By Paul M. Lewis
A number of people have recommended to me an article written by the brilliant, conservative-leaning intellectual (graduate of Oxford and Harvard), Andrew Sullivan, published in the most recent edition of the New York magazine, entitled “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic.” Its subtitle goes on to say, “And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.” In it, Sullivan makes a convincing case for the notion that over time democracies become almost too democratic, what he calls hyper-democratic, and as such they tend to implode on themselves. Within that context, he goes on to quote Plato, who tells us that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”
Although Sullivan nonetheless still maintains that democracies are wonderful places to live, he says—no doubt, rightly so—that nothing lasts forever. Indeed, the excesses of democracy are all too often seen in the passions and the tyranny of the mob. The Founding Fathers did what they could to temper this, but over time such protections have eroded away. As an example, just look at the untrammeled chaos, the blind furor of the zealots in the current primary season. Sullivan refers to this as “last stage political democracy.”
The excesses of social media, seen on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere, are further examples of unregulated democracy. If it were not so, why would China, and other repressive regimes (North Korea also springs to mind) want to limit, or even forbid, its access? The web itself has virtually no monitors, no elite experts who can serve as intellectually legitimate analysts to correct errors, or to call a lie a lie. Either that, or there are so many claiming to be experts that, in the end, no one knows who is legitimately so, and who is not; there is no longer anyone to modulate people asserting themselves or their pet ideas, or to say, “No, what you are claiming is misleading, untrue, even immoral.” Hyper-democracy, in other words, seems to bring us to the point of what might be called hyper-equality, wherein the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of each person are sacrosanct (we are all equal, after all) and automatically asserted to be on the same level as those of everyone else, no matter how unskilled or inexpert they may be. Where then is judgment, circumspection, logic, prudence, let alone wisdom? As a result, we get a presumptive Republican nominee for the highest office in the land in Donald Trump, who is the very epitome of uncouth, uncultured, uneducated, even unprincipled, self-aggrandizement. In other words, the brashest, to say nothing of the richest, gets to speak the loudest and rises to be the leader of the pack. As Orwell said so presciently back in 1945, speaking, ironically, about communism, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
As brilliant an essayist as Sullivan is, and as thorough and insightful an analysis as the article provides (I highly recommend that it be read in its entirety), it seems to me that virtually any political system can ultimately devolve into tyranny, and that democracy is no more susceptible to doing so than any other. I suppose it could even be asked: how many other forms of government are there, aside from democracy itself and tyranny? Just look at two of the other largest and most powerful countries of the world, Russia and China. Nobody would accuse either of them of ever having been hyper-democratic, as much as Russia may have made a few tentative steps toward democracy once communism fell. There is little doubt today that each is caught up in the throes of an increasingly repressive dictatorship. Indonesia can be cited as another example of a country that went through the horrors of the tyrannical Suharto regime, only to emerge briefly and hopefully into the light of democracy, having elected Joko Widodo (aka, Jokowi) in 2014; sadly, however, he now appears to be leading his country back towards a form of hyper-religious rigidity, if not outright dictatorship. Virtually all of the promising Arab Spring movements toward democracy, too, have surrendered to dictatorship and tyranny. Gen. el-Sisi in Egypt, as just the latest example, has taken away most of the rights of civil society that hopeful democrats had, not so long ago, thought to be within their grasp. And look what happened in Libya once the hated dictator fell, with help from the democratic west. Can it be said that the tyranny of a dictator was any worse than the tyranny of warring clans, or the horror of an emerging ISIS? The point once again is that these, and many other countries that could be cited, collapsed into oppression and subjugation, not out of a context of hyper-democracy, but out of either the chaos of their own recent history, or a long-standing predilection toward autocratic rule.
My fear is that people generally—no matter what form of government they live under—have a built in penchant, even a longing, for a “big daddy” who will take control, rule their lives, and tell them what to do and when to do it. All too often, we want to be relieved of the burden of having to think, analyze, and make difficult decisions on our own. This may especially be so when the world becomes even more complex and confusing than it normally is, or when outside factors over which most of us truly have little or no control, things such as the globalization of the world economy and even the terrible effects of the ever increasing warming of the globe, come into play. When this happens, people become desperate for plain, simple answers, ones which they either do not want to parse out themselves, or which they feel themselves incapable of grappling with. They want relief from the burden of needing to live in a more or less constant state of questioning, uncertainty and unpredictability. When such times come about, the Trumps of the world rush in to offer surety, decisiveness, and an ability to get things done now, not after endless dithering and debate, while democracy makes its slow, messy, erratic, moody, and unpredictable way forward. The supporters of Donald Trump, like those of Xi in China, or Putin in Russian, or Jokowi in Indonesia, or Erdogan in Turkey—many others could be added—want certainty in an uncertain world, and are all too willing to go along with the scapegoating of disempowered minorities by way of easy explanation.
As simple as it sounds, it takes a lot to live with ambiguity. It takes a kind of centeredness within oneself, a sureness of who one is, and a belief that this identity will not change, no matter what happens out there in a disordered and topsy-turvy world. But that is not easy. Many of us (myself included, I admit) are not all that comfortable with change; we find it unsettling, disconcerting, and unnerving. But the world is, by its very nature, variable, fluctuating, inconsistent, an unpredictable place in which to live.
Still, while all of this may certainly be true, it does not relieve each of us of the responsibility of facing the world head on, whether shivering in our boots, or cursing with all our might against the vicissitudes of ill-starred fate. Donald Trump, with his simplistic promises of making American great again, and pointing a finger at whoever his latest scapegoat may be—criminal illegal aliens stealing our American jobs, or terrorist Muslims hiding behind every bush, ready to pounce on an innocent and unsuspecting populace—will not be able to rescue us, no matter how much anyone may want him to.
Democracy, even with all of its flaws and failings, and its all too human tendency toward chaotic imperfection, is still always better than dictatorial tyranny. And if, as Sullivan notes, hyper-democracy can be a gateway to autocratic totalitarianism, then so be it. If this is the case, it’s up to each of us to prevent that from happening. Who else is there to do it? If we can learn to be more comfortable with ambiguity, and take on a little more responsibility for informing ourselves and making things right that have gone wrong, then maybe we don’t need someone out there to do that for us.
Maybe America already is great, not because Donald Trump asserts that he can make it so, but because we, the people—you and I—are capable of taking on the task of responsible self-government. In the end, it’s up to us to make some mature decisions and not opt for the easy fantasy of an imperious and domineering generalissimo, riding in to deliver a hoped-for, if ever illusive, rescue. It’s our choice and, with hard work and determination, we really are capable of making democracy work for all of us, no matter what late stage our political life may find itself in.