My mind having regained, in the wake of last week’s contretemps in the airport queue, some of its former suppleness, I turned to the November issue of Chronicles, with its theme of “Politics as Reality TV.” There I was smitten at once by Tom Fleming’s editorial article, which, as one of the speechwriters he derides might put it, is as timely as it is thought-provoking. It may be that by commenting on it, in the manner of a mediaeval scholiast emending a sacred text, I will only confuse readers where Fleming has enlightened them, but all the same I should like to give it a whirl.
The underlying trope of Fleming’s essay, as has often been the case with writings on democracy since Montesquieu came up with it a few decades before the creation of the American Constitution, is “checks and balances” – not only in the narrow sense implicit in the principle of separation of powers, but also in that more vast, indeed all pervasive, polyvalence of interest and opinion which we have come to associate with Western democracy at its most viable. The product of such reciprocal reduction, or at least redaction, of every power vector that, if unchecked and unbalanced, would take over the polity like a mutant virus from a science fiction movie, is what is commonly known as freedom. Its opposite, found in societies whose defenses against it the virus has attacked and overpowered, may be called unfreedom – tyranny, or despotism.
It’s a portentous coincidence that Fleming shares a surname with the Scottish biologist who invented penicillin and, at least initially, saved the world from tuberculosis. The viral erosion of the checks and balances of healthy democracy, which is the subject of the essay under discussion, is a process not unlike the evolution of penicillin-resistant infections, such as the MDR (multi-drug-resistant) tuberculosis, that plague modern medicine. Yet where literally millions of doctors and scientists are engaged in research to battle the bacteria and viruses that seem to grow more virulent, intrepid, and wily with every passing year, no comparable effort – apart from that of a lonely bearded man named Fleming who edits a little magazine in a Chicago suburb – is being made to oppose the mounting threat to democracy’s health.
“The American federal system succeeded, at least initially,” writes Fleming, “because it avoided both mass democracy and elitist plutocracy.” He apostrophizes “barriers against mass democracy,” such as indirect elections – long eroded out of existence – and scrutinizes establishmentarian “political reforms,” such as “term limits, campaign-finance laws, stricter rules on political ethics,” that are as haphazard as they are ineffectual. Constrained by the realities of democratic politics to sound like a biologist discussing the efforts of a bunch of village veterinarians to halt a global epidemic, Fleming cannot expect to make many friends in the American political establishment. It is their “mass democracy,” in his words, “that speaks in the name of the many while concentrating power in the hands of the few.”
The political epidemic declared by Fleming in his essay is something we all know about from seeing its effects, yet are ever at a loss for words to explain. It is, moreover, something no responsible body – comparable, say, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a budget of $6.9 billion and 15,000 staff – has made the subject of systematic study. As a result, progress from freedom to despotism is the single most viable species of progress to be found in our progressive world.
One might say it is the only kind of progress that has a future.
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