in our fractured union
DEMOCRACY AS A DISTRACTION
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
to secure the good of the others
has already secured his own.
In our American republic,
democracy is allegedly easy to recognize. We the people seek
change and progress via regular presidential elections. Every
four years, proclaims our national mantra, electoral politics
offer us the best form of human governance. If only we can choose
the right person, we will be alright. How could it be otherwise?
if this reasoning were actually correct, the state of our fractured
and segmented union would be considerably more enviable. The
undiagnosed fallacy in America’s quaintly democratic mythology
lies in a core confusion of cause and effect. Here, elections
and politics represent consequences or results, not causes.
In the more formal language of philosophy and science, they
institutions are always reflections of a far deeper truth. This
still-hidden truth lies in the society’s accumulating
inventory of private agonies and collective discontents. No
institutionalized pattern of democracy can ever rise above the
severely limited ambitions, insights, and capacities of its
citizens. In short, it is not for elections to cast light in
us be candid. We the people inhabit a withering national landscape
of crass consumption, incessant imitativeness, and dreary profanity.
Bored by the banality of everyday life and beaten down by the
struggle to avoid despair in a nation of stark polarities, Americans
will grasp apprehensively for any convenient lifeline of hope.
is more. Intellectual life is taken seriously almost nowhere.
Nowadays, the life of the mind in America is a very short book.
Once upon a time, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written of an American
democracy based on “high thinking and plain living.”
Today, virtually every young person’s aspirations have
far more to do with the accumulation of visible wealth than
with the acquisition of wisdom. Already in 1776, Adam Smith,
in his Wealth of Nations, had observed that any society founded
upon such a debased inversion of values could be shaped only
by a desperately meager measure of citizen self-esteem.
happens every four years, we the people remain unaffected by
any corollary feelings of gainful private thought. Instead,
obsessed with social networks, reality television, and 'fitting
in,' our preferred preoccupation lies in a shamelessly voyeuristic
ethos of indulgence in other people’s joys and sufferings.
when it is expressed as an incantation, can replace rational
judgment. We Americans still tend to think against history.
In the end, we are presently rediscovering, even the most ardently
democratic societies can be transformed into plutocracies.
We are taught that there will be tantalizing opportunity for
wealth and advancement in the ‘free-market.’ Only
later, however, do some finally recognize this market for its
most durable and injurious underpinnings. Inevitably, these
are the interpenetrating but opaque expectations of war, sex,
the most affluent Americans now inhabit the loneliest of lonely
crowds. Small wonder, too, that so many millions cling desperately
to their cell phones and Facebook connections. Filled with a
deepening horror of having to be alone with themselves, these
virtually connected millions are frantic to claim recognizable
membership in the democratic mass.
belong, therefore I am.” This is not what philosopher
René Descartes had in mind when, back in the 17th century,
he had urged skeptical thought and cultivated doubt. This is
also a very sad credo. It essentially screams the demeaning
cry that social acceptance can be as important as physical survival.
democracy is also making a machine out of Man and Woman. In
an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it now even seems plausible
that we have been created in the image of the machine. Whatever
happened to more elevated origins?
the election hoopla continues to heat up, we Americans will
remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy
and suffocating crowd. Proudly disclaiming any sort of interior
life, we will proceed, very conspicuously, at the lowest common
denominator. After all, erudition now markedly out of fashion
is obviously beside the point.
American democracy’s real enemy remains a pervasively
unphilosophical spirit, one that insistently demands to know
nothing of truth.
a professor for more than forty years, it is easy to see that
our colleges are now typically bereft of anything that might
hint at an inquiring spirit. What matters presently is only
that an investment in college proves cost-effective. As for
the once-revered Western Canon of literature, art, and philosophy,
it has been supplanted by an expanding pragmatism. It goes without
saying that there can never be any American democratic redemption
in a quest for learning or even beauty.
faced with genuine existential threats, millions of Americans
insist upon diminishing themselves daily with assorted forms
of morbid excitement, supersized bad foods, shallow entertainments,
and the distracting blather of presidential politics. Not a
day goes by that we don’t take note of some premonitory
sign of impending catastrophe. Nonetheless, our exhausted democracy,
still seeking its redemption in periodic elections, continues
to impose upon its fragile and manipulated people, an open devaluation
of critical thought.
even if we should somehow manage to avoid a nuclear war, further
economic dislocation, and mega-terrorism, the swaying of the
American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest
lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships
of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie
forgotten. Instead, we will finally understand that the circumstances
that could send the compositions of Homer, Goethe, Milton, and
Shakespeare to join the disintegrating works of long-forgotten
poets were neither unique nor transient.
ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato had already understood
the obligation of politics to make the “souls” of
the citizens better. In these United States, presidential elections
necessarily have more tangible objectives. At the same time,
our citizens continue to place too many of their transformational
bets on the next presidential contest. Oddly, they neglect to
consider that an elected president can never rise above the
self-imposed limitations of an exhausted American electorate.
may not matter much which candidate is successful. This is not
an imprudent or gratuitous argument against democracy and elections,
but rather a well-reasoned plea for more penetrating forms of
American political understanding. As recognized accoutrements
of democracy, elections are perfectly fine, even commendable,
but they can never hope to fix or transform what is truly important.
For such deeper and indispensable forms of remediation, we will
finally need to split open and cast away the false reassurance
that certain political institutions can rescue us.
we must acknowledge that a viable American democracy requires
a widening and inalienable inner sovereignty. No democratic
society and polity can ever really be better than the qualitative
total of its individual human underpinnings. In a crudely trenchant
metaphor, Nietzsche reminds us that, “When the throne
sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.”