HOW DEMOCRACIES DESTROY THEMSELVES

by Bob Wheeler

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History is apt to repeat itself, and during this time when an American presidential campaign season gets underway and “The Donald” has captured all the headlines, it might be worthwhile to see how other democracies have fared in the past. The lesson is sobering.

We, of course, did not invent democracy – others have gone before us. The honor of being first probably belongs to ancient Athens, which reached its apogee under the leadership of Pericles between 461 and 429 B.C. Then there was the Roman Republic which arose about the same time and lasted almost until the time of Christ. Then, in more modern times, we have the French First Republic of the 1790’s and the German Weimar Republic of the 1920’s. Athens eventually fell under foreign domination; the last three all ended in dictatorships.

In a democracy it is the people who supposedly have the last say. But that, unfortunately, does not guarantee that the decisions that they make will be wise. In order for a democracy to work successfully several factors must be in place. Pericles, in fact, explained the working principles of Athenian democracy in a funeral oration he delivered for the fallen soldiers of the early stages of the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians, he said, treated each other as equals under the law. Public service was based on merit, and lawfully constituted authority was respected. People took responsibility for their own personal affairs and also for the affairs of the state. “We treat wealth as an opportunity for activity rather than as an opportunity for boastful words.” As a result of these basic civic virtues it was possible to carry on a civil discussion about issues that affected the entire community, and wise decisions were the outcome. “When people have the clearest understanding of what is fearful and what is pleasant, and on that basis do not flinch from danger, they would rightly be judged to have the best spirit.”

But things were already beginning to change in Athens. As the city became wealthier and more powerful, traditional values began to erode. Higher education was committed into the hands of “sophists,” professional tutors, really, who tended to take a rationalistic approach to knowledge. And one of the problems with rationalism is its inability to define morality. Some sophists even went so far as to maintain that might makes right.

All of this had a corrosive effect on political life. Politicians tended to become motivated more by personal ambition and greed than by any sense of civic duty. And that, in turn, led them to become more unscrupulous in their tactics and methods. Demagoguery inevitably led to tyranny. In the case of Athens the military began to falter and the city fell under the domination of foreign powers – first Sparta and then Macedonia. The city lost its independence.

With the Roman Republic things turned out slightly differently. As Rome went from one military conquest to another, successful generals came increasingly to dominate the political stage. But as in Athens, personal ambition led to factionalism, violence, and eventually dictatorship.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It is being played out now right before our very eyes. We have already started down the path to social disintegration and eventual tyranny.

Our recent troubles can be traced back to a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 1962 and 1963 that removed prayer and Bible reading from our public schools. Whatever one may make of the constitutional questions involved in the cases, the practical effect was to secularize our culture, making it implicitly atheistic. At about the same time large numbers of students began attending state universities, which were also thoroughly secular. And, as noted above, one of the problems with secularism is its inability to define a coherent set of moral values and social norms. If God doesn’t determine what is right and what is wrong, who / what does?

The resulting moral ambiguity was then reflected in the court’s disastrous decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973. According to the logic of the “pro-choice” position, a woman’s right to choose here own destiny takes precedence over her unborn child’s right to live. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” no longer applies. But that fundamentally changes the way people think about morality. Instead of looking at morality as a universally binding set of behavioral norms, many people came to view it as merely a set of personally held beliefs that are optional for everyone else, and can change over time. What was “wrong” yesterday could be “right” tomorrow. All that is needed is the sanction of the government, in many cases it seems, a 5-4 vote by the Supreme Court. And, of course, governments themselves have been known to practice such things as torture and genocide. Does that make these things right?

These developments have left American society profoundly divided over core values, with many on the right increasingly frustrated and angry with the direction of the country. And when a country loses its sense of community, politics degenerates into a power struggle between competing special interest groups, with each side increasingly resorting to obstructionist tactics. And with a loss of public morality social disintegration sets in as people become increasing unable to govern themselves and take responsibility for their own actions.

George Washington, in his First Inaugural Address, with keen foresight put it like this: “. . .there is not truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxim of an honest heart and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; . . . We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained. . .” Have we not already lost our sense of virtue and duty? Can we still expect to enjoy “the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity”?

America is showing every sign of being in an advanced state of decline. Our family structure has crumbled; our “service economy” is non-productive; our federal government is drowning in debt. And in the political sphere voices are increasing strident, with various factions increasing willing to use obstructionist tactics to gain their own way.

Will Donald Trump be our Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte?

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