How Democracies Die

No one remembers the name of the last Roman Senator. Schoolchildren learn that the Republic was destroyed by Julius Caesar’s coup and the rise of the emperors. They don’t learn that the visible symbols of the republic remained functioning and intact long after they lost their relevance.

There is no specific date in history when Rome ceased to be a republic. Little by little, decree by decree, the most durable and effective representative government that had existed to that time ceded its power first to an aristocracy, then to a monarch and finally to a series of warlords.

There was still a Roman Senate as late as 603 CE, more than six centuries after Julius Caesar. We don’t know who served in the Senate or what power it held after about the 5th century CE, when darkness descended on the West. We do know that the Curia Julia, which had housed the Senate since 44 BCE, was converted into a church in 630 CE. The Roman Senate, cut off from the center of power, gradually shriveled into obscurity.

Democracy doesn’t rise from a particular set of laws. It isn’t based on elections or constitutions or courts. Democracy is achieved and sustained by a delicate balance of power in a society.  Representative governments fail when wealth and its attendant power concentrates beyond a tipping point, giving a narrow few united by their own common interests the capacity to thwart the many. When enough money concentrates into few enough hands, those few can buy or bully their way into the outcomes they choose. Representative governments seldom die suddenly. More often they are smothered.

Maintaining a democracy means more than holding elections. There’s nothing magical about voting. Putin won elections. Hitler led a powerful political party. If elections made democracies work, then Afghanistan and Iraq would be healthy democracies. A democracy is an organism, not a machine. Maintaining a democracy means clinging not just to elections, but to a broader template of practices and institutions that spread wealth, power, and opportunity. It demands active participation by citizens. Absent that ecosystem of mediating forces, a democracy will die on its feet, its elected bodies still wrangling and legislating as if any of it mattered.

Concentration of wealth, by itself, is not necessarily fatal to a democracy as long as those wealthy people retain a diversity of interests, and the masses remain intelligently engaged. The US was able for many years to sustain a modicum of representative order thanks to political disunity among its elites. The President who rescued the American experiment from Fascism in the 1930’s was the scion of an obscenely wealthy aristocratic family. A thin sliver of contemporary US billionaires like Gates, Buffet, Bezos, Soros and Hanauer are battling to protect democratic values and institutions. However, gambling on the benevolence of the billionaire class is a dangerous game. It is a game, in fact, that we may have just lost.

We often imagine that some siren goes off when historically significant events occur. We ask ourselves why Germans and Italians didn’t rise in revolt against their oppressive Fascist regimes. In reality, for an ordinary shopkeeper or factory worker in Munich, nothing meaningful happened the day after Hitler became Chancellor, or in the weeks or months that followed.

Jews in Germany in 1933 experienced little dramatic change. What unfolded over the next five years was a gradual, frog-in-the-frying-pan escalation of anti-Semitic persecution which had been rising across the prior decade. Starting in 1935 there were new restrictions on Jewish work and education opportunities, copied from US race laws. These restraints were troubling, but they did not seem insurmountable or lethal. The Reichstag continued to meet. Immigration controls were imposed. The economy rapidly improved. Unemployment fell and the currency stabilized. It’s been noted that if Hitler had died in 1938, his crimes would have been whitewashed and he’d be remembered as one of Germany’s more successful leaders.

Germans were warned of what was coming by figures like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but they ignored those warnings, seeing nothing in their own atomized daily lives to suggest concern. Even as the grey snow of human ash coated their streets, they carried on their daily activities in blissful, stubborn ignorance. Consequences would arrive. By the time World War II ended, almost half of the conscription-age German males alive in 1939 had died. Three-quarters of the country’s military men had been killed or wounded. That figure excludes the millions of German POWs who would later die in Russian captivity. Those numbers are estimates, because the Germans lost the capacity to reliably record their losses during 1944. German boys born in 1923 were unlikely to see 1946, a fate they invited on themselves as they rallied enthusiastically at Nuremberg. German voters’ gamble on Hitler would cost them forty years of population growth. Politics is a serious business.

Hitler and Mussolini rose to power when an impoverished and deeply divided populace lost their capacity to push back against their plutocrats. Nazis formed a coalition government with wealthy conservatives despite failing to win an electoral majority. Hindenburg, a wealthy aristocrat, named Hitler Chancellor to stave off the threat to himself and his class from the rising Socialist movement in Germany. King Victor Emmanuel made the same self-serving compromise in Italy, placing Mussolini in power. 

Democracies do not “fall,” they rot. Too much money concentrated in too few hands can grant a wealthy class enough influence to override or distort popular will. At the grassroots level, forces that degrade our participation public institution make it cheaper for the wealthy to buy power. Even with a great deal of wealth concentration, the presence of deep, highly participatory local institutions can blunt the influence of money. When that thick network of local institutions, from PTA’s to professional clubs, hollows out at the same time that wealth concentration spikes, a representative government can face a crisis.

We live in a country in which 400 families now control more wealth than the bottom 60% of Americans. It is impossible to run a successful high level political campaign devoid of their support. We live a country governed by a career criminal who refuses to disclose his financial dealings and openly profits from our Presidency. Over the past three decades, we have borrowed $22 trillion to finance tax cuts for our wealthiest families. Many of our most profitable major corporations no longer pay taxes. Faced with this mounting challenge, we’ve discovered that our democratic institutions lack the power and influence to limit abuses by our elites.

Thanks to a long, well-funded campaign of legislative harassment led by “nice” Republican legislators like Peter Roskam, the IRS lacks the resources to pursue wealthy tax cheats. It now focuses the bulk of its very limited remaining energies on auditing low income taxpayers who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit for struggling families.

Decades of deregulation initiated by the Clinton Administration, and continued to absurd extremes in subsequent years, gutted financial regulation. In this climate global money laundering has flourished, enriching those who collaborate in the trade for arms and drugs, and those looting loosely governed countries like ours.

What is life like in a declining democracy? Even the most outrageous criminals cannot be punished if they have money and political ties. Jeffrey Epstein ran a child sex ring not just for profit, but to cultivate political power through blackmail. His “friends” included Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, along with innumerable second and third tier figures like Alan Dershowitz, Kevin Spacey, Eliot Spitzer, governors from both parties, Hollywood figures and major political donors.

When the children raped in his operation went to law enforcement, Epstein’s powerful friends worked the system to protect him. Donald Trump apparently intimidated at least one of the accusers into silence. Some remain in hiding. Trump’s comments on Epstein are illuminating, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

A US Attorney took control of Epstein’s case and offered him an extraordinary plea deal. He served his 13 month incarceration like a Columbian drug lord, with his own wing of the prison and “work release” to his office. The federal prosecutor who helped dismantle Epstein’s prosecution and silence his accusers is now the Secretary of Labor under Trump.

We have still heard very few of the stories from Epstein’s victims because they recognize the inability of our democracy to protect them. We now have two known sex offenders on the Supreme Court and one in the White House. We have no idea how many are in Congress and little capacity to limit their influence.

Impunity to criminal prosecution creates wide opportunity for fraud. Cost of ordinary, uninteresting, yet essential drugs like insulin have skyrocketed in recent years thanks to careful corporate manipulation. When drug companies attempted a similar move in the 1940’s, they were thwarted by federal criminal indictments. Not today.

The Sackler family made a fortune through a legalized synthetic heroin operation enabled by fraud and bribery. OxyContin generated a national addiction crisis that claims more lives each year than we lost in the entire Vietnam War, enough to bend our national mortality curve. They will face no consequences regardless of election outcomes because they’ve spread their political donations very carefully (and generously) across both parties. If you find the Sacklers’ scam nauseating, you don’t want to examine the Epi-pen business.

Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and her brother, Erik Prince, represent a billionaire family threatening to dim our prospects from cradle to grave. DeVos is gutting campus sexual abuse reforms and promising a return to for-profit student loans and charter schools. Her brother still makes a killing in the war business. After avoiding responsibility for civilian murders by his “contractors” in Iraq, he closed his ties to Blackwater and ventured out on his own. He now runs a global for-profit mercenary empire pressing to assume military control of Afghanistan.

A multi-billion dollar private prison industry has emerged around the harassment of immigrants, both legal and illegal. We are building for-profit concentration camps for immigrant children torn from their parents. Yet not a single CEO has been indicted over the past decade for the illegal hiring of undocumented workers. How much money will Trump family loot from border wall contracts? We won’t know, because our elected government isn’t powerful enough to require the necessary financial disclosures.

As the CEO of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn helped facilitate one of the largest robberies in history. When Jho Low and the Malaysian Prime Minister needed help embezzling $7bn from a sovereign wealth fund, they turned to Goldman. After the robbery unraveled, Cohn went on to a senior position in the Trump Administration, playing a key role selling the Republican tax cuts.

Can you recall the last time your government pursued a major anti-trust effort? What about a securities fraud case? When was the last time you remember hearing about a prosecution for tax fraud, embezzlement from a charity, or campaign finance abuse? Bribery? Those crimes are almost never committed by poor people, by minorities or by immigrants. Those are the crimes of wealthy white families who never put a finger on the corpses of their victims. They can only be prosecuted by a powerful, representative government animated by an active, engaged body of citizens.

We are the last democratic nation on the planet without universal health insurance. We’ve been told it’s too expensive and for some reason we believe it.

Trump’s election was a disruptive event, but it was neither the cause of our democratic decline nor its conclusion, just a sudden and consequential bend in the curve. Surprisingly, few of the horrors unleashed by this administration were begun under Trump’s leadership. Little if anything in the Trump agenda lies outside conventional Republican policy.

Many of this administration’s worst policies were initiated decades ago and continued under Obama’ administration. Trump’s personal repulsiveness, criminality, and incompetence deliver a second chance not offered to Italians and Germans in the 30’s. Hitler and Mussolini were more credible, competent and frankly human than Trump. Hitler served his country in the military, spent decades organizing a political movement, and wrote a mostly coherent book in his own hand. Hitler had a dog. Trump hasn’t logged much of a body count yet, but neither did Hitler in his first few years. There’s nothing Trump wouldn’t do to earn applause. No one is safe from his lust for the acclamation of a crowd. All that’s saved us so far from the fate of 20th century Europeans is Trump’s poor work ethic and limited attention span.

Shaken into shock by a grotesquely abhorrent leader, we have a chance to arrest our decline. That begins with a realization – resistance starts at home.

Troubled by this scenario? Know the name and email address of your city councilmen. Make sure your local representatives know of your concerns. Are you worried about the Trump administration’s racist policies? Do your city councilmen know you care about affordable housing in your community, police abuse, and school segregation? Do you in fact care about those issues as they relate to your zip code?

We didn’t land in this position overnight. Decades of public neglect and complacency opened the door for a few wealthy families animated by common interests to manipulate our democracy. Taking back our power means forging new alliances with our neighbors at the local level. That will cost us an investment of our most valuable resource – time. Will Americans be willing to make that sacrifice? Will they continue that investment after the cartoon horror of this administration disappears?

A disturbing possibility looms in our post-Trump future. With the orange face of bigotry removed from the scene, will we all go back to our pre-Trump lives?

There was a still a Senate in Rome long after the nation itself had disappeared. No newspaper headline, official decree, or air-raid siren will declare the end of representative government. Democratic decline is a process, not an event.

Democracy survives under an ironic curse – we will always have the government we deserve. Will we seize our opportunity to deserve better?

***

This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.

51 Comments

    1. Justice – That offers too little very late. Epstein that slime bag never got the sentence what he should have and Will there be any legal consequence for Acosta? All of the bad guys got away with crimes here. Article was silent.

      Also, I read previously that Epstein was allowed to serve his 13 months in his home, not jail as article stated. Which is correct ? I hope that with this long delayed decision, other girls will come forward and Epstein get a new and better trial and verdict.

      1. I learned that the sweetheart sentence Epstein received thanks to Acosta had a 13 month jail sentence but all he had to do was “sleep “ there. During the day he was free to go home, to work, etc.
        What is not known is what legal action the DOJ will take against the prosecution team (Acosta) based upon the courts finding of their culpability. Acosta led this effort his responsibility is greatest. He broke federal law. He should be charged. We’ll see how “equal “ our federal laws are. BTW, as Secretary of Labor, one of Acosta’s areas of responsibility is sex trafficking. Sick irony is

    2. NC will call new election but Harris will be allowed to run. Here’s another case where real justice would not only have not alllowrd Harris to run , but he should be charged with campaign law violation. I feel sorry for his son who evidently is a very fine person. His father should be deeply ashamed. He should also be investigated further.

      https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/republican-candidate-mark-harris-calls-new-election-north-carolina-disputed-n974176

      1. No. You’re a nice guy who has given up on the ability of democracy to heal itself. I haven’t, but I do find it increasingly difficult to keep hope alive. I hope for the sake of America that my belief in democracy is not naive nor misplaced. I will also admit that I am horrified at what DJT with complicit support from republicans is doing to sabotage our democratic institutions. IOW, these are very tough times. I would not be surprised to see insurrection from trump supporters if he is impeached or indicted. My hope is our military would not be compromised in their duty to our country, first.

      1. Article said Epstein would not be retried but could be subject to new charges if new plaintiffs file suit. The problem is he is rich; these girls are not, and given the 11 years it took a dedicated attorney to get this matter resolved, I would be surprised if it happened. Money talks. Especially in our “justice” sytem.

      2. Alexander Acosta may have trouble with the Florida Bar Association (wait I have to finish laughing first before being able to type again).

        His statement says the plea deal was signed off on by DOJ so he is unlikely to have any legal problems of his own …again…only if the Florida State Bar has a soul he could theoretically be disbarred.

  1. Coates May be next to go. Rosensteins replacement has zero justice experience and his position is the one that coordinates the Russia investigation. I’m assuming trump nor Barr want anyone in this position who has a clue what they are doing nor is principled.

    Trump will have removed all remaining guardrails for democracy when Coates is fired.

  2. EJ

    Elizabeth Sandifer points out that Trump’s national emergency potentially tests something of great interest to those of Left persuasions.

    “So, the national emergency laws let you move money around within the military budget right? Cause if so, and this proves legal, it’s a move with hilariously disproportionate power for the far left compared to other political alignments.

    At last, a way for the executive branch to unilaterally achieve nuclear disarmament and universal health care.”

    1. I believe McConnell and a few other more experienced members of the GOP recognize this. I also don’t think it is legal as being utilized. Trump is president not king. The courts will decide and as trump noted in public, he feels sure that SCOTUS will rule in his favor. Hint hint.

      In a different time with a different court maybe we the people could be hopeful. No more.

    2. EJ

      Thanks for that Mary.

      American Constitutional law question: If Trump goes ahead and spends the money and builds his border fence, and this is later found by a court to be illegal, will it be torn down or just left as a successful fait accompli?

      If the former, that will be a wonderful photo op. If the latter, it again sets a precedent.

      1. If the federal courts rule against this I am sure that a stay on spending the money will also be issued. CA AG Becara and the others will have this covered. In normal procedure, I believe the first court to rule will be a Northern CA / Bay Area District Court, which is where the CA suit is being filed. Next up would be the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Other suits will be filed in other district courts, and then to other Courts of Appeals. There might be 2-3 suits that are consolidated into one case before SCOTUS. Regardless, this whole matter might take a couple of years, before it gets to SCOTUS. With any luck and a lot of effort by the RESIST movement, T might be out of office before SCOTUS rules. However there is always the possibility that SCOTUS will accelerate this whole process. Given Roberts normal caution, I doubt he is going to want to get SCOTUS involved in a partisan issue of this magnitude quickly. He would rather procrastinate and perhaps avoid it if at all possible.

      2. If 2020 continues the work of 2018 and we get the Dems in control, right after they reissue HB1, they need to put some limits on the emergency declaration power. The thing that gobsmacks me is that the obvious lies and bad faith may not sway the judges. I understand that no one back in the 70s anticipated a selfish ass in the White House putting his ego over the good of the country, but now that it has been demonstrated that it can happen here, time to put the obvious in writing. Emergency declarations need to be backed by facts.

  3. It’s easy to focus on domestic madness and overlook really significant actions by the trump administration in world affairs. Here are two that alarm me for different reasons. One is literally in our backyard (Venezuela), and the other much more concerning in terms of major, long-term, deep state consequences on a global basis. These two, especially the latter, make a wall less important.

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/11/donald-trump-venezuela-crisis-military-intervention

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/18/trump-pompeo-bolton-eu-eastern-european-states?

    1. What’s happening right now in Venezuela, where we’re supporting Guaido, is just another chapter in a long series of the U.S. using South America for its experiments in imperialist intervention. I’m continually disgusted in how we’ve never stopped meddling in the affairs of South American nations. We need to take our jackboots off, for the sake of everybody.

      Regarding the European Union: The EU is doing a really good job of undermining itself these days, especially if you keep your ear to the ground on tech matters. The continued moving ahead with the ridiculous Copyright Directive despite millions of people not wanting it to go forward, and then treating all of those people as if they’re nothing but an angry mob, has done significant damage to mine and others’ opinion of the EU and how truly accountable it is to the people living in it:

      https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20190215/18005841607/eu-commission-decides-to-mock-public-insists-fears-about-eu-copyright-directive-are-all-myths.shtml

  4. Fly – I wouldn’t ever trust Ron Paul. Collins is a roll of the dice. Murkowsky I respect plus, one of the places funds would be pulled from for the wall is AK. T hasn’t definitively named specific sources which could put murkowsky in the unenviable bargaining position of accepting a presidential bribe for her support or standing on principle. Say this winds it’s wa to SCOTUS, if we have to count on Roberts to hold the line, things are really bad. Yet, it could come to this.

  5. I’ll take a controversial stand. I disagree Chris, Democracy is alive and well in America. The chilling thought about Trump isn’t that he’s an aberration, but that *he’s what a majority of Americans want*. Yes, he never got a majority of the vote. But that’s only because he’s a loathsome human being for whom even his supporters had to hold their nose while voting. Put Pence or Ted Cruz on the ballot instead and you probably would have had a majority, and there’s very little difference in what they would have done. Would they have declared a national emergency? No, probably not. But they might also have been more effective to the point where they never needed a national emergency to implement even worse policies than Trump has managed so far. Do you think Ted Cruz is aghast about kiddie concentration camps being built in his state?

    I will submit that anyone who reads or — especially — comments on this blog, is so far removed from the average American (myself included) that we have a better understanding of people in other countries than we do the “average American”. Just because someone is oppressed doesn’t make them noble. Oftentimes, releasing the oppression just allows them to show a far uglier side that they were never able to show before. I submit that’s what Trump’s done. All those “oppressed” rural whites who were shut out of democratic influence before are now free to expose their true nature. Just like democracy is supposed to.

    As you mention, Hitler gained his power via democratic means. He was a man of the people, expressing their will against the tyranny of the old Prussian aristocracy. And even after the decimation of their country from WWII, plenty of Germans still supported his pogrom against the Jews, the annexation of neighboring lands, and the rehabilitation of the economy. The only real beef they had with him was his poor military tactics (never fight a two front war, and never pick a fight with Russia in the winter).

    After the elections, I was shocked to see lots of educated, professional, suburban — even minority — voters come out of the woodwork and tell me (sometimes quite gleefully) that they voted for Trump. My only consolation was that I hoped that once they saw how he would actually govern, they’d at least regret their choice and stand chastened. I haven’t seen it yet. Lots of people believe the economy is great thanks to Trump, the tax cuts are helping them, and all those uppity liberals are finally getting their just desserts. If Trump died today, in 20 years, the Republican party (what remains of it), would lionize him as much as they did Reagan. They’re doing it for GWB, and it’s only been 10…

    I think your fundamental mistake is in assuming that what’s valuable about our political structure is voter input / participation, and that that’s what needs to be increased. Because that’s all that democracy guarantees. But unconstrained voter input inevitably leads to mob rule, and slaughter / subjugation of the minority by popular will of the majority. That’s human nature.

    What we had was a system unabashedly run by elites (ever since George Washington and the Founders, who, despite their rhetoric about the nobility of the common folk, made sure that the actual laws i.e. the constitution, kept the public far away from any real power). Call me a tyrant, but our problem is that we have *too much* democracy right now. Mob rule with no constraints by a system of elites that actually managed things.

    Even those 400 families who control so much wealth need to somehow brainwash 50% of the people into supporting their causes. Whether it’s by bread and circus, or racial divides, or whatever, they have convinced >50% of the people to support their causes.

    Empowering patients to be involved in their medical care, whatever its benefits, also led to the anti-vaxx movement, and an enormous blossoming of snake oil salesmen (some of them doctors themselves like Dr. Oz). This is not an anomaly. It’s the expected side effect in any system balanced between elite authority and the will of the people that tilts too far in the direction of the hoi polloi. And, I submit, that’s what we’re seeing now.

    So what’s the answer? It starts with understanding this: I don’t know about the Roman Senate, but the American Congress has *always* been an irrelevant sideshow. Even when Giants Sat Astride Its Hallowed Halls(tm), those giants were frontmen for much more base interests that pulled the strings from back home. The smoke-filled rooms have always been where the action has been, since before the invention of cigarettes. I’d rather focus on gaining control of those backrooms, than worry about which 80-year old who doesn’t understand the internet is currently emoting in front of a CSPAN camera.

    Even our charming obsession over local politics, steeped in our hoary mythology of New England townhall meetings where somber citizens used their collective wisdom to make wise decisions? Get real. Local politics are dominated by local real estate developers looking for zoning variances to maximize their profits, along with whichever big business has a factory / office complex / outlet mall in the village.

    In many ways, perhaps you’re right Chris, that what comes after democracy is control by corporate and private entities, and that our interests are best served by seeking to influence them, rather than focusing on government itself. After all, NYC activists fighting corporate giveaways were more successful influencing Bezos than their elected representatives Mayor DeBlasio or Gov. Cuomo. My only corollary is that that is also what came *before* democracy and that perhaps Trump is a symptom of the peak of democracy, not its trough…

    1. Wall, fascinating comment, as usual. Also as usual, here comes an unreasonably lengthy reply.

      A couple of issues here. First, Trump lost the 2016 Election. He is just as much a product of democratic will as the Dukakis Administration. He is in the White House specifically because of processes put in place by our founders to thwart popular will.

      Also, it is a bit misleading to state that Hitler came to power by democratic means. i’ve probably made that claim before, but it deserves qualification when used toward this conclusion.

      Hitler was appointed Chancellor by Hindenburg even though Hindenburg had won his position specifically on his promise to block Hitler from power, and he had defeated Hitler in 1932. Germany in 1933 was essentially a failed state, looking very much like Russia in 1917. Hindenburg and the country’s business leaders handed power to Hitler because they thought he was their only chance to halt a Soviet-organized Communist revolt. Thing is, by then they were probably right about their options. It was over. They had hoarded their power and money while people were literally starving, and they hung on until their only remaining options were a genocidal maniac or a Bolshevik revolt. They chose genocide so they could hold onto their cash just a little longer.

      Even in those desperate conditions, democracy in Germany in 1933 had produced a balance of power that had thwarted a dictator. Aristocrats broke the stalemate in favor of dictatorship. This is not perhaps the most illuminating example of what democracy produces.

      Second, I’m under no illusions about the magical power of democracy. There is no ideal system. There is no universally “best” system. Brutal, autocratic rule in post-war South Korea outperformed representative democracy in Italy in almost every way, from economic growth right up to personal freedom.

      Backing up to “first principles,” effective government delivers smart solutions to collective action problems. Good government solves problems we can’t solve individually or in small clan groups. Even if I had billions of dollars of my own money, I can’t build a network of public transit system or a water utility or a first class army. Some problems depend on coordinated action.

      What wins in government is smart, honest, public-interested public policy. What loses is corruption, lies, stupidity and theft. You can get the former from a good dictator, as in Singapore or post-war Taiwan. You can get the latter from from a poorly constructed, lazy democracy full of shitty voters, like in Alabama. Which country is better governed, autocratic, Communist China, or democratic India? It isn’t an easy question to answer.
      It seems readily apparent that it’s easier to devise and implement smart collective action solutions in an autocratic government than in a democracy. So why are we so in love with democratic values?

      One of the problems with autocracy, going back to the days when Plato was swooning over the idea, is that it’s tough to find a good autocrat. South Korea ended up with the fortuitous leadership of Park Chung-hee after more than a decade under the disastrous kleptocratic rule of Syngman Rhee. For Korea to get to the Park era, Park first needed to survive Rhee’s attempts to have him killed. The most important trait of a successful autocracy is that nation’s blind luck in acquiring a good leader. It is easier to enact sound public policy in an autocracy. It is very difficult in an autocracy to place in power a person who cares about enacting sound public policy. In autocratic systems, you mostly get leaders like this doofus (don’t miss the glowing commentary from Russia’s RT):

      https://www.rt.com/news/432835-turkmenistan-president-rap-grandson/

      Democracies tend to place in government people who are good at winning friends and entertaining the masses. Autocracies tend to place in government people who are good at using violence. Neither is the finest qualification for creating great policy. Which skill is marginally more likely to produce general public happiness?

      By the way, this is also the fundamental problem with revolutions. The yawning gap of chaos which inevitably follows a revolution begs for the order of a dictatorship. We gloss over this in our own history, but our revolution was followed by a pretty bloody counter-revolution, aimed at snuffing out all of the ambitious levellers, abolitionists, religious nuts, and backwoods organized criminals who came springing opportunistically from the interregnum. Our revolution wasn’t secured until Hamilton (with an ailing Washington being carted along as a figurehead) marched an army across Pennsylvania in 1794 to crush an attempt at a second revolution.

      So far *on the aggregate*, democracies have been outperforming autocracies. One well-publicized product of democracy helps explain their success – a regular cycle of leadership replacement. Democracies might produce some lousy leaders, but they get rid of them more quickly than autocracies. You don’t lose thirty years of development in a democracy from one unfortunate roll of the dice.

      Another feature of democracy has been an important determinant of its success. The electoral process makes it easier for the governors to know what people actually want, and thereby protect their power. Believe it or not, this is one of the critical failures of autocracies, a failure that occasionally gets an otherwise happy and wealthy autocrat murdered. As much of a bubble as we might think we live in, imagine the insulation of some dictator who lives in a palace with his pet tigers and a collection of fawning pop stars. You go to bed one night after delivering a speech to a cheering crowd in the capitol’s main square. Then you wake up the next morning in your silk sheets, two naked actresses by your side, to a knock at the door. Ten thousand people are the street outside your palace, all your guards have fled, and some random Colonel you’ve never heard of is pointing a gun at you. The CIA has a helicopter waiting in the unicorn playground and you’re on your way to a grim retirement on an island off the coast of Chile. Whomp, whomp…

      Elections, a free press, an honest court system, and open markets at least help leaders know what’s happening. The curtailments of the feedback loop that inevitable emerge in protecting an autocrat feed poor decision-making.

      Oligarchies may blunt some of the abuse of a dictatorship by slightly spreading power. The problem is that they fall victim to the problem above. They may be better at hearing what people want, but a parliament of billionaires can’t muster the will to implement policies that would rescue them from the pitchforks. They can’t overcome their own self-interest even to save their own hides. Pushed to the wall, they’ll hand the country to a dictator (who will ultimately eat them) to avoid writing a $100 check to a peasant.

      Democracies are clumsy, slow, and often very stupid. So why do they ever work? Seldom mentioned in our heroic celebrations of democratic glory is a distinctly anti-democratic innovation adopted in successful democracies – Bureaucracy, or as some people call it, the Deep State.

      The period in which America was governed in the most nearly-democratic manner, and with the greatest general effectiveness, was between the Depression and the early 1970’s. Through the electoral process we ceded remarkable, almost autocratic power to a promising reformer who, like an autocrat, remained President for life. Under his aggressive rule and the discipline of a global war emerged a very powerful bureaucracy. Thanks to reforms adopted under that regime, the bureaucracy was, for the first time, largely insulated from bribery and partisan cronyism. For the first time in our history, we had government institutions in which capable, competent people were recruited to make policy decisions. That same process extended into the federal (not state) courts, where a generation of meritocratic winners set about reforming what had been a corrupt and relentlessly abusive legal system.

      During that time, for the first time, we embraced universal suffrage, though we still haven’t succeeded in implementing it. We used a professional bureaucracy to improve workplace conditions, roll back environmental pollution, alleviate extreme mass poverty, create a school system in which almost everyone had access to twelve years of education, and numerous other advances. Democracy provided the constraints that prevented bureaucrats from becoming as insulated and abusive as Soviet apparatchiks. Our cultural emphasis on market economics helped counter-balance the urge of bureaucrats toward stifling control, as we see in the Eurozone now. Bureaucracy gave democracy a brain, the capacity for a government of the many to leverage the expertise of the few. Democracy gave bureaucracy necessary curbs and feedback. That bureaucracy, not democracy, created the first real threat to the power of our aristocrats and they’ve been battling to dismantle it.

      Democracy’s best friend, so far, is bureaucracy. Without it, democracies are dumb and ineffective. Bureaucracy’s best friend is democracy. Without it, bureaucracies are monolithic and stifling. Right now, Republicans are trying to kill democracy by destroying our bureaucracy. That’s why they love a government shutdown. That’s why they drive up government debt.

      We don’t need to be ruled by a panel of oligarchs to have good government. We just need to restore the balance we once enjoyed between elected government with its popular feedback and bureaucracy with its brains and expertise. And (extra twist) we have to rebuild this model in a manner that works within a far faster, more technologically-driven society. The failure of our bureaucracy to adapt to ‘the great acceleration’ is one of the reasons we’re in this mess.

      To get there we may have to break some eggs. Our oligarchs have managed to acquire extraordinary power over the past few decades. We aren’t going to claw that power back from them without a lot of determination. Some powerful people will have to go to prison, and it takes a lot of power to impose controls on people that wealthy. We may or may not be able to pull this off within the conventional legal bounds of our existing system.

  6. I believe Howard Schultz’s “run for the Presidency” is a naked threat to the Democratic Party that either they stop moving to the left and opposing the accumulation of money and power of oligarchs, or he will fuck up their shit by trying to divide their votes and giving the U.S. four more years of Trump. I instantly switched my support to Warren. It’s time to take these rich fucks apart brick by brick.

    1. It’ll be too late when you hear the sound of Trumpanazi jackboots marching down the street, with the goons singing:

      Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!
      S.A. marschiert, mit ruhig festem Schritt;
      Kam’raden, die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen
      Marschier’n im Geist, in unsern Reihen mit!

      ENGLISH TRANSLATION

      Raise high the flags! Stand rank on rank together!
      Storm Troopers march, with steady, quiet tread;
      Our comrades, shot by the Reds and the Reaction
      Are in our ranks, and march along in step!
      Our comrades, shot by the Red Front and the Reaction
      Are in our ranks, and march along in step!

      (Opening stanza of the Nazi party anthem ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ (‘Horst Wessel Song’)

  7. “A disturbing possibility looms in our post-Trump future. With the orange face of bigotry removed from the scene, will we all go back to our pre-Trump lives?”

    My answer is no. This farce of an administration has forced me to face a number of unpleasant facts, and one of them is that our system is more fragile than I had realized. I’m not taking it for granted anymore.

    It is indeed fortunate for us that Trump is so often his own worst enemy. This bogus national emergency is a prime example, because it is going to force every GOP MoC to go officially on the record. Many of them will be damned by either choice, and deservedly so. The GOP begged him not to do it, but Trump puts his ego above all else, even GOP unity. There’s a reason there are so many cautionary tales about making Devil’s bargains. I grieve for all the damage being done to my country, but I will revel in every bit of damage that the GOP and the evangelical hypocrites suffer as a result of their unholy alliance.

    1. I did not realize until Obama then Trump how ugly many of my fellow citizens are. Hardly any Black or Hispanic Evangelicals have been took in by Trump and a fairly large minority of White Evangelicals were not either. I am one of those. My Church is pretty split down the middle. I think my Pastor who voted for Trump because of abortion is beginning to think he made a Faustian bargain. His Church looks like what America is going to become ethnically. We have quite a few mix couples because they are really welcome. He is a man who loves much and is not happy with Trump’s immigration polices or his repression of minorities. Like me he is has deep southern roots but rejects the bigotry and hate of the old south. I am beginning to hope that he sees the light and decides against Trump going into 2020.

      1. Let’s not forget the real reason McConnell sold his soul. He wants to pack the courts with Federal Society approved RW judges. In light of that all his actions make sense.

        Were our system functioning properly, the fact that the rationale for the wall is built on a pile of lies would shitcan this in the courts immediately. Donny2Scoops’ open admissions of the non-urgency of the situation and obvious bad faith should be so much over kill. But I worry about nitpicking toadies installed by the Rs in the Federal courts who are all about deference to Presidential authority and will hand wave with the excuse “well it doesn’t explicitly SAY that the President CAN’T lie when declaring emergencies.” Roberts may be thinking enou about the legacy of the SCOTUS to vote this travesty down. Thomas, based on previous rulings, could join him. This is the most optimistic outlook. But as your link noted, they overlooked the obvious bad faith behind the Muslim ban. I have no doubts which way Justice “I like beer” will vote.

        I sincerely hope I am wrong about the courts caving. But in this stupidest and most treacherous of timelines, I have no faith in “common sense.”

      2. I largely think you are correct. McConnell supposedly agreed to support the Emergency Declaration to avoid Trump vetoing the appropriations bill. Bottom line is that he wants to protect the R toady’s in the Senate to preserve his majority. Thereby, he continues his court packing process and continues to enrich his family. McConnell may be able to block the resolution of disapproval from even reaching T’s desk. If by some miracle the Senate does support the resolution, then there just may be enough ethical R’s remaining to override or SCOTUS may discover some backbone.

        McConnell is also a prime example of the dangers of electing politicians who have no standards. He is a prime example of a tactician who has no guiding principles, except his own welfare.

        All this points out the importance of organizing, resisting and winning the 2020 elections.

      3. McConnell’s hands are tied regarding the first vote:

        https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/could-congress-block-trumps-emergency-declaration/?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link&ICID=ref_fark

        It is interesting/infuriating to note the possibility that he refuses to hold an override vote. It wouldn’t put it past that bastard, given his unprecedented snub of Merrick Garland.

        If all the Senators who’ve claimed to be concerned about executive overreach joined those who’ve declared to be opposed in voting to nullify this ER, there would be more than enough for a veto proof majority. But they are party before country cowards. At least they have to go on the record.

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