Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Small Oppress the Great when the Great aren't that Great 

What worries me is not the prospect that a majority of white Americans will buy into theocratic racism or Randian libertarianism but the remarkable leverage that extremists can have even when they are in the minority so long as political elites lack courage and prudence. The crazies are always with us, and people are always susceptible to demagogic appeals. What gives them strength is the decadence of our political class, the unfortunate fact that our elites just aren't that elite.

Here's an uncomfortable parallel: I've been reading Eri Hotta’s book on Japanese politics in the run up to the Pearl Harbor. The majority of Japanese leaders were perfectly well aware that Japan would lose a war with America—even those who subscribed to mystical versions of Japanese exceptionalism were able to count—but they were cowed into an obviously stupid policy by their fear of a rather small number of fanatical army officers. Of course, the fanatics in Japan resorted to assassination to get their way, something that hasn't happened here yet; but the firebrands also imposed a kind of rhetorical terrorism that made it impossible for leaders to admit in public that Japan wasn't always in the right and wouldn't automatically prevail against any enemy because of the Yamato spirit. The prime minister, cabinet members, and high-level army and navy officers were too cowardly to face up to a rabid minority and ended up signing off on a suicidal war few of them believed in. The Germans and Italians made war at the command of strong, evil men. The Japanese made war because of the vacillation of weak, morally mediocre men. 

The majority of Republicans don't believe in democracy, but they aren't nuts. They are weak, however, and afraid of being labeled RINOs or worse by the true believers. Which is why they end up supporting ridiculously jingoistic and counterproductive foreign policies—assuming that bomb, bomb, bomb counts is a plan—as well as domestic policies that weaken the country economically and divide it socially. The Democrats have analogous fears, which is why, among other things, right wing terrorists and militia men are not suppressed and war crimes perpetrated by own brand of renegade Colonels go unpunished while whistleblowers rot in jail. 

Weakness is dangerous. Many people subscribe to the so-called great man theory of history; but as I read the record, the little men theory of history applies more often, especially when it comes to explaining the grand disasters. For example, for the last hundred years people have been trying to decide who are the villains responsible for the massive calamity that was World War I; but that's a question without an answer because the true cause was not a villain but the fact that the nations were governed by moral and intellectual midgets. I'm afraid that a similar explanation holds for our current political crisis. You can’t have a democracy or even a decent oligarchy without responsible leadership.