Gotham Diary:
Dysphoric Democracy
20 April 2015

It becomes, every day, more difficult to be optimistic about the near future democracy in the United States. For one thing, fewer Americans seem to care much about it. What they care about is keeping other people’s noses, especially the government’s, out of their business. They don’t want to be told what to do. The very suggestion that it might be a good idea to do something seems to inspire doing just the opposite.

Despite falling crime rates, to which the phenomena of mass killings make a bizarre counterpoint, increasing numbers of Americans are arming themselves with guns. Charles Blow writes about this depressing development in today’s Times. He asks, “Has the NRA won?” But I don’t believe that the National Rifle Association has emerged from the murk of fringe groups on its own strength. I believe that it has been sucked into prominence by a vacuum. This vacuum was created by the collapse of an American conception of prosperity in the 1970s.

There had been a kind of folk myth about this country: it was a land of opportunity in which we might all get richer and better if we all pulled together. It operated most powerfully at the level of towns and small cities, where volunteer civic associations addressed numerous local needs, and it worked best where local populations were homogenous. It is human nature to want to help people like yourself. It is human nature to fear people who are different. The problem with the old vision of a land of opportunity was that it was lubricated by bigotry and racism. When the federal government stepped in to eliminate or suppress these weaknesses, it became unpopular. Everywhere. Americans became the people who don’t like to be told what to do. They stopped pitching in. (Let the government do it all!) Contrary to the wisdom of common sense, Americans became gun people.

Am I saying that the push for Civil Rights in the Sixties was a regrettable mistake? No — because it had to happen. It was unconscionably overdue, in fact. But other things ought to have happened that didn’t. Our élites, who can be as maddeningly self-righteous as any segment of the population, turned their backs on bigotry and racism but gave no thought whatsoever to a lubricant that might replace them. The great majority of Americans, overwhelmingly white at the time, were told that they had been very naughty. Their punishment would not only oblige them to treat former inferiors as equals but, much more horrifically, put an end to their majority. Of course, this ought not to have been presented as a punishment, but it was. En masse, American élites stuck out their tongues at the yokels and the rubes. I am not in the least bit surprised that guns were bought, and are still being bought, in pursuit of a new and awful American dream. I leave it to you to imagine what I mean by that.

The centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination has occasioned an equally unsurprising outpouring of reverence. Surely there is no greater American than Lincoln? I myself don’t doubt the high-mindedness of Lincoln’s mission, or the canniness with which he pursued it; the man was unquestionably possessed of a noble mind. But he was an exponent of an unfortunate commitment to the union of the American states. I have finally gotten over regretting Lincoln’s response to the secession of the Southern states, but at the expense of regretting the American Revolution. This is not because I’ve watched too much Downton Abbey. (I’ve never seen a single minute of it.) It’s rather because the Revolution — an early secession — could only be undertaken by the hellishly insincere alliance of Yankee business men and Southern planters. How on earth could a war for liberty be waged by slave owners? But it was never a war for liberty — that was just the usual propaganda. It was a war for commercial independence from a mercantilist empire. It was a business proposition. So was the third sentence of the Constitution, with the bit about counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for (oh, the irony) representational purposes. It was all business, and it nourished a dream of American prosperity that could not coexist with a genuine commitment — even Lincoln’s — to liberty and justice.

I’m beginning to believe that democracy — as distinct from our way of muddling through, which is something else — only makes sense as a political ideal when opposing systems, such as monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and military dictatorship are in power. Without these authoritarians to fight, citizens lose their sense of democratic purpose. Now that the federal government of the modern world’s oldest democracy has been cast in the role of yet another authoritarian, do freedom-loving Americans have any alternative to stocking up on weapons?


I have begun reading John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell, a thin but very dense volume in which are collected Dunn’s Stimson Lectures, recently delivered at Yale. Dunn is a retired professor and a Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge. My initial impression is of a great mandarin. Dunn writes in a plain, not inelegant English that is made somewhat difficult to comprehend by a penchant for describing and enumerating things before saying what they are. As someone prone to such baroque inversion myself, I feel stung as well as stupid.

So: here is the first sentence of the jacket copy:

In this timely and important book, eminent political theorist John Dunn argues that democracy is not synonymous with good government.

This is not meant to say that democracy and good government are incompatible. Rather, the “spell” cast by the idea of democracy is the implication that good government follows naturally and inevitably whenever and wherever democracy is put into place. It does not. The only problem addressed by democracy is the (s)election of those who will exercise the power that an effective state must wield. Democracy rules out hereditary  princes. It does not rule out scoundrels, mountebanks, or demagogues. It does not rule out Hitlers. It did not rule out Richard Nixon, and it may fail to stop Ted Cruz. Only voters can keep malefactors out of office.

It becomes, every day, more difficult to trust the judgment of voters who believe that guns make homes safer.