Do We Need Despotism?

John Adams, who Gore Vidal describes as “brood[ing] more than most of the founders on the intricacies of class in America”, was unhappy to see in his countrymen “so much rascality, so much venality and corruption, so much avarice and ambition, such a rage for profit and commerce among all ranks and degrees of men”. (This and the two following quotes are taken from Vidal's Inventing a Nation.)

George Washington was not more sanguine in this 1776 diary note:

Chimney corner patriots abound: venality, corruption, prostitution of office for selfish ends, abuse of trust, perversion of funds from a national to a private use, and speculations upon the necessities of the times pervade all interests.

Benjamin Franklin, at 81, had the following words read for him to the Constitutional Convention:

I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such: because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well-administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well-administered for a Course of Years and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.

So is there no hope? One could be excused for coming to that conclusion after watching an evening's worth of news. The cynicism that permeates society these days starts at the top of the social pyramid. When the Bush administration offers estimates and immediately backs away from them, and reassures its base by proposing legislation that it knows will never become law, one might wish, in Gibbon's words, import the sanction of Zaleucus, which so long maintained the integrity of his republic. A Locrian who proposed any new law stood forth in the assembly of the people with a cord round his neck, and, if the law was rejected, the innovator was instantly strangled.

That was a more hopeful and idealistic time, it seems. Or at least simpler. Today, the social struggle is both more and less personal. Less, because the number of citizens precludes their physical assembly, forcing them to communicate indirectly. More, because the class differences in the US today are vastly greater than those of the Locrian republic, so that the results of an “assembly of the people” control a much larger share of each person's life than they did at that time (except, of course, for the strangled innovator). Despite the fact that most Americans don't vote—or perhaps for that very reason—the power of government to control our lives has never been greater. Yet most people don't participate in deciding who will take the reins.

In many ways this is not surprising. One expects Republicans to cater to the upper rungs of the economic ladder; but when Democrats vote for bogus wars and support NAFTA, the parties seem to be two peas in a pod. Most polls right now indicate that health care is one of the two or three most important issues. So how do the two parties address that? By proposing various methods of supplying everyone with insurance. I don't want insurance. I want health care. I don't see that there's any connection between the two, except the negative one that whatever money is spent on insurance is not available for care. (I realize that there is one Democratic candidate who supports universal health care, but he is marginalized by the party.) Insuring people against getting sick is like insuring them against getting hungry: it's a waste of resources, or, more accurately, a redistribution scheme, enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor.

It seems that we have two parties, both beholden to the corporations, supporting what I oppose and opposing what I support. If you're given two candidates, and you expect both of them to oppose your interests, why pick one? Thomas Edsall, in The New Politics of Inequality, points out that, in general, the more political parties a country has, the more its citizens participate in the electoral process, because they can find a party to agree with. The genius of the US system is that it places clear limits on the allowable discussions. We can discuss whether health care would be improved by different insurance schemes, or by using HMOs more or less; we cannot discuss whether corporations should be eliminated from the equation entirely. If we bring up subjects that are outside the parameters, we are considered crazy, and can be safely ignored. Not censored, just not heard.

Of course, there are exceptions. During the decade the right wing loves to hate, the Sixties, idealism seemed to find a new life. The despicable nature of the US government at the time, and the President in particular, forced people to choose sides. Thus, it was a time of great strife, and those who are uncomfortable with the clash of opinion that is endemic to democracy were particularly unhappy. Questions about the validity of the country's actions could not be avoided. In response to these questions, some went with “My country, right or wrong”; some said “This is my country, and it's wrong”; others used their connections to avoid the issue altogether.

It's becoming a cliche that the legacy of Vietnam permeates the Presidential campaign of 2004. Kerry's war record against Bush's National Guard service, or lack thereof, is apparently endlessly fascinating to the pundits. People who weren't willing to call Bush a liar when he claimed to be a uniter, not a divider, now call it ironic that he's uniting the Democrats around the theme of electability. This is a misuse of the word. My dictionary defines “irony” as “incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result”, and I don't think there's anything incongruous about this result.

To me it seems that we have the opposite of the messiah complex, a savior syndrome. We want someone to save us from ourselves.

I don't think this will work. This is a point on which I can agree with many conservatives: what's required is the acceptance of an appropriate amount of personal responsibility. It's not my job to save the world, but it is my job to use the resources available to me to nudge things in the right direction. I can't change the government single-handedly, but I can vote. I can advocate for my beliefs among my friends and acquaintences. I can set up cooperative ventures with like-minded people, as William Greider describes in The Soul of Capitalism. I can, in short, accept the responsibilities of a citizen. These things, as Greider says,

...sound so weak, but they're the cornerstones of political action. It takes a purposeful minority with enough guts and daring and smarts to believe this could be changed, to see a different future than all these people around us---all these powerful people, all these powerful institutions---and then set out to change it. That's the process of history.

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