The word “democracy” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Nor in the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence. That is because, as most Americans today would likely be surprised to discover, America’s Founding Fathers not only distrusted democracy but, based on their close reading of Greek and Roman history, were actually hostile to the notion that it was the best system for governing society.
James Madison, the fourth U.S. president and a key author of the Federalist Papers, famously declared: “Democracy is the most vile form of government … democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” John Adams, the second American president, wrote: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Taking into account this central lesson of antiquity, the founders instead designed a mixed constitutional republic that, while rooted in consent of the governed, delegated authority to elites ― representative, indirectly elected and appointed bodies ― that could “refine and enlarge the public views” as ballast against the popular passions of prejudice and the narrow horizons of self-interested constituencies.
For the founders, popular sovereignty unchecked by the cool and reasoned deliberation of the meritorious few would invite majoritarian intolerance of individual and minority rights, degenerate into mob rule and summon tyranny to restore order. “No political truth is certainly of greater intrinsic value,” Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 47.
In an interview with The WorldPost this week, political scientist Francis Fukuyama addresses the conundrum presented to the founders’ idea of governance in the face of 21st century populism. “Populism exists,” he says, “because institutions are elite-driven.” While “institutions in the past have always been controlled by the elites,” he continues, “through the presence of the internet they are losing their power. Maybe democracies don’t work too well without a certain degree of control from elites.”
I would add that the great danger today is conflation by fervent populists of corrupt, out-of-touch and unresponsive elites ― that rightly should be overthrown ― with a learned and experienced elite that any large society needs to govern. As a governing ethos, know-nothingness will get you nowhere.
Yet, as Pankaj Mishra observes in another WorldPost interview, the very foundation upon which elites might rehabilitate their authority has eroded. The Indian author takes the debate to both a deeper and a more global level by examining how the ressentiment against the cosmopolitan caste that has been gestating in the developing world for decades has now erupted in a mutiny against the governing narrative in “the heart of the modern West.” If the Western “truths” that have dominated the world in modern times at the expense of alternative worldviews are now themselves unraveling, where do we go next?
“We are now recognizing that our modern civilization has always been incredibly fragile,” Mishra says, “since it has no recourse to any transcendental truth, as distinct from certain agreed-upon truths. And so while political and economic crises may come and go ― Trump’s presidency may implode tomorrow ― the moral and epistemological breakdown we witness today is more enduring and destructive. I would argue that the naïve people, the free-marketeers and globalizers, responsible for this state of affairs did not know what they were doing ― that they were dismantling a whole system of interlocking and necessary fictions that societies and individuals have needed since the death of God to give a degree of meaning, purpose and stability to their lives.”
The consequence, Mishra argues, is the universalization of nihilism in which the whole notion of “consensual truth” is collapsing. “Nihilism today is the single greatest threat to the modern world since its founding principles of reason, science and progress were formulated,” he concludes. It is not surprising, then, in his view, that “the subjectivization of ‘facts’” and the “fragmentation of ‘truth’” are filling up the vacuum. They are the remainder of the West’s heyday.
Nowhere is the truth these days more malleable than in Russia. Writing from Moscow, Ilya Yashin marks the second anniversary this week of the assassination of his friend and opposition leader, Boris Nemstov. Yashin sees a dangerous campaign to revise recent history and roll back post-Soviet advances in the media and the rule of law in the nationalist revival under Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nick Robins-Early reports that Russian disinformation efforts have a lopsided advantage over Europeans trying to defend the integrity of their discourse as elections loom. He also highlights a speech by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban this week in which the leader expressed a new angle on nativism ― that “’ethnic homogeneity’ is key for economic success, and that ‘too much mixing causes problems.’”
In a wide-ranging essay, Nicolas Berggruen examines the role of opposition movements. While raucous protests in and of themselves may make a point, he says, they also can create a sense of chaos that “is the greatest gift to parties in power, especially dictators.” Social movements that succeed, by contrast, are characterized by a broadly shared narrative, a plan, organization and leadership, Berggruen argues.
This week the Berggruen Institute also hosted a discussion in Los Angeles with Sapiens and Homo Deus author Yuval Harari. The Israeli historian discussed what it means to be human in an era when we are attaining the power of gods to change our own species and create a new one ― AI. “History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods,” he says.
Former WorldPost China Correspondent Matt Sheehan looks outside the box on the troubled relations between Washington and Beijing. “The engine room of the U.S.-China relationship,” he writes, “has moved from the White House to City Hall.” While the talk in Washington is of tariffs, American mayors are wooing Chinese investors and immigrants for their local projects.
Writing from Shanghai, Zhang Weiwei argues that political legitimacy comes fundamentally from the competence of leadership, as in the case of the Chinese Communist Party, that fulfills its contract with the people by delivering prosperity and security ― whether they were elected or not.
Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden see a Trump-inspired shift to China coming to Africa as the continent looks to Beijing for stability in the absence of a clear American Africa policy.
Finally, our Singularity series this week asks a question about our pets that we may soon be asking about our children: should we genetically engineer dogs to make them healthier?
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