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Democracy in America

Where Hucksters Rule

by ANDREW LEVINE

In less than two weeks, this year’s midterm elections will be history; hardly anyone cares.

Why would they?  There are some state and local elections in the offing where the outcomes matter.   But at the national level, it is a wasteland.

The results are already in too – ninety-nine percent of us lose.  We have no one to vote for, and no good way to vote against anyone either.

There is not even a good way to express contempt for what the duopoly party system has put on offer.  Not voting is an ambiguous gesture at best.

If control of the Senate weren’t at stake, even inveterate liberals would have a hard time finding reasons to care what the outcome will be.

They ought to have a hard time anyway.  In view of the abundance of evidence accumulated in recent years when Democrats controlled the Senate, it is hard to see how it could be worse were Republicans to wrest control away from them.

And, as President Obama starts a third Iraq War – or revives Number Two, depending on how you count – it is hard to enthuse over the candidates of his feckless party.

Still, elections focus the mind.  This election season is therefore as good a time as any to reflect on what (small-d) democrats ought to make of elections nowadays – the one about to happen and in general.

Thinking about them, it is hard not to despair.  So far from implementing defensible democratic ideals, they neuter democratic aspirations by disempowering the people, and then making them think that elections, the kind we are about to suffer through and others like it, are what democracy is about.

* * *

Until about two hundred years ago, “democracy,” rule by the demos, the people as distinct from social or economic elites, was widely regarded in much the way that “anarchy” now is.

The prevailing view was that while it could be enlightening to reflect upon democracy as a theoretical possibility, no reasonable person would actually endorse it as a political ideal.

This understanding dates back to the beginnings of Western philosophy; the reasoning behind it is already evident in Aristotle’s Politics.  For most of the past two and a half millennia, Aristotle’s position – not the details, but the general idea — seldom encountered serious dissent.

For both the ancients and the moderns, the prevailing view was that, except in very small communities, democracy cannot work; that effective governance is possible only when the few rule the many.  Monarchies and various forms of aristocratic governance pass the test; democracy does not.

But times change.  As the modern  — capitalist — era took shape, the demos, once an inchoate agglomeration of no political consequence, became a lively and potent presence...

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