Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

How democracy changed

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The perception of democracy as the tyranny of the largest, lowest class of people has persisted since Plato, but in the shadow of a new concept of the state, the twentieth century has changed our definition of democracy.

It is gratifying to look back on a prior post to recall a thought and to find that I’d recorded something worthwhile. How clever I was.

It is much more gratifying, however, to look back on a prior post and find the opposite—that something I wrote is clearly in need of revision. How far I’ve come.

As long as this revision process is not futile in its infinity, or infinite in its futility, it seems that something must have improved between then and now. Or maybe not,* but I like to think so.

Operating under this assumption, I ought to revise a prior post, which suggested that the concept of “democracy” has changed significantly over time—but without explaining what really seems to have changed. Clearly, and as I so aptly noted, one of the defining differences between Plato’s “democracy” and modern “democracy” is the strange method of sortition. Sortition, or casting lots, was a trademark of the ancient concept of true democracy. It was the means by which the demos acknowledged the equality of men. To instead cast ballots (as in ancient Athens) was considered aristocratic, oligarchic, and—generally—preferable.

I’ve explained all of this already, with the implicit conclusion that today’s democracy differs only in that one regard—that it chose not to employ sortition as its means. And yes, while this certainly is a practical difference, it is only superficial, and perhaps misleading.

What is so interesting about the “democracy” of the last sixty years, the democracy of today, is its moral weight—its near-universal acceptance as a superior form of government. This is in direct contrast to Plato’s experience. Was it when sortition was suddenly outmoded, then, that we all became modern, electoral democrats, simply redefining an aspect of the term? Was this why we were now in possession of  this “highest form of political or social organization” (UNESCO, 1951)? Or this “worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Churchill, 1951)?

One need only to refer to the Framers of the Constitution of the United States to see that it was not so simple. The Framers were suspicious of democracy because, to them, it meant the “tyranny of the majority.” This was not Plato’s democracy that the Founders spoke of, either—it was ostensibly modern democracy. Electoral democracy. Clearly, sortition was not the problem that they had in mind. The problem was that there was still a class of people, the “majority,” who would tyrannize the minority—with votes. This “majority” was unequivocally the “lower class,” and the conventional political wisdom at the time was that if someone had to be a tyrant, it ought not be the lower class.

But today, seemingly having brushed off those early concerns, democracy is no longer associated with the dangers of the tyranny of the lower class. Our modern conventional wisdom, and American elementary school education, suggests that the reason that these dangers disappeared—which were once a central concern for both Plato and the Framers and many in-between—was because of the “checks and balances” set up by the U.S. Constitution.

Certainly, much of the subsequent stability of the United States’ system can be attributed to that clever balance of powers, but history should disabuse us of the notion that democracy’s class-association simply disappeared. Especially by overtly assigning an aristocracy to limit the destructive capacity of the common people, as the Constitution did.

The Jacksonian era (1830s) may be the best example of the persistence of the theme of “class rule.” Jackson’s Democratic party saw itself as the expression of the will of the common man, the producer, who was naturally at odds with the unproductive banker-and-speculator class, the plutocrat, who was represented by the Whigs. It was significant that Jackson’s party line worked.

If anything, the rapid industrialization of the Reconstruction Era and Gilded Age, up to the turn of the century, only widened the chasms between the owners of capital and the working class—the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—and enforced the class-rule fears of democracy. Indeed, it is difficult to view these developments independently of contemporary Marxism-Leninism, which foresaw and encouraged the revolution of the productive working class against the idle owners of capital.

But try as it might, the world never gave birth to a true proletarian revolution as Marx would have had it. Neither did the Jacksonian Democrats, nor the later Populists, ever come to tyrannize the tycoons. The twentieth century instead brought forth a class of technocrats who could deliver on the former promises of the Whigs—economic prosperity, cryptically redistributed to all (nineteenth-century Reaganomics). Except these were now the Democrats delivering on these promises, harnessing the taxing, banking, oversight, and coercion capacity of the state as never known before. What could be called “distributive politics” began, and the state’s beneficent oversight did not—indeed could not—limit its “distributions” to any particular class. Everyone, from the poverty-stricken worker to the successful corporate industrialist, would have their affairs arbitrated and rectified, in some capacity, by the state.

Not only did the state begin to serve as a referee, and perhaps a dividing screen, between the classes (minimum-wage laws, working-conditions legislation, industrial and banking oversight); but it also conspicuously raised the lowest standards of living. Both the material wealth distinctions and the relational animosities between the haves and the have-nots shrank considerably. An all-inclusive social group emerged—those who were in thrall to a powerful state.

Class, while it would certainly persist, would not play a similar role in elections after this modern variety of state emerged. American lower-class interests, in the aftermath of these changes, became many, varied, and politically heterogeneous. Today’s political parties, it can be noted, reflect this change, whereby a young Cleveland machinist and a retired D.C. defense-industry CEO are voting for the same party. Even granted our modern, industrialized, urbanized context, this development would seem strange to Plato and John Adams. This is most certainly not the democracy that they knew.

But it is this strange development toward a twentieth-century democracy which has understandably won the imagination of the whole world, and which now also threatens to plunge whole societies into the factionalism and class war that democracy—absent a strong, liberal state—has traditionally fostered.

Our collective misunderstanding of the meaning of “democracy,” with what meaning remains in the word, will only strip it of all descriptive power and make it all the more certain that such mistakes will be made. The twenty-first century is sure to be ripe with them.


*From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent 
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument 
About it and about: but evermore 
Came out by the same door where in I went. 


Written by M. James

September 5, 2013 at 3:31 am

Posted in History, Politics

Tagged with , ,

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