(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/08/democracy-voting-rights-voting-restrictions-and-tricks-e1317240867973.gif)This year’s presidential election will be about something more than this or that policy or political philosophy. The larger issue at stake is the viability of democracy itself. An Obama win will be a validation of every anti-democracy critic going back to ancient Greece.
We are so used to using the word “democracy” as a feel-good term denoting a self-evident good that we forget the traditional problems political philosophers identified with popular rule. In ancient Athens, critics like Socrates, Plato, and Thucydides attacked the assumption that ordinary people––“an audience of mere dunces and weaklings,” as Socrates called the Athenian Assembly––had enough intelligence or understanding to make life-and-death decisions affecting the state. Lacking that knowledge, they were vulnerable to ambitious demagogues who manipulated the voters with deceptive, emotional rhetoric and promises of state money. Thus rather than considering what policy or action served the long-term interests of the state as a whole, critics of Athenian democracy charged, the citizens selfishly used their political power to advance their own interests, which required the redistribution of property and wealth, and the reduction of freedom in order to achieve the equality of all.
The dangers of this tendency of democracy were famously expressed by the Greek historian Polybius: “For the mob,” Polybius wrote, “habituated to feed at the expense of others, and to have its hopes of a livelihood in the property of its neighbors, as soon as it has got a leader sufficiently ambitious and daring, being excluded by poverty from the sweets of civil honors, produces a reign of mere violence.” Fearing such an outcome, the founders of the American Republic created our mixed government of balanced powers that limited the direct influence citizens could wield on politicians.
Fast-forward 200 years to this year’s presidential campaign. Obama and the Democrats, abetted by their media lackeys, are waging a pseudo-populist campaign characterized by gross deceptions, brazen lies, and rhetorical spin worthy of the ancient Sophists. Start with Obama himself. He was elected in part because of his compelling personal story that seemingly transcended the political and racial divides of American society. Now we know that most of that story was fabricated, persons in his past were invented, memories of racial oppression were made up, and his centrist politics were mere camouflage for his progressive ideology. Meanwhile his actual life remains murky. We still don’t know what his true relationship was with terrorist Bill Ayers or the racist rabble-rouser Jeremiah Wright. We still don’t have many specifics about his health or his university career, information the spaniel press has shown no interest in obtaining even as they hector Mitt Romney to release all his tax returns, something few in Congress have any intention of doing.
Aping their boss’s tactics of deception, Obama’s political henchmen are going after Mitt Romney with slander and innuendo and “frank character assassination,” as Ross Douthat put it. Mitt Romney “isn’t just wrong on specific policies or too right-wing in general,” Douthat continues. “He’s part Scrooge, part Gordon Gekko; an un-American, Asia-loving outsourcer; a tax avoider and possibly a white-collar felon.” The complement to this toxic cloud of lies and invective is the crude populist appeals that exploit class envy and promises of income redistribution, aimed at the cohort of American voters that “have its hopes of a livelihood in the property of its neighbors.” Hence the rhetoric of “fair share” and “you didn’t build that” and “spread the wealth around,” even though Obama’s call to raise marginal tax rates on the “rich” would yield $80 billion next year, a mere 8% of Obama’s projected 2013 budget deficit of $977 billion.
Indeed, Obama’s naked appeal to class envy ignores any number of facts about our tax system. His mantra about “fairness” ignores just how progressive tax rates already are. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 20% of income earners make 50% of the nation’s income but pay nearly 70% of all federal taxes, including payroll taxes. Everybody else earns 50% of income, but pay 30% of taxes. This is why the U.S. tax system is the most progressive of the world’s industrialized nations. If this system is unfair, it’s because nearly half of taxpayers pay no federal income tax. The “rich” are already paying more than their “fair share.”
And let’s not forget what’s obscured by Obama’s class-warfare rhetoric: the simple fact that the economic disaster waiting down the road is not the lack of revenue, but the explosion of spending on entitlements. According to the Heritage Foundation, by 2050 spending on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and Obamacare will reach 19% of GDP, an amount that would devour all federal tax revenue at current rates. Given the popularity of Obama’s call to raise taxes on the “rich,” however, these fact-deficient appeals suggest that many voters either don’t understand those facts or don’t care, as long as their own interests are served.
Since Obama has worsened our economic troubles by increasing both budget deficits and entitlement spending––under his watch, the number of Americans living in households receiving government aid has jumped to 50%–– his only reelection strategy is to ignore economic fact. Instead, he must play on the irrational emotions of class envy, and make veiled promises to give even more money to the “takers” by filching it from the “makers.” Such behavior validates the criticisms of democracy from antiquity to the American founders. They had the example of ancient Athens, where by the mid-4thcentury B.C. every citizen was receiving state money almost every day of the year, and state funds were directed toward “public festivals and sacrifices,” as the historian Theopompus said, instead of national defense. How similar to our country today, where defense spending is facing a $1 trillion reduction over the next decade, even as Obamacare will cost $2.6 trillion, without any assurance that it will reduce costs or improve health care.
So are we Americans the “mob” or “dunces and weaklings” of democracy’s critics? Some data seem to suggest at least many of us are. By all historical indicators, given the sorry state of the economy Obama should be heading for McGovern-like disaster, losing to Romney in November by 5%. Yet polls show Obama virtually even with Romney, and his “likability” numbers are 20 points higher than Romney’s. Could it be that, like the Athenian Assembly in Thucydides, nearly half of our citizens––those millions benefitting from federal largesse at some level––are motivated by their own short-term self-interests no matter how damaging to our national future, and manipulated by appeals to irrational class hatred, class-envy, and unworkable utopian visions of cost-free equality and affluence?
We’ll see in November. Meanwhile there are other signs that enough Americans are not “dunces and weaklings.” The continuing influence of the Tea Party, recently evident in the surprise nomination of Ted Cruz to run for the Senate in Texas, suggests that this truly populist movement for fiscal sanity and traditional virtues will be as effective in November as it was in the 2010 midterm elections. The mass demonstrations in support of Chick-fil-A executive Dan Cathy’s First Amendment rights are another sign that a critical mass of Americans are sick of the totalitarian arrogance of progressives and eager to fire the Progressive-in-Chief. Perhaps these are portents of a renewed vigor and virtue among the American people that will prove democracy’s critics wrong.
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