Fear Versus Glory in a Hyper-Democracy
Democracy dumbs things down by rewarding conformity. This echoes both the vote and the market. It also explains why new urban America struggles to be as attractive as old urban Europe. In a hyper-democracy—politically, economically, and sociologically speaking—the vulgar mean takes the prize due to its astonishing potential to generate wealth and power for entrepreneurs or leaders who can hit its sizable sweet spots. The middle, therefore, has the most investors and resources at its disposal. Niche players exist, but the process rarely means victory for all things beautiful. Rather, mediocrity sets the agenda in advertising and consumption, crushing more graceful alternatives. No worries. At the very end of Democracy in America, Tocqueville bemoaned this state of affairs; but then he upbraided himself and admitted that, on aggregate, it made more people happy than any other system.
In America our tides of mediocrity are complicated by childishness. Our gregariousness catches tribal and religious people from other cultures off guard. America’s legal system and respect for property rights afford us the luxury of ignoring the risks of sudden, jocular, informal, and unpredictable behavior. By contrast, personal or familial honor and an ability to defend it are greater concerns in other countries. In America, I can buy you a beer and toss you hollow consolation: “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” These words don’t just deflect responsibility; they accurately reflect the fact that most of us mean no harm when we offend others. But we still do it. We have big mouths, and we disgrace ourselves at every turn. One way to learn this is to live abroad. When you see what Americans are in the eyes of another people, the shame grows heavy.
In a hyper-democracy, then, conformity and childishness undercut adult, aristocratic ideals like taste, wisdom, patience, and respect. Television and the internet add volume and velocity. American essayist George Trow noted that such technologies had ushered in “the power of no-action, the powerful passive.” In the late stages of the American empire, gaze trumps experience: “Groups of more than one were now united not by a common history but by common characteristics. History became the history of demographics, the history of no-history.” Unable to think about time and events, we have no way to explain anything in the present. So, we adjusted: “In the New History, nothing was judged—only counted.” This adjustment has retarded our individualism:
… the preferences of a child carried as much weight as the preferences of an adult, so the refining of preferences was subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the ideal became agreement rather than well-judged action, so men learned to be competent only in those modes which embraced the possibility of agreement.
Childish, harmonious deference to numbers and identity is now the default stance of Americans. We think we bicker too much; Trow suggests we don’t bicker enough, at least not correctly and not about what matters. Having depoliticized life in favor of agreement, we are left to yell at each other, not debate.
In the early modern period, writers like Hume and Cervantes sensed a shift empowering commoners. One way to hold the line was to cling to the notion of taste. Yes, if we’re to respect others, we must admit there’s no accounting for taste. And yet, Hume thought taste can and ought to be cultivated if we want life to get better. Cervantes, too, fretted over the dissolution of beauty and pleasure as nobles succumbed to what Ortega would later call the “rebellion of the masses.” A curious attribute of usually lowbrow Sancho Panza is that he’s an amazing judge of wines (see DQ 2.13). Hume spotted this and understood its meaning, I believe. Cervantes was cheerfully resisting the masses, flattering a peasant’s favorite form of discernment in order to sustain his self-respect, thereby moderating the influence of others on him. He grants Sancho an inner elite. Many chapters later, when the peasant becomes governor of the Isle of Barataria, he performs better than we might expect. One reason is that he refuses to follow everyone else’s advice; he even asserts his eating preferences, recalling for us his status as a sommelier.
Cervantes, Hume, Tocqueville, Ortega, and Trow all grasped that democracy, not just the political form but also the sociological mode, liberates us at a cost. The cost is a tyranny of trite impertinence. Mass culture blinds us to taste, choice, evaluation, expertise, and preference.
But our refusal to appreciate one thing more than another, in combination with our juvenile need for agreement, makes us vulnerable to inversions of common sense. Meanings that are obvious to normal people evaporate before the eyes of those who remain desperate for concord and identity over against personal judgment and historical experience. When we think of the emperor with no clothes, the creepy part is not the naked emperor but the way everyone around him embraces deception.
Why does this happen? First fear, then anger, and finally a desire for power. Our fear of rejection drives our petty quests for agreement. A byproduct of this fear is hostility toward an enemy. To be part of this group means learning to hate that other group. Finally, anyone who wants to control human beings can exploit our fear and antipathy. Politicians, advertising agencies, and intelligence services hack away at our anxiety and stoke our rage. As a result, we accept what we would usually reject. At some point, this distorts how we perceive reality. And it doesn’t take a conspiracy. Under the right conditions, we do it to ourselves. We all want to keep our friends and defeat our enemies.
What happens when we distort life this way? Lots. As just one measure, look at how markets buckle under social pressure. Economics implies exchange; at scale it’s an organic coordination of different tastes. Each of us in search of our preferences makes for an aggregate market. But when enough of us lean into our group identities and ignore our individual dignity, when we think only of our need for agreement and conformity—i.e., when we pursue demographic or political triumph instead of reasoned dialogue, compromise, and trade—the essence of the exchange at the interface of our preferences shifts. Markets short-circuit and lose sight of the profit motive. This is mass culture in action, and as our recent experiences with plagues and elections revealed, this action is both modern and archaic. It’s not a coincidence that the fall of Athens involved plagues. Nor is it arbitrary that its fall was signaled by the mysterious destruction in 415 BC of the city’s statues of Hermes, the god of commerce. The end would take another decade, but the desecration of those statues resonated with the failure to take Sicily, and Athens was on her heels after that (see Thuc. 6.27–28).
Today, yielding to the preferences of large collectivist shareholders such as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), a beer company, a maker of chocolate bars, and an airline embrace transvestite culture. CalPERS is the largest public pension fund in the United States, with about $500B under management. But what satisfies shareholders doesn’t always satisfy clients. Men wearing lipstick, skirts, and heels are not attractive to most people.
Corporate management’s urge to conform to this fad is based on the calculus of agreement. Thus, a carnivalesque show, a circus, becomes a political statement. Advocates force agreement (thought, speech, and behavior) in the guise of anti-agreement (diversity). Another way to think of this cultural wormhole is as rebellion against a tyranny of normalcy. More traditional cultures can mitigate the paradoxes of late-stage democracy. In a democracy, as in other systems, our strength is often our weakness. Our unregulated sociopolitical condition exaggerates our insistence on the value of individuals. We instinctively normalize and impose what is unique. Indeed, this might be the distinguishing feature of a hyper-democracy. Look around you. We are nothing if not a compulsory rebellion against our own crushing mediocrity.
Is this new? I think not. It approximates what Thucydides describes in his famous passage on inversions of language as signs of the onset of stasis or “civil unrest” (see Thuc. 3.82). The broadest lesson here is that when language detaches from reality, a storm is working itself out in your sociopolitical atmosphere (cf. Jefferson, Query VII  and “Letter to Abigail Adams” ). We see countless examples today: an empty claim to defend democracy lets you make up the news; your daughter marries a Jew and yet you’re an anti-Semite; defending property or punctuality makes you a white supremacist. The agents of these distortions want to destroy something more than reform or advance it. When they convince enough of us, we’re entering stasis.
Sometimes stasis is necessary—say, in 1861—because the perversity of the status quo is the problem. Other times stasis is destructive. When a circus appears, it might be the expression of legitimate protest. We should think it through. What is the circus advocating? When a circus advocates only itself, its message is probably circular twaddle. Sometimes circular twaddle grows ominous. Identity politics is a good example of this. But when a circus has unprecedented effects, such as record levels of unemployment among black people, an isolated communist dictator inviting a rival leader to visit his country, and peace accords between Jews and Arabs, then the circus might contain some substance.
Most people prefer identity politics because it’s easier than glory; sometimes it’s even easier than self-respect. It’s simple, first-order thinking, i.e., it’s about recognizing a pattern, not reasoning. A hotly shared paranoia simply requires fanatical conformity to the group and adherence to a set of visual, linguistic, and behavioral cues. We should not be surprised to find that identity politics marshals the virtues of childishness and agreement more than experience and judgment.
By contrast, the problems with glory are manifold, too difficult for most. Achievement requires a robust combination of imagination, effort, failure, study, patience, humility, reflection, and adaptation. In short, thinking and working through problems daily. And who likes thinking and working through problems daily? Some of us do, but most prefer video games and social media.
Humility is perhaps the trickiest component of glory. Why? Glory requires delusional degrees of self-confidence, arrogance even. For example, an ability and a willingness to bother others in ways that make most people uncomfortable. That fear thing again. Our fear of not fitting in is devastating. Failure and complaint are more manageable options for most of us. In Texas, we say it’s easier to water your cactus three times a year than mow your lawn every week. You avoid the labor, and no one can do much better. It occupies little space in your head. Note, too, that glory’s necessary exertions explain why there’s such a fine line between someone people view as a self-assured leader and someone they view as an overdetermined megalomaniac.
At a recent conference on Thomas Jefferson, I noted that Yankee architecture is hideous, mostly boxes needing garish colors and immaculate shrubberies to rescue them from obscurity. A young woman interrupted, going against the agreed conventions of the conference (good for her): “Excuse me, please? I’m sorry, I cannot just let that go. Did you just say that Yankee architecture is hideous?” I won’t reflect for so long next time someone objects to my disdain for Yankee architecture. In this case, however, a young woman obliged me to take the measure of my opinion against what I thought I knew. Initially tepid, my response ended in affirmation: “Ummm … yes!” That was the answer she wanted to hear. A quick downpour of indignation followed: “That is soooo judgmental, so judgmental! To just say like that, ‘Yankee architecture is hideous,’ is soooo judgmental.” It’s wrong (don’t you know?) to be judgmental.
Agreement gets awkwardly compounded by democracy. If you disagree about the relative beauty of a work of architecture, then disagree; don’t object to the idea of disagreement. That makes you sound irrational. Thucydides saw the Achilles heel of democracy as irrational thinking that morphs into paranoid conformity. In most of human history, anyone expelled from a group faces certain death. Power over people doesn’t apply fear so much as cultivate it. When things spiral out of control, groups start to generate fear and require conformity. It’s a cycle of madness we must guard against. In some countries it’s the dominant mode. They’re tyrannical in ways beyond the brutality of their political leadership. Totalitarianism is the essence of mob rule: fear plus numbers. To read Thucydides is to read a fearless and judgmental man, one who refused to succumb to the crowd, one who knew that fear itself marked the end of Athens. The tragedy is that nobody defeated the Athenians; they strayed from what had made them great in the first place. Fear turned a glorious thalassocracy into a childish mob.
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