the day for democracy, safeguarding human rights, renewing one’s faith in humanity, etc. etc.
The which today goes by the name of “populism.” Populism of this stamp is certainly in specific definite conditions quite possible on a limited and temporary scale. But to set one’s hope in this, as if it were the raw, pure essence of “effective democracy” itself, is to reveal oneself in the unflattering hue of ingenuity and blindness to what democracy really means, apart from all the pleasant bromides and delusional dogmas that are attached to it by people who really ought to know better (and in many cases do know better). For naturally, the first condition of any such democratic and peaceful uprising is that the people understand what is at stake, what should be accomplished and how to attain it. More, it supposes the existence of a number of good-willed or at least not arrantly corrupt politicians who are practically capable and effectively willing to put themselves at the service of this populism, despite the sacrifices and risks this entails for them personally, in order to overthrow the “old guard” and to establish the new. It supposes furthermore that such men might arrive without being compromised by powerful, extraordinarily wealthy, and ubiquitous enemies. It supposes finally that the “people” will be able to distinguish between such men and the political actors put up by the moneyed powers to regain or retain control.
It should go without saying that not a single one of these hypotheses is anything more than a grandiose wish or a feeble hope, totally unsupported by any aspect of the true situation in such times.
To begin with the outer problem first, and to work thence to the very hollow core of democratic practice, let us consider what must be the prerequisites of such a democratic champion. Either he must be clean of all compromising influences, which means he must have miraculously navigated every blockade put up by the moneyed powers against the rise of such men as him, and he must have done so by virtue of his own will and determination; or else he must come from out of the system altogether.
The first possibility requires a man of remarkable fortitude and virtue, such as is rare in any day and vanishingly so in long-standing democracies. If ever such virtues might arise, it would be in the idealistic leader of this or that “third party” whose sincerity has been tested in the course of long and hopeless years, and who has in all that time refused the poisoned cup of compromise. Such individuals as this are almost “by nature” marginalized; they dwell in the fringes, and very easily grow accustomed to this fringe-life. Indeed, it is easy enough to become addicted to defeat, to the “desperate cause” which, in order to maintain its allure of chivalrous purity, must ever remain desperate. It is not rare for such individuals to spoil everything for themselves the moment they begin to emerge; in a very real sense, many of them do not crave victory at all. As for those who both believe in their cause and in the possibility of bringing their cause to fruition, any number of other personal defects might lie in ambush for them. Many of them have become inured to battle, and their tough vississitudes have grown around them a rough and crude carapace, so that they have forgotten how to show a soft and enticing face to the masses. But the democratic masses are wary of warriors, and they will shy from such hard looks as these in all but the direst straits. Hardly can one hope for the ascent of such a politician in normal times; only when the democratic system has already entered into a period of deep decay will the people begin to turn to such extremities as are promised by a candidate of this nature. Similarly, many of these politicians have had to be so uncompromising that they have forgotten the difference between compromise on the one hand, and diplomacy on the other; they have suppressed or ruined in themselves those traits which are necessary for politics as such, even in exceptional conditions, and certainly in the vast majority of democratic elections and terms. In general, it may be said that such politicians as this have had long years to accumulate a wealth of bitterness and hostility toward the system, anger and enmity toward the politicians in office, impractically rigid intransigence in their views, and a perspective, both about what is possible and what is desirable in government, which is distorted by unyielding idealism on the one hand and by long-incubated resentment on the other, so that even should they arrive in power they will in most cases achieve nothing, but will pass their terms bumbling about breaking things, making awkward passes toward impossible alterations in law, and injuring their already vulnerable rapport with those key figures who might have helped them toward their ends. And this, again, in all but the most exceptional cases.
The second possibility, on the other hand, of the outsider politician who takes the political scene by storm, requires independent wealth on the part of the candidate in question. In this case, either this politician was born with such money or else he acquired it. If he was born with it, he will have had to combat in his life the corrupting power that money influences in a society which worships it. Money in a society like ours is identical to power, and this gross and materialistic power is molded, refined, or constrained by almost no mores or traditions whatsoever. A young man of wealth, particularly as he is endowed with other virtues, is besot by an almost invincible temptation to bow to the more bestial and weakest parts of his soul, and it is almost certain that such a man will be deeply handicapped by his very good fortune in one way or another, unless he has been saved by some incredible inner or outer fortuity. In the realm of art, one thinks of the figure of Bruce Wayne as an example of such a “saved child.” But Batman is better fit for fiction than for reality, and once again we find that the possibilities are slender unto invisibility. If on the other hand he has gained his wealth by his own efforts—but here, to say it again and a hundred times again, only a thoroughgoing democrat could ever expect anything high, noble, and free from a man who has dedicated his entire life to hoarding material riches. And it is just as absurd if not moreso to hope that such a man will not have any number of dark secrets capable of ruining him the moment they fall—as fall they shall—into the wrong hands. The degree to which one hopes for any candidate like that to “save the day” is the measure of how far one has been infected by the ludicrous optimism of democratic delusion.
Supposing, however, he arrives, our “democratic white knight,” by navigating all the menaces to his virtue and his position, both external and internal—well, how shall he make himself known? He can either play the political game—against his opponent, who of course will be a hundred times his superior at such shameless showmanship—or he can scorn that game in favor of brute honesty. But the bitter pill of honesty will be laid against his opponent’s honeyed mendacities, and so everything will depend then on the degree to which the populace has grown cynical or can be forced to perceive hard truths by virtue of hard times. That is rare enough a proposition; it grows rarer yet, for the simple psychological fact that if our glimmering politician restrains himself to the negative arguments in favor of his vision, he cannot furnish his potential voters any positive reason to vote for him, but if he focuses on the positive vision, he cannot convince them of its practical possibility or moral necessity. For if they are cynical, they will not vote for him on the basis of negative arguments alone, for these will do nothing but rankle their cynicism; but if they are cynical, they are as unlikely to believe any positive vision he might provide. He must then arrive at that precise historical juncture between the usual blindly cheerful ingenuity of the prosperous democracy, and the brutal and callous cynicism of the failing democracy. That is a narrow window for a figure to slip through who, as we have seen, in any number of ways must be “larger than life.”
As if all this were not enough, we therefore see that our hero must be brutally honest and simultaneously profoundly inspiring. He must add to all his other improbable qualities, a golden tongue as well; he must be a rhetor of the first rank. Or else he must be favored by an utterly unlikely fortune beyond his power to engineer, such as—an unexpected crisis in the ruling structure, or the chance opposition of a particularly unappealing or incompetent opponent, or an event which hurls him to preeminence in the public eye, or some other utterly unpredictable and uncontrollable influence.
Enough: it is clear that such a condition might arise only in the most wildly improbable of conditions. But supposing, once more, that all of this comes about—what then? What shall the people make of their chance?
Well, in the first place, shall they necessarily recognize it for what it is? Shall they see their hero as being “one of them” sufficiently to put their trust in him? (For it is the necessary and natural condition of all democratic politics that the people vote their own.) Unlikely—particularly as he, being a man of virtue, cannot help but demonstrate those rare qualities which brought him to his chance in the first place. But supposing he knows how to play the demagogue—and, what is a thousand times rarer, knows how to play the demagogue without being a demagogue, as for instance Caesar or Napoleon were able to do—well enough. Though this be yet another incredible virtue to stud into his already rare crown, let us enrich him as we may, in order to see this hypothetical through to the end.
How then will he communicate the true issues of the day to his potential constituency? But surely he cannot; for especially as he is candidate for authority in a modern state, replete with all the infinite complexities of such a society, “the people”—which means necessarily the composite of everyman, who is almost always a simple working man—will have neither the time nor the capacity to understand the world as he understands it. Then he must appeal to them via proxies, convincing them with utterly simplified and half-deceptive appeals to their passions, milking their support through their material interests for his wider vision, which in some cases must necessarily contradict precisely those interests in order to benefit the whole. He must put to practice precisely the same techniques used by his opponents—only he is “fooling the people for their own good.” Everything will depend then on his ability to manipulate the people into voting for him with greater success than his wholly unscrupulous opponent, who is almost certain to be practiced in such grand deceits.
But by now it ought to be clear that we are discussing, not at all the likely candidate of a common democratic election, but a soul of heroic excellence in a time of unique crisis and extraordinary historical circumstances—which perforce means, in almost every real world situation in actual democracies, a fairytale.
And it is upon such a figment that the entire edifice of democracy finally rests.
Under the dishonorable masks and the impious lies, this is what democracy truly is: an alembic for sorting out the worst human beings and investing them with the greatest power, meanwhile systematically obstructing the best from arriving anywhere near the vertices of command; a sophisticated network of individuals and institutions whose entire purpose is the manipulation of the masses through “information control” and shameless appeals to and nourishing of what is lowest and most wretched in man and society.