Andrew Sullivan has written a somewhat ridiculous article in New York Magazine called Democracies end when they are too democratic.
Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread. Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like “a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues.”
This rainbow-flag polity, Plato argues, is, for many people, the fairest of regimes. The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise…
And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.
That’s an entertaining tale, but it’s somewhat silly to suggest the United States has “too much democracy”, if you define democracy as equality. For a long time we have had rule by a stable triumvirate of elites – a civilian government elite, a big business elite, and a military/security/intelligence elite. The big business elite pays off the politicians and bureaucrats in the civilian government so they can produce the propaganda to stay elected, the civilian government makes sure the rules are written unfairly in favor of big business so they can make enormous profits at the expense of the rest of society, and the military/security/intelligence elite gets a huge share of our national resources and free reign to do just about anything it wants abroad, in exchange for not overthrowing the civilian government which it could easily do any time. It’s been a very stable three-legged stool.
In the past there has been just enough upward mobility for those of us in the general population to look the other way and buy into the propaganda enough to keep the system stable. Most of us can’t join the true elite, but the middle class have been able to train in professions and become moderately wealthy, while the working class have been able to get jobs that pay enough to join the middle class. The poor have been too few and too divided to organize politically. I think what is starting to happen is that this system of upward mobility is starting to break down now on a large enough scale that a significant chunk of the population is no longer buying into the propaganda and supporting the elites, and the whole political system is starting to teeter. I think it’s due partly to economic factors outside our control, like automation, and partly due to the short-sighted greed of the elites who are insisting on gobbling up a larger and larger share of a pie that is no longer growing as fast as it once did, if all. Environmental factors may be starting to play a role too, although I am still unsure of that.
True democracy, to me, would be a system that allows us to come to a consensus on policies that most of us, not just a majority but almost all of us, can accept, even if these policies are not everyone’s first choice. In a U.S. context it also has to be about true equality of opportunity, if not equality itself. How can anyone look at what is going on in our society and political system and think we have “too much democracy”?