Monday, April 05, 2004

Democracy Again

I’m a believer in the iron law of oligarchy. States are governed by minorities and always will be. Authoritarian regimes do not differ from democracies because elites are in charge but because the rulers in such polities are not loyal to the peoples they serve or feel any obligation to consult their wishes or promote their interests. Elections are only meaningful when the power structure of a nation allows them to be, where the holders of power wager some of their power on an outcome that is genuinely in doubt. Absent that willingness, elections are a way of asserting control, not of seeking consent, much as public opinion polls, supposedly a means for finding out what people are thinking, are merely the means by which commercial and political interests impose an agenda on a passive and thoughtless population.

Where politically effective people lack the will to maintain a government with a popular element, no constitutional or legal mechanism will prevent abuses. We have laws against political corruption, but they are simply not enforced. We have congressional elections, but they are rigged by gerrymandering to the benefit of incumbents so that very few districts are actually up for grabs in any given year. We have de jure freedom of the Press, but a de facto monopoly of what counts, the means of propaganda.

There is nothing remarkable about any of this. Functioning democracy is a rare and fragile condition that can only be maintained by continuous effort while a corporatist state is a more or less natural endpoint, especially for an Imperial state in decline. Indeed, at the present, populism is more likely to make things worse than better since the right is far better than the left at flattering and frightening the just plain folks.

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