Sunday, May 1, 2011

Madison’s Lament

When James Madison wrote The Federalist No. 10 in 1787, he knew full well the perils of what he called a “pure” democracy. What he and his fellow founders feared most was that the chaos of true democratic rule would overcome the newly born republic. Of particular concern to Madison were the inherent dangers of “faction” in such a democracy.

“A pure Democracy, by which I mean, a Society, consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Fifty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville went a bit further by coining the phrase “Tyranny of the majority.” His concern with mob rule was quite evident when he wrote, “That which I reproach the democratic government for the most, such as it is organized in the United States, is not (like many Europeans claim) its weakness, but, to the contrary, its irresistible force. And that which disgusts me the most in America, is not the extreme liberty which reigns there, but the lack of guarantees one finds there against tyranny.”

I wonder what both men would say about life in contemporary America where the tigers are eating their young and the restless throng is fixing to seize the reigns of power from the ruling elite. In what can only be described at the consummate example of the inmates taking over the asylum, the thing Madison feared most appears to be coming to fruition in the United States. “Mischiefs of faction?” That is a polite way to put what has been happening to the republic of Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Madison.

Freud referred to it as the id, that “dark, inaccessible part of our personality,” chaotic and “full of seething excitations.” In Freudian psychology, the id is where all our basic drives are stored. It “knows no judgments of value: no good and evil, no morality.” The only thing that matters to it is satisfying its instinctual needs.

In the classic Sci-Fi movie Forbidden Planet we discover that the id’s “monsters from the subconscious” are what eventually lead to the destruction of the Krell. “The secret devil of every soul on the planet suddenly set loose to kill and maim and take revenge,” Leslie Nielsen desperately tries to explain to Walter Pidgeon, who doesn’t seem to get it that something so primitive as an instinctual drive was single-handedly responsible for the systematic extinction of such an advanced race. In the end that realization eventually kills him too.

William Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the primitive nature of Man, as well as how volatile and unpredictable his actions often were. In his classic play, Julius Caesar, the protagonist, Marc Antony, manages to turn the people of Rome, who moments before had been heralding Brutus as a hero, into a riotous mob bent on killing him. Like the fickle weather in Florida, the crowd’s radical change of heart proved too much for reason to overcome. Shakespeare and Freud might as well have been cousins as far as their understanding of the human mind was concerned.

This is the paradox of the human experience. Despite some rather remarkable accomplishments throughout its storied past, the words that best exemplify humanity can be summed up as follows: unsophisticated, emotional, erratic and easily led astray. Add them up and you see why Madison was so concerned. Who, in their right mind, would want to live in a country where those qualities ran riot and ruled the day?

Don’t look now, but the current mood within America is on the verge of deteriorating into the personification of that country. The people are loaded for bear and brimming with a restlessness seldom seen. In deed, despite the rhetoric of conservative activists who keep referencing the “good old days” and quoting the founding fathers, the more we unravel the mechanics behind this movement the more closely it begins to resemble another famous revolution: the French Revolution. All that’s missing is Marie Antoinette and a barrel full of guillotines.

Now, before we go any further, it’s important to note that this volatile undercurrent in the electorate didn’t spring up overnight, or even in the last two years. You could say it’s been brewing for decades, maybe longer. The Great Depression of the ‘30s and the Great Society of the ‘60s saw tremendous waves of discontent within segments of the population that rocked the establishment. In both instances, the angst of these people led to profound reverberations throughout the social fabric of the nation. The reforms that ensued continue to benefit the country as a whole.

What both “populist” movements had in common was their contempt for the status quo coupled with a yearning to improve the quality of life for the nation. The Great Depression had finally smashed the myth of a pure and perfect capitalist society that could provide for all the needs of its people; the Great Society finally came to terms with the inequality that existed among the races and attempted to right centuries of wrongs. While the latter movement was more grassroots than the former, both were egalitarian in their makeup. In other words, both saw the virtue of a collective good outweighing the autonomy of an often cruel and unjust marketplace.

But, while the reforms may have endured, the movements that spawned them eventually petered out, unable to sustain the emotional energy needed for the overthrow of the establishment they so desperately despised. The system, as it were, adapted and adopted. Madison’s model of Republicanism, imperfect though it might’ve been, worked.

Such is not the case today. This movement, though populist in appearance, is hardly grassroots. Through the auspices of powerful corporate interests, which contributed untold millions of dollars, and spurred on by a right-wing media blitz that has been unrelenting, this movement has become self-actualized in a way unlike any other movement in American history. The Citizens United case has opened the floodgates, as it were, and allowed corporations to basically run roughshod over the political landscape. The 2010 midterm elections were but the first salvo in a war that, thanks to the ineptitude and complicity of the Supreme Court, promises to compromise the political process indefinitely, decimating a republic which has stood for over two centuries.

Of course, that's the problem with astro-turf movements; they are uncontrollable once they are born.  That, of course, was what kept Madison and Tocqueville up nights: the faction element of a democracy taking hold and running the show. It is becoming a reality before our very eyes. Long-standing racists elements within the Republican Party – embarrassing but ostensibly innocuous – now have come to dominate it and have forced it so far over to the Right, Eisenhower would now be considered a Communist among their ranks. They are emboldened, defiant, clueless and well funded. And just like some modern-day version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster – having been given life by its creator – is now turning on him. The Tea Party has threatened any Republican who doesn’t tow their party’s line with primary challenges next year. How’s that for gratitude? The castle you see burning to the ground represents America, and we are all trapped inside it.  Can you spell Weimar Republic?  Get used to it.  Before too long we may end up looking just like it.

Quite a spectacle! I confess, I’m at a loss for how to remedy this. My fear is that we have let the Jeannie out of the bottle, as it were, and now we will never be able to put her back in. In other words, we may, as a nation, have gone too far down the road to turn back. Money, the fuel that has driven our economy for so long, could well push the whole damn car off the cliff into the abyss.

And if that happens, you can’t say we weren’t warned. A number of very intelligent, thoughtful, and learned men gave us everything we needed to avoid catastrophe. All we had to do was heed their words. Too bad we sold the instruction manual before we read it.

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