Tuesday, September 29, 2020


“You can fool some of the people all of the time; you can fool all of the people some of the time; but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

Democracy Destroys Itself

Liberal democracy is a social condition under which the rule of law prevails over the rule of men and in which mechanisms to renew and convey the consent of the governed are in place, such as an accepted electoral system and free speech. Renewal is an intrinsic trait to this condition, naturally generating questioning and creativity of ideas and methods. This trait dovetails with the economic system of capitalism, which also thrives on renewal or, as Schumpeter coined it, creative destruction.

This serendipitous match between the political condition of liberal democracy and the economic system of capitalism has generated the greatest rise in general wellbeing in the history of civilization. It has allowed the knowledge accumulated in the previous 6,000 years to generate a world in which, over the span of 300 years, famine, disease and ignorance have diminished to a fraction of their previous prevalence. Advances in science and technology, widespread access to education and health care and increased standards of living worldwide have occurred as a direct result of liberal democracy and its economic cousin, capitalism. This combination has proven to have the greatest capacity to unleash throughout society the potential of its individuals to harvest the increased opportunities offered to them.

But democracy and capitalism represent a threat to continued privilege, because they are inherently renewal mechanisms –and no one wants to get “renewed.” Privilege can come in many forms: political, economic, social and racial, or any and all combinations of these. When privilege uses power to assert itself politically, it undermines the creative dynamics of democracy. Capitalism creates economically powerful entities and individuals by its process of market renewal and innovation. These entities and individuals will likewise use their power to protect their earned privilege by undermining the very same processes and free markets that allowed them to rise, manipulating markets to their advantage. These actions are triggered by the expected self-preservation instincts.

The nature of democracy and capitalism as mechanisms for renewal and innovation is what makes them inherently weak and subject to continuous attacks by those that have used democracy and capitalism to accumulate power and privilege. Just like the combination of democracy and capitalism fosters opportunity to create innovation and shared prosperity, the combination of power and privilege actively stifles such opportunity to create innovation and prosperity.

I begin one of my books, “La Venezuela imposible,” with the assertion that, historically, democracy is not a natural condition for society. It is fiction to believe that even today, in “advanced” western societies such as the U.S. or Western Europe, democracy is favored by everyone; even less so in other societies more distant from Western tradition and history. As illiberal regimes gain strength, the threat to a condition that has fostered opportunities for growth and prosperity throughout the world becomes an ominous, growing reality.


A Question of Goals – “Death to Intelligence!”

The United States faces a dilemma; a dilemma having to do with its goals as a society. In a recent essay by Gerald Russello, on the positions on conservative and postmodern politics, it is stated that politics is the way we speak to one another to identify and further the common good—our goals. For years, that was the case in the United States and many countries under its influence, all gazing at that “city upon a shining hill” which President Reagan spoke about, referencing Reverend Winthrop. It was a simple goal encapsulated in a universal “American Dream,” mostly understood as a proper home, education, health and security, all part of a growing middle class in which our children would lead better lives than the ones we had. That was the understood common good. Partisan discourse revolved around the ways and paths to achieve such a goal, not on the goal itself.

The condition has changed. “Grievance politics,” groups of all sorts fighting to preserve, assert or appropriate privilege have arisen to pursue disparate goals for society, rending a cleavage manifested in "political correctness," "cancel culture," or paramilitary groups and outlandish conspiracies. Those who  believe in democracy as a renewal mechanism to achieve the common good are being overtaken by those who use democracy to accumulate power and maintain their interests. In the United States this looks like the unimpeded accumulation of monopoly power by legacy corporations, “systemic racism” and misogyny in many government and private bureaucracies, and the use of electoral sleight of hand to impose minority rule. The goal does not seem anymore to create opportunities to achieve the American Dream for all; it seems to be to attain and retain power in order to defend the privilege of some by impeding the creative forces of renewal.

Polling would suggest that approximately 40 to 60% (adding “right” and “left”) of Americans are comfortable undermining the mechanisms of democracy as long as their own interests and privileges are protected – or believe they will be. This is one explanation for the current wide range of support for Donald Trump (it is not only “white men without college degrees”) from a steady core of the electorate.

Privilege seeks to eliminate opportunities for potential rivals, leading to policies weakening a basic compact of liberal democracy: prosperity rises by growing a strong middle class. Limiting education and health care, for example, perpetuates cycles of poverty for the underprivileged by hampering their opportunity to compete and prosper, become part of the middle class and fulfill the “American Dream.” Limits to opportunity ensure privilege is retained.

In previous iterations of the illiberal condition, we see more open and brazen attacks on education culure and culture, as in the notorious assertion by Francoist General José Millán Astray“¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la muerte!” (“Death to intelligence! Long live death!”) during his infamous exchange with Miguel de Unamuno at Salamanca University in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Or the notorious line in the play by Hanns Johst: "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun" (Schlageter, 1933). While in the swing toward a condition of liberal democracy it seems as if such positions are "left behind," the legacies of intolerance live on in any society as a seed ready to sprout anytime.


Finding "Some of the People"

A key contribution of capitalism is the embrace of win-win propositions in transactions. Adam Smith explained that when a customer buys a loaf of bread, both the baker and the customer obtain something they want. General wellbeing (GDP) increases and commercial laws and contracts are codified from that simple idea. This was contrary to previous practice, in which strongman rule commonly prevailed, albeit somtimes also codifed but not neutrally, with justice not so blind. Win-lose propositions are the basis of mercantile societies and, by extension, communism. The wealth of a nation was measured by its accumulated treasure relative to the treasure of others, not by the number of transactions creating shared wellbeing within it. Many of the privileged subscribe to the idea that if others gain privilege, they themselves will lose it, their treasure, so they do everything in their power to prevent it from happening.

When democracy is understood as an environmental condition (as opposed to an “evolved” form of government) which allows in its better iterations rising prosperity and wellbeing – win-win propositions –the swings of nations from authoritarian rule, to democracies, to oligarchies and other governance arrangements are better understood. It is misleading to categorize “mature” or “developed” politics or governmental institutions, implying linear progressive improvement.  Forms of governance swing back and forth among various types, some more conducive to allowing the common good and some more intent on protecting privileges for the few: the insiders, the partisans, the members, the race, etc. - a populist promise even if it means totalitarian crackdowns.

So, how many of the people are “fooled all of the time” into believing that a society based on renewal and win-win propositions is a lie, contrary to their interest? That a nation works best when ruled by a permanent minority of “smart” people, in a gerrymandered (or fraudulently) vote into office in some cases, and appointed (or self-appointed), for life in others? And how many of the people are “fooled all of the time” into believing that liberal democracy is aligned with their interests, in pursuit of an abstract, imperfect and unattainable common good for all (“The American Dream”) --and that their fellow citizens believe in democracy too?

Polling would suggest that numbers probably hover around 40% for each of those groups in the United Ststes, probably similar in other countries. The remaining 20% are the ones all sides try to “fool some of the time.” But because illiberal forces are opposed to, and deft at managing to their advantage, “free and fair elections” and free speech, they have a better chance of fooling “persuadables” and keeping the apathetic on their couches (or voting meaninglessly), than those promoting liberal democracy values; or they just have a better knack for stealing elections. That is why the condition of liberal democracy is permanently fragile.


"Venceréis, pero no convenceréis"

The 2020 election in the United States is significant as a shining, prime exemplar of these issues. This election is unusual because it brings forth a broad coalition of forces that believe in liberal democracy and supports the alternative to a president who has repeatedly demonstrated does not. The usual figures on the left that would be expected to oppose a Republican president, no matter who, do not make this coalition noteworthy. Some of these even have suspect liberal democracy credentials themselves and do not risk much by their opposition to the current president. 

What is unusual is the large number of long time Republicans and conservative leaders and figures that recognize the threat that the incumbent and those supporting him represent to norms, institutions and even laws supporting the condition of democracy in the United States; what is unusual is that former members of all administrations, even of this one, have voiced their concern about the distortion of institutions that protect government and the people, such as law enforcement, intelligence and security, justice and others; what is unusual is that pundits in administration friendly media such as FOX or the Washington Times -some with power and some since sidelined- or traditionally conservative writers in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, question the democratic integrity of the president; and what is unusual is that former members of the inner circle, of the administration at large and of the Republican party as a whole are willing to risk excoriation, careers and livelihood to raise the alarms in this matter.

The illiberal coalition in power knows it is in the minority and behaves accordingly. It rushes legislation and appointments that strengthen their long term privilege and slows down those which do not. The coalition in power is doing whatever it can to interfere with free and fair elections. The coalition in power behaves as if it knows it is in the losing side of an election, which polls and demographics strongly suggest. In my book, Campaign Journal 2008, I point out that a successful professional politician is one capable of building broad coalitions towards a goal which he or she strongly believes in and can "sell" to others, maximizing results. The illiberal coalition in power seems uninterested in the idea of goals or broad coalitions, or "selling" ideas to earn votes and supporters, only in the idea of protecting privilege.

I return to the exchange between General Millán and Unamuno in the University of Salamanca in search for clarity on the dangers faced by the United State in the democracy crucible in which this condition is always forged anew. I return to those words from a scholar that universally ring true as a warning against interest above nation, and were a warning about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War about to be unleashed upon that country:

"You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken."

Perhaps, then, democracy shall not perish from this earth after all.

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