Autocrats, plutocrats, authoritarian ideologues and elitists of all stripes speak often of the people’s inability to govern themselves in a complex world that requires expertise – namely, the self-justifying expertise of the elite themselves. With surprising frankness, federal appeals court Judge Richard A. Posner summed up the elite’s paternalistic rationale:
Few citizens have the formidable intellectual and moral capacities (let alone the time) required for the role that [popular democracy] assigns to the citizenry…
The anti-democratic sentiment is hard enough to stomach. But what really galls is the blindness to an indisputable fact of history: it’s the autocrats, plutocrats, dictators, duci, fuhrers, imperial presidents and corporate barons who have lacked the necessary “intellectual and moral capacities” to cope.
Even historically exalted leaders are usually only those who’ve succeeded in cleaning up the messes of their predecessors. And they do it by widening their circle of advisers, sometimes all the way to the people they serve. Franklin Roosevelt comes to mind. The years of his administration saw a major spike in broad government/political engagement and voter turnout.
I’ve been reading historian Miranda Carter’s entertaining new book, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, about the cousin-emperors (Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and King George V) who helped lead the world into the catastrophe called World War I. Yep, they were cousins. In some ways we can thank the 19th Century’s Queen Victoria for the bloody 20th . She spent most of her time intermarrying mentally infirm members of the royal families throughout Europe and Russia. Her grandson, King George V, even created the name “House of Windsor” out of whole cloth, scrapping the true, pan-European royal name – the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha – in a tip of the crown to English nationalist fervor. But blood feuds are thicker than spin.
Carter writes with a novelist’s flair, and it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for her characters, the overwhelmed and genetically unprepared royal families. Still, they were political idiots.
A good metaphor for the cause of their failings is the disease called porphyria, which plagued George III (you know, the one the American Revolution fought against), and others in the royal families. Porphyria causes peripheral neuropathy– the peripheral nerves can’t communicate to the central nervous system. Political porphyria, then, means the leader is disconnected from the people.
In just the way the biosphere needs diversity, the pluralistic human universe needs nourishment and enrichment from multiple perspectives and diverse views and opinions. In fact, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the emergence of a new global economic and political elite is accompanied by a loss of biodiversity. Diversity and egalitarian pluralism are what the elite want to overcome.
Porphyriacs can’t feel their feet, and they won’t notice they’ve cut them off until they need to walk.
It’s not lost on the elite that the world is fast approaching the inevitable global Resource Wars. And that means that in America, the real struggle is between democracy and plutocracy, as the plutocrats place as many barriers as possible (voter i.d., secrecy, assaults on privacy, great income disparity and enforced poverty) between the government and the governed. They may not affect a science-fiction escape to another planet, but they might escape to Dubai.
That real struggle, though, is disguised in the same way George V renamed his family the House of Windsor. The genealogy of plutocracy is hidden in the language of democracy. This is most apparent in the approach of cable news to politics. Drape a little red, white and blue bunting on the set, and presto incognito, the plutocrat becomes Thomas Paine.
Advocates of popular democracy ought to have allies among libertarians and some of the more sensible tea partiers. Too often, though, these unhappy actors are not really anti-authority or pro-popular democracy at all. They just want to be in charge.
Nuclear proliferation, global climate change, the wrecking of continents (Africa) and cities (New Orleans), starvation deaths, financial collapse, tragic and bloody warfare, infrastructure decay, the threat of disease pandemic, all of these and more are the responsibility of generations of leaders who argued that the incompetence is the people’s. I guess we ate their homework.
This is why it’s urgent that we move toward authentic popular democracy. Short of the guillotine, we should enact full public finance of campaigns, universal voter registration and election-day holidays, tough privacy laws and strict limits on surveillance and search, etc. Of course, these kinds of things are often ridiculed as “process” issues that don’t capture the emotions and imaginations of voters. We can keep telling ourselves that until, pretty soon, there won’t be any voters at all.
The greatest danger lies in pretending that we have perfected democracy. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush came to power, and voters played a role, to be sure (less so in the case of the Supreme Court appointed Bush). But we ignore the pernicious, democracy-warping influence of big money and media bias and over-simplification at our own peril. Blame is also misplaced when we point the finger at “the people” – the Right’s ongoing blame of 1960s civil rights, anti-war or poverty protestors, for instance – instead of at the Robert McNamaras, Henry Kissingers and other plutocrats.