Home/Alan Jacobs/Dialogue on Democracy, Part 2

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 2

2001: A Space Odyssey. MGM

(The first installment of the dialogue is here.)

B. But you’ve totally shifted ground here! What you’re offering now is not a critique of self-government, or even representative democracy, but of a corrupt electioneering system which couldn’t serve plutocracy better if it were designed to do so – and really, it is designed to do so, come to think of it.

A. And every “informed voter” knows that that’s the case, and expresses much tut-tutting disapproval, and occasionally even raises his or her voice in outrage — but keeps re-electing the same corrupt and/or weak-willed losers, or their newest clones. I have complained about American voters being ignorant, but even when they’re not ignorant they are thoughtless. Every opportunity they have to address the corruption of the system— and they have that opportunity every two years — they squander. They listen to the empty promises of politicians that flatter them, and pay not the slightest attention to the needs of society as a whole or those who come after them — that’s the selfishness, their third item of my indictment. They have repeatedly abused the privilege of voting, and they deserve to have it taken away from them.

B. Well, it’s a powerful indictment. According to your argument, then, this nearly universal abdication of democratic responsibility has led (one must assume) to the collapse of American society, widespread poverty, and internal and external powerlessness. Because clearly it wouldn’t be possible to a political system as corrupt and inefficient as the one you’ve described to produce even a mediocre social order — let alone an enormously wealthy and powerful society, a global hegemon such as the world has rarely if ever seen. So perhaps you’re living in the universe next door to mine….

A. No, I think we’re in the same universe, though I might want to argue whether a country’s achieving the status of “a global hegemon such as the world has rarely if ever seen” is, as you seem to think, a good sign. But let’s set all that aside and cut to the chase. As I read current events, and the history that has produced them, American power is chiefly the residual result of decisions made long ago by a much smaller electorate, a kind of aristocracy in all but name. Insofar as that aristocracy excluded women, people of color, and (at first) poor white men, it was unjustifiable; but another way to look at it is that the power went to the best-educated in society, the least vulnerable to the pressures of external forces. We are at work dismantling the brilliant edifice they constructed, though perhaps not fast enough for some; but it was so magnificently built, so delicately balanced— “a machine that would go of itself” — that it has proven exceptionally difficult to dismantle. But it will be dismantled, and just as we are continuing to benefit from the wisdom of our ancestors, our grandchildren will suffer from the stupidity of voters today.

B. You realize, I trust, that your historical argument could be challenged, and seriously challenged, at every single point.

A. Yeah. But we’re having a conversation, I’m not writing a treatise.

B. You also realize, I trust, that where you’re headed would constitute a more radical dismantling of the Constitution than anything else on the table?

A. No. I absolutely deny that. It would be a way to re-articulate and re-implement genuinely Constitutional principles in a new social order, one in which ignorance, thoughtlessness, and selfishness are no longer impediments to political power and influence.

B. I’m going to do you the honor of assuming that you are not going to argue for confining the franchise to white males who make more than $100,000 a year….

A. Much obliged.

B. But this is going to be an argument for a New Aristocracy, isn’t it?

A. Yep.

B. I was afraid of that.

(to be continued…)

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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