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On Democracy and Kings

John C. Médaille

POSTED: Monday September 20, 2010

( The announcement that one is a monarchist is greeted with the same regard as the announcement that one has joined the Flat-Earth Society, or espouses geo-centrism, or has expressed a belief in a world only 6,000 years old.

Politically, monarchism has a prestige just a tiny bit better than fascism, but not nearly as respectable as being Amish. Therefore, it behooves me to cut directly to the chase, and state very clearly why I am a monarchist: I am a monarchist because I am a democrat. That is, I believe that the will of the people, their traditions and customs, their concern for their families, their communities, and for the future should determine the shape of any political order. And monarchy is the highest form of this democracy.

Now, the first response to that is likely to be, “That is what our democracy does, and what a tyranny doesn’t do; democracy enthrones the will of the people, while monarchy enthrones the will of the tyrant.” But it is clear to me, especially in this late date of our democracy, that it enthrones the will of determined and well-financed minorities, that it dissolves the customs and traditions of the people, and that it has no concern for the future. And a king may indeed be a tyrant, but such is the exception rather than the rule.

Tyranny is a degeneration of proper monarchy and generally happens only in degenerate times, and even then, the king has to be speaking for some other and greater force, such as a strong army or a commercial oligarchy. A king, no less than a president, must consider the forces and interests in his kingdom. But a king is free to judge the justice of the arguments; a president is free only to count the votes. And while the president might attempt to engage in persuasion, in the end he himself can only be persuaded by power, that is, by whoever controls the votes, which is very likely to be the one who controls the money. A king may also be persuaded by power and money, but he is always free to be persuaded by justice. And even when a king is a tyrant, he is an identifiable tyrant; much worse is when a people live in a tyranny they may not name, a system where the forms of democracy serve as cover for the reality of tyranny. And that, I believe, is our situation today.

This thesis requires some extended explication, and I will explore it in three parts. First, a critique of electoral democracy as it actually exists; second, an explication of a monarchist polity; and finally, an examination of American institutions which could evolve, in times of trouble, into more monarchical (and therefore more democratic) forms.

The Dogma of Democracy

Modern democracy has come to mean, in preference to all other possible forms, electoral democracy, where the officers of the state are chosen in periodic plebiscites determined by secret ballot. This has long since been the dominant form, and has become, in common usage, the only meaning of democracy. In the last 100 years we have fought numerous wars to make the world “safe” for this form; it is as if we believed that the right level of shock and awe would turn the citizens of Baghdad into good Republicans and Democrats, or convert Afghanistan into a suburb of Seattle.

Since this democracy is something we are willing to both kill and die for, it assumes the status of a religion, albeit a secular one. Like all religions, electoral democracy has its central sacrament, its central liturgy, and its central dogma; its sacrament is the secret ballot, its liturgy is the election campaign, and its dogma is that the election will represent the will of the people.

But is this dogma true in any sense? Is the “will of the people” really captured by 51% of the voters? Clearly, not everyone votes, so the will of the voters may not at all be the will of the people. One might respond that it is the will of the people who cared enough to vote. However, that ignores the fact that there are people (like myself) who care enough not to vote; people who find no party acceptable, or worse, find that both parties are really the same party with cosmetic differences for the entertainment and manipulation of the public.

I suspect that if there were a real choice on the ballot, such as a box marked “none of the above,” turnout would be higher, and this last choice the consistent winner. But in any case, it is not true that the will of a bare majority of the voters can easily be equated with the “will of the people.”

Further, we can ask if a bare majority is actually a sufficient margin for any really important decision, one that commits everyone to endorse serious and abiding actions. For example, should 51% be allowed to drag the rest into war? Or into the continuing war against children that is abortion? Certainly, there are issues that can rightly be decided by bare majorities, but the important issues cannot fall in that category.

There is yet another problem with the dogma of representation, because there are clearly two groups which elections cannot canvass: the dead, and the yet unborn, the past and the future. In an electoral democracy, the interests of the living predominate. Now, as to the first group, some say that we should not be bound by the dead past, and that our first freedom is freedom from our parents. There is, of course, a grain of truth in this; death is there for a reason. Nevertheless, life is bigger than the present moment, and no generation, no matter how scientific, can grasp the totality of life, can completely discern the correct way of living in the world.

The world as it is at any given moment is the result of decisions and actions that make up its past. The traditions we receive are the sum total of the distilled wisdom of the past about how to live in the world and with each other. It is, of course, an incomplete knowledge, and our task is to add to it, and to pass it on. Tradition therefore comes from the past but is oriented to the future. But democracies tend to erode traditions by pandering to current desires. G. K. Chesterton has labeled tradition “the democracy of the dead,” and a real democracy will accommodate these absent constituents.

In abandoning the past, democracy also abandons the future. We pile the children with debts they cannot pay, wars they cannot win, obligations they cannot meet; we allow the infrastructure to deteriorate and so weaken even their ability to earn a living. We vote ourselves large pensions at an early age, confident that we can live on the taxes paid by the children, even as we restrict the number of children we have, placing an even bigger burden on the ones that remain.

But in abandoning both the past and the future, democracy abandons even the ability to represent the present, because without the guidance of the past and the concern for the future, even the present moment loses its reality. The present moment is always ephemeral, because as soon as one grasps it, it is already history. Without tradition and an orientation to the future, the present moment becomes a kind of cultural Alzheimer’s, with no memory and no direction.

The Liturgy of Democracy

And if the dogma is wrong, the liturgy—the election campaign—is troubling. In truth, elections are markets with very high entry costs. To run for a party’s presidential nomination, a candidate might need $50 million in his pocket just to be credible. This will not come near his or her total expenses; it is just the down payment. It doesn’t buy the election, it just buys credibility, and without such credibility (i.e., money) one will not be covered by the press. The total expenses will be a multiple of that down payment.

Indeed, in the 2008 elections, campaign costs were a staggering $5.3 billion, and that was just for the national races. There are very limited sources for that kind of money, and the political process must, perforce, be dominated by those sources. The corporations and organizations that fund elections do so as an investment, one on which they expect a superior rate of return. And they get it, in the form of subsidies, favorable laws and regulations, access to high officials, and tax breaks. It may be the best investment most big businesses make. But it leads directly to oligarchy, the opposite of democracy, a Republic of the PACs rather than a polity of the people.

And why is so much money needed? Because the political arts in a democracy are not the arts of deliberation and persuasion, which are relatively inexpensive, but are the arts of manipulation and propaganda, which are extremely costly. The appeal is almost never to the intelligence, but to raw passion and emotion. The path to power in a democracy, the surest way to ensure the loyalty of one’s followers, is to exaggerate small differences into great “issues.” Candidates must find a way to distinguish themselves from each other, even (or especially) if they are in fundamental agreement. And the more irrational an issue is, the better it is for the purposes of manipulation. Real issues can be the subject of real arguments, and voters might be persuaded by such arguments, which would erode the fanatical devotion that politicians require. Thus, it is better to debate the issue of whether Obama is a Muslim rather than whether he grasps the mechanics of a financial crisis; the former is the subject of a passionate and fact-free debate, but the latter requires knowledge and intelligence.

The supreme act of democratic manipulation is the creation of the demonic “other.” Those of a different party are portrayed not as people who in all sincerity start with different assumptions and reach different conclusions, but as deliberate and demonic destroyers of the social and political order. Reason is replaced by fear, and if the “other side” is always feared, then one’s own performance doesn’t really matter; no matter how inept one party proves itself, it can always make the appeal that the other party is demonic. To be sure, there are assumptions and opinions which do tear down society, but there are few, if any, who hold their opinions for the purpose of destroying the social order; rather they have a different, if often erroneous, vision of that order.

This demonizing tendency is most clearly seen when democracy is imposed on nations that have diverse ethnic, cultural, and religious elements. While there is always a certain tension in such societies, nevertheless, under the rule of kings, empires, or even dictatorships, they find a way of living together in relative peace. But with the coming of electoral democracy, each group and tribe demonizes the other, and the result is civil war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Indeed, ethnic cleansing has become the highest act of democratic order. I cannot recall a single exception to this rule. We have truly made the world safe for democracy; unfortunately, we have made democracy unsafe for the world.

The Sacrament of Democracy

With minor exceptions, democracy takes place in the “sacred” space of the voting booth, which resembles nothing so much as the Catholic confessional. And indeed, this is the place where the voter, alone and isolated, confesses his true religion. It is, perhaps, the highest expression of the individualist philosophy of modern man. But one might ask if such individualism is compatible with democracy itself, or indeed, any reasonable form of community. In modernist utilitarianism, there is no common good, no objective goods at all. “Good” means only “good for me” and voting merely an expression of self-interest. So therefore, things like, say, abortion are not “good” or “bad,” but only “good for me,” and elections merely about summing the private goods.

 But the secret ballot is not the only form of voting. There are deliberative forms: the caucus, the town meeting, the group assembly, more suitable to reaching a common good. Voting in these systems is public, and a space is allowed for deliberation and public persuasion. And in such forums, the argument “this is good for me” is not persuasive; only arguments in the form of “this is good for us” or simply “this is good” can persuade.

 It is true that any group can be as irrational, or more so, than isolated individuals. Nevertheless, in a group there is always the possibility that persons of reason and temperance will be able to persuade their fellow citizens to a reasonable course of action, and overcome the natural tendency of democracy to passion and irrationality.

 If the voting booth is like the confessional, the caucus is more like communion.

Is Democracy Democratic?

When we look at our political order, we may truly ask if this is what we really wanted, if the true will of the people is expressed in our institutions. Oddly enough, both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, express grave doubts that this is so. Indeed, this may be the only point of agreement between the two sides; they both conclude that something has gone terribly wrong.

Let me suggest that the answer lies in modern absolutism. A thing is known by its proper limits, and a thing without limits becomes its own opposite. Thus democracy, sacralized and absolutized, becomes its own opposite, a thinly disguised oligarchy of power which uses all the arts of propaganda to convince the public that their votes matter. There is precedent for this. The Western Roman Empire maintained the Republican form and offices. Consul, quaestor, aedile, and tribune remained and there were hotly contested and highly expensive campaigns for these offices. The army still marched under the banner not of the emperor, but of the SPQR, “The Senate and People of Rome.” But of course it was all a sham; real power lay with the emperor and with the army and the merchant/landowning classes whose interests he largely represented, while buying off the plebs with the world’s largest welfare state. But at least the Romans could see their emperor, could know his name, could love him or hate him. We are not permitted to see our real rulers, and never permitted to name them. The democratic sham covers the oligarchic reality.

All that being said, one may still ask, “Would things have been better had we stayed with King George? After all, it doesn’t seem to have helped the British, who resemble no one so much as the Americans.” This statement, while sure to offend my English friends, nevertheless contains a kernel of truth, and a question that must be answered. For in truth the notion of monarchy had, by that time, undergone its own period of absolutism to become its own opposite as well, and the German kings of England were there by the sufferance of oligarchic powers.

To get a true idea of kingship, we will have to go back a bit, not merely to the middle ages, but even as far back as Aristotle. And that will be the subject of my next installment.

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