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Friday, April 1, 2016

Revolt of the Elites

The 2016 campaigns are seen as a revolution against the elites. Trump and Cruz, sounding like us old 60's pinkos, are fighting the "Establishment."  And they attack liberal journalists and Ivy College experts that support that establishment. Sanders with his reviving Jacksonian democrats and Rooseveltian new dealers attacking Wall Street bankers, corporate leaders, and their legal and political enablers who give us bubbles and depressions while running off with all the loot.

Populism, left and right, this election year is certainly "in."

Chris, a young man at Montgomery Community College, is taking a philosophy course studying Plato's Republic. He discovered my bent; and, at his request, we had a good discussion on forms of government. He agreed with Plato's Socrates saying that philosophers would make the best rulers; and democracy is proving itself even now as an inferior type of government. Between asked, Chris also realized the need for accountability. But to whom?

The Founding Fathers solved this dilemma by permitting a popular vote for aristocratic electors who would then select the best man. And indeed the voting populace included only men who owned land, because women were too emotional; slaves and indentured servants weren't even citizens. Like Plato, the Fathers were disdainful of rule by the mob and by uneducated commoners which is what the Philosopher meant by democracy.

Jefferson who believed in the "People" founded schools and pushed for universal education. Following him, great educators, abolitionists, women's suffragists, and other advocates for ordinary citizens without means fought for publicly supported education for all. If you want both wise rulers and democracy, ensure that all citizens are well educated.

Philosopher John Dewey and social activist Jane Adams taught and exemplified the public education needed for citizens. Such education included both "liberal education" that taught people how to think within a broad range of knowledge and also direct experience working in public, i.e., community, service. Both Dewey and Adams might be considered elitists fighting against elitism. They were born in well-to-do families and university educated living lives advocating for those less wealthy and educated.

After all, the "elite" originally means the "chosen" or the "elect." The question is who chooses. And here it seems to me is the greatest difference between populist democracy and democratic republicanism.

A republic is an organization of interacting publics. And a public consists of people acting together to shape the common good. It is like a town hall meeting, a council or conference, a settlement house or neighborhood center, civic associations, or a community organization. Often these are gathered in geographic districts or connected to committees related to government. The education of citizens occurs through public schools and experience in civic affairs. In this education, personal interests are achieved by being connected with others to create an agenda by which all can live and thrive.

Populism however is a poll in which private individuals register their interests and their wants without being shaped in public space. Populism assumes that the People are the sum of private individuals expressing the sum of their private interests. Populism holds for common sense over critical thinking. The common interest is the silent majority interest unencumbered by expert judgments and academic studies. Education in populism is transferring traditional truths and values. Liberal or critical thinking is suspect because it undermines popular traditions and values.

Opinion, according to Plato, is a shadow on the wall seen by chained persons. With the help of philosophy, they eliminate their chains, turn around and see the Sun. They become the best, the aristoi, the chosen ones, the elite, moved by truth, not opinion. And aristocracy, he says, is better than democracy.

And so it was until the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and republican liberations. It seems that now we have a sort of mix of democratic republicanism and populist democracy. The history of the US has moments of both; and it often verges towards mob rule and plutocracy. The silent majority opposes big government, corporations, unions even to the detriment of the poor and common person. And since financial wealth is sign of success, they are easily persuaded to increase the gross national wealth which coincides with the interests of the wealthy. And when a plutocrat claims the power to rule on behalf of the masses who disdain the intelligentsia, we have the definition of the demagogue.

We've seen this form of government recently in the Soviet Union, Latin American countries, southern states, and could probably point to elements of demagoguery at all levels of American government where the people elect their masters and leave the public space or power to them. This is the situation when publics fail and people have only private opinions unchallenged by critical thinking or public discussion which rulers use to get and keep control. Or, as Hannah Arendt says, when private economic concerns dominate public action and policy.


So every generation needs to wage its own rebellion, a saying attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But that means every generation needs to develop its own publics and achieve the power to dethrone both demagoguery and aristocracy. And the new generation must connect critical thinking to universal education so that even commoners can be the elite and public space includes us all.

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