Watching the drama of American politics play itself out, one is struck by the contrasts and paradoxes. As one hears the debates, the spin, the rhetoric on both sides, the slick ads, and the larger than life personas created for the candidates, I wonder if the American people are up to dealing with all this. Are we as a nation able to sift through the spectacle of politics and really make good decisions? Or has politics become a world of its own, with the people unable to really control the way the game is played?
The French philosopher Montesquieu argued that Republics (what we now would call democracies) need to operate on virtue. If virtue is lost, the Republic is likely to fail. Montesquieu was an interesting figure. On the one hand, he was extremely relativistic. His novel The Persian Letters, showed how bizarre French institutions and customs would look to outsiders, and he argued that different governments are needed for different cultures, geographic conditions, and historical circumstances. On the other hand, he saw patterns in history and human nature, deep structures underlying the cultural variations. His compromise between cultural relativism and universal truth is probably as good a one as one can make.
The troglodytes were a fictional people Montesquieu created to demonstrate a pattern of governance. They were originally under the rule of a despot. At some point they rebelled and, after a period of unsustainable anarchy, put together a form of self-rule. This led, at first, to prosperity and stability. The system was run on virtue, they were concerned about the greater good and the rights of others as well as themselves. However, over time, greed, selfishness and avarice took over. People became lazy, apathetic, and thus lost their virtue. This led to corruption in government and ultimately the people asked someone to become king, set things straight and restore order. For Montesquieu this is the danger for democratic republics.
Since Montesquieu there have been obvious failures of democracy. The French first Republic never really left the anarchy stage, and gave way to Napoleon. Weimar Germany failed due to instability; the French Second Republic, and Italy and Japan’s first efforts at democracy failed. However, they didn’t go through the cycle Montesquieu described, their Republics never really took shape. Montesquieu was thinking more of ancient Rome, where a Republic became prosperous, and then yielded a lazy, selfish people, with militaristic politics. That was the cause of its undoing, as Rome embraced despotism and ultimately collapsed.
Are we going through the kind of cycle Montesquieu describes? All western democratic republics are in debt as governments spend more than they take in to try to fulfill the demands of an increasingly selfish public (we don’t want to pay taxes, but demand government programs). The US has embraced a more militarist policy, much like ancient Rome, even if we find ways to rationalize our behavior as defensive (so did Rome — according to the Romans’ own historical accounts, they never fought an offensive war). We give increasing power not only to the executive, but also to the government in general. We tend to blame others for our problems, developing a culture that sees people more as victims than being responsible for their own conditions. Are we the troglodytes? Or is our Republic resilient and sustainable?
As we see corporate politics where parties sell images more than debate policy, where blogs and political discourse is more personal and insulting than reflective and engaging, where the public wants more but is willing to pay less, and when we can easily rationalize mass killing in wars that are both unnecessary and internally harmful, we could be on a path not that much different than that tred by Montesquieu’s mythical troglodytes.
The challenges we face are great: a growing energy crisis, economic instability, concerns about immigration and population migrations, global climate change, and terrorism. Do we possess the virtue to maintain freedom and self-rule while handling these problems, or will we simply ask for another monarch, a powerful government that will give us security in exchange for freedom? Do people even think about virtue? I become optimistic when I consider today’s students, young people seem engaged, concerned and unwilling to buy into the ideological straight jackets offered by the left and the right in the past. But at times considering the state of our culture I wonder if we even know what virtue is any more.
Our future depends on many external factors: climate change, terrorism, Mideast politics, war, energy costs, and the state of the economy. Perhaps the most important factor is us. Have we become like the troglodytes?