What is one to make of the news today? On the one hand there is Trump who says, and yes in so many words, that he is a genius, defending himself from his attackers by charting his rise to the presidency, saying that one of his chief assets throughout his life was “being, like, really smart.”
On the other hand there are the voices of the president’s opponents in the Congress, but principally in the liberal media, led in particular by the writers and journalists of the Times and the Washington Post, who say that the president is totally unqualified for his job, and who by his ill-considered words and actions is seriously threatening the stability and well being of our democracy.
Just how real is this threat? Is our democracy under threat? Is Donald Trump undoing our democracy? And if the threat is real why is the Republican majority remaining with the president and not taking steps to remove the threat, that is Trump, from office?
As I think about all this I keep returning to the word democracy itself, the literal meaning of which is the rule of the people, that is, the demos.
Now in that literal sense there has never been a democracy, never been a “rule of the people,” other than what is usually referred to as, not people, but mob rule. So what would it mean to say that our democracy is threatened? And who wouldn’t be all in favor of undoing democracy if that was what it was. the rule of a mob?
(And from reasoning in this way there are many who would threaten, to undo in a heart beat our present government as being a kind of mob or tribal rule, having lost any connection it may have once had to the people.)
But we have neither the one or the other, not democracy nor mob rule. What we have, for better or worse, is a representative kind of democracy in which we vote to elect a few of us to represent us in government. Trump himself goes along with this. For he never gets tired of telling us that he was elected to be the president, or representative of all the people, even if, because of our electoral college system, he didn’t win the majority of votes cast. So is he a threat? Well not to democracy as representative government.
At the same time there have been no lack of admirers of our “democracy.” There was Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of Democracy in America, first published in 1835, who wrote in his introduction:
“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions. I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact exercises on the whole course of society, by giving a certain direction to public opinion, and a certain tenor to the laws; by imparting new maxims to the governing powers, and peculiar habits to the governed. I speedily perceived that the influence of this fact extends far beyond the political character and the laws of the country, and that it has no less empire over civil society than over the Government; it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce. The more I advanced in the study of American society, the more I perceived that the equality of conditions is the fundamental fact from which all others seem to be derived, and the central point at which all my observations constantly terminated.”
Here he doesn’t even mention democracy. Instead he says that the equality of conditions he found throughout his travels was “the fundamental fact from which all others seemed to be derived, the central point at which all his observations constantly terminated.” What did he mean by that?
Of course we don’t know exactly what he meant by “equality of conditions.” Other than that he perceived a certain equality in America that he found nowhere else, at least to the same extent. Could it be that when we hear that our democracy is being threatened, as now by Trump and his Republican base, could it mean that it is the equality of conditions that is being threatened?
Without addressing the issue of whether there had ever been anywhere equality of conditions, — In my opinion there never has been although we perhaps might find something like that in de Tocqueville’s America of the early 19th. c America. Where it seems he came closest to finding it himself.
But if it’s not democracy nor what de Tocqueville called equality of conditions what is it that needs protection, what it is that our country does possess of real value that might now be threatened by President’s Trump’s occupancy of the Oval Office?
And we might also ask at this point why it is that of all the forms of government democracy is the most admired?
A good place to begin our discussion might be with Thomas Mann’s 1938 Essay, The Coming Victory of Democracy, written 100 years after Tocqueville’s great work earlier. Mann had experienced up close both the founding of the first German democracy ever, the Weimar Republic, as well as its overthrow and failure just 14 years later. The Enabling Act of 1933 had brought about a state of emergency in the Republic that in turn wiped out constitutional governance and civil liberties and resulted in Hitler’s seizure of power (Machtergreifung) collapsing the new democracy and bringing the republic to an end, along with and most important, the founding of a single-party state, Hitler and the Nazi era (which in turn failed in even a fewer number of years, 12).
Here is Thomas Mann in his own words, now in America having fled from Hitler’s Germany.
“Democracy, whatever may be its conception of humanity, has only the best of intentions toward it. Democracy wishes to elevate mankind, to teach it to think, to set it free. It seeks to remove from culture the stamp of privilege and disseminate it among the people—in a word, it aims at education.”
These words alone make it clear why we’ve never had a democratic form of government, actually for the same reason that we’ve never had a valid public education for our children, making of them responsible and capable citizens of the nation. Parents too wish to elevate their children, to teach them to think, to set them free…. How many have ever achieved this?
Like so many others, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, Mann now in America like the others, joined Albert Einstein in Princeton.
Both of them were looking to America as a model for democratic governance, if not democracy.
Again here is Thomas Mann, his writing this time also from The Coming Victory of Democracy:
“The expression ‘to carry owls to Athens’ is a familiar humanistic expression in Germany. It denotes an act of superfluous effort, the transfer of an article to a place where such things already exist in abundance. As the owl was the sacred bird of Athena, owls were numerous in Athens and anyone who felt obliged to increase their number would have exposed himself to ridicule. In undertaking to speak on democracy in America, ladies and gentlemen, I feel as if I, too, were carrying owls to Athens. It looks as if I were not aware that I am in the classic land of democracy, where the mode of thought and the type of social structure which are characterized by this name are essentially at home and a universally ingrained conviction; where, in short, democracy is an all-prevailing matter of course, upon which the American needs no instruction—least of all from a European. On the contrary, Europe has had much to learn from America as to the nature of democracy….”
I will continue to write about the “threat to our democracy” when I return from a New Year’s walk with the family in Tampa. As I’m sure you’ve guessed there is no end to this sort of thing, pushing your understanding of a word or idea, in this case the supposed threat to our democracy of an ignorant man in the Oval Office.
And yes, I will be writing about Jürgen Habermas himself writing about Democracy nearly 100 years after Mann writing in Princeton.