Democracy in decline, prey to numbness and inaction
The Long View
This infrequent column always strives to take the long view. Here is a very long one: Governance by representative democracy is but a hiccup in the history of the world. From time immemorial, human societies have been ruled by autocracies that oppress the vast majority of people who are not in the tiny ruling class.
Autocracy was our collective past, and may well be our collective future.
Montesquieu (1689-1755) wrote that the basic principle of democracy is “the love of the laws and of [the] country,” and that it requires “a constant preference of public to private interest” on the part of individuals who aspire to hold public office, and “self-renunciation” in favor of service to the greater good. Democracy can be fatally corrupted, he wrote, by “the spirit of inequality,” which he defined as some citizens seeking to advance their own agendas and private interests at the expense of the others, including the acquisition of political power over those others. Montesquieu believed that democracy would only work for modestly sized states.
In the 22nd century — should human beings survive that long on Earth — it feels to me at the moment that the era of representative democratic governance will be gone. Looking back from then, historians will judge that the era notable for such attributes as fair-mindedness, attempts to better the lives of the poor, and capitalism that “works” for the benefit of the majority of people lasted less than 300 years total, from the latter part of the 18th century until the middle of the 21st.
Democracy’s initial blossoming coincided with the onset of capitalism. Adam Smith’s major work on capitalism and the Declaration of Independence were both issued in 1776. Future historians will take as a given that large-scale democracy could not have prevailed if not in tandem with capitalism.
However, today we are in the throes of what has been termed “end-stage capitalism,” with the vast majority of added wealth increasingly going to a very privileged few, and the remainder of us dividing a smaller pie. The decline of democracy and the updraft of wealth to the very top tier are inextricably tied, and one of the characteristics of today’s vote-denial movement is that the very wealthy are using the undereducated and the severely impoverished to accomplish their ends, while allowing that underclass to take the brunt of the criticism for what the privileged want and from which the very rich will benefit the most.
To maintain our democracy requires that citizens are able to vote in a free and fair manner for our leaders, and to do so while taking for granted that the decision of the majority will then be accepted by those who backed the candidates who did not win. In this regard we should remember that other countries such as Russia regularly hold what they label as votes of the populace, and then tout the results to show that their leaders have been “democratically” chosen and their decisions validated, even though that is far from the truth. The recent votes in the eastern provinces of Ukraine, to become part of Russia — votes held at actual gunpoint, by armed men going house to house — are a case in point. We should also remember that Hitler was elected more-or-less democratically.
Today’s American election deniers, and those pledged to overturn the votes of the people if those votes don’t agree with the pledgers’ picks, and the racially and politically motivated gerrymanderers, and the judges bent on destroying the Constitution in the guise of defending it, are gaining ground rapidly. I am not sanguine that their rising tide can be stopped, because the vast majority of us are so content with our lot that we cannot believe we will lose anything of value to us should the deniers take over.
So please vote in the upcoming election. It will likely be your last chance to do so in a free and fair way, and in a representative democracy, and for candidates pledged to the continuance of our democratic institutions and way of life. If you don’t vote in 2022, by 2024 the issue may be moot.
Democracy will likely not die in fire but in the ice of numbness and inaction.
Salisbury resident Tom Shachtman has written more than two dozen books and many television documentaries.