“They’re back,” cries the little girl in the movie, when the demons from Hell reappear on her television screen.  The phrase, a cliché in the cliché-driven headlines of the Washington Post and Time, comes to mind at the beginning of every election cycle, as gibberish-driveling demons like Hillary and Joe, Sarah and Newt get interviewed by the alien life forms that haunt the network-news programs.  The airhead ditzes and poof-haired grifters are sometimes flanked by the evil “geniuses”—if such a term can be applied to cretins—who organize their campaigns and write the words that come out of their mouths.

As the midterm elections approach, I feel a bit like a migraine sufferer.  Nonsense phrases start buzzing in the back of my head, and celebrity politicos begin to display a sinister aura.  At least if it were a migraine coming on, I should know to take my medicine, but with the onset of the political campaigns, all I can do is avoid all forms of political media, not just television but newspapers and political websites.

Patriotic friends, usually quoting Churchill’s defense of democracy, tell me that the vulgar stupidity of political campaigning is the price we have to pay for democracy.  Considering the quality of leadership that we are buying, the price seems much too high.  Mark Twain claimed that we have the best Congress money can buy, but old Mark was either an optimist or lucky to have known a higher class of crooks.  In the Gilded Age, leaden-souled politicians were glossed with real gold.  Now even the gilt is fake.

Perhaps I am indulging a nostalgia for better times that never existed.  When have elections ever been anything but a game of liar’s poker?  True enough, but it is always the tendency of democratic politics to cheapen and degrade political discourse, and, even for a skeptical student of history, it is not too hard to distinguish between the political rhetoric of Pericles and Cimon, Cato and Caesar, Jefferson and Adams, and the mind-numbing sound bites scripted by Karl Rove and David Axelrod.  Even as recently as the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, there were speechwriters and campaign strategists for whom English was not a foreign language, nor American history a blank slate on which they were free to scribble whatever lies struck their fancy.

Do not look for principle or loyalty in Karl Rove or Steve Schmidt, David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel.  These strategists have two tricks: Smear the opposition with anything you can find (or make up), and pander to as many constituencies as you can while alienating the fewest possible.  There is no strategy, much less statesmanship, in this campaigning, only disinformation and servility.  No candidate who employs the services of such advisors deserves the support of anyone who does not hate his country.

It is a kind of chicken-and-egg question: Which came first, the panders who degraded an honest electorate or a degraded electorate that welcomes the ministrations of the panders?  Perhaps it makes no difference.  If, however, we accept the truth of Samuel Butler’s sociobiological insight, that a chicken is only an egg’s way of making another egg, we might say voters are only a means by which political panders regenerate themselves—a bit like Dr. Who—but always as a lower life form.  If Martin van Buren was a fox and Mark Hanna a weasel, our latter-day advisors are not even mammals but something more on the order of scorpions or stink bugs.

This conceit is, admittedly, more than a little farfetched; nonetheless, anyone whose eyes have not been cataracted over by television and the internet will understand that there is no political reform—term limits, campaign-finance laws, stricter rules on political ethics—that will have any effect, so long as a degraded electorate can serve as the springboard for the rule of the minuscule American elite over the misnamed citizens.

Americans like to brag about their government allegedly of the people, by the people, and for the people, but the reality is that, compared with the Spartan or Venetian republics, we are ruled by one of the tiniest elites in history.  English and American historians typically describe the late-medieval Venetian state as an oligarchy, but as Thomas Madden points out in his popular history, by 1300 Venice’s Grand Council (their legislative equivalent of our Congress) numbered 1,100 members or one percent of the population, “an extremely high rate for representative government.”  Contrast this with the American Congress, which represents 0.0002 per cent of the population.

The disproportionate ratio of the American governing class to the governed mass is not an accidental product of political evolution; rather it is a striking instance of a universal tendency that draws mass-based democracies into one or another form of despotism.  When Churchill made his endlessly quoted statement that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried,” he may simply have been exercising his famous wit on a paradox without a point.  On the other hand, no one understood better than he that the power of democratic governments rested on a base of the citizenry’s ignorance and malevolence.  “The best argument against democracy,” he observed, “is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” and he had never met the voters of 2008 or 2012!  In gaining and exercising power, Churchill relied on his native wits and an oratorical ability that was matched only by his disdain of moral scruples.  He was the perfect model of the aristocratic demagogue, among the last in a long distinguished line that included Pericles, Julius Caesar, and the Comte de Mirabeau.  Such men, when they are successful, can play the mob as a symphony conductor leads the rank-and-file members of the orchestra and accomplish what seem like miracles, but woe to the noble statesman—and his people—if the rabble begin to take themselves seriously and want one of their own in power.

What a sinister ring had Clinton’s promise to name a “Cabinet that looks like America,” and how well he kept that promise!  Janet Reno, Madeleine Albright, Donna Shalala, and Robert Reich.  Most of us would have been happy with a Cabinet that looked like the human race.

The vices of democracy stare us in the face, whenever we contemplate the history of ancient Athens, revolutionary France, or New Deal America.  In fact, terms like New Deal and Great Society, Morning Again in America, and Shock and Awe could not be accepted by any class of citizens that had not been thoroughly infantilized by the organs of mass democracy.  This is not to say that there are no virtues in popular government—a more accurate and less loaded term than democracy.  In political systems that do not permit ordinary people to have their say, particularly in questions connected to their private lives, despotism becomes inevitable.

Too many political ideologues make the mistake of underestimating mankind’s capacity for mischief, and anyone inclined to trust to the basic decency of ordinary people in or out of office should recall Thomas Browne’s observation: “The heart of man is the place the devil dwells in.”  Even hardened political cynics can dupe themselves.  Alexander Hamilton feared the people as “a great beast,” but he was naive—or simply dishonest—enough to trust the rich.  Jefferson was wiser.  Deeply skeptical as he was in all matters except his love of Virginia and America, he knew that the rich and powerful could be trusted no more than the toiling masses.  The first principle of any sound political system is the frank recognition that the libido dominandi is universal, and no one is exempt: the rich or the poor, political insiders or fresh-faced outsiders, saints or children.  It is no safer to trust “the people” than it is to put one’s faith in princes.

The American federal system succeeded, initially, because it avoided both mass democracy and elitist plutocracy.  Communities and states were able to protect themselves from the imperial plutocracy that was always seeking to control the central government.  Such devices as indirect elections and the Electoral College served as barriers against that mass democracy that speaks in the name of the many while always concentrating power in the hands of the few.  Neither presidential electors nor U.S. senators were directly elected by the people, but by the state legislators who were themselves answerable to the communities that elected them.  Of course, corruption was common, even rampant, but bribe-taking and malfeasance were abuses of the system, not its very essence, as is the case today.  What else is the purpose of mass democracy if not to tax the productive and use the money to buy the votes on which the power of the elite rests?

In an age when newspapers and sermons constituted the primary media of social and political communication, aspiring statesmen had to win the support of the influential men in the communities that sent them to Columbia or Washington.  Rather than appealing directly to the all-too-manipulable masses, they had to work with intersecting networks of face-to-face communities.  Peter Laslett has quite correctly argued that all real politics is conducted in such face-to-face communities, whether at the level of the village or the level of parliament, and that it is a primary task of government to integrate the two levels.  Laslett mistakenly believed that electoral representation solves the problem.  Perhaps it did when politicians had to campaign vote by vote in their districts, but with the advent of television and the internet, elections are determined largely by the success of expensive media campaigns that are as substantial as any other Hollywood product.  None of the virtues of popular government can be maintained when ignorant voters are manipulated by image-makers and scriptwriters.

Since the Kennedy years, national elections have been infested by pop-culture celebrities.  As a boy I watched the 1960 Democratic National Convention broadcast on NBC.  I well recall an exasperated David Brinkley, commenting with his usual dry asperity, on the omnipresence of a young woman who always seemed to be in front of the television camera.  He checked and discovered that she was someone named Phyllis Kirk, an actress, apparently, on a television show.  Brinkley’s ignorance of a pop-culture celebrity may have been affected, since Kirk had costarred in the series The Thin Man with the future president’s brother-in-law, Peter Lawford, on Brinkley’s own network, but affected or not, his disdain was justified.

Once the Hollywood Rat Pack got introduced to President Kennedy, it was inevitable that later politicians of both parties would see the advantage in bringing celebrities into their campaigns.  Once they started to pal around with the stars, it was inevitable that presidential candidates—the Clintons, Obama, and Kennedy himself—would begin to act like celebrities, appearing on Saturday Night Live and Tonight, spilling the beans to Oprah, doing everything they could to attract the paparazzi they pretend to find annoying.  No decent human being would act this way, even for the sake of wealth and power, but who was the last decent person to stand a real chance of getting a major party’s presidential nomination?  Eugene McCarthy?

If you watch any coverage of the party conventions, you will discover that they are more or less a televised awards program, like the Emmys or the CMAs, with one difference: They are as badly directed as the national government.  Platforms mean even less than oratorical ability or a command of English.  It is, as they say, “all about” product and marketing.  The p.r. boys are peddling mass democracy in the same way that they peddle mass food.  If Obama was a Big Mac, Romney was Applebee’s—more expensive and a bit more upscale, admittedly, but fundamentally the same.

This is one of several reasons why populist calls to restore “democracy” are futile.  The United States have never been a democracy: At the outset of the Revolution, ours was a union of 13 republics, and, while the bonds of union were strengthened first by the Articles of Confederation and then by the Constitution, a federation it remained until 1865, but even the Lincolnian revolution did not entirely destroy the republican and federal framework. It goes without saying that the more our rulers prate about democracy, the less actual power is exercised by us the people.  These days, the obsessive talk about American democracy is a bit like an aging actress whose friends keep saying publicly that she is younger and more beautiful than ever.

The rapidly accelerating slide into total despotism cannot be checked by expanding the organs of mass democracy: Power to the people really means power to the parties and their managers.  One approach would be to curb the influence of the media.  Personally, of course, we can refuse to watch the liars on CNN and FOX or to listen to talk radio or to follow the media antics of Joe Biden and Ted Cruz.  But, when a people has been sufficiently degraded, no appeal to their finer feelings or sense of decency will have much effect: Who in his right mind would let a Sean Hannity or an Alex Jones or a Glenn Beck into his home or introduce such people to his family?  Then why do otherwise normal people permit the virtual-reality Seans, Glenns, and Alexes to stink up their houses?

If there were any political will in the people or even a few decent men in the Senate, we might try to put limits on campaigning, as they do in the European Union.  The United Kingdom imposes a virtual ban on media campaigning, and while the results—Tony Blair and Dave Cameron—are less than impressive, at least they and many of their colleagues can speak English and frame a rational argument, accomplishments out of the reach of our own leaders since the time of Richard Nixon and his nemesis Sam Ervin.  We would not have to worry so much about campaign-finance reform if political parties could not spend so much money buying airtime.

Shutting off the media would do some good, but it would leave the greater problem of mass “democracy” intact.  So long as politicians are free to appeal directly to the mob, they will find the means to accomplish their objective.  This is where the checks and balances provided by the Constitution could play a useful part.  While most politicians and pundits on both sides have called repeatedly for the elimination of the Electoral College, that quaint and clumsy institution should be invigorated and made to function as an authentic electoral body.  At the same time, at least some conservative Republicans should campaign to overturn the 17th Amendment, which established the direct election of senators.  The amendment was passed by a large bipartisan consensus, first in Congress and then in the states, but it is also one of the earliest examples of media demagoguery at work.  Not content with prevaricating the United States into the Spanish-American War, William Randolph Hearst editorialized incessantly against indirect election as the source of all political corruption.  If Hearst had seriously intended to attack political corruption, he should have shut down the New York Journal.

Indirect elections, sortition (selecting by lot), restrictive franchise, and other buffers against mob rule were stabilizing elements in the popular governments of Athens, Sparta, and Rome.  In Venice, whose admirable republican institutions endured for so many centuries, they deliberately made the election of a doge so complicated as to render it impervious not only to fraud but to the manipulation of the masses we insist on calling democracy.  In a series of stages (I count ten), the pool of potential electors, drawn initially from the Grand Council, is established by selection of approved and responsible members of the political class, but this pool is alternately expanded by additional rounds of selection and contracted by sortition.  In the main, the process worked brilliantly, and no state has ever been so consistently well governed and so stable as Venice.  From a nucleus of islands and alluvial mudflats arose a commercial and political empire that dominated a large part of Northern Italy and much of the Mediterranean, until the forces of Revolutionary France, commanded by Napoleon, destroyed self-government in the name of democracy.  Being less brilliant than the French, American politicians have taken a century to replace self-government with tyranny in the name of the people.

As Thomas Madden notes, Venice was the only medieval and Renaissance Italian city in which families did not build defensive towers or turn their homes into fortresses.  Why not?  Because they did not have to.  The clan rivalries and factional strife that tore other Italian cities apart were alien to Venice.  Here in America, as ethnic and racial conflicts account for a huge proportion of urban violence, middle-class people are fleeing the cities and inner suburbs, and those who do stay are hardening their houses and apartments by installing security systems and iron bars over windows and doors.

If only tax-producers (as opposed to tax-consuming welfare dependents and government employees) could vote, and if the passing whim of a minority could not be ginned up by demagogues in the media, the more sober elements of our society might be able to undertake the lengthy process of restoration on which the future of this country will depend.  The solution to the agony of our dying empire is not more “democracy”—more wealth redistribution and pandering to minorities—but more restrictions of the type that made Venice, and the Old American Republic, world powers.