FRIED LIGHT: Democracy in the obnoxious stage

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By Roger Snodgrass

The problem with both democracy and freedom is that they complicate how to make people do what you want them to do.

Plead, cry, wink, pound a fist, roll your eyes, stomp your feet – those tactics don’t always work, but which of us has not pulled a face or had a fit to get our way?

Force is one way around the problem, which is what people mostly did before there were other options.

As the English political philosopher and author of “Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbs put it, “Not believing in force is not believing in gravitation.”

Most of human history is the story of force working its way through political and military impediments and eventually dying out or getting killed by a counterforce or chain of reactions.

A gentler, kinder form of force is called persuasion. Wrapping force or manipulation in deceptive language or rhetorical devices draws less blood, but can be equally coercive if it is going to do the job.

There are at least two kinds of persuasion, one that is skeptical of human nature and one that sees an avenue of hope.

Alexander Hamilton, who was much indebted to the Hobbsian school of thought and was one of the fathers of American conservatism, laid it right out there. “Your people, sir, is a great beast,” he said.

All sorts of tricks and devices have been devised for getting around the problem of uncontrolled beastliness, starting with the Athenians, who gave democracy a name, but allowed very few people into the voter pool.

Hamiltonian influences persisted to keep freedom-loving, equality-espousing Americans from having a direct vote for their U.S. Senators until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913. Before that, state legislators elected senators, a step removed from the will of the people. Black men had been technically given the right to vote in 1870, but it would not be until 1920 that any women were given that honor.

The Electoral College in which each state’s voters elect the same number of presidential electors as they have representatives in Congress is a vestige of the same beastly fears, explaining in part how Al Gore could win the popular vote in 2000, but lose the election based on electoral votes.

To this day, direct participation of the disenfranchised raises new fears of beastliness that also invoke Hamilton’s qualms about the dangers of “popularity.”

Hamilton’s philosophic and political rival Thomas Jefferson thought arbitrary royal power should not simply be replaced by the arbitrary power of a few – “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride legitimately, by the grace of god.”

In order to guard against this result, Jefferson thought education was not just a practical matter, but was absolutely necessary for American democracy to survive.

He didn’t think the human condition would ever reach a state of perfection, but he did believe that an informed and educated citizenry could make up for other problems in human nature.

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education,” he wrote in a characteristic statement. “This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

As many people have observed in recent years, and not just people romanticizing a golden age, we have gone through a terrible period of dumbing down in our country. There are hard numbers to prove this deterioration, not to mention the heavy toll we are actually paying.

We have not made good decisions; we have not held off the inevitable gravity of pure force. We may be enfeebled for the job of correcting abuses, constitutional or economic, as the case may be.

But as down and out as most of us are these days, you can count on this: We know where we came from. We know where we've been. And we still know the way to get home.