Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0142, October 15, 2017


  The Oxymoron of Democracy

     "A Ghost in the Woods"

Copyright 2017 by S.W. Paul Wyszkowski

     "Demos" is Greek for "the people" and "kratos" is Greek for "rule (in the sense of 'governing')" hence "democracy": rule or government by the people, the rulees being the very same people. In other words, self-government. That's feasible for one person with well established identity or a tightly knit group of people (a tribe) sharing the same beliefs and opinions, but unworkable for large numbers of diverse people. "Self-government" is meaningless unless you can identify a unifying common "self".

     Demagogues get around this problem by whipping up a synthetic "self" for any given crowd on the spot and turning it into a single minded mob. Kings and autocrats solve the problem by ruling the people absolutely - none of that democracy nonsense. The king knows best by divine grace and the autocrat is simply the biggest bully and the loudest mouth on the block. These are practical solutions to governing (and potentially exploiting) a miscellaneous and widely variegated populace. Democracy is not.

     Self-government is feasible only to the extent the people believe in some kind of "self" shared in common for whose benefit they are willing to compromise and co-operate. That is the principle behind the republic ("res publica", Latin for "the public thing" or "common cause"). This is a limited form of democracy which is actually potentially viable.

     The problem that the "United" States of America is facing currently is that its common cause has become unclear. Americans are divided on what, if anything, characterizes our identity as one nation and it does not help that a sizeable minority has adopted as its common cause intentional sabotage of whatever national common cause is still struggling to survive. Their reactionary common principle seems to be "every [white] man for himself (women and children tag along) and devil take the hindmost". This principle, incidentally, requires personal arms to enforce since it calls for a weak central government tolerated as a barely necessary evil.

     In a republic, the central government, theoretically chosen by the people, represents the nation's self - it's common beliefs and aspirations. A weak government - a weak nation. For such a loosely held together nation, unable to find and commit to a vital common cause there is only one way to return to unity and strength: via a dictatorship or, marginally better, an oligarchy of plutocrats, the contemporary version of royalty.

     "But," says Prickles, our resident scholar in politics and an astute hedgehog, "surely that cannot happen in the United States where the majority subscribe to the e pluribus unum and a Constitutional government?". Don't forget, many also believe in unlimited personal liberty and identify pursuit of happiness with acquisition of money and power. "So what's to happen to us? Is there a way out of this reckless slide into incoherent individualism?" Prickles asks anxiously. How about a growing diversity standing up to brute tribalism and an increasingly global perspective overcoming our individualistic navel gazing? Unless we shut ourselves in behind a wall these trends are actually inevitable. "You think so?" Prickles is unconvinced. I'm an optimist.