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Democracy as distraction

By Louis René Beres


In our American republic, democracy is allegedly easy to recognize. We the people seek change and progress via regular presidential elections. Every four years, proclaims our national mantra, electoral politics offer us the best form of human governance. If only we can choose the right person, we will be alright. How could it be otherwise?

Democracy .. a challenge. Illinois WPA Art Project, 1940. Source: Library of Congress.
Yet, if this reasoning were actually correct, the state of our fractured and segmented union would be considerably more enviable. The undiagnosed fallacy in America’s quaintly democratic mythology lies in a core confusion of cause and effect. Here, elections and politics represent consequences or results, not causes. In the more formal language of philosophy and science, they are epiphenomenal.

Democratic institutions are always reflections of a far deeper truth. This still-hidden truth lies in the society’s accumulating inventory of private agonies and collective discontents. No institutionalized pattern of democracy can ever rise above the severely limited ambitions, insights, and capacities of its citizens. In short, it is not for elections to cast light in dark places.

Let us be candid. We the people inhabit a withering national landscape of crass consumption, incessant imitativeness, and dreary profanity. Bored by the banality of everyday life and beaten down by the struggle to avoid despair in a nation of stark polarities, Americans will grasp apprehensively for any convenient lifeline of hope.

There is more. Intellectual life is taken seriously almost nowhere. Nowadays, the life of the mind in America is a very short book. Once upon a time, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written of an American democracy based on “high thinking and plain living.” Today, virtually every young person’s aspirations have far more to do with the accumulation of visible wealth than with the acquisition of wisdom. Already in 1776, Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations, had observed that any society founded upon such a debased inversion of values could be shaped only by a desperately meager measure of citizen self-esteem.

Whatever happens every four years, we the people remain unaffected by any corollary feelings of gainful private thought. Instead, obsessed with social networks, reality television, and “fitting in,” our preferred preoccupation lies in a shamelessly voyeuristic ethos of indulgence in other people’s joys and sufferings.

Ideology, when it is expressed as an incantation, can replace rational judgment. We Americans still tend to think against history. In the end, we are presently rediscovering, even the most ardently democratic societies can be transformed into plutocracies.

We are taught that there will be tantalizing opportunity for wealth and advancement in the “free-market.” Only later, however, do some finally recognize this market for its most durable and injurious underpinnings. Inevitably, these are the interpenetrating but opaque expectations of war, sex, and narcissism.

Even the most affluent Americans now inhabit the loneliest of lonely crowds. Small wonder, too, that so many millions cling desperately to their cell phones and Facebook connections. Filled with a deepening horror of having to be alone with themselves, these virtually connected millions are frantic to claim recognizable membership in the “democratic” mass.

“I belong, therefore I am.” This is not what philosopher René Descartes had in mind when, back in the 17th century, he had urged skeptical thought and cultivated doubt. This is also a very sad credo. It essentially screams the demeaning cry that social acceptance can be as important as physical survival.

Our democracy is also making a machine out of Man and Woman. In an unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it now even seems plausible that we have been created in the image of the machine. Whatever happened to more elevated origins?

As the election hoopla continues to heat up, we Americans will remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and suffocating crowd. Proudly disclaiming any sort of interior life, we will proceed, very conspicuously, at the lowest common denominator. After all, erudition now markedly out of fashion is obviously beside the point.

To speak up for democracy, read up on democracy. WPA Federal Art Project, 1935-1943. Source: Library of Congress.
The American democracy’s real enemy remains a pervasively unphilosophical spirit, one that insistently demands to know nothing of truth.

As a professor for more than forty years, it is easy to see that our colleges are now typically bereft of anything that might hint at an inquiring spirit. What matters presently is only that an “investment” in college proves “cost-effective.” As for the once-revered Western Canon of literature, art, and philosophy, it has been supplanted by an expanding “pragmatism.” It goes without saying that there can never be any American democratic redemption in a quest for learning or even beauty.

Though faced with genuine existential threats, millions of Americans insist upon diminishing themselves daily with assorted forms of morbid excitement, supersized bad foods, shallow entertainments, and the distracting blather of presidential politics. Not a day goes by that we don’t take note of some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Nonetheless, our exhausted democracy, still seeking its redemption in periodic elections, continues to impose upon its fragile and manipulated people, an open devaluation of critical thought.

Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid a nuclear war, further economic dislocation, and mega-terrorism, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Instead, we will finally understand that the circumstances that could send the compositions of Homer, Goethe, Milton, and Shakespeare to join the disintegrating works of long-forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.

In ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato had already understood the obligation of politics to make the “souls” of the citizens better. In these United States, presidential elections necessarily have more tangible objectives. At the same time, our citizens continue to place too many of their transformational bets on the next presidential contest. Oddly, they neglect to consider that an elected president can never rise above the self-imposed limitations of an exhausted American electorate.

It may not matter much which candidate is successful. This is not an imprudent or gratuitous argument against democracy and elections, but rather a well-reasoned plea for more penetrating forms of American political understanding. As recognized accoutrements of democracy, elections are perfectly fine, even commendable, but they can never hope to fix or transform what is truly important. For such deeper and indispensable forms of remediation, we will finally need to split open and cast away the false reassurance that certain political institutions can rescue us.

Ultimately, we must acknowledge that a viable American democracy requires a widening and inalienable inner sovereignty. No democratic society and polity can ever really be better than the qualitative total of its individual human underpinnings. In a crudely trenchant metaphor, Nietzsche reminds us that, “When the throne sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne.”

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. A Professor of Political Science at Purdue, Dr. Beres was born in Switzerland, a tiny democracy tracing its own unique electoral origins all the way back to the 13th century. He is a frequent contributor to OUPblog.

To read more on this subject, check out Individuality and Mass Democracy: Mill, Emerson, and the Burdens of Citizenship by Alex M. Zakaras which argues that we must develop an ideal of citizenship suitable for mass society, based on the ideas of John Stuart Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Also see author Matthew Flinders response coming up on the blog today.

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  1. [...] sits upon mud, mud sits upon the throne” is a powerful phrase that has much to offer the analysis of many political systems in the world today, but my sense is that it is too crude, too raw, and too blunt to help us [...]

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