Democracy is incapable of provoking a ferocious civil war, but prerevolutionary violence, persistent major disorder, and refusal to enforce the law, if carried far enough, can do so.~ Stanley G. Payne, The Spanish Civil War, The Soviet Union and Communism

As I was finishing Prof. Payne’s excellent new history of the Spanish Civil War (there is a helpful review of this book in the August issue of Chronicles), I came across this conclusion. This conclusion seemed all the more strange later this weekend, after finding an article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy that includes arguments quite to the contrary of Prof. Payne’s statement. Though I would probably rarely agree with Prof. Eric Hobsbawm at any other time, and even though I have certain important reservations about his arguments in this article, he makes this largely incontrovertible observation:

“Spreading democracy” aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989, a bleak prospect.

The vital need for homogeneity or a broad political consensus (whether more or less voluntary or imposed) in republican and democratic forms of government is inescapable. Where that consensus was lacking, as it was lacking in Spain in the 1930s (and where it continued to be absent until perhaps the 1980s), and where rival factions refused to compromise, democracy not only does sometimes lead to ferocious civil war, but almost always must lead to ferocious civil war. Without this consensus, democracy loses whatever advantages it might have as a peaceful means of government: it becomes explicitly a vehicle for the expropriation and oppression of the minority or the losing side of an election. Lebanon, Algeria, Sri Lanka and Nepal are among the many representative governments that have basically failed or been deeply wounded in countries without such a consensus.

On the other hand, in order to have this consensus in most countries, especially highly economically diversified and socially stratified countries, it must be imposed at the expense of genuine representation. A consensus of the kind needed by a democracy cannot obtain in a naturally diverse society–an elite will come to rule such a system, even though the mediocre individuals who make up that elite are still chosen by the ill-informed public. The peaceableness and legitimacy of this democratic elite are parts of the myth, as Gaetano Mosca argued early in the twentieth century, that keep the system alive.

That brings me to my last observation, inspired by some recent commentary of Mr. Paul Craig Roberts. I am a great admirer of Mr. Roberts’ commentary, and it has been impressive to see him and other fellow conservatives stand up against the rising tide of jingoism that engulfed so many of his columnist colleagues. He has undoubtedly paid a price in readership and circulation because of his principled stand, and none of us freelancing or amateur political observers should forget the real professional risks that conservative columnists face in taking a position contrary to the unreasoning FoxNews mob and their ilk. So, generally speaking, I could not agree more with Mr. Roberts about the war. However, a recurring theme has appeared in his writings that I have found curious. His latest column makes this statement as clearly as possible:

However unappealing the alternative candidate, if the electorate fails to hold Bush accountable for invading Iraq on false pretenses and multiplying the recruits to al-Qaeda, American democracy will have failed.

This is a strange statement, even though I am almost positive that I know what Mr. Roberts means. In fact, I almost agree with the spirit of this statement (which I believe is that Americans will no longer be able to claim, however weakly, that they govern themselves if this fraudulent administration can escape after conducting such a blatant campaign of deception), even though I find the expression so odd. Presumably, there have been other occasions where administrations have deliberately exposed the country to war while uttering falsehoods (WWII springs to mind), or have mislead the nation as a matter of course (Wilson and Clinton are good examples). One might fairly say that “American democracy” failed on many occasions in the past for the same reasons that Mr. Roberts is predicting its ruin now.

But what do we mean by American democracy? Mr. Roberts’ statement would seem to indicate that a democracy ought to punish dishonest government, yet I can only think of a very few examples abroad where this has occurred, and even fewer in American history. As Hegel observed well ahead of the age of mass democracy, the people are more prone to war than most officials and will reward the government that satisfies their desire for war. The public mood was belligerent in 2002, so much so that it scarcely mattered why the United States was attacking another country, so long as it was attacking and “acting” and “leading.” This may be incipient fascism in a way, but it is no less democratic in its origins for all that. The administration is undoubtedly guilty of many crimes, but its greatest guilt may lie in the simply bad government of giving the majority exactly what it wanted.

It satisfies our image of our own kind of government and society that, so long as it is ordered as it originally was or as it ought to be, we do not really believe it to be capable of the kinds of abuses that we see around us. The system must therefore have been perverted in some way if these abuses occur (which might be true), or the system is failing when these abuses are not rooted out (which probably is not true). One might have claimed, from a different perspective, that American democracy failed when Reagan was not punished for his irresponsible deployment to Lebanon and his shamelessly cynical invasion of Grenada after the disaster in Beirut, but Reagan was very savvy in reading the American mood and seeing that they were thirsting for a more or less easy victory to reassert national pride and status in the world (the anticommunist angle was helpful to blunt the obvious illegality of the invasion).

One might rightly decry those decisions, but it would be wrong to say that democracy failed then, or that democracy “succeeded” when it kicked out the first Bush after the dishonest justification and prosecution of the Gulf War. No, democracy worked like a charm in 1984; one might even dare to say that without democracy such decisions might never have been taken the year before. The Iraq invasion was launched on the assumption that the public would support a wartime president and vindicate the decision through re-election–this is not the negation of democracy, but simply its manipulation, which is to say its natural functioning.

Besides, what can it mean to say that democracy, the rule of the Many, has failed in America when the ignorant majority solemnly believes everything the government has said? If the ignorant majority then endorses the current leadership, that majority is acting, for all intents and purposes, fairly rationally. Perhaps if the majority believed otherwise, the outcome of the election would not now be in doubt, but it is in the nature of democratic government that the majority will probably believe what it is told or believe manifest falsehoods simply because it wants to believe them.

For the modern mass man, democracy (or politics in general) is the social vehicle for warding off fears and anxieties, as if in some sociological version of a primitive religion, and the politician who appears to ward off these evil spirits more effectively is respected for this seemingly magical power. Hence the constant posturing about security and military policy in this election: each candidate is trying to demonstrate that he is better able to channel the glory of the gods of hearth and war. It is, by almost any standard of rationality, not really rational, except in the most brutal, self-preservative sense, but this is precisely why democracy has such a visceral appeal, even to people who should know better. It is not because democracy actually better protects or serves the people (I don’t believe that it does), but because it gives them the (false) confidence that “their” government will keep them safe.

Bush has conjured a mighty spell with his invasion, and it just may overawe the people into submission. Note that the real question asked of him has not been whether his policy is moral or legal or wise, but whether it has actually made the people more secure. This is not an irrelevant question, but it is curious that it is the only one that seems to be taking its toll on the President’s approval ratings.

It is one of the hardest things for highly politically conscious people to appreciate about the other 97 or 98% of the population: whereas the very active political observers spend more than half, if not almost all, of their time thinking about these subjects, the rest of the population gives it a passing thought perhaps a few times a week. The more responsible ones, what I would guess make up 10-15% of the public, will intensively read the newspaper daily and perhaps read further in a particular subject. Those who might be said to be paying any attention make up another 30-40%, but the level of attention is egregiously low. Many of these people could plead that they are too busy with “real life” to be especially concerned about many of the details of government, but just as many can only plead sloth and indifference.

It is tempting to suggest that those who believe they are too busy to fulfill their civic duty should simply forfeit the pretense of participating in government, but that isn’t likely to go down well. But everyone would probably be more satisfied. The more important point, though, isn’t just that the public is ill-informed, but that they would probably not become better informed if they had the opportunity. It is a question of priorities, and most people could not be convinced on any rational basis that their time or energy should be dedicated to a process from which they receive very little that is tangible, if they receive anything at all. Indeed, participation in this irrational process only makes sense to most people when politicians invoke emotional issues, recite irrational, ideological slogans and use as much stirring rhetoric as modern speakers are capable of offering.

The popularity of FoxNews, for example, is only partly based in the alternative perspective it offers–its real appeal comes in its unthinking confirmation of the prejudices of its viewers, both from design and from unconscious habits of mind that the sorts of people who work for that operation will have. If some people have come to rely on FoxNews as their beacon of truth in a biased world of journalism, they cease to care whether it demonstrates any greater objectivity or accuracy and will believe what they see there. The less reasoned the analysis, and the more party-line the reporting, the more these viewers will respond favourably, because they wish to be led, provided that it is by what they regard as the right people in what they believe to be the right direction. This is why populist dictatorships, even once they dispense with the niceties of constitutions, elections and parliaments, are in a sense as democratic as any elective form of government.

Likewise, if the Bush administration appears to such people as a vital element in the protection of the country, they will explain away all of its mistakes and flaws and deceptions in a way that reaffirms this contrary-to-fact belief. In this country, the outward trappings of the personality cult are subsumed in the cult of the President, but the effect is much the same. Such people possess the same servile mentality that motivated so many Democratic voters in the primaries this year: so long as our candidate is a winner, it does not matter what he has done or said or what positions he holds, because electability is the first and only measure. For Mr. Bush’s supporters, instead of electability it is “leadership” that they crave. They desire to be told what to do–this is the principal danger of any democracy and one of the chief reasons why democracies will always degenerate or simply change over into despotisms.

One of the first rules of popular government is that reason and evidence have no particular value in a debate. These things may be exploited to score an emotional or rhetorical point, but without manipulation of sentiments and sloganeering these things would have no place whatever in democratic government.