Perhaps the oddest idea regarding democracy is the belief that more than five people want it. Other curious notions are that it quite exists, or ever did, or is particularly desirable, or likely to endure.
Few say this. We are all subjected in high school to advertising slogans about Truth, Justice, Freedom, the Will of the People, and Inalienable Rights. High-minded catch-phrases precede and spur all revolutions, whether American, French (“Liberty, equality, fraternity!”) or Russian (“Workers of the world, unite.” “The dictatorship of the proletariat.” “From each according?.”).
In the American case, principled na?fs like Tom Jefferson and George Mason saw democracy, or said they saw it, as the road of the future and an instrument of morality. It would make things better. It would end tyranny, the preferred form of government in Europe at the time.
It did, pretty much. Or did if you were not an Indian, a miner in West Virginia, an indentured servant, a black, or a kid of ten being sweated in New York’s garment industry. In Europe, tyranny was imposed by the central government, usually an inbred royal family that bled when touched. In America it was under local control, spread over tenant farms and cotton fields. The political right pretends this didn’t happen, and the political left pretends that nothing else happened.
The United States, as it became, progressed less because of political democracy than because of economic freedom. Then as now, most of the electorate knew little of the issues. Votes, depending on the period, were delivered by machines in cities at the command of political bosses. Newspapers, the closest thing to television until television, were as manipulated and manipulative as the media are today. Then, as now, pols understood that it profited more to gull fifty rubes than to try to persuade one the informed. It was democracy of a sort, though not the sort trumpeted in texts.
Part of the conventional hooha is the notion that people want democracy, and will defend it to the death. To believe this is to misunderstand the very foundation of politics. Most people wanted, and want, only to be comfortable — i.e., fed, warm, dry, secure, amused, and sexually satisfied.
Tyranny has existed chiefly because it has been the only way for tyrants to live in what passed in their times for luxury. Until recently, the productivity of societies was so dismally low that the only way to be rich was to concentrate the exiguous wealth of the poor, which meant almost everybody. The way to do this was to get a sword and some henchmen and systematically rob everyone else. You needed the sword because, when a peasant didn’t have enough to eat in the first place, he didn’t want you to take half of it to have banquets in your castle. He would be likely to object fatally if he could figure out how.
Democracy appealed to him because he thought it meant he could keep his crops. It was the only reason it appealed. If he had enough to eat, he didn’t care what went on in Paris. He still doesn’t.
But today the factories are so immoderately fecund that almost everyone can live at a high standard. (A double-wide with a satellite dish, Internet connectivity, a pick-up truck and a beer supply is in fact a pretty high standard of living. Ask a thirteenth-century peasant.) Consequently oppression isn’t needed: The impulse to revolt is nonexistent.. Prosperity is the opiate of the masses.
And of tyrants. Those who in another century would have inclined to tyranny don’t have to bother. They can get filthy rich by jiggering the stock market, doing leveraged buy-outs, or engaging promiscuously in real estate. Swords have become unnecessary. A Donald Trump can sack New York without putting anyone to death. Such is our national wealth that, after he has done it, no one notices.
The other incentive to tyranny was power. However, the flood of goods that pours from factories permits those who crave power to get it without riling the peasants (you and me). These, after all, are happy with their SUVs and home theater. Putting it succinctly, sufficient ambient money severs rapacity from oppressiveness. Men who would have butchered countries no longer have to. They can instead sell aircraft companies, elect governors, and otherwise enjoy, more or less harmlessly, the psychic emoluments of potency.
Which may not be a bad deal.
In any event, the principle that comfort trumps democracy underlies society today. We have the trappings of elections, the theater of close counts, the excitement of watching the polls ? that is, the emotions associated with a tight football season. But what real influence do we have? Can we divert the remotely chosen path of our children’s education, alter or even speak against the flow of immigrants across our borders, question racial preferences? No. These things are decided for us. We can lose our jobs for speaking of them. The more things matter, the less we can say.
Freedom? We have economic freedom, yes: We can start a computer company if we are smart enough, work hard enough, and find the capital. This keeps the ambitious from becoming radical.
We can exercise any freedom that doesn’t endanger the status quo. We can live where we want, change jobs, watch pornography, read seditious books and even write them (provided we don’t seek wide circulation), and buy endless things we don’t need or much want. But we can’t speak our minds.
Two things allow the appearance of democracy without the substance. The unanimity of the media permits the inculcation of appropriate values, while not providing lateral communication between individuals. The Internet changes this, but apparently in no practical sense. The other is the satisfaction of the drives for food, comfort, sex, and entertainment. Satiety breeds indifference.
Things could be worse. If you want to read the classics, or teach them to your children, you can. You just can’t get the schools to teach them. Any book you want, any music, any vacation, any sport from golf to hang gliding, you can easily find. Existence is as secure as it is likely to get. Software gets better. Cable sometimes offers five hundred channels, I hear, or will soon. Life is good.
It is only the important things that are decided quietly, far away, by the political classes who know where the country should go, who know what is right and will, gradually, without any jackboots at all, make us what we should be.