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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

American Democracy and the Myth of Progress

Something I read recently got me thinking about the idea of progress again, but more narrowly in the context of our current crazy political situation. I came across a quote from H.L. Mencken that seemed, well, timely even today, a hundred years after he wrote it. Mencken was a writer who made a career in part out of parodying the mediocrity of the common man and the kind of democracy it gave us.

Here's one cynical example from a Baltimore Evening Sun article he wrote in 1920. In this case, he was writing about the challenges of winning presidential elections in America.

"As democracy is perfected, the office [of President] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

H.L. Mencken

Mencken was referencing soon-to-be president and "Numskull" (his word) Warren G. Harding. Still, I suspect many may find the quote apt today, if not downright prophetic. To be sure, Mencken was an elitist, a snob, a racist, and someone who would have howled with laughter at the so-called wisdom of the common man.

For Mencken, the common man was more Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin than anything resembling the idea of a thoughtful and engaged citizen. The average person, Mencken believed, was a dolt. Democracy was simply the act of empowering the dolts to elect other dolts to govern in a kind of "doltocracy," i.e., the rule of the dim over the dim-witted.


Is Progress Real?

Maybe this is too harsh. As a society, we have come a long way, even if it appears our democracy is run by mediocrities. Zoom out, and the progress we've made is real enough to measure, though with some important caveats. Take Steven Pinker: he is one of today's most ardent defenders of the idea that almost everything about the world we live in is better than before. And frankly, it's hard to argue with this premise.

Violence, war, and poverty are all way down. Skin color and ethnicity no longer dictate destiny as they did before. Since the nineteenth century, the ongoing rights revolution has brought historically marginalized groups into the political community as equals. Science and technology have made our lives more comfortable than ever before. The free market and the welfare state working in tandem remain the best engines we have to create wealth and distribute it more equitably.

These are good things.

This, I would argue, is measurable progress.

So we must be doing something right, even if we're governed by "morons" elected by the "collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

Here's another tell-tale sign that progress is real: look back at how poorly some customs and norms have aged. When we do this, we shake our heads in disgust. Slavery and Jim Crow, the shameful servitude of women, the extermination of the Native Americans, the barbaric treatment of non-normative sexualities: all of these are bigotries and prejudices we rightly reject today, even though all of them were once norms just about everyone blindly accepted.

Today those beliefs are condemned as not only socially reprehensible but also illegal. People now live in a time that offers opportunities to pursue self-actualization in ways that would have been impossible just a few decades ago.

And yet, for all this evidence pointing to real, tangible progress, Mencken's century-old critique still resonates with me. The American presidency continues to produce leaders from one end of the talent spectrum to the other, from inspiring leaders like Roosevelt, Reagan, and Kennedy, to...well...what we have seen recently.

We get a reflection of the values and opinions of that portion of the electorate large enough to choose a president. That's all. The lesson here is that democracies don't necessarily pick better leaders. Sometimes they pick dolts.

Therefore, defining progress in political institutions appears to be more problematic. Political progress can happen. After all, the examples of progress I listed above all needed the stamp of legislative authority to make them stick.

Yet, looking around at our current political landscape, can anyone see anything but regression? Can anyone argue that our political institutions are still progressing toward something better? Or are they breaking down under the stress of bad actors? I don't know. Mencken wouldn't be surprised. He also wrote, "Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance."

Maybe he was on to something?

You see, democracy has no telos, no point toward which it is advancing. History doesn't either. Those are fallacies, but enduring ones propagated by influential thinkers like Hegel, Marx, and Spengler, just to name a few off the top of my head. It's one thing to have faith in progress, looking back with pride at all that has been accomplished and looking forward to all that still can be.

It's quite another to think this is all inevitable, that it's part of some abstract, unstoppable historical process. It's not. Progress can be real and has been, but it is disconcertingly fragile. It's utterly dependent on real people engaging in civic activism to make change happen. But that's a slow, fitful process, and the gains often feel tiny when only viewed in isolation. Taken together, though, it all adds up to building a better government.

But keep this in mind: What we take years to carefully build up can burn down in an hour.

There's your progress.

Moreover, democracies are dynamic but also inherently unstable and require constant care and attention from the populace. The American Founders understood this. They studied failed democracies like Athens and Rome. Looking at those failures, they tried to build a better system of government that gave power to citizens while avoiding the pitfalls that ruined previous democracies.

They understood that each generation must re-negotiate the terms of the government it will live under. The American system was made to evolve with the times, giving it a degree of adaptability that previous republics simply lacked.

They also understood that human nature today is no different than when Cleon led Athens or when Hitler was Chancellor of the Weimar Republic. We're made of the exact same flawed human material, echoing Kant's lament that, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.

The human weaknesses that destroyed democracies in the past still exist today. Look around, if you doubt me. American exceptionalism will not save us, so we should be on our guard. Democracy is best sustained by a populace that is engaged, informed, and invested in society's continued well-being. Otherwise, it threatens to come crashing down as fear, hatred, grievance, mistrust, and partisanship trump our better civic natures.


Taking Stock - Optimism or Pessimism

So, where are we today? I'm not sure, to be honest. I believe our political system is increasingly dysfunctional. The current populist moment is the expression of the average citizen's vague awareness of that fact. That instinct is right, even if it has been weaponized to undermine the democracy they all want to save. Unfortunately, that is the great vulnerability of all populist movements: they tend to get hijacked by opportunists skilled at leveraging discontent to scapegoat opponents and advance ideological agendas.

History shows that democracy is vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks. Demagogues divide and conquer by constant appeals to grievances, undermining the very guardrails put in place to protect democracy. Oligarchies and plutocracies eventually emerge to legislate and institutionalize their power, even if they continue using the language of freedom and liberty to justify their actions.

They know money is power, and power begets more power, which begets more money, and then more power, and so on as true freedom and liberty swirl down the toilet. Aspiring authoritarians will drape themselves in flags and patriotism as they quietly accumulate power that undermines democratic institutions.

A democracy's natural trajectory is toward having power consolidated into fewer and fewer hands. This either continues until checked by the people or until only a hollowed-out husk of democracy remains.

On the other hand, democracy's demise does not have to be our fate. While many current trends are troubling, others are reassuring. For every shuttered democracy like Orban's Hungary, Weimar Germany, Erdogan's Turkey, Putin's Russia, or Chavez's Venezuela, many others remain bastions of open, pluralistic, liberal governance.

The stable democracies of Western Europe, the Scandinavian nations, Japan, Canada, Australia, and many others come to mind as shining examples that demonstrate the still-valid theory that democracy can work, and work damn well for everyone when done right.

Progress can continue, or it can reverse. Nothing's decided. Do we take pride in our institutions and seek to make them better? Or, do we continue to elect bulldozers with nothing but contempt for the government they were elected to serve? If so, then we will end up with the government we deserve.

It's up to us to decide which way this goes.


Supplementary Materials

A short version of Pinker's argument that things are actually pretty damn good today, despite all the gloom and doom we get carpet-bombed with every day in the media. A good reality check if you're someone on the receiving end of that daily carpet bombing.


But to end on a darker note, here's a talk on how democracy dies.



Paris, France

September 2020

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