Classic Essays

Democracy is a Kind of Death, part 5

by William Gayley Simpson

THERE ARE TWO items in the record that might give the critic pause. One of these is the success of the United States. The other is French Revolutionary theory, which for the first time undertook to place its claims above the reach of any record and to found them on natural, inborn, abstract, and imprescriptible right. Each of these demands some further attention from us. First, let us examine the reputed success of our democracy. What substance is there in it? And how is it to be accounted for?

First of all, the government of the United States has lasted for nearly two hundred years. To be sure, this is not very long as compared with the length of life of many aristocracies and monarchies. And an experiment in government, especially one that is a departure from best-established precedent, can hardly be pronounced a success until it has, at the least, held together for several centuries. Despite our growth, therefore, and our wealth, our preeminence in industrialism and our hegemony (of a sort) in world affairs, I must hold that the country is still young and that no final judgment can yet be rendered. Nevertheless, let it be admitted, two hundred years is a sizable block of time. No other democratic government, certainly none confronting the complexity of problems arising in a modern country of great size, can equal it.

How are we to account for this unprecedented success of a popular government? First of all, by pointing out that it never has been truly popular. An Athenian citizen of the days of Pericles would have refused to allow that it was a democracy, since the ordinary American citizen does not directly participate in government at all. Indeed, it is a matter of common knowledge among historians that the founders of this country wished to prevent the people from having much to say in the direction of affairs. They wished the government to have a stability greater than they believed possible if it were too closely dependent on anything so uninformed and so excitable and fickle as public opinion. They therefore created a strong executive, gave him the power to be a real ruler, and fixed his term of office long enough to make him independent of the changing moods of the popular mind. Stability was sought, likewise, in the age of senators, in their length of office, and in the power entrusted to them. Also, the whole electoral system made the ordinary citizen at least twice-removed from any actual participation in the government. He was given little to do but say Yes or No to each of several men put up for office by political machines.

And for final and completely conclusive evidence of “how far remote from anything like democracy our political system is,” to quote Mr. Albert J. Nock, “one need only cite the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established judicial control over legislation. It vested the supreme political authority in a small oligarchy [the U.S. Supreme Court. W.G.S.]. The members of this oligarchy are not elected; they are appointed; the people have no semblance of choice in the matter. They are, moreover, appointed for life, and are wholly irresponsible; their acts cannot be brought under any kind of review. Excellent as this system may be, it is manifestly a long way from democratic.” The long and the short of it is that, if French revolutionary theory was the mother of our government, its father was hard-headed realistic English political experience. The resemblance of the American president to the English king has often been noted. Except for the fact that the American offices of president and senator were nonhereditary and their terms limited, the founders of the Constitution made their government as much as possible like the English government of the 18th century, a period when the English King and House of Lords still had real power.

That is to say, insofar as our American democracy has succeeded, perhaps it has been because it has not been very democratic.

But to what extent has it succeeded? To what extent has it actually met the needs for which, as we have seen, every healthy people organizes its life? It has held together a fairly long time, yes, but has it preserved the health and happiness of the people, has it preserved our distinctive character, has it enabled us as a people to achieve any true or lasting significance among the peoples of the Earth? Has it provided us with a statesmanship that gives promise of ensuring even any long-continued existence? My understanding of the facts compels me to answer No. Even a hundred years ago John Quincy Adams, who had every reason to wish to pronounce the American experiment a success, had to bemoan its failure. Though not fully a democracy, it was far too much a democracy to prove sound.

Almost from the start our fair country became par excellence the land of the quick return. It had been endowed with an unimaginable virgin wealth of natural resources. But it lay wide open to be raped by the hand of anyone who had an eye for gain, and whose cunning, energy, and daring for getting it out was not hampered by conscience or by any concern for the welfare of the country as a whole. What ensued was the plundering of a continent unparalleled in human history. The waste of natural resources was beyond the power of any mind to describe or even to conceive. The aim everywhere was to squeeze out of one’s holding every ounce of profit possible, and then to move on to a place where one could squeeze again. Everything was shaped remorselessly to the advantage of those who could pile dollar upon dollar, regardless of how they were got. Gain became God, the great god Moloch, into whose cavernous maw of waste and destruction the priests of finance ruthlessly shoveled the welfare of the entire people, both the fate of the living and the destiny of those yet to come.

Along about 1880, in order to multiply and to magnify the opportunities for quick and easy gain through the exploitation of cheap labor, the froth of the rising tide of populace in southeastern Europe was allowed to begin spilling over into America, and thus gradually to adulterate its blood, alter its character, break down its traditions, and clog the working of its vital institutions. The total drift of affairs in the nation generated destructive forces beyond the power of the people to resist or to avert. Gradually they were pried and torn off the land and herded into cities, and there were tied to desks and machines in jobs that have had little meaning for them and which they hate, and where, for all their steam-heated flats and pressed Sunday clothes, their multiplied gadgets and “conveniences,” their cars and movies and television and the rest of it, their lot is in many ways more degrading than that of chattel slaves. The end result has been a measurable decline in stamina, in intelligence, in self-reliance, and generally in substantial character. Today we simply are not the same people, nor the same kind and caliber of people, as those who founded and early guided the country. The people generally have been debauched and besotted, and ground down into sand heaps of mean little nothings. At last, we too have a proletariat, like that of Rome in the period of the Empire, and like Rome we too have come to buying our rabble off from tearing our world to pieces, by resort to free bread and circuses. Only, we call it “welfare” and TV.

But money-making has gone on apace. Machines have multiplied apace. And the men who have made them and owned and controlled them have climbed higher and higher. The trader, the middle man, the commercial man, who uses his hands only to turn over deal after deal and out of each one to squeeze money — above all, the financiers and big bankers, whose aim is even to make money out of nothing, and who, as we shall see, have perfected means for doing precisely this on a colossal scale and doing it invisibly withal — these men, whom aristocratic societies have commonly placed low, if not at the very bottom, our democracy has allowed to come to the top. And whoever sits on top is inevitably looked up to, and emulated, until his example permeates the whole society. In consequence, the people are corrupted. Even our countryside has been fouled and infected by the spirit of the city. Everybody, like the financiers, pants after money, easy money, the “fast buck,” a chance to get something for nothing. Men are measured by the amount of money that they have. It is the common assumption that a man without money must be a nobody. Almost every man, too, has his price, like every thing. Our whole living is saturated with money valuations: conversation, books, papers, radio talks, politics, statecraft, church work — everything. One can hardly sit in a city subway car without being forced to close one’s eyes to keep them from being defiled and one’s mind invaded by the lies and baseness of the advertisements that plaster the walls wherever one can look. This is what we have made of America under our democracy — to my mind, a spiritually loathsome place. No wonder that Arabs, met some years ago in conference, exclaimed that they “did not want the incredible American way of life.”

Naturally, while all this was going on, we have produced little significant culture. Probably, it is safe to say that there is no cultural field in which we have not played second fiddle to Europe. It has been Europe, with its survivals of feudalism, that has ever been the source of original and fertile ideas. We have but imitated, and usually imitated but poorly. Even the great centers of pure science have been chiefly Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and London. Our scientists have been mostly of the practical variety, hired, like the engineers, to serve the owners of the machines, the money-grabbers.

Indeed, our leaders have not even ensured our long existence. Our statesmen, for the most part, have been too amateurish, too untrained and inexperienced, and at the best have changed too frequently, to give us grasp and elevation of policy, or even to maintain its consistency and continuity. Indeed, again and again, in the events that determined our part in the Second World War, and unmistakably and at a breath-taking pace during the years since, we have been committed to paths that lead (and one must suspect, were intended to lead) to destruction. The predominance of some vengefulness in our councils, of some apparently alien and positively anti-American influence, has prevented the adoption of any policy that put the welfare of the U.S. firmly first. Instead, we look back over twenty-five years in which our country has been consistently betrayed — from within. Out of a desire utterly to blot out Germany, long the West’s best bulwark against the East, we have steadily helped to build up the Soviet Union into a colossus whose tyranny (as those who are fully informed now know very well) is more brutal, and whose designs far more diabolical and ruinous, than any that ever were charged against Germany.

As an instance of the sort of betrayal that I have in mind, I may mention that after the war was over, American forces were deliberately withdrawn to the Elbe, and the Communist army thereby permitted to overrun all of Eastern Europe and fasten its grip on the throat of Berlin. Never in all history, not even at Tours in 732 or at Vienna in the 17th century, had Europe so fallen under the heel of the alien East. The primary treachery may have been Roosevelt’s and that of his Communist adviser Alger Hiss, in the secret agreement that they made with Stalin at Yalta, but Truman surely shares their guilt for putting their treason into effect. And Eisenhower no less. It has been said in the latter’s defense that, if he had refused to obey Truman’s order, he would have made himself liable to court-martial. But Westbrook Pegler spoke truly, and like an American and a man, when he declared his doubt whether any court-martial could have been found to condemn him, and that in any case he might better have accepted execution at the hands of a firing squad than to have taken any part in such a monstrous and fatal betrayal of his country, and of all his own kind, in Europe.

As if this were not enough, within the next few years our agents (General Marshall among them) had completed a like betrayal of Chiang Kai Shek and a surrender of all China into the hands of its Communists. This was in sheer disregard of the warning to Western statesmen by the distinguished British geopolitician Sir Halford Mackinder, of a generation before, that he who ruled the East of Europe commanded the Heartland, that he who ruled the Heartland commanded the World-Island (i.e., the land block consisting of Europe, Asia and Africa), and that he who ruled the World-Island commanded the world. Mackinder’s dictum was confirmed in Lenin’s enunciation of major Communist policy in which he declared that the fate of the world would be decided, in the end, by the way China went. And this Communist capture, one after another, of the Earth’s places of supreme strategic importance (there are, of course, others that I have not mentioned) begins to take on a really lurid prospect as we recall, first, the well-known Communist plan to inflame, to finance, to arm, and to direct the teeming colored millions of the world against the West; and, secondly, that our prevailing democracy, with its Money Power’s consuming lust for gain, has been leading us for the past fifty years into the monumental stupidity of opening the scientific and industrial secrets of our power to the backward peoples of the whole world, above all to the crowded millions of the Orient, who undeniably have the wit and the energy to copy us well. When at last they burst their boundaries and sweep down upon us like a prairie fire, they will come armed with our own weapons.

I could go on to give countless further instances in support of my charge that the United States has been consistently betrayed. And it is not too much to say that the chief instrument in the steady advance of the Communist Empire, since the close of the Second World War, has been our own Department of State. The inner meaning of it all, for the purposes of our present examination, is that democracy is seen to be exactly that political system which provides the best opportunities for alien enemies and traitors to encyst themselves in the entire body of our people, and there to work under cover for our destruction. It turns out that most of the efforts to run the traitors down, the really big traitors, lead to the door of the International Money Power. And, in the end, we are forced to the conclusion that the Money Power always proves to be any people’s supreme enemy and, further, that democracy is totally lacking in the kind of power necessary to put the Money Power into shackles. This stands, unalterably, as its supreme and final indictment.

However, while I purpose to keep my eye on the major factors and to steer clear of details, I wish also to avoid picturing the situation as more simple than it really is. I know well that there is usually a tangled complex of forces and influences to be unraveled before one can say which factor is paramount. So far as historical explanation is concerned, I am ready to allow, for instance, that much of the evil I now have my finger on might be traced to the Puritanism which, according to Werner Sombart, had so large a part in creating the accursed high-finance capitalism that plagues and poisons every people it touches. But this Puritanism not only launched the rising class of British traders, industrialists and bankers on their wanton and ruinous rampage through “Merrie England” in quest of profit, it was also instrumental in overthrowing English monarchy, traditionally the guardian of the people’s liberty and welfare. It was this change that Disraeli had in mind when he said, through the mouth of his hero in Sybil, “As the power of the Crown has diminished, the privileges of the People have disappeared; until at length the Sceptre has become a pageant, and its subject has degenerated again into a serf.” I know, as a matter of established historical fact, that the most heartless indifference to the lot of the English wageworkers and their most ruinous exploitation came not during the long centuries when the English king really ruled, but after the day when belief in kingship had begun to die, after the victory of anti-monarchial forces had affirmed the doctrine that governments serve the community, after a succession of reverses to the aristocracy had made it clear that rule lay, and would lie increasingly, in the hands of “the people.” The system of gain grew side by side with the system of parliamentary government. But, indeed, it is only the old story: in ancient Athens as in modern England and America, democracy is associated with the rise of the Money Power, and with slavery and imperialism. And it has led to disaster.

But after all, even if democracy had not proved so well suited to providing secure and comfortable accommodation for traitors, what good reason is there, on the very face of things, to expect that democracy could ever provide a people with really sound and elevated direction? Even if machinery had ever been devised for registering the judgment of the people on any great issue, what would be the worth of the judgment after we had it? Said Carlyle, “Can it be proved that, since the beginning of the world, there was ever given a universal vote in favour of the worthiest man or thing? . . . The worthiest, if he appealed to universal suffrage, would have but a poor chance. John Milton, inquiring of universal England what the worth of Paradise Lost was, received for an answer, five pounds sterling . . . And when Jesus Christ asked the Jews what he deserved, was not the answer, death on the gallows?”

The most vital issues of the State, both foreign and domestic, require for their sound consideration an amount of background and detailed knowledge that is beyond the reach of all but a few. I believe that about such issues most men do not know anything, do not care anything, and not only lack the intelligence requisite to find out anything, but lack also the discernment and the character to give their judgment any value. It is then a waste of time, and folly, to register their opinion or to give it much consideration. Nor do we better matters by accumulating the judgments of many such men. Witlessness remains witless whether multiplied by one or by a million. You do not get wisdom by counting numskulls. What you do get is a downward pull toward mediocrity, arising from the catering for the votes of commonplace people, in order to obtain office or to stay in it. Even the Communist Harold Laski, in his article on the necessity of an elite in a democratic society, to which I referred in a previous chapter, admits that “it is legitimate to doubt whether the kind of aristocracy we require can be discovered among elected persons.” The tendency, rather, arising from the dependence of election on popular appeal, is to put into office a man who himself is but a varnished incarnation of populace. In such a man, the high ends of sound social organization are quite lost to sight. Even if he were aware what they are, he would not know how to go about achieving them. As a rule, he knows only the small, nearsighted, rule-of-thumb ambidexterity of the political schemer, the ambitious clamberer to power. It is not out of such men as this that we can get the wisdom and the rule to lift a people to heights of greatness, or even to maintain their existence, let alone to preserve that identity from which existence derives all its significance.

Moreover, the very machinery of democratic processes has opened the door to the manipulation and domination of society by a rich clique, which is what we have in America today. Even John Stuart Mill, for all his championship of democracy, recognized and admitted this evil. “Democracy thus constituted does not even attain its ostensible object, that of giving the powers of government in all cases to the numerical majority. It does something very different: it gives them to a majority of the majority, who may be, and often are, but a minority of the whole.” And Egon Friedell remarks in his Cultural History Of The Modern Age, that this “fallacy of every democracy, clearly seen already in Herodotus when he said that the majority was taken as the whole, was elevated in Greece to an all-consuming delusion.” But Athens was not more deceived by it or more certainly its victim than we are in America.

Furthermore, the practice of majority rule provides the basis for the worst sort of tyranny. From the will of the king or a body of nobles there can be an appeal to the people, but where the people themselves are conceived as the real government, and where there is belief that rightness attaches to mere numbers, then when numbers reach a majority there can be no appeal. And no limit can be set to the majority’s power, or even to its right, to coerce the minority. As a last resort, a ruling house or a body of lords can be thrown out by revolution, but this possibility is removed when a government knows that it has on its side not only legal authority but also irresistible force. “This is the reason,” said Mr. Dermot Morrah, “why the tyranny of the few over the many is always subject to limits; that of the many over the few has none.” Indeed, it is this that makes democracy so superb a schooling for the dictatorship to which it always succumbs. The would-be tyrant has but to win a mass following, and the people will both accept and assist his most ruthless elimination of his opponents.

One of the most demoralizing results of democracy is its dissipation of responsibility. When a law derives from a king or an aristocracy, the king or the nobles have to stand for it before the nation. And their sense of this responsibility creates a restraining and steadying influence as inescapable as it is socially valuable. For they know that in the long run the very continuance of their position and their rule depends upon their providing such government as to command, at the least, the respect and the confidence of the people. But under the ballot system responsibility has been so comminuted and dispersed that there is hardly any of it left. The fragments of it are shifted so easily and plausibly from one man’s shoulders to another’s that it cannot successfully be laid on anyone. But power without responsibility is ruinous to all good government.

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Source: Which Way, Western Man?

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