Democracy's Arc

The troubling news about methane releases from the Arctic ocean that was the focus of last week’s post on The Archdruid Report belongs, as I mentioned then, to the wider trajectory of industrial society’s decline and fall, not to the more specific theme I’ve been developing here in recent months. The end of America’s global empire takes place against the background of that wider trajectory, to be sure, and core elements of the predicament of industrial civilization bid fair to play a crucial role as the United States backs itself into a corner defined by its own history. Still, important as the limits to growth are just now, there’s much more at work in the endgame of American empire.

Thus this week’s post will plunge without further ado from the austere heights of atmospheric chemistry to the steaming, swampy, snake-infested realities of American politics. It’s a jarring shift in more ways than one, since everybody basically agrees on what methane is, what the atmosphere is, and so on; the terms that frame debates about the greenhouse effect and anthropogenic global warming are clearly defined and bear some relationship to observable fact. We don’t have that advantage in  politics. In particular, the possibility of an intelligent conversation about American politics is hamstrung by the spectacular distortions imposed on basic terms by nearly everybody involved.

The worst example, and the one I propose to explore this week, is democracy. It’s hard to think of a word that’s bandied about more freely, but I keep on waiting for Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride to stand up and say his classic line: “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

On both ends of American politics, for example, democracy is for all practical purposes defined as a political system in which a majority of voters will support whatever group happens to be using the word at that moment. That definition can be seen at work most clearly in the shrill insistence, common these days over much of the political spectrum, that the United States isn’t a democracy; after all, the argument runs, if the United States was a democracy, the people would vote in favor of their own best interests, which of course just happen to be identical with the platform of whoever’s talking. The fact that this claim can be heard from groups whose ideas of the people’s best interests differ in every conceivable way—for example, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—simply adds to the irony.

Behind the rhetoric is a conception of democracy that has nothing in common with the real world, and everything in common with the Utopian fantasies that have come to infest contemporary political discourse. When Americans talk about democracy or, with even richer irony, “real democracy,” they usually mean a system that does not exist, has never existed, and can never exist—a system less real than Neverland, in which the free choices of millions of individual voters somehow always add up to an optimal response to the challenges of a complex age, without ever running afoul of the troubles that inevitably beset democratic systems in the real world.

Here’s an example.  Nearly all those who insist that the United States is not a democracy cite, as evidence for that claim, the fact that our elections are usually corrupt and sometimes fraudulent. Now of course this is quite true; the winner in an American election is generally, though not always, the candidate that has the most money to spend; the broader influence of wealth over America’s media and political parties is pervasive; and election fraud is as much a part of American culture as baseball and apple pie—the Democrats who waxed indignant about the rigged election returns from Florida in 2000, for example, by and large seem to have gone out of their way to forget about the voting machines at the bottom of Lake Michigan that put John F. Kennedy in the White House in 1960.

Does this prove that the United States isn’t a “real democracy”? Not at all. This is how democracies actually function in the real world. Under a system of representative democracy, the people who have wealth and the people who have power are by no means always the same; some of those who have wealth want power, some of those who have power want wealth, and the law of supply and demand takes it from there. That extends all the way down to the individual voter, by the way. Give citizens the right to dispose of their votes freely, and a significant number of them will use that freedom to put their votes up for sale—directly, as in old-fashioned machine politics, or indirectly, by voting for candidates who provide them with goodies at the public expense. There’s no way to prevent that without depriving citizens of the right to vote as they choose, and you can’t eliminate that and still have a democracy. 

By this point I suspect some of my readers may be wondering if I’m opposed to democracy. Quite the contrary, I’m very much in favor of it; despite its problems, it beats the stuffing out of most systems of government. It has three benefits in particular that you don’t usually get in other forms of government.

First, democracies tolerate much broader freedom of speech and conscience than countries ruled by other systems. I can critique the personalities, policies, and (as here) fundamental concepts of American government without having to worry that this will bring jackbooted thugs crashing through my door at three in the morning; in nondemocratic countries, critics of the government in power rarely have that security. Equally, I can practice the religion I choose, read the books I prefer, carry on conversations with people in other democratic countries around the world, and exercise a great many other freedoms that people in nondemocratic countries simply don’t have. These things matter; people have fought and died for them, and a system that makes room for them is far and away preferable to one that doesn’t.

Second, democracies don’t kill anything like as many of their own citizens as most other forms of government do.  The history of the twentieth century, if nothing else, should have been enough of a reminder that authoritarian governments come with a very high domestic body count. All governments everywhere kill plenty of people whenever they go to war, and all governments everywhere go to war when they think they can get away with it; imperial democracies also tend to build up very large prison populations—the United States  has more people in prison than any other nation on Earth, just as Britain in its age of empire shipped so many convicts to Australia that they played a sizable role in the settling of that continent.  Still, all other things being equal, it’s better to live in a nation where the government doesn’t dump large numbers of its own citizens into mass graves, and democracies do that far less often, and to far fewer people, than nondemocratic governments generally do.

Finally, democracies undergo systemic change with less disruption and violence than nondemocratic countries do. Whether we’re talking about removing a failed head of state, coping with an economic depression, dealing with military defeat, or winning or losing an empire, democracies routinely manage to surf the wave of change without the sort of collapse such changes very often bring to nondemocratic countries. The rotation of leadership hardwired into the constitutions of most successful democracies builds a certain amount of change into the system, if only because different politicians have different pet agendas, and pressure from outside the political class—if it’s strong, sustained, and intelligently directed—very often does have an impact: not quickly, not easily, and not without a great deal of bellowing and handwaving, but the thing does happen eventually.

All three of these benefits, and a number of others of the same kind, can be summed up in a single sentence: democracy is resilient. Authoritarian societies, by contrast, are brittle; that’s why they can’t tolerate freedom of speech and conscience, why they so often murder their citizens in large numbers, and why they tend to shatter when they are driven to change by the pressure of events. Democratic societies can also be brittle, especially if they’re newly established, or if a substantial fraction of their citizens rejects the values of democracy; still, all other things being equal, a democratic society normally weathers systemic change with less trauma than an authoritarian one.

One measure of this greater resilience, ironically enough, may be seen in the lack of success radical groups generally have when they try to delegitimize and overturn an established democratic society.  Rhetoric that would bring a brutal response from authoritarian governments get little more than a yawn from democratic ones. A few years back, the phrase “repressive tolerance” was the term for this on the American far left. I doubt those who denounced it under this label would have preferred to be dragged from their beds in the middle of the night, shot through the head, and tumbled into an unmarked grave; the rest of us, certainly, have good reason to be thankful that that’s not the way America generally deals with its dissidents.

That aside, there’s equally good reason to want a system in place just now that can handle systemic change with the smallest possible amount of trauma and violence, because we’re headed for a great deal of systemic change in the years and decades ahead. Part of that is due to the wider trajectory of industrial society I referenced toward the beginning of this essay, part of it is due to the ongoing decline of America’s global empire, but a good deal of it comes from a different source

The Greeks, who had a penchant for giving names to things, had a convenient label for that source: anacyclosis. That was the moniker coined by the Greek historian Polybius, who chronicled the conquest of Greece by the Romans in the second century BCE. He noted that the squabbling city-states of the Greek world tended to cycle through a distinctive sequence of governments—monarchy, followed by aristocracy, followed by democracy, and then back around again to monarchy.  It’s a cogent model, especially if you replace “monarchy” with “dictatorship” and “aristocracy” with “junta” to bring the terminology up to current standards.

A short and modernized form of the explanation—those of my readers who are interested in the original form should consult the Histories of Polybius—is that in every dictatorship, an inner circle of officials and generals emerges.  This inner circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the dictator or, more often, simply waits until he dies and then distributes power so that no one figure has total control; thus a junta is formed. In every country run by a junta, in turn, a wider circle of officials, officers, and influential people emerges; this wider circle eventually takes advantage of weakness at the top to depose the junta, and when this happens, in ancient Greece and the modern world alike, the standard gambit is to install a democratic constitution to win popular support and outflank remaining allies of the deposed junta. In every democracy, finally, competing circles of officials, officers, and influential people emerge; these expand their power until the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy, political collapse follows, and finally the head of the strongest faction seizes power and imposes a dictatorship, and the cycle begins all over again.

It can be educational to measure this sequence against recent history and see how well it fits. Russia, for example, has been through a classic round of anacyclosis since the 1917 revolution: dictatorship under Lenin and Stalin, a junta from Khrushchev through Gorbachev, and a democracy—a real democracy, please remember, complete with corruption, rigged elections, and the other features of real democracy—since that time. China, similarly, had a period of democracy from 1911 to 1949, a dictatorship under Mao, and a junta since then, with movements toward democracy evident over the last few decades. Still, the example I have in mind is the United States of America, which has been around the cycle three times since its founding; the one difference, and it’s crucial, is that all three stages have taken place repeatedly under the same constitution.

A case could be made that this is the great achievement of modern representative democracy—the development of a system so resilient that it can weather anacyclosis without cracking. The three rounds of anacyclosis we’ve had in the United States so far have each followed the classic pattern; they’ve begun under the dominance of a single leader whose overwhelming support from the political class and the population as a whole allowed him to shatter the factional stalemate of the previous phase and impose a radically new order on the nation. After his death, power passes to what amounts to an elected junta, and gradually defuses outwards in the usual way, until a popular movement to expand civil rights and political participation overturns the authority of the junta. Out of the expansion of political participation, factions rise to power, and eventually bring the mechanism of government to a standstill; crisis follows, and is resolved by the election of another almost-dictator.

Glance back over American history and it’s hard to miss the pattern, repeating over a period that runs roughly seventy to eighty years.  The dictator-figures were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, each of whom overturned existing structures in order to consolidate their power, and did so with scant regard for existing law. The juntas were the old Whigs, the Republicans, and the New Deal Democrats, each of them representatives of a single social class; they were overthrown in turn by Jacksonian populism, the Progressive movement, and the complex social convulsions of the Sixties, each of which diffused power across a broader section of the citizenry. The first cycle ended in stalemate over the issue of slavery; the second ended in a comparable stalemate over finding an effective response to the Great Depression; the third—well, that’s where we are right now.

There’s no shortage of crises sufficient to tip the current system into its final stalemate, and no shortage of people in the political class who show every sign of being willing to give it that final push. The great difficulty just now, it seems to me, is precisely that fashionable contempt for democracy as it actually exists that I addressed earlier in this essay.  In 1860, that habit was so far from finding a place in the political dialogue that the constitution of the Confederate States of America was in most respects a copy of the one signed at Philadelphia a long lifetime before. In 1932, though a minority of Americans supported Marxism, fascism, or one of the other popular authoritarianisms of the day, the vast majority who put Roosevelt into the White House four times in a row expected him to maintain at least a rough approximation of constitutional government.

That’s much less true this time around.  Granted, there’s less public support for overtly authoritarian ideologies—I expect to see Marxism make a large-scale comeback on the American left in the next few years, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post—but as Oswald Spengler pointed out almost a century ago, in the endgame of democratic societies, it’s not the cult of ideology but the cult of personality that’s the real danger. As the Russian proverb warns, it’s never a good idea to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; in our time, as a growing number of Americans insist that America isn’t a democracy because it doesn’t live up to their fantasies of political entitlement, it’s all too possible that one or more mass movements could coalesce around some charismatic figure who offers to fix everything that’s wrong with the country if only we let him get rid of all those cumbersome checks and balances that stand in his way.  How many of the benefits of democracy I listed above would survive the victory of such a movement is not a question I would like to contemplate.

End of the World of the Week #20

Roberto Vacca’s The Coming Dark Age got plenty of favorable reviews when it saw print in Italian in 1972, and English and other languages in 1973. As apocalypses go, Vacca’s was as lively as it was up to date. He argued that the industrial societies of his time had reached so high a level of complexity and interconnectedness that they were riding for a very hard fall; all those linkages and complexities meant that cascading crises that would bring one system crashing down after another, leaving the people of the industrial world struggling for survival without transport, power, food, or water, had become a statistical inevitability and would begin by 1985.

Except, of course, that it didn’t. Ironically, Vacca, a computer scientist, missed the fact that the complexity whose risks he described wasn’t an independent variable; it was being driven by the rise of exactly the computer technology that was making high complexity manageable, and would make it even more manageable in the decades ahead. Despite the failed prediction, or possibly because of it, The Coming Dark Age marked the coming of age of a flurry of apocalyptic prophecies that relied, as Vacca’s did, on the questionable claim that extreme worst case scenarios sooner or later have to come true. We’ll discuss another of these next week.

—for more stories like this, see my book ApocalypseNot