Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, August 1, 2016

Our Democracy

Don Enss

            On May 25th when our final report was first mentioned, I already had an idea for what I wanted to report on. It came from a discussion question on the May 18th quiz. “Democracy had proved to be a disappointment to ‘nearly everyone in Greek intellectual circles in the mid-4th century BC.’ Has democracy in our time disappointed you? Can you give a rousing defense of democratic practice, not just democratic theory? Are we living through another epochal democratic decline, or are you hopeful that our politics will rally?”

Over twenty-five hundred years have passed since Greek intellectuals expressed disappointment in democracy and some of their concerns are still ones that generations of Americans including our own have wrestled with and future generations will have to address. In May, we were in a heated primary season and a single candidate had not been selected to represent each of the major political parties for president; now that issue has been resolved. On November 8, 2016, barring some unforeseen event, we will learn which candidate is to lead our nation during the next four years. In all probability, with candidates from at least two other parties to choose from, the winning candidate will have less than a plurality of actual voters who will cast a ballot. Additionally, historically, forty percent of registered voters will not vote. Given that approximately twenty-five percent of American citizens are under eighteen and have no vote in choosing the next president, the winner of the Presidency could be elected with less that twenty-five percent support from all of our citizens.

Now that the party conventions have been completed, we can expect during the next one hundred days to be assaulted with a barrage of lies, half-truths (mostly lies), distortions, name calling, character assassinations, and everything but the kitchen sink and all for the sole purpose of winning an election, with no regard for how hard those attacks will make it for the winner to govern. And this is just at the national level, add additional layers for state and local elections and one could be justified in questioning how successful our democracy is.

But before you let this negativity depress you, let’s remember that most people live in the moment and forget their history, even some of those who have taken the time to study it. We tend to think that our democratic process is the worst of all times and we “harken” back to the good old days. Well, they weren’t always that good. The accusations and insinuations levelled by John Quincy Adams’s supporters against Andrew Jackson make today’s charges seem mild in comparison. From Mother Jones’s Ten Most Awesome Presidential Mudslinging Moves Ever: “And the 1828… Adams supporters attack Jackson's family, calling his dead mother "a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers," after whose service she "married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!" Jackson's wife, who was previously married and (accidentally) not completely divorced prior to her second marriage, they call a "convicted adulteress." When she dies within days of Jackson's victory, he blames Adams' vicious campaign practices, exclaiming at her funeral, "May God Almighty forgive her murderers as I know she forgave them. I never can,” and “1844 Democrats backing James K. Polk claim that Henry Clay had sex with whores and, furthermore, broke all 10 of the commandments; in lieu of evidence, they declare simply that the details are "too disgusting to appear in public print," and “Whigs senselessly call 1848 presidential hopeful Lewis Cass a "pot-bellied, mutton-headed cucumber" in response to Democrats' accusations that opposing candidate Zachary Taylor is, among other things, a crappy dresser,” and a more current one, “Karl Rove-engineered robo-calls help Bush win the 2000 Republican nomination by asking primary voters if they would be "more likely or less likely to vote for John McCain if you knew that he fathered an illegitimate black child?" Negative points for not outright declaring, but just implying, the charge. Bonus points for slinging it inside own party. McCain speculates that "there is a special place in hell for people like those." You know what happened after that?” John McCain lost the South Carolina primary and the Republican presidential race to George W. Bush.

It’s worth noting that in the 1828 voting was restricted to white men and fewer than ten percent actually voted. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_election,_1828 . So maybe our democracy today is not as disappointing as we are led to believe. Maybe in retrospect Winston Churchill was correct when he said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Also, if we look closely maybe we can see lots of rays of sunshine piercing the clouds of doom and gloom. So what should we do?

I had two objectives in taking this course, first, to learn to be a better student and second to become a better citizen. As I have strolled through the history of western philosophy contained in The Cave and the Light, A Philosophy of Walking, and parts of The History of Western Philosophy, I encountered philosophers whose names I had only heard about but never taken the time to read any of their works or to discuss any of their ideas. This semester I have learned about life, politics, and religion from them and I was able to express my thoughts about them and their ideas much like they were able to question and challenge Plato and Aristotle because they had the writings of Plato and Aristotle on which to contemplate and debate.

In the first part of my final report, I will focus on democracy and on the second part on citizenship. To begin, I believe it is important to understand that to evaluate Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on democracy and how that relates to American democracy we must first agree that the city-state of Athens, Greece where they lived and based their ideas, bears little resemblance to our current national government and republic. Only white male citizens were permitted to vote, women, children, and slaves were not. Also, governments existed in other cities in Greece for centuries before Plato and Aristotle formulated their ideas, so they learned from others. Writings, from historians and philosopher like Heraclitus about other societies and their government, would have been known to Plato and Aristotle even though they no longer exist for our review and study. They used their own observations in addition to what they read to formulate their thoughts on what constituted a good government.

To compare and contrast societies, we need to understand the types of government and economic systems. There are six types of government, Democracy, Republic, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Dictatorship, and Democratic Republic, http://depts.alverno.edu/dgp/GEC/Types%20of%20Government.html . If you consider their definition of Democracy, “The word "democracy" literally means "rule by the people." In a democracy, the people govern,” then you realize that in the United States, we do not have a direct democracy and this was what Plato and Aristotle referred to. Both were privy to the declining fortunes of Athens culminating in Phillip of Macedon’s defeat of Athens. Clearly this was reflected in Plato’s view of the type of government that had been responsible for Athens demise. According to Herman, Plato’s disgust for democracy related to the corruption of officials, “the sordid behind-the-scenes dealing making and clubhouse politics that permeate every democracy,” and the ignorance of the majority. His idealized society consisted of three groups: laborers, soldiers, and rulers. Only the rulers would decide what was in the best interest of society. They would insure fairness and justice for all based on their education and training. Aristotle lived in the same environment as Plato, but believed that the ideal form of government would recognize the individual as the source from which the government derived its powers. “Aristotle reveals that the essential building block of every political community must be the individual household, consisting of the citizen and his family (including household slaves).” (Herman, 71). Aristotle arrived at this conclusion after studying the constitutions of many Grecian cities. James Madison prior to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia prepared the same way by studying the constitutions of many countries. Herman states that “Like Plato, Aristotle accepts that the goal of politics is to make the members of the community good,” they just differed on how to accomplish that.

According to Peter J. Boettke, associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University, “history has produced but three such kinds of economic systems: those based on the principle of tradition, those centrally planned and organized according to command, and the rather small number, historically speaking, in which the central organizing form is the market.” In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/economic-system (2016). According to Lardis, et al., ancient Greece did not have an aggregate market economy but had individual markets for agricultural products. The market system would have a profound effect on our current republic.

[PPT]Classical Greece


University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Classical Greece is considered to be the civilization that was around between the 4th and 5th centuries BC

Plato and Aristotle would not have been able to evaluate the impact of a market system on a government, but then neither would many of their followers until the 18th century with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This is important because while some elements of human behavior regarding political behavior have not changed since Plato’s time, like corruption, bribery, behind the door dealings, lobbyists, and influence of money, our U.S. Constitution has created a government that goes a long way to ensuring the necessary checks and balances on each of the three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial and it has given protections to individuals by respecting their freedoms and rights. Ironically, it met some of both Plato’s and Aristotle’s criteria for a government where the members of the community are good.

                Christopher Collier in Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 referred to George Washington, “But there was a second Washington, one he created himself. To understand how he came to do this, we have to take note of a concept widely prevalent in the eighteenth century. This was what was called fame. Today the word is applied to anybody who gets his name in the newspapers regularly, (or on TV in 2016) but in Washington’s day the term had an entirely different connotation—something closer to what we would call honor. Late-eighteenth-century Americans were deeply in love with the classical societies and their statesmen, generals, historians. College students did not read English literature. They read instead Caesar’s Commentaries, the Orations of Cicero, the Politics of Aristotle; and they constantly referred to what Polybius or Plato thought on a given subject.”

Douglass Adair in an article, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science”: David Hume, James Madison, and the Tenth Federalist cited General Washington as saying, “The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period; the researches of the human mind after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages, and Legislators, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government…” Adair indicated the “Legislators” were Scottish philosophers, “Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Lord Kames, and Adam Ferguson.”

David Hume had a special connection to James Madison. According to Adair, “It was David Hume’s speculations on the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,’ first published in 1752, that most stimulated James Madison’s thoughts on factions.” Later in his essay, “two sentences that must have electrified Madison as he read them: ‘In a large government, which is modelled with masterly skill, there is a compass and room enough to refine the democracy, from the lower people, who may be admitted into the first elections or first concoction of the commonwealth, to the higher magistrates, who direct all movement.’” This countered the argument that giving the poor the right to vote would threaten the rich by taking away their wealth.

We already know how Thomas Jefferson felt about Plato’s writings, “I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this.” (Herman, 364). “In fact, the only Greek philosopher Jefferson mentions as an influence on his Declaration of Independence is Aristotle.”(Herman, 364).

                Our Constitution was “modelled with masterly skill” to “refine our democracy”.  Is our democracy perfect? Is it in a crisis? I agree with Wolfgang Merkel, director of research at the Social Science Research Centre Berlin who would say “No” to both questions. In his article, Is There a Crisis of Democracy, he stated that “According to expert indices and polls, the message is: ”there is no crisis of democracy. However, the partial analysis on participation, representation, and effective power to govern reveal unresolved democratic challenges, such as increasing level of exclusion of the lower third of the demos from participation, an inferior representation of their interests, and a loss of democratic sovereignty in policy making.”

                I am confident that the “foundation” on what our country is built is sound and will survive and thrive regardless of who is elected this November. There will always be hiccups and a few loud belches, but we will move forward. So how do we as citizens address some of those “unresolved democratic challenges”? This will be my focus in part two of my report.


  1. Don, your optimism is a continuing inspiration. So is your verbal fecundity, you're already over 2,300 words. Far more important than their quantity, though, is their quality. Good words, encouraging words: what the world needs most, except for good and encouraging deeds.

    Any other year I'd agree without reservation, that we'll flourish "regardless of who is elected." I do hope you're right.

    I don't suppose, though, there's any point in fretting about that. This is a time for a double dose of stoicism and pragmatism, isn't it?

    I'm so pleased that you mention David Hume's unsung influence on our polity. There are still books to be written about that.

    BTW, the late Christopher Hitchens assembled a reading list for a little 8-year old girl who attended one of his last public lectures and asked what she should read. His list included Hume. Some wiseacre tweeted that it's abusive to make an 8-year old read Hume. Could be worse.

  2. Democracy in todays time vs. historically is much different. The Republican party and Democratic party used to be switched. I enjoyed you mentioned that students would read cicero, politics and other classics instead of contemporary works in todays societies. I wonder what the students of Alexandria studied. I would fascinated with the process of discovering the way in which society has progressed from ancient times, politically and educationally. The books does describe this a lot.

  3. Once again I've stumbled into another topic that I am no expert on; however, I enjoyed reading your post Dean. I also agree that we don't have a direct democracy and to begin the understandings of this it is good to being with Plato and Aristotle.

  4. What would Plato & Aristole say about race and democracy in today's current climate?

  5. Don I just wanted to say that I remember when this class started and I was dead set against voting and politics in general. However, your upbeat posts and informed opinions in class have made me reevaluate how I view my role in civic society.