Democracies and their Aristocracies

This post has had a few different lives (originally written during the party primaries in 2016) . . .

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.