The David Horowitz Freedom Center will be hosting an evening with Bruce Thornton in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014. For more information, click here.
21st century Americans have come to take democracy for granted as one of the comforts of modern life, like electricity or plastic, a thing that exists unconsidered as the foundation of their convenience. You hit a light switch and the light turns on. You push a button and politicians carry out your will.
The wars of the last century were defined as wars for democracy and the wars of this century have also been fitted into that mold, becoming not wars against external enemies, but wars for the assertion of the popular will of the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq. All wars have become wars of democracy.
19th century America exported religion. 21st century America exports democracy.
Internally however democracy has degenerated into billion dollar elections fought with armies of consultants, polling firms and volunteers who expertly divide and conquer the populace through their infinite identity politics subdivisions on behalf of the wealthiest men in the country fighting to preserve and promote their status quo of a powerful central government and its oligarchic corporations.
The ruling left vocally demands that its leader fulfill their demands by violating the Constitution. They assert that since he won the popular vote in two elections, he can disregard the mere process of ancient laws. Democracy trumps republic just as the Democratic Party trumps the Republican Party.
It is this political climate of Obamaphones and attack ads, free stuff and mob rule, that Bruce Thornton enters with his new book, Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents. Thornton sees a country that has tilted too far toward the populism of the voting booth and too far away from the structure of a republic. Our collision of tyranny and greed has come from the mangling of a carefully constructed lawful structure.
Freedom requires firewalls, not only against the direct power of government, but also against the indirect power of the popular vote through government on the freedom of the individual. We need defenses not only against the tyranny of a tyrant, but also against the tyranny of King Mob.
The American system created firewalls against tyranny by limiting the power of any individual, in or out of politics, to influence the system. Not only did the branches of government have to be set against each other, but the popular vote could not be allowed to so thoroughly control the system that it would become a slave to the popular will and in turn enslave every individual to the latest poll and trending topic. As America has weakened its structural defenses, it has enslaved the individual to the group.
In Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents, Bruce Thornton traces the weaknesses of democracy from Athens to the modern revivals of democracy and the imbalances of power that they manufacture. Thornton suggests that the challenges raised by the critics of Athenian democracy remain unanswered and that those unanswered questions continue to haunt our system of government today.
The radical political transformations of the last century merged democratization and centralization into a soft tyranny that promised to fulfill the people’s short term wishes and needs at the expense of their autonomy. It plugged them into a collective system that exploited the populist image of democracy to erode the structural republicanism that made individual freedom and responsibility possible. The false association between political power and freedom continues to undermine our efforts, not only in the United States, but abroad where democratically elected Islamists implement populist tyrannies.
We think of Democracy as a means of empowering the individual and yet it’s difficult to look at the shapeless masses weeping over Obama’s election and see the individualism. The epithet of “mob rule” is often seen as an elitist critique of democracy, but it should instead be seen as an individualistic critique.
There is no room for the individual in the ranks of the mindless mob. Mobs operate on a hysterical consensus. They are as intolerant of the individual as any tyrant.
As Thornton shows us in Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents, the greatest threat to democracy has always been democracy. Unmetered democratization is far likelier to end in tyranny than a republic structured and steeped in law and tradition. And if it does not end in tyranny, then its own weaknesses, its unwillingness to sacrifice comfort for the steadfast virtues, Obamaphones for armies, will undo it.
The progressive shift generated a soft despotism of complex systems that are built on promising to meet the needs of the people, but never quite meet them, resulting in a constantly expanding system that is forever trapped in a race between populist demagoguery, unsustainable spending and frustrated anger.
The system promises to save us from ourselves while dismantling the processes that would allow us to save ourselves from it.
As America faces threats from barbarian bands such as ISIS and from rival states such as Putin’s Russia, its politics have concentrated away from the big questions of the future and toward the immediate demands of angry mobs for the free things that they assert a primal moral entitlement to. Like Greece and Rome, the United States is being consumed by rival factions who vie for the favor of the mob, by sybaritic despots who play at being the patrons of the citizenry even as they despoil them and who think no further than their next cup of wine or their next golf game.
A republic vests power in the responsible, but unmetered democratization provides endless means of shifting responsibility. The people blame the leaders for fooling them with false promises. The leaders blame their predecessors. The buck keeps being passed around until it’s worn and torn to pieces.
Freedom and good government cannot exist without responsibility. Thornton argues that the progressive experiment with democratization is replicating the mistakes of ancient Athens. American exceptionalism is a powerful force, but underestimating the flaws of human beings and subsuming good judgment in empty idealism is a timeless formula for destroying nations.
Character, it has been said, is about transforming what you need to do into what you want to do. Democratization reverses that cycle of responsibility by pandering to human weakness. If we are to retain a republic, it must be built on character, on doing what we need to do as a nation.
America can either be a nation of free things or free people. It can be a place that upholds the dignity of the individual or subsumes him under the clutching hands of a grasping mob prying loose the free things that they were promised by their democratic masters.
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