The Death of Democracy

This article is right about a whole lot.


Tom said...

I agree with his broader thesis, but I think in the case of the US he is a little off. Gridlock itself is not evidence of a failure of democracy. Far more important is the recently-discovered political oppression by the IRS and EPA, and a serious lack of trust in all three branches of government (according to pollsters, anyway).

Grim said...

He's right about the absence of shared values, though. It's not clear that it makes sense to have a nation with a single set of laws, when we disagree so fundamentally about what might make laws right or just. That's not sustainable.

Cass said...

You act as though this sense of shared values once existed. I'm not at all sure that it did, Grim. What do you base this on?

Texan99 said...

And what were the values we shared? I have to wonder if I share many of them.

What I value in a civilization is structures that enable people to live together nonviolently with a minimum of agreement on ground rules. Broad consensus is great if you can get there by honest persuasion. Consensus by coercion is an unstable equilibrium, to be avoided in all but emergency conditions--"emergency" to be defined in some way that retains its essential characteristic of "rare."

Civilizations thrive if they can pull off a consensus on essential values. Pulling that off is so hard that it would behoove us to figure out what's "essential." Any time it appears we can disagree about something without countenancing theft and murder, I'd like to see us agree to disagree.

Grim said...

I wrote a long response to your question, Cass, that seems to have vanished. Essentially I was giving credit to the author's frame that we had forged a kind of consensus by the end of WWII. I think it was based around (to answer Tex's question) a combination of a patriotic response to the Japanese/Nazi threat, continued by the Communist threat; a commitment to pluralism, especially in religion, that nevertheless permitted a recognition of a Christian core that was normal and therefore deserved a certain privilege in social arrangements; and a creative culture centered on Hollywood that reliably produced reinforcement for these values.

We've seen a cultural consensus break down before, of course. The Founders had a rough set of Enlightenment values that came apart, because of economic interests and the Great Awakening's powerful anti-slavery argument convincing a part of the nation that the other part was utterly immoral. Our earliest period was contentious, but saw compromises time and again. At some point, the ability or the will to compromise ended.

We're at that point again now.

raven said...

It is not only the set of laws in question, it is the application. We have arrived at a point where the law is rigorously enforced against certain parties and ignored when the favored commit crimes- and the magnitude of the crime is irrelevant.

Cass said...

Grim, I often get the feeling when we have these discussions that you're airbrushing away the parts of our history that don't support the conclusion that we're on the otter slide to hell.

A brief cultural consensus that required an existential threat to bring it about doesn't strike me as something one relies upon as a pillar or foundation. Just like looking to the 1950s (an anomaly, almost no matter how one looks at it) as some sort of touchstone of "how things used to/ought to be" seems misguided.

People close ranks in response to outside threats, but this response is by nature temporary.

I'm pretty sure your grasp of history is better than mine, so I'm very surprised to see you looking backward through rose colored glasses. Just as I distrust the "our forefathers were mindless brutish oppressors" narrative on its face, so I distrust the "everything was better back then and that's what we need to get back to" school of thought.

What we need to do, IMNSHO, is deal with the world we live in just as our parents and grandparents did. We play the hand we're dealt. Our lives are easier by almost any yardstick one might use.

I don't understand how one argues that democracy is dying when there are more democracies than at any other time in history?

Cass said...

We have arrived at a point where the law is rigorously enforced against certain parties and ignored when the favored commit crimes- and the magnitude of the crime is irrelevant.

Can we honestly say that wasn't true at other points in American history? I'm not trying to be argumentative - this is a serious question.

Grim said...


The point I'm making is that you can't have the society we've sort-of enjoyed since the Second World War without such a consensus. We can have a brutal society -- America was a brutal place during the industrial revolution period, during the slave states period (in some respects; both industry and slavery permitted a growth in wealth that also produced a capacity for refinement in the non-oppressed areas). It was very brutal in the Civil War, and in the post-Civil-War period there were military governments and a colonialist policy that destroyed the wealth of an entire region, reducing free as well as former slave into a servitude born of abject poverty. The period of unionization was one in which the US Army's chief mission, between the end of the Indian Wars in 1867 and WWI, was suppressing striking American workers. Jim Crow speaks for itself.

The only way to avoid that kind of brutality is to have a consensus on what right looks like. Tex says she wants a society that can enable civilized relations without such a consensus; I don't think that can be demonstrated to have ever worked, and I doubt that human nature makes it possible.

It's a difficult problem. We're a nation founded on the idea that the legitimacy of government is wholly derived from the consent of the governed. Not the consent of the Founders, given once and forever, but a continuing consent. But we no longer agree about what kind of government we might consent to. At some point that means the government isn't legitimate anymore: and, before that point, that it is perceived (and will be treated) by subsets of the population as illegitimate.

That problem, too, requires some kind of agreement (and therefore a restoration of consent). Or else it requires force; but if it's force that is used, there must be some level of force at which the government has admitted that it isn't legitimate enough to rule by consent.

That's Turkey, right now. Maybe it's us, soon.

Texan99 said...

"Tex says she wants a society that can enable civilized relations without such a consensus [on what right looks like]."

Not quite. I favor a moral consensus on the value of leaving people to make up their own minds about issues that don't involve theft, fraud, assault, or murder. (In "theft," I include forcible redistribution of resources.) That's a pretty tough consensus to come to: a towering moral challenge that requires a heroic notion of mankind and a deep respect for the essential freedom of one's brothers, sometimes at great cost to oneself. It's enough of a challenge for the most morally ambitious civilization, without also trying to ensure that people agree on "a Christian core that was normal and therefore deserved a certain privilege in social arrangements." (Not that I even disagree with the latter so much, either, as long as "a certain privilege in social arrangements" doesn't have the police power behind it--because I suspect that some of those privileged social arrangements would have put me in a box.)

I would say that human societies of today are as humane as they've ever been, on average, and that what marks our present success is not a greater consensus on a broad spectrum of issues of right and wrong, but a greater willingness to leave many of those decisions to individual consciences and the power of persuasion among free people. There are still places in the world where heresy is punishable by a parade of horribles up to and including death, but they're the least attractive places by my lights.

Grim said...

I'm not thinking of any boxing of Tex. I'm just thinking of things like the 'winter holiday' coming at Christmastime, and being usually called "Christmas" even on official school calendars, as long as reasonable accommodations are made to others who have other holidays. Or a recognition that a law might reasonably enforce a Christian moral value -- against, say, bestiality or polygamy -- even if there weren't any good reason for the law that you could frame into words beyond, "It's a traditional part of the kind of society that gave birth to our nation."

If you want a towering respect for human freedom, though, I'm not aware of any other ground for it beyond the Christian ground of the dignity of the soul and the divinity behind the gift of free will. You won't find anything like that in Confucian society, or Hindu, or even ancient Greek or Roman philosophy. It's rooted very much in the high Medieval critique of philosophy, as for example in Aquinas' insistence on reinterpreting Aristotle in light of revealed truths about the dignity of the individual soul; or Defensor Pacis; or the Declaration of Arbroath.

Some people try to root it in the Enlightenment, but Kant's Metaphysics of Morals was just an attempt to give an account for ordinary Christian morality from pure practical reason. He failed, but persuaded Enlightenment thinkers that it was plausible. That's where we got the idea that you could break out the Christianity from the freedom, but as we've seen in practice, where it hasn't led to bloody French Revolutions, it's led to a steady wearing away of the parts of the moral account that can't be given in strictly logical terms (and even some of those).

Texan99 said...

Certainly my own towering respect for human dignity and freedom is founded in my Christianity. It does not follow that I am entitled to impose most of my Christian beliefs on others, even if they would be better off agreeing with me, if imposing my views is inconsistent with respecting their own freedom and dignity. I consider that I'm limited to persuasion on most issues -- that is, ones that don't rise to the level of theft, fraud, assault, or murder.

E Hines said...

Christianity isn't a suicide pact. It does not follow that I am entitled to impose most of my Christian beliefs on others, even if they would be better off agreeing with me, if imposing my views is inconsistent with respecting their own freedom and dignity.

Up to a point. Where their acting on their views impacts my freedom and dignity, I get to tell them, "No." Forcefully if needs be, and if I must impose my beliefs in order to get them to desist from trying to impose theirs on me, then so be it. I'm not at all limited to persuasion in my own defense. My house, my rules.

They joined our social compact, we didn't join theirs. Our house, our rules.

As to the consensus we once had, it seems to me that consensus, from our founding, was of limited government working for us, personal freedom, personal responsibility for our own actions, and personal duty to help those less well off than us who needed the help. The last three flowed, as Grim intimated, from our Judeo-Christian heritage and from our later recognition of the free will imbued in us by our Christian God. The first was a consensus mechanism of how to enact and protect the three; most of the dissents were in the details of the mechanism.

Where the consensus is lost today, it seems to me, is in the increasing faith in government as the primary actor, and not the individual, in dealing with the responsibility and the duty.

Eric Hines

Eric Blair said...

You didn't have consensus after WWII really, what you had was effective propaganda and a fairly rigid, believe it or not, class system/hierarchy/structure, that while permeable to the individual with talent and the right looks, was nonetheless, able to shut out lots of groups of people. WWI and WWII changed that, by the monstrous scale of the events, but their effects took quite a long time to play out. Generations, in fact.

It's not that people didn't think differently, its' more that it was a lot harder to have your say. Now we got the internet, and we still don't know what exactly it will end up enabling people to do.

Ymar Sakar said...

Several Western countries took advantage of post WWII propaganda and unity to bring in socialism. The logic was that the purity of patriotism and unity which worked so many great wonders for humanity in WWII, can be harnessed in peace as well.

For social justice and utopia, they fought for, even if that meant stepping over the body of Winston Churchill or other warriors of the war.

Btw, being right is nice, but it won't save people from being dead (+right).

The support of your culture, friends, neighbors, and fellow travelers is of no value in a war when the goal of everyone involved is to bow to tyranny and talk about peace.