Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Trump and Plato

Fresh from his quintuple landslide victory in last week's "Acela Primary," Donald Trump seems poised to do it again today in Indiana. If he does, he may well be unstoppable. If, somehow, "Lucifer in the Flesh" (a.k.a. Ted Cruz) were to beat him, Trump's path to the nomination would be more challenging, but by no means impossible. Either way, the political class finds itself increasingly paralyzed. And this is increasingly the case for all political elites, not just the deservedly demeaned Republican "Establishment."

Much has been said and written about the Trump phenomenon - much of it insightful, some not so. Increasingly, elite commentary has come to recognize the root of the Trump phenomenon in the simultaneous moral and economic collapse of "blue-collar" culture, the so-called "white working class," who were once the "base" of the Democratic party's FDR coalition, but were undeservedly abandoned by the Democrats in the 1960s and 1970s, abandoned and left to become "Reagan Democrats" in the 1980s. These voters were successfully appealed to by religious and cultural demagoguery, despite the evident conflict between their economic interests and those of the economic elites served by conservative ideology and policies. That monumental moral and economic collapse, paralleled by a contemporaneous rise in new media and celebrity culture that has trashed whatever remained of traditional values and traditional authorities, has fostered the rise of Trump.

True enough, but that awareness still skims the surface of our political distemper. The time is ripe for even deeper analysis. At times, watching the players on this year's stage, I have inwardly thanked my long-ago formation in the school of political philosophy for having at least provided a conceptual vocabulary with which to understand - and to judge - the plethora of phenomena that have paved the path for Trump's ascendance.

So I was more than edified to read Andrew Sullivan's eminent contribution to this discussion in yesterday's issue of New York Magazine, "America Has Never Been So Ripe for Tyranny"
(See http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html.)

Sullivan's masterful analysis, which is really less about Donald Trump and more about post-modern America, is simply summed up in his subtitle: "Democracies end when they are too democratic. And right now America is a breeding ground for tyranny."

Sullivan takes us back to Plato's Republic, where Socrates traces an inevitable deterioration of democracy into tyranny, the progressive decline of all traditionally established values in an egalitarian libertarian free-for-all, until a demagogue (usually an oligarch) wins over the mob to make a tyranny. Sullivan finds it "increasingly hard not to see in Plato's vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of the first books about politics ever written."

Sullivan credits the Founding Fathers' familiarity with Plato for the safeguards they built into our constitution, "barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power." My own guess is that Aristotle and Polybius were more direct ancient influences, but the basic point remains the same. As is the fact that over time those well constructed barriers have largely been deconstructed. Simultaneously, our notion of qualification for office has correspondingly deteriorated. "Once," Sullivan reminds us, "candidates built a career through experience in elected or Cabinet positions or as military commanders; they were effectively selected by peer review. That elitist sorting mechanism has slowly imploded." 

Here I would add as an example par excellence how even the one reform that was an attempt to moderate this decline - the Democratic party's "Super Delegates" - is now under widespread popular attack. "Super Delegates," who are largely party leaders and those who actually have been elected to actual political offices with real responsibilities, were a reaction to changes in the process that had produced candidates like McGovern in 1972, who could never get elected, and Carter in 1976, who accidentally got elected (largely in reaction to Nixon's Watergate) but whose character as an "outsider" made him ineffective at governing and guaranteed his defeat in 1980.

Add to all this the modern media democracy, and Sullivan sees "precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness." 

Meanwhile, the stage was being set for a mass movement of the disenfranchised against the elites, led by an oligarch who remained culturally connected with the masses, who have been betrayed by global economic forces supported by elites in both parties. Meanwhile, too, the very fabric of social life at the bottom has frayed as religion, the family, and traditional social groupings have declined leaving those most at risk also the most isolated.

"And so," Sullivan warns, "late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain - and has actually helped exacerbate."

Sullivan strongly denounces the elites' "demonization of the white working class world" - whether by elite students at Ivy League colleges who tell the struggling white worker to "check his privilege" or "the gay left, for whom the word magnanimity seems unknown, even in the wake of stunning successes."

Back to Plato, we are reminded that the tyrant is typically unable to control his own self. Unable to control his own passions, he unleashes the violent passions of others. Provocative behavior at political rallies that in the past would have been perceived as disqualifying someone for high office no longer does so. "It would be disqualifying," Sullivan suggests, "if our hyperdemocracy hadn't already abolished disqualifications."

Sullivan pulls no punches. He considers Trump "an extinction-level event." He castigates Sanders for "playing into Trump's hands." And he offers some parting advice to the likely Democratic nominee and her party: "She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class - and Democrats must listen."

Forty years ago, when I was teaching political philosophy, it was still possible for students to grasp the significance of Plato's and Aristotle's and others' warnings over the centuries about moral and social collapse and consequent political dysfunction. I don't know how many still study such subjects any more, but hopefully their timeless lessons will not be lost when they are most relevant.

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