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  • Paul D. Wilke

American Democracy and the Myth of Progress



In a recent article, I wrote that we now worship a new holy trinity: science is now our God, technology our Jesus, and progress our Holy Spirit. The ways we approach the world are now predicated to a remarkable degree on these three assumptions.


Take progress, for example, or the idea that we as a civilization are on an inevitable upward trajectory to something better, a future of ever more abundance, wealth, happiness, as well as better health, love, and meaning. On the flip side, progress means we'll have less of the bad things like disease, war, poverty, bigotry, and suffering. Make no mistake, though, this is a belief of religious proportions.


And even if the disciples of progress tacitly admit that utopia will never be reached, they still hope for a Star Trek-like future, one where we live in harmony with ourselves in a high-tech, affluent society, all while exploring the cosmos at warp speed. This vision may prove naive in the end, but I remain convinced that some version of this faith is what has filled the void left by the decline of the old religions.


Something I read recently got me to thinking about this again, but more narrowly in the context of our current batshit-bonkers 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." Newspapers.com


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 down-right 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, something that remains a common trope in conservative media to this day.


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, and 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.


"Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance." H.L. Mencken


This is too harsh. We as a society have come a long way, even if at a glance 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. The ongoing rights revolution since the nineteenth century 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 for creating wealth and distributing 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 common sense 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 for the pursuit of self-actualization in ways that would have been impossible just a few decades ago.


If one definition of progress is a more egalitarian and pluralistic society where an ever-larger slice of the population has the opportunity to achieve well-being, however that is defined, then this meets that definition.


I might add that you are most certainly a follower of progress if you read that last paragraph and were thinking, "Yeah, but what about...." The Gospel of Progress demands more, even as we pat ourselves on the back for how far we've come. It's never far enough. Injustice still lurks out there, somewhere, and must be dealt with accordingly. If there are no longer any dragons to slay, we must find lizards to stomp.


Progress demands it!


Sure, a black man was president, but not yet a woman. A gay man ran competitively for president, something that would have been impossible just 15 years ago. Yet no one thought he could actually win a general election because he was gay. The LGB community is more widely accepted than ever before, but bigotry persists, and acceptance for the trans community lags.


Do you see? We've progressed, but not far enough.


So onward secular soldiers!


Slay those lizards!


All kidding aside, I actually find these arguments hard to refute. Progress, in these contexts, seems real enough. While I'm a critic of the new trinity, I can think of nothing better at the moment.


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.


What we get is 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.


If hereditary monarchies were trapped by the lottery of genetics - for example, wise Marcus Aurelius left Rome his murderous son Commodus - than democracies are just as subject to the whims of public opinion.


Therefore, defining progress in political institutions appears more problematic to me, or at least much more subjective. 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? I honestly can't say that right now.


You see, democracy has no telos, no point toward which it is progressing. History doesn't either. Those are fallacies, but enduring ones propagated by influential thinkers like Hegel, Spengler, and most recently, Fukuyama. It's one thing to have faith in progress, to look back in pride in all that has been accomplished so far, and to look forward to all that can be done in the future.


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, and it's utterly dependent on real people engaging in real 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 world.


So 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 polity was made to evolve with the times, giving it an adaptability that Rome's Republic 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. 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 the health of the entire body politic. Otherwise, it threatens to come crashing down as fear, hatred, grievance, mistrust, and partisanship trump our better civic natures.


So, where are we today? I'm not sure, to be honest. I believe our political system is increasingly unstable. The current populist moment is the expression of the average citizen's vague awareness that something is broken. 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.


You know what follows.


Then climate change becomes a hoax perpetrated by the Left to advance a socialist agenda. The coronavirus is no big deal, just something the media and Democrats cooked up to undermine the President. Scientists are seen as deep state elitists trying to impose their godless agenda on America.


Loyal government employees are transformed into unelected partisans unaccountable to the voters. Expertise is mocked while common-sense and gut instincts take its place. The ultimate scapegoat, the free press, becomes the Enemy of the People, an ironic label since this is straight out of the lexicon of every communist, fascist, and authoritarian regime that has ever existed.


Or, a Doltocracy.


Confronting these facts, I must conclude that democracy is not necessarily our destiny. We must work to sustain it. If we don't, then it will get chipped away as it has in Turkey, Russia, and most dramatically, in Hungary.


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. 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.



Okay, in the back of my mind while writing this piece was the 2006 film Idiocracy by Mike Judge. If anything, the movie feels even more prophetic today. H.L. Mencken, were he still alive and immersed in early twenty-first century American culture, would no doubt laugh his ass off at this marvelous satire of American consumer brand philistinism. Here's a short video of President Camacho's State of the Union address. It's a classic.


As always, thanks for reading.



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