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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tyranny! Or, On the Interpretation of Politics

The estimated 1.8-2 million people who assembled in D.C. today to celebrate the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama--how do we interpret that?

First, it's mass society. There were only about 3 million people in the "United States" when they came into being in 1776, with approximately 900,000 of those people African slaves. IOW, the crowds in D.C. today were almost the same size as the free population of the entire country in 1776.

And, of course, many of the best thinkers of the time thought that a republic of 2 million or so free people was too large to sustain. Those folks, and probably Madison, too, would have thought that today's events presage tyranny. Obama, under classical political theory, is probably best understood as a demagogue. (I'm sure TMcD will disagree.) But with his speechifying, his popularity, his messianic qualities (he is "The One"), . . . Madison and his contemporaries would see a demagogue.

But does anyone today see it that way today? No. Not even the opposition would describe Obama as a demagogue. Because we've made peace with mass society (really, 2 million people on the Mall?) . . . and with mass democracy.

Instead, Obama's day probably strengthens his hand--that much public support? Hard to resist.

Or, maybe not. Consider this--in the days before district-level polling, I think that today would make Obama irresistible on Capitol Hill. But now, that massive outpouring of public support may not matter so much. Members of Congress can gauge how popular Obama is with their constituents, how popular his policies are, and . . . modulate their own positions.

Can a system of separation of powers, coupled with mass democracy, coupled with weak parties and individualistic members of Congress (with the corollary of decentralized power in Congress, both between and within chambers) . . . can such a system of government really work, in the long run?

Shall we ask the Magic 8 Ball?


At 12:13 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

I'll beat tmcd to it: he's not a demagogue. My dictionary says a demagogue speaks to and stokes prejudices and base desires for support, eschewing rational argument in favour of emotional manipulation. But as every commentator has noted, today's speech was 'sober'. If demagogue just means appealing to the people broadly, then we've probably had demagogues for presidents since Jackson.

Actually, I think Madison's solution to the problem of how to have a republic on a large scale - I think that works (roughly) as well for 300 million as for 3 million. I think the problem of a republic in political theory was what to do when it's bigger than a city-state, and late 18th century American was already FAR bigger than Florence or Athens.

As to your concluding point about ungovernability...well, there you surely have a point. And I suppose we'll have a bit more of an answer to it in just a few years. If Obama can't 'get something done' in the context in which he comes to power, then no president ever will.

[My verification word is dictest. Really.]

At 10:40 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

What fro said.

If our system looks ungovernable, it is only because we have suffered through eight years of people who made it look so, often for their own benefit. But we have been well governed before (as recently as last decade) and we will be again, unless, that is, the entire global economic system is on the verge of collapse--and that would be a problem bigger than any one republic.

As for "the demagogue" I do think you're mistaken. Maybe Paul could help here, but if I recall, for the Greeks, "demagogue" was one of those words (like "tyrant" or "sophist") that originally had a descriptive rather than normative meaning: it described a position/activity--one who persuaded the Assembly--rather than a dangerous character type. It gradually takes on a normative meaning, but even there we have some ambiguity. Aristotle, for example, held that you could have either "democratic" demagogues appealing to the irrational passions of the many or "oligarchic" demagogues appealing to the irrational passions of the few.

By the time of the American founders, demagogues were indeed feared as a type, but the meaning was more specific than you think. The prevalent examples were men like Hancock (MA) and Clinton (NY) and Henry (VA), leaders who stayed in power on the basis of short-sighted pandering to public whim, often using the popularity gained to build corrupt, state-level political machines. According to Forrest McDonald, the classical theory of demagoguery was built on a theory of human passions regarding the pursuit of avarice or ambition. That looks a lot more like Blago than Obama. Indeed, the Madisonian response in Fed 10--as you should know b/c you've published on this--was to call for a national filter for such passions. The idea was to elevate the best to the top, those most capable of transcending short-term and parochial interests. I'm not sure that I could give a better example of such a Madisonian president than Obama: writer, Harvard Law Review editor, con law professor, community activist, Senator, etc.; a man who consistently appeals to shared national interests, long-term advantage, and ancient principles.

Now, maybe you'll say, "OK, but JM didn't envision mass pres. elections, yada yada." True, the founders failed to understand much about democratic culture and practice, not having had much experience with it. Don't forget, however, that JM did advocate a national popular election for president at the convention. And James Wilson, a man of strong "democratic" convictions who was also the real architect of the presidency at that cpnvention, agreed.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Number Three said...

If any of the Framers could be brought forward in time to see that crowd, they would be terrified by it. No one has touched on my point there. They would instantly perceive Obama as a demagogue, regardless of the merits. I certainly don't think he is one. I was making a perspectivist point.

Un-governability. My position on this is established. I'm not so sure we were well governed last decade. Certainly the roots of much of the current financial crisis stretch back to the 1990s, at least, and I'm not sure that I'm that crazy about some of Clinton's major domestic policy accomplishments--the 1994 crime bill (harsher, mandatory minimum sentences), death penalty reform, welfare reform, DOMA.

Better than the GWB years, though, no doubt.

At 6:38 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

You're still wrong. You confuse a matter of scale with a matter of principle.

Sure, at some level there would be a "Holy crap!" factor if Jefferson could have time-machined to the Obama inaugural. Same if he had seen an airplane, the WTC collapse, or an episode of VH1's Rock of Love. But I don't think those shockers would lead him to condemn science, peaceful international relations, or free speech. And many other founders were far more comfortable with a growing cosmopolitan nation than was Jefferson. In general, they were smart enough to listen to words and distinguish speakers/leaders on matters of content rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of events. If a small-town boy like Jefferson could visit Paris and still support a "republican" revolution in a nation the size of France, I doubt he would have lost faith over Obamathon.

The big problem with your argument is that you confuse the older, descriptive definition of "demagogue" (speaking persuasively to large numbers) with the later, normative (eloquent speakers whose ambitions threaten the public good). You use the former (broad) definition while applying the latter's negative normative valuation. This is errant logic.

Finally, the Clinton years were a hell of a lot better than these, and that economy was one of the best in modern history. What's not to like about low inflation & unemployment, spectacular job growth, rising median wages, falling poverty, and budget surpluses? True, the GOP Congress and Alan Greenspan made some bad policy choices that contributed to recent economic events, and Clinton did not beat them all back (although some he did). Even then, it took 7 1/2 years of Bush actively sabotaging the economy for the current crisis to emerge. Think about that. If it took Bush that long to destroy the economy when he was doing everything wrong, it must have been a pretty solid economy to start with.

Oh yeah, and welfare reform actually worked.

At 7:31 PM, Blogger Number Three said...

I think that the Framers shared the category confusion that you point to. They certainly did not embrace a populist approach to politics.

Oh, and if TJ could see, what, 500,000 African Americans assembled in one place, he would crap himself.

At 12:50 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sorry I'm a little late to this discussion, but it's not really a problem since I can't add much to it. I'll just note that the root δημαγωγ makes it's first appearance in our Greek sources in the 6th century BCE. Browsing those instances, as well as those of the fifth and fourth, it seems to be used positively, negatively, and in a neutral sense all throughout (sometimes even in different senses by the same author), but usually it's used negatively. I suspect that the propensity for a negative slant is a result of the fact that most, if not all, of our sources came from the wealthier set, and were distrustful of the people.

I think that in the neutral sense there is no doubt that the O man is a δημαγωγός -- "a driver/leader/influencer of the people." Undoubtedly some will think that this is positive (his first three days of reversing Bush seem great to me), while others will think it negative. I wish I could say that time will tell, but I suspect it won't settle the issue either.

As for what the founders would have thought, I hate that game because it usually plays to conservatives' hands. Fact is, Jefferson or any of the other founders, lived in different times, so what they thought, while not unimportant within the historical context of their own time and within the evolution of western thought, nevertheless is still yesterday's news. What matters are arguments about today. Dragging Jefferson or Perikles into the fray today is, well, usually just demagoguery (I'm not talking about drawing historical parallels, but those parallels must be apt).


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