Politics is intoxicant from our sense that it could provide us the society we want, or at least from the sense that if it is not done right we’d get a society that would be unlivable. So much is at stake!

Maybe. My suspicion is that politicians are more like managers of grocery stores: most of the products and prices are determined in advance and are out of their control. Thinking that electing the right politician will give us the country we want is like thinking that the right grocery store manager will give us the diet we want. Hey, he’s in charge of stocking the food we buy, isn’t he?

I’ve spent most of my life listening to promises of reform and a better tomorrow that are indistinguishable from ads for diet plans. I don’t doubt that there is political justice and the opportunity for genuine reform any more than I doubt that there is a healthy body and the possibility of shifting to a healthier life, but the election rhetoric we have such a hard time not getting drawn into has the same relation to the former that a diet fad has to the latter. Both offer the promise of improvement for nothing, of becoming good without the sort of renunciations, faithfulness in small things, dedication to detail, knowledge of our limitations, and long-term commitment that real goodness demands.



  1. July 27, 2016 at 3:38 am

    “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

    • July 27, 2016 at 2:23 pm

      It’s fascinating to imagine Socrates saying this before he sets up a system of education for the guardians and imagining Gorgias saying it or, God help us, Callicles.

  2. PG said,

    July 27, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    All of our politicians’ messages, from all directions, seem to ultimately boil down to: “Vote for me, and I will enact laws that will make us unequivocally good.” All the other rhetoric is usually just trying to explain why their prescribed cure didn’t take.

  3. July 30, 2016 at 1:47 am

    Socrates and Plato had a strange relationship with the democratic strain in Athens. They pined for Sparta, where the common good was clear and promulgated. Yet Sparta would not have allowed for their existence, nor did they think Sparta had the purpose of the regime quite right. If only one could only set up a different Sparta…

    Similarly with the small Republics in later times, such as Florence. Dante castigated his regime, yet it produced Dante and much else – almost all of which pined for Empire and monarchy even as it was generated within republicanism.

    But my point with the quotation is just that in a regime of democratic bent the politics are as small as you state in large part because public opinion constrains what is possible. Just as in government of the few or the one the opinion of the one or the few constrains what is possible. The regime form constrains the rhetoric and the political options via the opinion of whomever the real rulers – wherever the buck actually stops – or lawgivers actually are.

    With the rule of the many, the trick is to get them to think the law giving is at stake so that they will give you power to “save” them, since they cannot really rule themselves communally all at once without establishing some sort of hierarchy.

    So he who shapes public opinion is he who actually rules. Something someone said once about those damn, dirty poets comes to mind…

  4. July 30, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    In America, when the majority has once irrevocably decided a question, all discussion ceases–Reason f or this–Moral power exercised by the majority upon opinion–Democratic republics have applied despotism to the minds of men.

    IT is in the examination of the exercise of thought in the United States that we clearly perceive how far the power of the majority surpasses all the powers with which we are acquainted in Europe. Thought is an invisible and subtle power that mocks all the efforts of tyranny. At the present time the most absolute monarchs in Europe cannot prevent certain opinions hostile to their authority from circulating in secret through their dominions and even in their courts. It is not so in America; as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety. The reason for this is perfectly clear: no monarch is so absolute as to combine all the powers of society in his own hands and to conquer all opposition, as a majority is able to do, which has the right both of making and of executing the laws.

    The authority of a king is physical and controls the actions of men without subduing their will. But the majority possesses a power that is physical and moral at the same time, which acts upon the will as much as upon the actions and represses not only all contest, but all controversy.

    I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.

    In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-f‚, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.

    Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments that tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has perfected despotism itself, though it seemed to have nothing to learn. Monarchs had, so to speak, materialized oppression; the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind as the will which it is intended to coerce. Under the absolute sway of one man the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul; but the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose proudly superior. Such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved. The master no longer says: “You shall think as I do or you shall die”; but he says: “You are free to think differently from me and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but you are henceforth a stranger among your people. You may retain your civil rights, but they will be useless to you, for you will never be chosen by your fellow citizens if you solicit their votes; and they will affect to scorn you if you ask for their esteem. You will remain among men, but you will be deprived of the rights of mankind. Your fellow creatures will shun you like an impure being; and even those who believe in your innocence will abandon you, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence worse than death.”

    Absolute monarchies had dishonored despotism; let us beware lest democratic republics should reinstate it and render it less odious and degrading in the eyes of the many by making it still more onerous to the few.

    Works have been published in the proudest nations of the Old World expressly intended to censure the vices and the follies of the times: LabruyŠre inhabited the palace of Louis XIV when he composed his chapter upon the Great, and MoliŠre criticized the courtiers in the plays that were acted before the court. But the ruling power in the United States is not to be made game of. The smallest reproach irritates its sensibility, and the slightest joke that has any foundation in truth renders it indignant, from the forms of its language up to the solid virtues of its character, everything must be made the subject of encomium. No writer, whatever be his eminence, can escape paying this tribute of adulation to his fellow citizens. The majority lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause, and there are certain truths which the Americans can learn only from strangers or from experience.

    If America has not as yet had any great writers, the reason is given in these facts; there can be no literary genius without freedom of opinion, and freedom of opinion does not exist in America. The Inquisition has never been able to prevent a vast number of anti-religious books from circulating in Spain. The empire of the majority succeeds much better in the United States, since it actually removes any wish to publish them. Unbelievers are to be met with in America, but there is no public organ of infidelity. Attempts have been made by some governments to protect morality by prohibiting licentious books. In the United States no one is punished for this sort of books, but no one is induced to write them; not because all the citizens are immaculate in conduct, but because the majority of the community is decent and orderly.

    In this case the use of the power is unquestionably good; and I am discussing the nature of the power itself. This irresistible authority is a constant fact, and its judicious exercise is only an accident.

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