Mob Rule and Free Stuff from Athens to Obama

democracys_dangers_and_discontent_coverThe 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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  • Norbert Haag

    Very powerful article thanks Daniel

  • tagalog

    Nineteenth Century America exported religion? Other than Mormonism, examples, please.

  • Steve Bryant

    The odds that those who need to understand the principles of this column, will understand it, explain why this nation is doomed. Sad as it may be.

  • Clare Spark

    Populism is rarely engaged; for DG it is the unleashed “popular will”–an idea launched by Rousseau. I have lots of blogs on populist demagoguery here: “Index to blogs on populist demagoguery.” It has an opening paragraph suggesting what is to be found in the index.

  • El Cid

    Natan Sharansky made the point that the essence of democracy is not “one man one vote”, but rather freedom of speech. His acid test for freedom is whether it is safe to speak your opinions in the town square.

    “Democracy” without freedom, as we have seen in Egypt, for example, is nothing more than mob rule. Freedom must come first and people must be motivated to value and protect it.

    • CapitalistPig

      You must have some semblance of a civil society & a high bar to protect individual rights to go along with democracy.
      One man-one vote in the absence of those factors is how you end up with Hamas—one time. There will never be another meaningful election in that part of the world.

  • CapitalistPig

    Charles Krauthammer opined just after the 1st Obama election that America isn’t divided by race or class–it’s divided into the groups who either directly work for, benefit from or are dependent on government–the public sector beneficiaries–& the people who largely toil in the private sector & are stuck paying for this other half.
    It never ceases to amaze me the people I know who are by all other measures, conservative to the core in their personal lives but will mindlessly yank the lever for Democrats because they support “investments in education” at the university they work for or they benefit from an increase in spending on some program or another oblivious to the idea that they are impoverishing their fellow citizen in the process.
    So we have folks working in green scams & useless rail projects with no hope of ever being profitable voting to keep the gravy train moving, tenured professors with lavish pensions & bennies at public universities teaching largely useless topics like feminist studies & colonial oppression drawing 6 figure salaries teaching courses that only train the next wave of professional victims–kids that are given government backed loans & grants that only ensure those same schools will never be run with an eye to a bottom line & of course, the most obvious of all–the directly dependent, those getting food, housing, energy, health & “help” from the billion or so other programs & can be counted on to reliably vote for the party that promises to transfer money from that productive class onto their EBT card or into their SSI Disability check they got from the Medicaid doctor’s diagnosis of Restless Leg Syndrome or Anxiety Disorder. There is an uncomfortably large constituency of voters who will vote without conscience to keep a sweet little gig like that flowing forward.
    There really is little class or ethnicity distinction in those voters. Rich whites or poor minorities –just the “access to government” theme–which votes reliably Democrat…….& the “paying for government” crowd, probably the independent contractor who fixed your AC unit or even a minority owned business who runs your favorite restaurant & who only sees most government as a nuisance rather than a service he pays for & who might have voted Tea Party or for Mitt Romney.
    And that “paying for government” crowd is getting smaller & smaller…… can’t go on forever………

    • Disapp

      Do you have a comment regarding
      government contractors i.e. producers of the EBT cards, computers, software,
      vehicles, etc.? Nearly all forms of industry have become entwined with
      the government via regulations or contractual obligations.

      • CapitalistPig

        Oh, I don’t dispute that, it isn’t a clear line of demarcation like the Berlin wall or anything.
        But there now seems to be an inexorable line that can be drawn between the level of dependency that a voter has from government & his propensity to vote Democrat.
        The hypothetical small business owner who faces ever spiraling taxes, regulations & an increasingly hostile NLRB, no matter his belief that good government is good police, fire & roads isn’t likely to vote D knowing that voting D is just going to increase the size & scope of the entire “package” of government demands while getting only the most minimal increases in what he views as governments proper role.
        And I agree that a company (& its employees) that has a large part of its business tied to government contracts is also likely to support the party that will keep those commitments. But that really goes to my point in that a contractor who is building tanks for the US is doing something government should do–raise & equip an Army–whereas a company out in the middle of rural Iowa (is there any other kind of Iowa?) putting up windmills on some Obama green scam will now support D’s no matter how economically inefficient & unjustified those windmills are & regardless of the idea that government should even be involved in the business of power generation—& of course, in the last election Obama went to Iowa crowing from the barn tops of the Iowans that were employed in building these windmills—-& ethanol subsidies for the farmers.
        Remember the slogan “Bin Laden is dead & GM is alive”? Taxpayers were billed to bailout union jobs & the Democrats promptly started running on the bailout program–I made the argument it became all but a coerced contribution from the taxpayer to the Democrat Party.
        Krautie’s point is whites voted for Obama, the vast majority of Americans don’t give a rip about his skin color–& I would argue most Americans really have no problem with earned wealth–or didn’t anyway………but now wealth & security seems to be increasingly tied to ones access to government & it’s becoming more & more of a negative feedback loop of you believe as conservatives do that there are limits to what government can & should do.
        The ACA is a case in point—get em dependent on the subsidies–then run on the idea that the GOP will “steal” your insurance.

  • trickyblain

    “… 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.”

    Yep. Pretty much they way it’s been since, oh, 1776.

    • truebearing

      Human nature precedes that reality. It has been this way from the very beginning. That is why the Great American Revolution wasn’t merely another ideological fantasy, but an attempt to enlighten people to the responsibilities of self-governance and maximum freedom. It was a noble effort intended to give every individual a chance to recognize his divine right to freedom from tyranny through moral enlightenment.

      There always have been, and always will be, those who seek to subordinate humanity to their malignant narcissism. Cynicism is hardly the way to prevent our fall.


      Well, no – for the first century or so, government was still limited enough that it had not yet degenerated into pressure-group warfare. It was only when business regulation became considered normal and massive income redistribution started taking place that we had a powerful central government and oligarchic corporations.

    • nightspore

      Why do people like you always say that it’s “on behalf of the wealthiest men in the country”? Do you really think that’s what motivates Greenpeace or WWF or ACORN, etc etc?

      This isn’t thinking; this is mouthing conventional platitudes. This is drawing on an simple-minded dramaturgical scheme that has some backing (yes, there are wealthy people out there) and, more importantly, seems to have great intrinsic appeal.

    • CDM

      Actually, no. The federal system was set up to balance competing interests. Over time, several changes were made to unbalance it.

      The first was the passage of the 17th Amendment which enabled the election of Senators by popular vote. Prior to that, Senators were chosen by state legislatures, and as such, were answerable to them. The intent was clear, Senators were supposed to represent the interests of their states. After passage, Senators, if they could keep getting re-elected, were free to pursue their own interests, rather than their state’s (e.g. Chuck Schumer).

      The second was the Supreme Court decision in Reynolds v. Sims, which, in my opinion, is one of the worst decisions ever in terms of the damage it caused. Before that most state legislatures were set up like Congress, one house elected by popular vote of equally apportioned districts and the other by geographical district, most often counties. This provided a balance of interests between sparsely populated rural and heavily populated urban areas. The Supreme Court decided, pretty much on its own, that their own idea of good government was better and ruled that representation by geography was unconstitutional and “one man, one vote” was born.

      One can only look at upstate New York to see the damage caused. New York has 62 counties. The southernmost eight (Bronx, Brooklyn, Nassau, New York, Richmond, Queens, Suffolk, Westchester) can outvote the other 54 pretty much all the time because that’s where the majority of NY’s population lives. The eight can implement policies they can easily afford but are a hardship to the other 54. So it’s no wonder that upstate NY has been losing population which only makes the imbalance even worse.

  • Yehuda Levi

    “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”

    Alexis de Tocqueville

    “Free things or a free people” – I prefer a free people.

    • truebearing

      But look at the irony of how the socialists need to remove the restraints of benign conflict in our constitution, and the self-restraint inherent in morality, in order to control the mob.

    • TMRYAx2

      Actually Socialism and Democracy are both offspring of the same Collectivist philosophy.

      Socialism is social property – Everything in the Society belongs to everyone in Society (the State).
      The gov’t – as the representatives of the people – hold and control all property in the people’s name.
      Democracy is the people voting to direct society – which is to vote on the control and distribution of Society’s property.

      Socialism and Democracy are not rivals.

      “Democracy is the road to socialism.” – Karl Marx

      “Democracy and Socialism are inseparable.” – Vladimir Ilich Lenin

      “We have seen… that the first step in the revolution by the working
      class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class,
      to establish democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy
      to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie; to centralize all
      of instruments of production in the hands of the state.”
      -Karl Marx

      • Yehuda Levi

        No, socialism is not the same as democracy. Karl Marx was wrong as was Lenin. Democracy as we understand it emphasizes individual rights over state rights – socialism is the reverse.

        As for a “collectivist” philosophy, you need to define how you are using collectivism.

        • TMRYAx2

          Collectivism emphasizes the collective -the group- over the individual.
          -All gov’ts are collectivist.
          Socialism says all property is social & belongs to all society.
          -Gov’t-as representing the people-contols all property as ‘public’.
          Democracy is majority rule. -Rule over whom?-Society.
          -Democracy is simply voting to have gov’t impose one’s wishes on another.

          Individialism holds the individual as an end in himself, and not just some part of a group.
          Individualism holds that each man owns himself & thus has rights.
          All rights are property rights.
          The individual owns his mind & body-where labor comes from. Thus the individual owns his labor & the fuits thereof.
          Individualism recognizes the rights of all-including the minority & is thus anathema to democracy.
          Because the individual owns himself he has the right to what he produces-private property.
          Private property & minority rights are directly at odds with the collectivist notions of social property & majority rule.

          • Yehuda Levi

            You are assuming that democracy votes in a government that completely controls society – which is not true. Socialism completely controls, democracy does not.

            Democracy uses the voting rights of each individual to determine a government which controls the public sector of society. The larger and more controlling the government becomes, the more ‘collectivist’ it may be. The US still has a very viable private sector, but it is getting smaller.

            Democracy may lead to socialism, ours has not, and hopefully it never does. One does not predestine the other – they are two different systems.

            Individualism is always preferable to collectivism when it comes to human relations and individual rights trumping state rights.

          • TMRYAx2

            If ‘democracy is voting to determine a gov’t which controls the public sector of society’ as you say-then ypu admit ‘democracy is essential to socialism.
            what is the ‘public sector’ if not social property-socialism.
            Democracy is simply majority rule. the minority has no rights.
            You’re confusing the democratic process of voting – with the democratic system of majority rule-which.requires the process of voting.
            Under democracy the people vote on the laws themsleves.
            In a republic the people elect represntatives to vote on the laws for them.

          • CapitalistPig

            The common man couldn’t get good Russian vodka in socialist Russia or good Chinese takeout in socialist China—-what else does anyone need to understand about the failures of collectivism?

          • Drakken

            That is why I am starting to warm up to Heinlein’s idea that only those of military service can be citizens, because it is obvious that over 50% of the population is too ignorant and too stupid to be allowed to vote for our own demise. Democracy lasts for only as long as the population doesn’t figure out how to vote for their own free sh*t. Well, we are here, what next?

          • CapitalistPig

            As I say—-ALL Socialism……is Crony Socialism.
            It goes to the very core & nature of that system & demands it of every individual to become a “crony”…or be cut out by a stronger, better organized gang.
            We now get to watch the slow, inexorable corruption of our health system as we are all forced to become a “crony” in order to be served by that system.
            I tell my liberal friends who complain about the Tea Party that “you voted to let these people participate in your health care when you politicized the system–they may not have supported the law, but once it’s there, they have as much right to game the system to their benefit & your detriment as you do………..we all have to become Cronies now.” .

          • truebearing

            “All gov’ts are collectivist.”

            All governments are collectives, but not necessarily collectivist. Collective activity is essential to human success, but turning the power of natural cooperation between humans into an ideology is what socialism is all about. Simple collective cooperation does not make one a collectivist.

            The enslaving of human collective effort, or cooperation, is the original sin of socialism. It perverts something that is laudable and good and turns it into an ideology that has an insatiable appetite for power.

      • truebearing

        “Actually Socialism and Democracy are both offspring of the same Collectivist philosophy.”

        That is incorrect. Socialists believe in collectivism, an ideology that claims to place all wealth, etc into the hands of an egalitarian collective…but it is run by a small minority who wield all of the power and speak for the collective regardless of whether the majority agrees.

        Democracy is a social agreement between citizens where they agree that in an election, the majority candidates will win. Majorities can be qute fluid, with collective efforts from several political interest groups electing one candidate, but a different coalition elects others. It isn’t collectivism to collectively participate in an election. It becomes collectivism when the majority believe in the power of collectivism and decide to make it permanent. That occurs as a result of moral decay more than any other reason. Usually the moral decay is expedited by power worshipping collectivists.

        Marx was wrong, as history has so eloquently proven. The proletariat hasn’t wrested all of the capital from anyone. Instead, the super wealthy have learned to use the ideology to perpetuate a form of fascism that keeps making them richer.

      • Virgil Hilts

        Democracy goes all the way back to the Greeks…it is mob rule…we are a Representative Constitutional Republic.

  • truebearing

    Great review of what appears to be a great book. Thanks to Daniel Greefield and Bruce Thorton. If this country fails, it won’t be due to your lack of effort, courage, or brilliance.

    “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.”

    This speaks directly to Obama’s promise to fundamentally transform America. Obama wants an America where the Pavlovian mob is predictably and reliably hopping around like enraged chimpanzees according to calculated stimuli generated by the media arm of the government. He wants mass psychological programming, which is only possible when morality is supplanted by political correctness and the healthy, essential conflict between media and government is removed. Obama wants to destroy anything that hinders an imbalance of power.

    The Left wants the individual governance of intrinsic morality removed more than anything because moral people are advised by higher principles, therefore don’t react on a purely emotional, irrational basis, therefore can’t be misled or provoked as easily. Once Americans abandoned morality, they opened themselves up to the evil of tyranny. Freedom cannot exist without moral clarity, and most of the time moral clarity is arrived at through a process of consideration and discrimination, which takes time, and which is precisely why the framers incorporated deliberative conflict into the structure of our republic. Deliberative conflict among moral people is as essential to a free nation as it is a curse to the rapacious. The framers wanted a society of considerate, morally enlightened, free human beings. The Left wants a mob of programmed lemmings, willing to jump the cliff upon command.

    The Left wants all impediments removed that would prevent ruling the mob by the immediacy of raw, untempered emotion. Democratization, combined with a media that functions with no obligation to the truth, removes the inhibitory neurotransmitters from the nervous system of a balanced, stable, and free republic.

    The United States is led by people who no longer respect rationality, morality, or restraint in economics. They are practicing Greekonomics. The outcome of pandering for popularity, ie power, is inevitable economic disaster, but the ruthless don’t care how many will die or end up groveling in destitution as long as they are wallowing in wealth.

    • camp7

      Absolutely spot on.

      “morality is supplanted by political correctness and the healthy, essential conflict between media and government is removed.”

      Scribes decree the nemesis of man, in right, or to often wrong.

  • seewithyourowneyes

    Excellent, excellent article.

  • UCSPanther

    The Founding Fathers had it right: Anyone who owned land could vote. The reason why, is that people who owned land had a personal stake in the country and would put more thought into voting rather than merely voting for whoever “looks good” or who offers the most entitlements.

    I am personally in favor of disenfranchising anyone who receives a “monthly tugboat” (IE Social Security, food stamps, welfare) in any form…