Thomas Fleming: Down With Democracy!

Thomas Fleming, editor of the American monthly Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture, author of several books on ethics (The Morality of Everyday Life) and politics (Socialism, The Politics of Human Nature), contributor to newspapers, magazines, and academic journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and formerly a professor of Greek and Latin at several universities, is again proposing following the Athenian example.

It turns out that the American political system had been in reasonably good shape until Martin Van Buren copied the party system from the UK, and in doing so put the US government on the path of corruption. The final nail in the coffin, Fleming asserts, was the institution of primaries, replacing the corrupt but still useful party leaders as the determinants of party candidates.

Taking a break in dispensing dubious historical synopses, Fleming moves to the present:

If this is democracy, I am ready to try an alternative.  Whenever anyone dares to criticize democracy, he is inevitably slapped down with Churchill’s witticism that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.  What neither Churchill nor his millions of quoting admirers have ever explained is what they mean by democracy. Indeed, after decades of studying political theory–and discussing such matters with the learned and the wise–I still have no clue as to what people mean when they use the word, other than their opinion that democracy is decidedly a good thing.

Cheerleaders for democracy, the American way of life, and my sweet old etcetera tell us that the principles of one man/one vote and representative government are the essence of our democratic liberty. Interestingly, the people who are credited with inventing the institution and certainly gave us the word–I mean of course the Greeks–did not regard elections as particularly democratic.

And now mixing dubious theory and dubious history:

Real power, in principle, was invested in the assembly of the sovereign people. Officers had to be chose, but elections, so the ancient Athenians understood, can be bought by the rich, who can either pay directly for votes–as Joe Kennedy, apparently, did for his son Jack in the West Virginia Primary–or they can corrupt the voters by giving them free food–as the great Cimon did in Athens–or by promising to elevate the poor and servile above the rich and free, which many politicians have been doing for over 100 years.

Democracy means, literally, rule by the demos or people.  But what is the demos or people?  Is it everyone who happens to be living in a place or is it restricted, as it was in Athens, to free male adult citizens who are descended from citizens?

Time to fold sortition into the mix, and add a generous quantity of elitism, and a spoonful of xenophobia:

[F]or the Athenians the demos was also a community withthin the commonwealth, an urban neighborhod or rural village.  Scholars now use the term “demes” to describe these little communities, but in Greek it is just demos.  It is a little like the Italian notion of the paese, which can mean both nation and village.

The Athenians, perhaps going back to Solon’s day, employed two democratic principles:  1) a sorting out of the better candidates by tribes or communities.  This eliminated the riffraff, bankrupts, and trouble-makers from the pool,  2) selection by lot, which eliminated the possibility of buying the vote.   Our democatic systems, by contrast, is a fool-proof method for finding the least qualified political hacks who are then sold to the public by massive PR campaigns that could more appropriately be employed to market contaminated meat, Chinese-made appliances, or the sort of “music” promoted by Simon Cowell and Rick Rubin.

At this point, Fleming makes a solid fundamental point:

Peter Laslett, one of the most acute political analysts of modern times, said that politics only took place in face-to-face communities, such as an Athenian deme, an English village, or the House of Commons.  The great structural problem in politics, then, was to bring the village communities into harmony with the house filled with political actors.  Laslett thought–and here he lapsed into naivete–that representative elections did the trick of reconciling popular communities with the ruling community.  They do not.

But he cannot help but revert to standard Right-Wing dogma on his last paragraph:

Whatever democracy once meant in ancient Athens or 19th century Switzerland has no relevance for a bloated and despotic bureaucracy that rules the lives of over 300 million people, telling them what materials can be used in their children’s clothing, dictating the historical lies that fill our textbooks, promoting the fraud of synthetic fuels that raise the price of basic foods without contributing significantly to either cleaner air or energy independence.

And how can you conclude if not with a snark at the commoners:

If you are a television-watching American, you may regard this description as a sign of insanity.  My only response is to tell you to go out and vote for the party of your choice.  It’s a free country, isn’t it?


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