Democratic Personalities and Democratic Laws

I posted originally some months ago, and repost it now in conjunction with our senior Government class and, obviously, the recent election.

The original post is below . . .


Barring any unusual excitement at the Democratic and Republican conventions, it appears that many Americans will feel caught between a rock and a hard place regarding their two main choices for president.  Many blanch at the thought of “President Trump,” and I wondered if history might suggest hope for such a possibility.

Our founders may have had Republican Rome as their model, but as the U.S. continues to approach a more immediate democracy perhaps we should look to ancient Athens for a historical parallel. Athenian democracy experienced several points of crisis, with perhaps the most notorious coming after their defeat in the Peloponnesian War when they put Socrates on trial.

Many reasons have been given as to Socrates died at the hands of the Athenians. I am intrigued by the theory Mark Munn expounds in his book The School of History.  Munn argues that by 399 B.C. Athens searched desperately for stability.  Their democracy had transformed significantly under Pericles ca. 450-435 B.C., then switched to a partial oligarchy after the Sicilian disaster in 411 B.C., then back to a democracy by 410, then back to oligarchy in 404-03, then to a restored democracy once more.  But the democracy that ruled Athens ca. 400 B.C. was not the same that Athens experienced a generation earlier.

It seems fair to say that in its heyday, Athenian democracy was driven by great personalities and not by procedures.  Pericles stands as the foremost example of this, but others come to mind.  Herodotus and Thucydides’ histories give us a picture of dynamic men acting on inspiration.  Callimachus votes to attack at Marathon. Themistocles devises his own plan apart from the generals to win the Battle of Salamis.  Even lesser men like Nicias, Alcibiades, and Cleon sparkle on the page.*  Exact fidelity to the law itself did not concern the demos.  At their worst, the Athenians may have just wanted a diversion from their politics out of boredom, but another interpretation might point to the fact that the Athenians in this period of their history trusted in inspirational leadership of the moment, as opposed to fidelity to the expression of the “general will” embodied in law.  One might even call it a humble characteristic of Athenian democracy.  “The People” passed laws but willingly stepped aside at points in the face of “personality.”

But in time the plague, the disaster in Sicily, and their ultimate defeat by Sparta exacted a heavy psychological toll.

With the final restoration of democracy in Athens in 401, Athens moved away from dynamic leadership and towards the exacting nature of the enthronement of law.  Law offered a clear path and if nothing else, stability.  Munn argues that this passion for law and this movement away from “personality” put Socrates afoul of the will of the people.  The orator Aeschines, born in 389 B.C., wrote,

In fact, as I have often heard my own father say, for he lived to be 95 years old and had shared in all the toils of the city, which he often described to me in his leisure hours–well, he said that in the early days of the reestablished democracy , in any indictment for an illegal motion came into court, the matter was no sooner said than done . . .. It frequently happened that they made the clerk str and told him to read to the the laws and the the motion a second time; and they convicted a man of making an illegal proposal not because he had overleaped the laws entirely, but that one syllable only was contravened.

Socrates probably did run afoul of the exacting nature of Athenian religious law after 401 B.C., and he certainly ran directly counter to the spirit behind such laws with his claims to personal, divine inspiration that transcended any earthly authority/law.  He was a throwback to time associated with chaos, and to be frank, military disaster.

Of course democracies traditionally have the “rule of law” as a bedrock principle, and we should prefer exacting rule of law to the whims of a despot.  But few civilizations can match the cultural achievements of Athens in 5th century.  Also, the personality driven democracy of the 5th century certainly outperformed the law driven democracy of the 4th century.**  Perhaps one lesson we might draw from this is that a mixing forms and styles of government might outperform monochromatic governments, much like mutts are generally healthier and less crazy than pure-brads.^

Observers of Trump often comment that, aside from his ideas on immigration, he seems to have no particular policies (others would disagree).  Yet, unquestionably, he is a “personality,” one that the media, for all their antipathy towards him, cannot resist.  Is it possible that such an injection of “personality” might be what could help us from stale rigidity in our political life?  Certainly we have plenty of bureaucracy, plenty of incomprehensible law, as it stands now.

I say, yes, it is . . . possible.

*Cleon’s expedition and victory in Pylos during the Peloponnesian War is evidence of this preference for personality over procedure.  It was technically illegal for Cleon to even lead the expedition in the first place, but the Assembly could not resist enjoying the personal rivalry between Nicias and Cleon, and allowed/shamed Cleon into having his chance, which he then took advantage of.

**The great achievements of the 5th century came to a halt during the Peloponnesian War, a self-inflicted wound if there ever was one.  But the 4th century did no better, succumbing to Macedon after decades of vanilla tapioca laziness (as the traditional interpretation has it, anyway) in 338 B.C.

^Some might argue on behalf of the 4th century by citing that it produced Plato and Aristotle, luminaries 1 and 1a in western philosophy.  This argument should not be pushed too far.  A glance at the history of philosophy shows that most advances in this field occur in times of societal breakdown or even decay.  This is in contrast, I think to other areas of cultural achievement, whose health usually parallels that of the rest of society.  The 4th century had no Parthenon, no Euripides, etc.


11th Grade: Industrialization

Greetings all,

C.S. Lewis once commented that the world of Jane Austen had more in common with Homer than our world has in common with Austen.  If Lewis’ speaks truly, we have the Industrial Revolution to thank.  The Industrial Revolution remade society almost from top to bottom, and in so doing changed not just how we live but also how we think.

What did Lewis mean by his observation?

Obviously a great deal changed from Homer to the time of Jane Austen.  But Lewis refers not to political and ideological changes, but the basic way people lived and interacted.  Among the similarities across time include . . .

  • Both eras had a predominantly rural population where most people farmed
  • Both eras measured wealth almost exclusively in terms of land ownership
  • Both eras centered their identity often around the extended family
  • Both eras had to regulate their lives with the rhythm of creation
  • “Manufacturing” would have been done by individual skilled craftsmen rather than masses of specialized workers or assembly lines.

All of this and more changed from the early 19th-early 20th centuries.

The Industrial Revolution (IR) first and most obviously changed demographics.  For all of previously recorded human history people lived predominantly in rural areas.  Rural areas have a slower pace of life.  They tend towards social conservatism and the maintenance of tradition.  The IR began displacing small farmers and forcing people to move to the cities for work. As the graph below indicates, a trend began that has only continued up to the present day.


The resulting mass production of goods and, perhaps especially, of food, led eventually to increased life-expectancy and and a population explosion that has continued until today (though some predict a regression in population soon).

In changing where we lived, the IR changed how we live.  On farms the family forms the obvious central social unity.  Before mass transportation, very few children would move far from parents once they reached adulthood.  But now with many starting to leave home to work, life no longer centered around the family farm.  Now at least one parent left the house for 12 hours a day, and often both parents had to work in factories.  Individuals within families found other planets around which to orbit.

If both parents worked, what about children?  The IR inadvertently began the push towards mass public education.  Previously, only those with money and leisure received an education.  Spreading education to the masses had many benefits.  But in time how we educated and what we taught changed drastically.  Mass education mean the inevitable watering down of what schools taught.  The IR brought about changes to the curriculum, which now sought to prepare students for the workforce.  No longer did education have its focus on enriching the soul.  Now the classroom needed to prepare one to “get a job.”  One only has to read of C.S. Lewis’ experiences with his tutor “The Great Knock” (William Kirkpatrick) in his autobiography and compare it to many of our “cattle-car” approach in modern education to begin to see the difference.

Mass production changed the very nature of how people identified themselves with their communities.  For centuries most people lived life within the same 10-15 miles radius they had always known.  I recall reading a medieval primary source and noted that they used the word “foreigner” for someone from another village 7-8 miles away.  With this mindset no real possibility of a national identity or consciousness would be possible.

People need to have an identity outside of themselves.  With local communities broken down and people thrown together en masse in unfamiliar environments, a sense of national identity emerged.  Mass production supported and perhaps helped create this national mindset.  Now across the country, people had the same goods and the same experiences.  We can eat in the same restaurants and sleep in the same hotels across the country.  One could speculate that had the IR arrived sooner in America, we may not have had the Civil War.

Cultural expressions of this newfound identity changed.  In the Romantic period music expressed abstract ideals, but around the mid-19th century music started to express more ethnic or national ideas.  Liszt’s “Hugarian Rhapsodies” still did have the high-flown Romantic flourishes, but the title reveals a shift in emphasis.

In time the wild Romantic musings disappeared, and as music geared more toward the centralized mass, it grew more contained in expression.  Suddenly the military march made its way into the popular consciousness.

Interestingly, as industrialization created a global economy, it helped create a globalized culture.  German marches sound very similar to American marches (though perhaps one might detect subtle darker undertones).

We may wonder, however, that if military songs become popular culture, than whole nations go to war, and not just armies.  This would mean that war would become vastly more deadly and destructive than previously, which is just part of the mixed legacy of the Industrial Revolution.

Democracies and their Aristocracies

This post has had a few different lives (originally written during the party primaries) . . .

Our most recent election raises many questions for many people.  One thing appears clear . . . we knew that the Republican party was in trouble before this election.  Otherwise, Trump never would have received the nomination.  The fact that Clinton lost, however, shows the weakness of the Democratic party as well.  The whole party system will likely need a reboot in the coming years.

Below is the first re-posting note . . .


I published this about a year ago (you will note the dated references), but republish it to coincide with our look at Aristotle in our senior level Government class.  The original post is below.


Democracies have always had at best an uneasy relationship with aristocracies, for obvious reasons. The very presence of an aristocracy either seems like an obstacle or a reminder of the inadequacy of democracy.  But first and foremost, I suppose, democracies would interest themselves in self-preservation.  In turn it might mean, to paraphrase Aristotle, that democracies should adopt not the political practices that democracies want, but those designed instead to preserve democracies.

I thought of Aristotle’s dictum while reading Jonathan Rauch’s provocatively titled Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back Room Deals can Strengthen American Democracy.   I love the title.  Its (seeming) incongruity demands further examination.  But I admit I initially dismissedpoliticalrealism_990x450 the idea as a farce — until I thought about Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.  Democrats should be careful of cheering Trump on in the almost certain hope that he will fall on his face in due course.  We need good candidates on both sides to spur one another on and stabilize the electorate.  I found myself thinking, “Trump has had his fun and served his purpose.  Why hasn’t someone taken care of this?”  Then I realized that what in fact I wanted was a smoke-filled back room where “decisions” got made about these sorts of things.

No one suggests that such a solution resembles democracy.  But Rauch argues that these practices in fact preserve middle-ground, the key to a stable democracy. We fret about the increased polarization of the country and the lack of compromise. Look no further, Rauch argues, then to the decline of the power of parties — in our day particularly, the decline of the Republican party.  He contends that political machines in fact serve two key purposes:

  • They traffic in interests not ideas.  Ideas have no limits, no boundaries.  The “system” of politics is more easily quantified, thus more easily measured and controlled.
  • The candidates of a ‘machine’ stand accountable to a conglomeration of interests.  Ideological candidates have much less direct accountability.  This lack of accountability makes ideological candidates more free, and thus more oppositional.  As Rauch writes, “Show me a political system without machine-politics, and I’ll show you confusion, fragmentation, and a drift towards ungovernable extremism.”  Moderation, he argues comes not from moderates, but from machines that by design moderate everyone’s extremism.

Machine politics reminds us of Tammany Hall and other kinds of organizations filled with what even its ardent defenders might call “honest graft.”  Rauch argues that politics always involves making a lot of sausage.  But he argues that political machines also accomplished a great deal.  Tammany Hall dramatically boosted voter turnout and passed a great deal of progressive legislation.  Lyndon Johnson made who knows how many deals to pass the Civil Rights Act.  Progressives, Libertarians, and Tea-Partiers, Rauch argues, get so caught up in the purity of the idea, the purity of the process, that nothing ever gets done.  For him they are the modern-day lotus eaters.

But however good sausages taste, watching them get made never sits well.  Machine politics face the hurdles of ideologues. The modern media microscope surely offers no help either.  I can see Americans get fed up with polarization and return to a more centrist mindset.  I can’t see the media going away or turning a blind eye any time soon to back-room deals.  This poses the biggest challenge to a return to the bygone days of political machines.

Rauch makes an eloquent plea for his idea.  He effectively demonstrates the moderating effect of machines.  I wish he had talked more about the inevitable nature of ideology in democracies, or the inevitable nature of ideology in human experience.  For Rauch, ideology is almost a four-letter word. He recognizes its power, but not its place.  So, ok, machines can moderate ideologies.  But I wonder if Rauch the pragmatic realist is asking us to accept the fantasy that (to reference Thucydides) interest will trump honor and/or fear.

Also we need more than a modern comparison to evaluate it. We need greater perspective outside of our own sphere. Basically what he asks for is a democracy managed by a semi-official oligarchy.  In many ways we had this in  post-Napoleonic Europe in the 19th century.  How does this period stack up?

Some features of this era:

  • A significant increase in democracy through expanded voting rights, and in some places, limitations on the ‘elite’ legislative bodies (like the House of Lords in England).
  • Relative peace — at least internally in Europe.  Wars happened but they tended to be limited in scope and duration.
  • An aristocracy that had less power than the previous century but still lots of influence.  What’s more — this aristocracy had more mobility than perhaps at any other time in history.  Traveling around Europe formed an integral part of the growing up experience for many aristocratic youth.  Thus, the aristocracy formed a real “boys club” throughout central and western Europe (most of the monarchies also had some familial relationship to one another as well).
  • As an extension of this, lots and lots of international conferences to settle disputes and award prizes to the participants.

Of course no era is perfect.  Some would point out that the “relative peace” I mention came at the expense of significant overseas expansion. I argue elsewhere that such expansion created domestic internal issues.  Others might say that the catastrophe of W.W. I emerged from the ultimate failure of this system. We should consider their record in context, however. The system they established must have the backdrop of the chaos of the highly ideological French Revolution and the resultant Napoleonic Wars that killed millions.

We will see whether or not this next election shows the need for the return of political machines.  If Hilary Clinton runs against Jeb Bush for the presidency, we might even argue that such machines never left.  But another question that Rauch fails to ask is, can they return to prominence?  It may be more than a matter of political will.  The decline of political machines has its roots beyond politics.  For example, after itunes, Youtube, etc., record companies exist, but not in the same way.  The power they had in the 1990’s to release greatest hits albums of their artists but put one new song on the album to try and make die-hard fans buy entire albums to get that one song — may never return (not that I’m bitter or anything).  We can observe this de-centralization most everywhere in our culture.  And surely this de-centralization comes at a price, but also gives some benefits?  Rauch sees no real benefits to political de-centralization and cannot weigh the merits of both.

But this is still a good book.  It makes one think.  Fundamentally, it asks us to consider whether or not democracies, left to themselves, will preserve themselves from their own folly.

11th Grade: The Dilemmas of Reconstruction

This week the students worked on their Reconstruction projects.  I wanted to give them a chance to approach an era from a different perspective than the usual classroom.  They had to present their own plan for organizing Reconstruction as if they lived at that time.  A couple of “big picture” issues they need to keep in mind. . .
  • Winning the peace is just as important as winning the war — indeed winning the peace is not only  part of the war effort, it forms the very reason for the war itself.
  • How various elements of reconstruction, the economic, cultural, political, military, etc. should all work together.  Ideally students should see this seemingly disparate elements as part of a coherent whole, moving together towards a single purpose.
  • Part of the goal of Reconstruction deals with why conflict began in the first place.  If “Reconstruction” will prevent another war, it has to deal with the root causes of the conflict to be successful.  Seeing the Civil War arising largely out of economic and cultural differences, as opposed to purely political differences, would produce different goals for the post-war process.  If one saw the main problem rooted in the social position of African-Americans, Reconstruction would look different still.

I gave students a series of maps to help guide them through this process.  For example, if students want to focus on the social aspects of Reconstruction they may need to know the population density for African-Americans:

And the population density of the U.S. as a whole . . .
Economic issues would certainly involve railroads. . .
And you may want to concentrate your efforts most effected by the Civil War itself. . .
And so on.  The students had to face many questions and dilemmas.
Was Reconstruction a success or failure?  Ultimately it depends on your point of view, and what one might want Reconstruction to accomplish.  On the one hand, civil war  never again threatened the country, and the lives of African Americans did improve, at least to a relative degree.  The 13th-15th Amendments helped preserve legal rights especially for African Americans.   On the other hand, ‘Jim Crow’ laws arose in the South, which kept most African-Americans as second class citizens.  Many issues from the Civil War would not be fully worked out until the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s.  Some enduring bitterness remained in parts of the South that have still yet to be fully healed.  We will revisit these issues later this year.