I don’t mean my post. I mean this one, by Sean Illing: 20 of America’s top political scientists gathered to discuss our democracy. They’re scared. “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”
It’s a longish piece, because it’s a summary of the views of a number of serious scholars. A summary of the summary would be of little utility to you, so please read Illing’s post. But I will share, first what the author calls “My (depressing) takeaway.” Then I will share my own.
Illing’s (Depressing) Takeaway
Back in June, I interviewed political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, authors of Democracy for Realists. They had a sobering thesis about democracy in America: Most people pay little attention to politics; when they vote, if they vote at all, they do so irrationally and for contradictory reasons.
One of the recurring themes of this conference was that Americans are becoming less committed to liberal democratic norms. But were they ever really committed to those norms? I’m not so sure. If Achen and Bartels are to be believed, most voters don’t hold fixed principles. They have vague feelings about undefined issues, and they surrender their votes on mostly tribal grounds.
So I look at the declining faith in democratic norms and think: Most people probably never cared about abstract principles like freedom of the press or the rule of law. (We stopped teaching civics to our children long ago.) But they more or less affirmed those principles as long as they felt invested in American life.
But for all the reasons discussed above, people have gradually disengaged from the status quo. Something has cracked. Citizens have lost faith in the system. The social compact is broken. So now we’re left to stew in our racial and cultural resentments, which paved the way for a demagogue like Trump.
Bottom line: I was already pretty cynical about the trajectory of American democracy when I arrived at the conference, and I left feeling justified in that cynicism. Our problems are deep and broad and stretch back decades, and the people who study democracy closest can only tell us what’s wrong. They can’t tell us what ought to be done.
No one can, it seems.
Aardvark’s Depressing Takeaway
Illing’s “no one” obviously includes your humble scrivener.
But let me say this about that.
It’s a terrible idea not to teach civics to our kids. But—for exactly the reasons Illing laid out in the first two paragraphs of the quote above—Jefferson’s democratic yeoman farmers and workers are never going to save us.
Confucius was right: society won’t work unless the 君子 are not only rich and powerful but also the moral leaders of society. (Or at least, Aardvark would add, unless at least some significant number of them assume the mantle of moral leadership.)
Jesus was right: where much is given, much is required.
Aristotle was right: the best form of government is a republic, not a democracy.
James Madison was right to adopt Aristotle’s insight.
Woodrow Wilson, who had a lot of flaws and probably did not know much about Confucius, was right to establish the motto, “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.”
Now, the graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton become investment bankers.
West Virginia coal miners and Ohio steelworkers, out of a job, have addicted themselves to opioids.
The best and the brightest have addicted themselves to money.
Of the two addictions, the addiction to money is worse, because it destroys the soul.
And the love of money is pretty much the root of all evil.