Populism leads to tyranny

I just listened to the authors of How Democracies Die on NPR. First, the book might well have been titled “The necessity of liberalism.” Basically, democracy without liberalism is clearly not democracy in their judgment.

But second, I was struck by their emphasis on the role of elites in dampening and diminishing the passions of the masses in a functioning modern democratic system. To a great extent, the authors were simply warning about what Fareed Zakaria termed “illiberal democracy” in The Future of Freedom over ten years ago.

Without elites acting as structural guardrails on the atavistic passions of the masses charismatic figures who channel their basest impulses can arise and gain popular approval of their autocratic behavior. The ancient Greeks could have told you that. Some things never change.

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11 thoughts on “Populism leads to tyranny

  1. their emphasis on the role of elites in dampening and diminishing the passions of the masses in a functioning modern democratic system.

    I don’t know about these authors, but in the larger political context, I find this completely self-serving on the part of the politico-cultural left that now dominates the major institutions of this country.

    When the elites in this country broadly reflected the concerns of the populace at large the left was only too happy to create disturbance and destabilize society in the name of (street) revolution, but now that it controls the center and the main street is rebelling, elites are necessary and salutary!

    Without elites acting as structural guardrails on the atavistic passions of the masses charismatic figures who channel their basest impulses can arise and gain popular approval of their autocratic behavior.

    Or perhaps we could have elites that care of their inferiors. Noblesse oblige and all that. If the masses felt that their social betters cared about them, perhaps these atavistic passions would be very much muted if not eliminated.

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  2. America’s Founding Fathers littered the Constitution with anti-democratic devices: to wit, the Bill of Rights, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court and, initially, the Senate. When the Constitution was adopted, there were serious restrictions on the franchise. Typically only white men with property could vote.

    In all this, the Founding Fathers merely followed conventional wisdom going back to the ancient Greek philosophers that democracy and liberty were incompatible. The current PC war in the US demonstrates the correctness of that wisdom.

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  3. It seems to me that history shows exactly the opposite. As Turchin’s model shows (but there are so many exemples, see florentine history for instance), elite and the inherent competition within it is the main source of disorder in a society. The problem is not to keep in check the passions of the masses, but the competition (and passions) of elite members and the weakening of institutions it brings about.

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  4. As Turchin’s model shows (but there are so many exemples, see florentine history for instance), elite and the inherent competition within it is the main source of disorder in a society. The problem is not to keep in check the passions of the masses, but the competition (and passions) of elite members and the weakening of institutions it brings about.

    history is a competition btwn elites, but they manipulate/leverage the masses.

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  5. “history is a competition btwn elites, but they manipulate/leverage the masses.”
    “Without elites acting as structural guardrails on the atavistic passions of the masses charismatic figures who channel their basest impulses can arise and gain popular approval of their autocratic behavior”
    Of course, but those charismatic figures are usually from the elite. So saying that elite act as guardrails is not entirely true. They prevent tyrannies as much as they enable them. Probably much more so than masses as they are the ones starting them and benefiting from them.
    This kind of pro-aristocracy position rests on a biased view of history grounded on mistrust of crowd psychology (See Gustave Lebon). But I believe this to be unwarranted. As I said, I understand Turchin’s work to show that the real problem is not the passions of the masses, they are not the ones scheming to bring about tyranny, but intra-elite competition as they are the one always plotting for more power. And I understand Mercier and Sperber work to show that crowds thinking can lead to truth finding and problem solving (See Helen Lademore work for an extension of their argument to democracy). So what is needed is not the elite to “dampen and diminish the passions of the masses” (they are actually doing the opposite), but proper institutions and the proper culture that enable masses to use their mind for truth finding and problem solving.

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  6. I live in St Louis and seem to recall certain masses channeling their basest impulses a few years ago, ostensibly in reaction to a dustup between a police officer and a gentle giant. In that case, at least, our elite “structural guardrails” were intent on inflaming rather than dampening the passions of the masses.

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  7. I think the problem is not well put if you focus on the populist resistance to elite rule. You need to start at the upper end, with the continued aggression and self righteousness of the urban coastal elite. Did they win on abortion? Push on and get gay marriage. Win on that? Persecute dissident bakers as civil rights violators, just like the KKK. Win on that? Push on and get transgender locker rooms. The real issue is not the resistance of the fly over people. They would be less than human if they did not resist. Read about the raskolniki in Russia and the survival of the Waldensians in Savoy.

    Our elites hate and fear the lower classes, particularly the middle classes of flyover country — the bitter clingers. They structure their lives in complete isolation from under classes of their own precincts. They are willing to patronize them, and sink them in welfare dependency, but not to empower them.

    They have worked diligently, and so far successfully, to destroy the America that is not blindly loyal to them. Their weapons in that struggle have been the media, the education system, and the welfare state.

    They have control of the media and the educational establishment where their code of political correctness has been honed into a sharp edged instrument that prevents young people from entertaining deviant thoughts.

    At the same time, they have used their control over the education system to ensure that their children are promoted to positions of power and that middle class children from flyover country are rigorously excluded.

    The welfare state demoralizes (destroys that which was called moral behavior like chastity and marital fidelity), impoverishes, and isolates everyone it touches. If there is no welfare state, men, all of whom were young and helpless and all of whom will be old, sick, or injured on some day, must maintain ties to their families and to voluntary associations, particularly religious, that will care for them. But, families, and voluntary associations (civil society) will demand that they behave in certain ways. Having the welfare state, allows men to behave in self willed, and even self destructive ways. (That is what the left calls freedom).

    The African American community is the greatest accomplishment of the welfare state. It is demoralized. Families have been shredded. Most children are born out of wedlock. Many more are murdered before they have the chance to be born. Their art valorizes the “thug” life of violence, fornication, and intoxication. They are impoverished. They do not save, They do not invest. If they have money they spend it forthwith on the most vulgar display they can find. They are isolated. Their most important civil society organization is the criminal gang. Black Lives Matter is a front for those gangs.

    But, in the eyes of the elite they are perfect because they vote almost unanimously for the political sponsors of the welfare state.

    Large chunks of the white communities are spiraling into the same garbage bin.

    Our elites have also weaponized immigration policies to replace the American working class, black and white, with foreigners who will be more pliant and respectful. Social discord between immigrants and natives, stirred up by identity politics, is a plus for the elites because it will prevent the groups from uniting to destroy their real enemy. Call it a little bit of the old school “divide et impera”.

    Their plan does have holes in it. How does an elite class stay in power? At the very least they need the military, the law, and religion. Our elite does not have a firm grip on the instruments of state violence, because they shun participation in the military and law enforcement which are, perforce, largely drawn from the middle class. Nor do they have any religious sanction for their rule. They cannot assert that they rule by the grace of God, because they deny his existence. Further, their economic basis in government, education, media, and finance is entirely parasitic.

    Think of Donald Trump as a middle finger raised to the urban coastal elites. What worries me is not his election, it is the continued arrogance and malice of the elite, which will eventually create a reaction that they will not be able to control. In that day, Federal Employees will not be able to leave urban areas except in MRAPs. We will then find out that politics as winner takes all is self defeating.

    If we could elect a new bunch of politicians who would disassemble and replace the supporting institutions of the ruling class — the education system, the legal system, the hospital insurance complex, the government employee unions, the banking and financial system being among the worst — we might avoid the alternative. The alternative includes a financial collapse (this is baked in the cake) and a shooting civil war.

    How the war starts I cannot predict, but it will happen. Perhaps a liberal government will overreach on gun control. Or maybe the next financial crisis will be more like Germany in the 1920s. But, it will happen, and it will be very violent and very bloody.

    It is sad that college students have renounced the ideas of Dead White Men. One of them was inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: Meden Agan (Nothing in excess). We need to get it back into circulation

    Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.

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  8. The problem is our current Western clerisy is actually illiberal (sometimes anti-liberal) and self-serving. The democratic West currently has the worst political class in modern history.
    What’s happening right now isn’t so much populism as a reaction to the institutional and social rot at the top.

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  9. Jason and Twinkie have it right. The current elite culture is rancid, although it took a while to build up to this point, and the putrification became obvious only in the last five years or so. The top 20-30% in the coastal cities are at least as bad, being their enthusiastic running dogs (I must admit a personal bias in this insight, as I live among this group).

    The problem afflicting most Western societies is a decline of Peter Turchin’s favorite concept, asabiyyah. This is nothing unusual given the circumstances; asabiyyah has to be built up through continual society-wide adversity and withers away when that adversity is defeated. More and more people will keep to themselves, their families, or free-ride on the system if there aren’t strict requirements to do their social duty. Things like prosocial religions or isolation from the mainstream society can arrest this decline, but it is tragically inevitable in the face of peace and ease (I certainly am no fan of war, and I think Turchin’s dream is to find a way to keep asabiyyah permanently high without adversity.)

    The difference between the elites and the masses in a falling asabiyyah situation is that the masses still need to work hard in order to feed, clothe, and house themselves. They are not particularly intelligent, by definition, and will generally believe whatever superstitions that tend to float through their society. But the pressure upon them to pay the bills leads to some degree of realism regarding social life and the people they encounter in it. Falling asabiyyah mainly affects their ability to form community organizations that can keep them afloat financially and away from trouble. This in turn reduces their ability to resist oppression from the elites.

    But the elites, as Orwell wrote, have little such pressure to believe anything realistic. Their power, by definition, allows them to be insulated from any idea or outcome they find unpleasant. Historically, only the threat of war, and destruction by other elites, was dire enough to scare them into prosocial behavior. When that threat is removed, asabiyyah falls in the elite ranks, to even more disastrous results than among the masses. The elites see no reason not to oppress them and flaunt their superiority, further reducing social solidarity.

    I do not share Walter Sobchak’s gloomy views about the elites’ perfidy, since most of these processes are unconscious and unintentional. But I do agree that it is great for the preservation of elite power if they can lift social restrictions, such as marriage, that keep them from enjoying themselves while strengthening the communities of the masses, and make the masses dependent upon their largesse. This result is particularly effective in a democracy, but unsustainable in the long term because the preservation of freedom requires public-mindedness (“virtue”) beyond the minimal level demanded by government coercion.

    All of these processes and tendencies can be seen in the Western countries at this time, particularly the US.

    Orwell on elite detachment from reality: https://westhunt.wordpress.com/2017/05/25/the-struggle-for-truth/#comment-91936

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  10. An interesting idea: democracy will flounder unless people who think like I do are in power.

    But a little self-serving isn’t it? Further, pace Turchin, the cause of populism (proxy for elite battles) is the overproduction of elites and immiseration of the masses, e.g. elite incompetence and corruption.

    It almost seems like the Masters of the Universe have lined their pockets while letting things fall apart, and are now claiming things will fall apart if they lose power.

    Corruption and incompetence lead to populism.

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