Winston Churchill said this in the early days of the cold war: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Years earlier, the socialist playwright (and, like Churchill, a Nobel Prize winning author) George Bernard Shaw called Democracy, “a government of the fools, for the fools . . .” Even John Adams, shortly after the original American concept was being attempted, had this to say:
“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation.”
Adams, as a matter of fact, feared a Democracy of the people as well, believing most people far too ignorant of the issues facing the world to have any valid say on who should be leading them. He was concerned about the simple greed, the single-minded selfishness of people who would vote exclusively in their personal interests, or to support their own prejudices. John Adams, a blunt pessimist, seemed to see into the future much clearer than any of the other founding fathers.
Today we attack one another with similar fervor, perhaps with more pettiness (or perhaps not), because we believe that those who think differently than we do have no right to their opinions. We condemn they as ignorant or, worse, as traitors to the nation. Enemies of the people. The cause of our imminent collapse.
It is frankly difficult to justify the value of the voice of the people when the people seem to be trapped in the same cyclical argument that refuses to justify itself. Here is an example of how low our political discourse has become. This is a random string of responses I found on Twitter, replying to one of President Trump’s repetitions about the ‘crisis at the border’:
The Dems call them ‘dreamers’ but they are criminals! Why can’t they open their eyes to see the harm illegal immigrants are causing to our Great Country? Keep fighting for America, Mr. President.
As someone who lived in Texas for over 30 years, I am more scared of you than I was of illegal aliens. And I agree we need immigration reform badly, and we need to enforce our laws. But you scare me even more.
This is the sort of Democracy that exists for us, a blind absolutist who does not take individual circumstances into account, and who is perfectly content generalizing everyone and everything not in their immediate sight into the same deadly monster, and someone reacting with obvious partisan exaggeration, trying to back step a little to acknowledge that there really are problems, but, also, placing all of the blame for these issues in the opposite direction. The first respondent you can even see: frothing at the mouth with their fist pumping in the air, a hair-trigger away from a violent response should someone dare disagree. The second person is wishy-washy–trying so damn hard to agree with everything except the source of the problem. It is all justification, “Texas for over 30 years . . . we need immigration reform badly . . . we need to enforce our laws.” That is the heart of this person’s statement, but they complicate it with “more scared of you . . . you scare me even more.” This curious repetition of the same point only emphasizes the fact that this individual claims to be scared. And they are scared of the problem at the border but even more scared of the proposed solution. And the most tragic part of this argument, in the climate we are living, is that it makes perfect sense. Being scared of one thing, but more terrified of another. It is as though there is no longer anything safe, just varying degrees of horror. And that is what is fueling our Democracy.
Yes, I will come right out and say it (and do not think I am separating myself from this broadly generalized judgment): We have no idea what we are talking about. Our opinions are inspired by the various empty sources we pretend give us the truth, and the personal experiences we tend to exaggerate, or even outright fabricate in desperate efforts to rationalize our opinions. Democracy, by its very nature, is a standstill. It is an argument. When it works at all it is because each opposing side stops to listen for a moment, and is capable of modifying their stance–of compromising–and coming to a conclusion that is to the benefit of the whole nation, if not to the warring factions themselves. But, as John Adams warned, “There never was yet a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Right now we are in the hospital after yet another failed attempt. But we seem to be getting better at it. And the harder we close ourselves in, the more we deny this reality, we wind up just like the family and friends of a person who kills themselves: I never saw it! I can’t believe it! Why? Oh why?
Why? Someone told us a long time ago . . .