Presidential Politics and the Tendency Towards Mediocrity, Savagery, and Ultimately to Tyranny

A recent Wall Street Journal oped by Joseph Epstein asked the question on the minds of most Americans viewing this tragicomic circus going on that we call the Presidential race: “These five are the best that we can do?”

Readers of this blog and my close friends recognize that over the last few years I have turned Greek and Roman history and philosophy and finding the modern equivalents into an interest and hobby. In this vein, Epstein quotes the ancient Roman general and politician Sulla when he opens with, ““There are some systems which naturally take control out of the hands of good men. There are even some which necessarily put it in the hands of bad ones.”  So it seems with the American two-party system of primary selection  and election process of the leader of the free world. What was historically an expectation of leadership, experience, character, substance, and virtue holding preeminent roles in the winning of votes has devolved into a vulgar race to the bottom based on celebrity and style for the job. Anyone who cynically doubts my previous point about winning the office based on substance needs to go back and read George Washington’s musings and writings on the office of the Presidency as well as the Lincoln Douglas debates and compare and contrast these grand idealistic visions to Trump talking about the size of his genitals to recognize the depth of the abyss we have sunken into.

Epstein takes aim at our media culture as a primary culprit of this devolution. The main thesis of his oped is as follows:

The media and Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation. The media were once more restrained, operating under a largely self-imposed control. During the Kennedy administration, journalists agreed not to photograph the president smoking or playing golf; as for his high jinks above stairs in the White House, that was never up for public discussion. In earlier years, no reporters brought up the lady friends of Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, and focusing on FDR’s physical incapacity during wartime was unthinkable.

Things changed under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. His position on the Vietnam War went contrary to that of most members of the media, who decided that opening the president to attack was not only feasible but honorable. The media’s adversarial role intensified under Richard Nixon. After Watergate, “investigative journalism” became one of the heroic professions. What investigative journalists chiefly investigated was malfeasance and above all scandal.

The advent of the Internet made this all the worse. The Internet is without an ethical standard. On it anyone can say anything—and usually does. Donald Trump has added to the demeaning quality of the proceedings by using the Internet—those endless insulting tweets—and attracting press and television with his steady stream of attacks on the personal lives of his opponents.

While I tend to agree that the media is a perfectly culpable standard bearer and complicit in vulgarity and sophomoric coverage and analysis, I believe that they are a mere reflection of the overall culture that we have become, which is a culture at large that is fueling the demand for “bread and circuses” to fill our appetites, as the Roman satirist Juvenal would quip. The media is simply following reader and viewer demand, rather than a media conspiracy to dumb down our preferences. We can’t let ourselves off of the hook and blame the media for our own vulgarity and mediocrity.

Furthermore, I don’t believe the American appetite for savagery is unique in the historic perspective. We can look to ancient Greece for the same lessons. In Plato’s Republic, much of the effort of his philosophical writing is towards defining the ideal city that is led by people of great virtue and character. When asked why such people of character so rarely choose to enter politics, Plato, using Socrates as the speaker,  offers up the poignant observation that, “Now, the members of this small group (people of great character and virtue – philosophers in a word) have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they’ve also seen the madness of the majority and realized, in a word, that hardly anyone acts sanely in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive, that instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends and be useless both to themselves and to others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone.”  The implication is clear that for time immemorial, people of great character stay away from political leadership out of fear of being torn to pieces by the wolves involved in it or perhaps worse, becoming a wolf themselves. Epstein uses Mitch Daniels as an example of a man of great character who stayed away from politics for the reason that Plato outlines above.

More chillingly, Plato uses his writings in Republic  to give voice to Socrates’ opinion that of all forms of government,  democracies are most prone to giving way to tyrants, as that form of government is most likely to succumb to the majority elevating a tyrant. The tyrant in turn promotes members of this class to bodyguards and sycophants who allow them to create and hold on to more powers that are subsequently used to confiscate and redistribute wealth back to the majority, further entrenching this majority party in power. In Socrates’ estimation, the careful balance of a democracy that gives way to tyranny is when those that would protect freedom cease to have virtue and give themselves over to excessive vice and hedonism. A class of people (Socrates derisively calls them idlers) gains power due to their forcefulness and loudness (seeing the parallels here to current politics?) who unite behind a leader willing to advocate their views. Socrates likens such a leader to a wolf who is willing to spill kindred blood and justify it as necessary to get power in order to address wrongs done historically. Thus, acts of evil and vulgarity have their excuses. The tyrant eventually suppresses dissent and any form opposition is not tolerated. Eventually the wolf likely even turns on those he purported to be helping originally on the path to power. Once the blood spills, it can’t be stopped.

While I am not jumping to a dramatic conclusion that current Presidential candidates are the personification of the tyrant wolf so described in the discourse above, I do think Plato’s Republic has some tremendously useful and relevant warnings for American society and the path to devolving into such tyrannies. I don’t believe that America has some preternatural destiny to keep our grand experiment in self-governance going perpetually absent the will and the requisite virtues of the people to keep it going. While our institutions are more durable than countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America, I don’t believe they are absolutely unassailable, especially if the majority of the population are not inclined to defend them. I do believe that if we continue to elevate political leaders that are of weak virtue and character that under the right conditions we could devolve into the dystopian tyranny that Plato describes. As Plato writes, the tyrant comes to power because in every society there are a subset of people that perpetuate evil and wish to do evil to others and wish to extract wealth and natural power from others through the force of government. In well-governed societies, these evil and mindless people become petty people of little repute, perhaps even criminals. They may become successful money-makers, but Plato is careful to point out that making money is not to be confused with virtue. In a place where there is no regard for virtue and poorly governed societies, tyrants are elevated to the leadership by force of will of the majority.

Astonishingly and with incredible prescience and similarity to today’s politics, in describing the nature of a would-be tyrant, Socrates explains that they are,  “those whose nature is filled with fears and erotic love of all kinds… isn’t this harvest of evils a measure of the difference between a tyrannical man who is badly governed on the inside – whom you judged to be most wretched just now, and one who doesn’t love a private life but is compelled by some chance to be a tyrant, who tries to rule others when he can’t even control himself. He’s just like an exhausted body without any self-control, which instead of living privately, is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life…In truth, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s far from satisfying his desires in any way that is clear – if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul – that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life… And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all of these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”

These are powerful words of warning to the citizens of democracy and predict our turning to savagery and mediocrity in our political leaders and why we lack in the truly gifted of great moral character.

What made America great in the first place?


As I have mentioned in other posts, I am making my way through Mary Beard’s remarkably readable account of Roman history, SPQRBeard has the unique talent of bringing ancient history forward and modernizing it and making it tremendously relatable to modern times while maintaining the integrity of the critical historical elements. One of the remarkable anecdotes that Beard draws upon is the assassination of the Emperor Gaius, also commonly known as Caligula (which loosely translates into “Bootikins” on account of the footies he has as a child, making it a nickname that Gaius actually rather disliked). In the aftermath of this event, Beard chronicles how the Roman Senate took to the Temple of Jupiter, a highly revered and symbolic place for Romans of the time, and, as Beard states, “exchanged fine words about the end of political slavery and the return of liberty.” Calculating that it had been about 100 years since the end of freedom, one of them delivered a stirring speech on the need to return to Republican ideals. While admitting that he was too young to see the true Republic in its old form, he claimed to see with his own eyes ‘the evils with which tyrannies fill the state. No despot is set over you now who can get away with ruining the city…what recently nurtured the tyranny was nothing other than our inaction…Weakened by the pleasure of peace we learned to live like slaves….Our first duty now is to give the highest possible honors to those who killed the tyrant.”

Unfortunately for the speaker, one observer in the crowd noticed that he was wearing the signet ring that featured the face of Gaius on it, a symbol of sycophantic loyalty to the Emperor, and proceeded to rip the ring from his finger. The entire spectacle completely undermined the eloquent speech he had just delivered.  As Beard indicates, the Jewish historian Josephus hinted in his writings at the time that, “anyone who could loudly advocate a return to Republican rule while sporting the emperor’s portrait on his ring did not understand what Republican rule was about.”

I use this as a parallel for the current state of the American polity and our lost sense of what actually makes America great. As the author of a blog post The Jacobins of the Right states, “There is something almost Jacobin – and thus deeply unconservative – about the idea that a virtuous, plain-speaking, authentic outsider can just step into politics and fix everything, and that when all is done, the nation as a whole will be regenerated. Or great again. Or something quite like it. There is something equally Jacobin, and unconservative, about the idea that our country or any other needs to be radically remade.” This is not just about the current presidential election, although it is certainly a symptom of the disease, in my mind, modern Americans have forgotten, or were never really taught, what made America great in the first place. The opening lines of the Declaration of Independence embodies the greatness of what the American Republic aspired to be:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..

What was unique about this incredible endeavor was a paradigm shift from paternalistic aristocratic government structures that predominated the globe at that time and indeed throughout the vast majority of history to one where individuals had unassailable rights and that government existed by the sole consent of the governed. While the United States founding fathers could look to examples of the Athenian democracy, Roman Republican era, and writings from classical liberal (mostly) English philosophers such as John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and David Hume, for the most part they were building and executing on something entirely new. It would not have escaped their (or the rest of the world’s) notice that those previous rare examples from Rome and Greece were ultimately flawed and doomed to failure.

As a bulwark against those flaws and with additional wisdom provided by the troubles of the Articles of Confederation period, the U.S. Constitution weaved together a tapestry of government checks and balances across not only the legislative, executive, and judicial branches but also across the central federal government and state governments. While I could make much of this artfully wise construct of checks and balances across government institutions, suffice it to say that by its very inherent design the U.S. Constitution was purposefully constructed to make rapid and dramatic change very difficult and yield to the less efficient incremental and slow changes that are reached by overwhelming support and consensus. For anyone that doubts this, make the Federalist Papers authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay your next reading project. A less talked about but equally important nature of the American construct was combining the government checks and balances with elements of an indirect democracy as a form of population oversight of the government; or, in other words – the consent of the governed was never intended to be ‘the majority votes, the majority rules, the majority rides roughshod over the losing minority’. It is critical to note that this was not direct democracy, as the founding fathers were afraid of mob mentality, or what the French aristocrat and prescient writer Alexis de Tocqueville would coin as “the tyranny of the majority” in his observations of America in Democracy in America.

There seem to be two competing populist strains in American politics these days –  one is of a reliance on a single man to somehow ‘make us great again’ by, as the author of the Jacobin blog puts it, “cranky protectionist math that just doesn’t add up.” The other is a naive belief that we can somehow stop a “rigged” system (one of Bernie Sanders favorite terms) by consolidating much more power into the hands of government and create a “fair” society by ironically confiscating wealth from the minority and redistributing it to the minority. These political forces of authoritarian machismo and tyranny of the majority to trample on the rights of an outvoted minority would not have been a surprise to the founding fathers, who did everything they could to try to prevent this type of descent in their founding government charters. For the American people who mistakenly believe that their support of a would-be despot who can get things done by the sheer dint of force due to his leadership and personality and that this is somehow consistent with American greatness, the echoes of the Roman senator droning on about Republican greatness while wearing the Emperor’s portrait begin to ring a loud clarion call.

In Democracy in America, de Tocqueville prophetically states that,  “Governments usually perish from impotence or from tyranny. In the former case, their power escapes from them; it is wrested from their grasp in the latter. Many observers who have witnessed the anarchy of democratic states, have imagined that the government of those states was naturally weak and impotent. The truth is, that, when war is once begun between parties, the government loses control over society. But I do not think that a democratic power is naturally without force or resources; say, rather, that it is almost always by the abuse of its force, and the misemployment of its resources, that it becomes a failure. Anarchy is almost always produced by its tyranny or its mistakes, but not by want of its strength.’

Those bidding for stronger and more effective and decisive government are missing the point of America and are drawing the wrong conclusions. Our government is not without power and it certainly isn’t weak and in need of a saviour. We don’t need more government or more tyranny that I believe both a Trump or Sanders presidency would bring about in different forms. We need greater individual freedoms, less government, less laws so that the rule of law can be adhered to and respected, and a much greater veneration and knowledge of our founding charters and how government is supposed to function and the people’s role within it. Without these forces, the de Tocqueville prophecy of descent into anarchy is ever closer at hand.






Quote of the Week


Cultural anxieties are often a privilege of the rich. – Mary Beard

My quote of the week is lifted from one my current reading projects, SPQR.  I am about a third of the way through the book and will give it full justice in a future book review, but thus far the book is a highly entertaining, readable, and well-researched account of Roman history. The difference between Beard’s account and the other voluminous histories of Rome is that SPQR (which is the Latin acronym that roughly translates to “People and the Senate”)  does not take the reader on a journey of curious glance at an ancient and monolithic homogenous society driven by lust for power and global conquest. Roman history is more than a well structured, militant, and inevitable global empire interspersed with the occasional maniacal Emperor. Rather, Beard succeeds wonderfully in making the Romans relatable to the modern day humanity and thus fully immersing the reader into the Roman experience in a highly engaging way. Beard presents Romans as tremendously open to foreigners, surprisingly meritocratic, earnestly dealing with the immemorial challenges of balancing the rule of law with the rule of men, and having great anxiety over Roman legacy and culture. It is commenting on the Roman elites’ obsession with the latter that Beard interjects with her pithy quote. The great Roman paradox is that while being all of the above they also were prone to  suffering violent  internecine struggles for power, succumbing to rule by de facto dictators, and also seem strangely foreign to us with their peculiar tastes in entertainment, which seem barbaric when judged by modern standards.  More to come on this book…