Sunday, September 9, 2012

Thought of the Day: the Forgetfulness of the Demos


There are many asymmetries in the political contest between the elite class of any society and the common people (what the Greeks called the demos, root of the word democracy).  The simple fact that the elite are fewer than the people works to their advantage, for example, because it allows them to be more unified and focused in pursuing their interests, whereas due to numbers the people’s interests are many and their focus diffused.  This unified, persistent focus enables elites to make more effective use of their resources -- money, power, knowledge, education, leadership skills -- and to acquire even more of those resources.  I think that easier focus and persistence among the few elite is why political fortitude is such an important civic virtue for the demos to have: they are less focused simply by virtue of being more numerous, and they have to inculcate the quality of fortitude to make up for it.

Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy,  pointed out another asymmetry: whereas most common people are focused on the quotidian activities of making a living and caring for family, the positions of power and wealth where the elite dwell tend to attract greedy, narcissistic, power-hungry types who are interested in dominating others; at any given time those at the top are likely to be far nastier in their character than regular people are.  The people are more interested in simply not being dominated.  Machiavelli thus concluded that when designing a constitution you should invest political power in the common people, who would be much less likely to abuse it and better motivated to protect liberty.

Another asymmetry, one that America really struggles with, is political memory.  The elite succeeds in part because the people, with their many varied interests and a focus on daily life rather than wielding power, are more forgetful of past political events.  Americans certainly lack long-term political memory in that they don't know much of history: most are only exposed to a simplistic summary version of American history in high school and college, and learn almost nothing of European or world history.  (And the kind of “history” that conservatives promote is revisionist, jingoistic, and hagiographic.)   But common people also lack short-term political memory.  They often don't have to mind elite abuses and other political events from within living memory or from even just a few years ago.  A stronger short-term political memory alone would go miles towards exposing elite lies and allowing people to correct the world’s problems.  Thus people need assistance to remember.  This is supposed to come in two forms: good education, including history, and a fourth estate of critical expert journalists who have recorded the elite's track records and actively  remind the people of what's been said and done.  We lack both of these, and that’s one reason why democracy is in trouble.  

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