By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
When I graduated from The Citadel and was commissioned an Army officer I took an oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Democracy made us masters of our own destiny, and we have made a mess of it. Pogo got it right when he said, We have met the enemy, and it’s us.
Long before Pogo, Plato and Edmund Burke made the same damning observation about democracy, and George Will recently did the same. As the world’s most affluent nation, America has burdened its economy with massive deficits, created vast disparities of wealth and corrupted its culture with racism and polarized politics--and we have only ourselves to blame.
America was born as a slave-holding nation of self-proclaimed Christians. Our Founding Fathers left us a Constitution that provided a libertarian structure for a democratic republic that emphasized freedom and justice; but in the face of slavery a divided church lost its moral compass and left a moral political vacuum in America. It set the stage for a terrible Civil War.
That war ended slavery, but not racism. In the 1960s civil rights laws prohibited racial discrimination, and real progress was being made against racism; but the Republican Party exploited racism and elected Donald Trump president in 2016. With Trump’s emphasis on white supremacy to make America great again, race relations regressed back to the 1950s.
Along the way, a distorted form of Christianity known as the prosperity gospel displaced the altruistic teachings of Jesus in many white churches with the self-centered objectivism of Ayn Rand. It has since become the religion of an unholy coalition of America’s super-rich on Wall Street and white evangelicals who have supported Trump with a religious zeal.
For Americans to save their democracy from the dustbin of history they need to learn to live by the greatest commandment to love God and their neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as they love themselves. It’s a moral imperative of faith taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and accepted by Muslim scholars as a common word of faith.
The greatest threat to American democracy is not an external enemy, but us. To prevent the fabric of democracy from unraveling again, Americans must conform their self-centered, materialistic and racist partisan identity politics to the altruistic moral standards taught by Jesus; and that requires balancing our individual wants and rights with providing for the common good.
In November, Americans will go to the polls in person or by mail to elect our next president. We will determine whether America continues to be a nation hopelessly divided by racist “us versus them” partisan politics, or whether we reaffirm America as “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” The choice is ours--and ours alone.
Plato (428-328 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher who gave birth to modern political theory. Plato defined five political regimes: aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny. His ideal was an aristocracy ruled by a benevolent “philosopher king,” and he was critical of a democracy since it evolved from an oligarchy “where freedom is the supreme good but freedom is also slavery. In democracy, the lower class grows bigger and bigger. The poor become the winners. People are free to do what they want and live how they want. People can even break the law if they so choose. This appears to be very similar to anarchy.” In a democracy people are consumed with unnecessary desires that “we can teach ourselves to resist such as the desire for riches. The democratic man takes great interest in all the things he can buy with his money, and is more concerned with his money over how he can help the people. He does whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. His life has no order or priority.” In summary, Plato opposed democracy since he believed the majority of people didn’t know what was best for them. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato%27s_five_regimes. Generally, see Wiliam Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers, Plato to the Present, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NewYork (1962), pp 1-64. That was a primary text in my political science courses at The Citadel.
Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a British statesman who reflected on the French Revolution when he cautioned American colonists on the dangers of democracy: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is wihttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip)thin, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” See https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/154445-reflections-on-the-revolution-in-france. See also Wiliam Ebenstein, Great Political Thinkers, Plato to the Present (1962), cited above, at page 472.
Burke “was a leading sceptic with respect to democracy. While admitting that theoretically in some cases it might be desirable, he insisted a democratic government in Britain in his day would not only be inept, but also oppressive. He opposed democracy for three basic reasons. First, government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that occurred rarely among the common people. Second, he thought that if they had the vote, common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be aroused easily by demagogues, fearing that the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Third, Burke warned that democracy would create a tyranny over unpopular minorities, who needed the protection of the upper classes.” See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmund_Burke#:~:text=Burke%20was%20a%20leading%20sceptic,democracy%20for%20three%20basic%20reasons.
Walt Kelly’s Pogo (1948-1975) confirmed the political philosophy of both Plato and Edmund Burke on democracy, and many of my generation were influenced by Pogo’s astute observations on politics from the prow of his pram in the Okefenokee swamp. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo_(comic_strip).
George Will recently opined that America’s democracy is plagued by irresponsible populism and “floundering elites.” After 245 years, the U.S. “as the world’s oldest constitutional democracy now has many old European anxieties, including elites as inevitable; therefore, so are populist resentments.” Will confirmed the shortcomings of democracy by citing Robert Michels (1876-1936), who postulated the “iron law of oligarchy” using “oligarchy” and “aristocracy” interchangeably, Will then cited Ghia Nodia for the premise that “democracy presupposes an impossibility: ‘the people’ being in charge ...with the masses naturally passive and predisposed to accept decisions made by the few people with the interests and skills to participate directly in politics and governance. And the principle of representation — the people do not decide issues, they decide who will decide — inevitably opens what Nodia calls a ‘mental and cultural gap between the rulers and the ruled.’ Hence a ‘democratic deficit’ is inherent in democracy. MIchels joined Benito Mussolini’s fascist party, for populist reasons he never renounced: A charismatic autocrat can provide “direct” democracy, bypassing the chimera of representation by embodying the will of the people. When Mussolini criticized democracy, he meant the parliamentary sort, not the glorious ‘democratic’ fusing of the leader (Duce, Fuhrer, Mr. “I alone can fix it”) and the led.”
Will then cited Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama, who said that “after the upheavals of 1989-1991, the former ‘captive nations’ embraced the democratic part of liberal democracy, but not necessarily the liberal part. . . . The result was the emergence of illiberal democracy in places such as Hungary and Poland.’ Illiberal democracy is a species of dictatorship. In the United States, illiberal democracy, seeping from campuses, is abetted by a technological disappointment — the failure of the Internet and social media to be instruments of enlightenment.”
Will also cited Martin Gurri who has asserted ‘the information sphere today contains an immense universe of voices interested in talking about ever-fewer subjects.” ...Social media addicts, left and right, ‘stand ferociously against the present as ‘a nightmare of injustice,’ the right glorifying the past’s utterly vanished greatness, the left rejecting the past as a pollutant of the present, and everyone adopting ‘the web’s rhetoric of the rant.’ Today’s arsonists and looters are acting out the protesters’ principles that the nation is founded on genocide and slavery, and is dominated by white supremacists. If so, why not burn it down? In the current disorders, Gurri says, mayors and governors have succumbed to ‘infantile panic’ ...“Those in charge continue to bleed out authority, and the democratic institutions they represent have begun to totter. Since we, the voters, elevated them to office, the supreme lesson of this troubled moment should probably be how to replace them with competent grown-ups.’ ...Elections produced today’s floundering elites; fresh elections promise an infusion of more of the same.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-us-is-facing-many-old-european-anxieties/2020/09/01/bf06722a-ec74-11ea-ab4e-581edb849379_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_opinions_pm&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_popns
On October 19, 2016 during my third-party campaign for Congress I described how the election of Donald Trump could (and did) illustrate how people in a democracy can “forge their own shackles.” The article is as relevant today as it was 4 years ago. Let’s hope this November will not be deja vu all over again. See https://www.carolinagatewayonline.com/content/barnes-column-partisan-politics-will-go-back-future-after-election.