Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

"Who do you think could pressure me?"

When Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), one of the prime movers behind the last-minute Centrist compromise that averted a showdown in the Senate today, was asked by a reporter whether he had been pressured by those who opposed any compromise, he laughed and said, "Who do you think could pressure me?" Then he turned and began walking away slowly with his cane. A marvelous symbol of one of Plato's Guardians of the Republic, to be sure... but on the other hand, an old leader, accountable to no one, (and colluding with a few other power-brokers to thwart the will of the majority party) is about as un-Democratic as you can get.

This got me to thinking about Republics and Democracies... as did a certain recent film I saw twice on opening day. Warning: this post is about to get ve-e-e-ery geeky!

If any of my fellow geeks want to understand the difference between a Republic and a Democracy--a distinction I once wrongly thought to be idle wordplay--then I encourage them to watch Episodes I, II, and III of Star Wars and listen closely to George Lucas' astoundingly bad dialogue on the subject. It teaches by bad example.

There's a particularly hilarious scene in Episode II wherein a clique of richly becostumed dignitaries make arbitrary decisions concerning the fate of millions, and then the elected Queen (!) concludes with a short, trite speech about how they love "democracy." And in Episode III, when Mace Windu suggests that the Jedi Council (an elite body to which only people with special blood may be appointed) lead a coup against the elected Senate in order to preserve "democracy," I almost fell out of my chair. Search these three films as you may, and you will find that the will of the great unwashed masses has no place in the Council of Naboo, the Council of Jedi, or the Senate of the Republic. The only place you see the masses are when they are wildly cheering the procession of nobility at the conclusion of Episode I.

The only philosophy George Lucas really nails is fascism. When Chancellor Palpatine declares, "I am the Senate!" in Episode III, (l'etat c'est moi?), he illustrates facism from the leader's viewpoint. When Anakin argues that giving more power to the executive is good because it can only bring "less deliberation and more action," we see it from the viewpoint of the apprentice. And when Padme says sadly, "So this is how liberty dies. To thunderous applause," she shows the spectator's view well too.

Yet I think George Lucas in his naivete has shown us something about America, if we choose to see it. We love the thought of electing wise Guardians to rule us; we disdain the practice of pandering to majority rule (and god forbid we should actually take any responsibility for our own self-governance). We applaud and respect leaders who do what they think is right, regardless of what the polls tell them the people wish them to do. Our best-respected public officials are not the ones we elect, but rather the judges and justices we let be appointed to life terms. We are believers in a Republic, not democracy. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.

We speak platitudes about democracy but we desire a Republic in our hearts. This central contradiction in our high school civics classes leaves us confused and incapable of formulating a consistent philosophy that can stand up to the allure of fascism. Liberals and conservatives sense the desire to be Guardians in one another, and so label each other elitists, failing to recognize that elitism is a necesssary part of a Republic. It's time we talked frankly about our real political views, and embrace our Republic.

Perhaps if the Galactic Senate had been populated by stubborn old bulls like Senator Robert Byrd rather than Jar Jar Binks, Chancellor Palpatine might not have had such an easy time convincing the Senators to vote away their legislative powers. That would have been one hell of a filibuster. On the other hand, Senator Byrd's delivery could test the patience of Yoda.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Part I: Plato and the KKK. One note on the declaration that Byrd is a Guardian in the Platonic sense. This guy has turned into a classic Senator but remember he was a class A SOB once. He was in the KKK and tried to block civil rights progress. I appreciate Dr. Strangelove's call for us to really consider the differences between a Republic and a Democracy but I'll start by restating my absolute opposition to the Platonic model of all powerful righteous leaders. All power corrupts, there can be no righteous leaders. Only by limiting power can we protect ourselves from our leaders.

Part II: Word Play and Kings. Now, as for republics versus democracies. Conservatives in American LOVE to point out that "we live in a Republic, not a democracy." Which I think they think makes them seem smart and they think it makes the "Republican" party seem more legit. It's all BS. There are really are no countries that are ruled through direct democracy - not even Switzerland and they are referendum abusers in a class with California. So in practical terms when we talk about "democracy" in the modern sense we are talking about representative government with those representatives being accountable to an electorate. Dr. Strangelove and conservatives want to call that - for different reasons - a "republic." But that's not really right either. Most European countries combine representative democracy with limited monarchies. In the end, it's just word play.

Part III: Me-sa Doin' Polling. Dr. Strangelove says we love representatives who do what "they think is best." But we punish them if what they think is different than what we think (that's what is so scary about Bush et al, they really do represent a large chunk of the population!). If we didn't the politicians wouldn't spend so much time, money and effort trying to find out what we think through polls. If we really rewarded independent leaders and punished poll watchers, politicians would stop spending money on polls. Jar Jar Binks is in the Senate because we-sa gonna vote for him. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

Part IV: Majority Rule vs Minority Protection.

Since the 18th century, there has been only one nominal democracy based exclusively on the principal of absolute rule by the current majority: the United Kingdom. All other countries have some mechanism in place for protecting the minority from the abuses of the majority.

Forget Plato. Read Madison! 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

You'll use any excuse to write a review or talk about Star Wars.... 

// posted by Siddharthawolf

Dr. Strangelove said...

re Part I. First, my thanks to RxR for mentioning Plato in earlier posts and conversations. Reading on Plato's ideas helped me put my thoughts together. Second, RxR's point about Byrd's checkered past is quite apropos. I know you oppose the Platonic model in principle, but did you applaud Senator Byrd, or Senator Reid's defense of the filibuster, for that matter? And if so, what does that say about your values in practice? (I'm just poking you here because I believe your answer will be illuminating--not because I actually think I've caught you in a trap.)

re Part II. RxR is correct that we use "democracy" and "republic" pretty interchangably. He is correct that no pure form of either exists. I agree, and that actually furthers my point, because I was trying to say that there are two competing, contradictory ideals of governance in the American psyche (populist democracy and elitist republic), but most of us don't realize this. The problem I think is that this inconsistency inherent in our worship of representative democracy makes it hard for us to build a strong wall against fascism.

re Part III: Good point, RxR, that polls must be important or politicians would not spend so much money on them. But the polls also show, ironically, that Americans value strong leaders who do not listen to the polls. That polls matter somewhat, rather than 100% or 0%, illustrates again that our ideals of governance are mixed. RxR is probably right that Madison's balance between these two ideals is the best way to go, since neither works by itself. But it would be good for us to keep in mind that it *is* a balance, not a pure form.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Siddarthawolf: May the force be with you... always.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I didn't hear either Byrd or Ried speak on this issue. I did read excerpts of what they said from time to time. But in general like reading Byrd more than listening to him...testing the patience of Yoda is right!

The contrast beten Byrd and Ried is great. Byrd is a philosopher at heart and much like Plato he combines wisdom, folly and fascism in a fluid ratio depending on his mood. Ried is more like a tactician. Once people like Byrd hash out what the ideal should be, it is usually left to sneaky bastards like Ried to work out the actual deal we'll end up with.

I think Dr. Strangelove is right that what every "democracy" has is really a balance between various forms of government (republic, democracy, monarchy etc). But what they all have in common is accountability to an electorate and most also share provisions to protect minority rights.

Republicans forget this so easily and irritates me no end. They get it from the sloppy lessons they learned in high school civics classes about "majority rule" and "seperation of powers." Both concepts are misused and misleading in the American context. I think I've posted about this in the past. 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

Anonymous said...

FYI, George Lucas has been very up front that he was inspired by "Triumph of the Will" (the film Hitler commissioned about the Nazi rallies to inspire the faithful) in the final scene of the original Star Wars (the "Episode IV" from 1977).

I agree with RbR wholeheartedly. Every liberal -indeed, every American patriot- should read and bask in the Federalist Papers, now above all, at a time when the Republicans are running down to scary places far from our historical moorings.  

// posted by LTG

Dr. Strangelove said...

I think I will take RxR and LTG's notes to heart. Me-sa gonna read the Federalist papers again.

Anonymous said...

Consider Federalist #63 (in relevant part):

To a people as little blinded by prejudice or corrupted by flattery as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage,or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind? What bitter anguish would not the people of Athens have often escaped if their government had contained so provident a safeguard against the tyranny of their own passions? Popular liberty might then have escaped the indelible reproach of decreeing to the same citizens the hemlock on one day and statues on the next.
 

// posted by LTG

The Law Talking Guy said...

Also from Federalist #63:

Besides the conclusive evidence resulting from this assemblage of facts, that the federal Senate will never be able to transform itself, by gradual usurpations, into an independent and aristocratic body, we are warranted in believing, that if such a revolution should ever happen from causes which the foresight of man cannot guard against, the House of Representatives, with the people on their side, will at all times be able to bring back the Constitution to its primitive form and principles. Against the force of the immediate representatives of the people, nothing will be able to maintain even the constitutional authority of the Senate, but such a display of enlightened policy, and attachment to the public good, as will divide with that branch of the legislature the affections and support of the entire body of the people themselves.

Anonymous said...

I hate to bring down the level of conversation, but in regard to LTG's last post with the excerpt from Federalist #63, I don't think the Founders thought congressional districts would be gerrymandered. The statement is about the check that the House would exercise over the Senate should it need to. But the House derives its power from the people. However, the people no longer really choose their representatives since the districts are gerrymandered by the mystery men in the shadows. Everything in our democracy is so manipulated, that the whole system is out of alignment. And any well-functioning government requires honest servants of the people to be working for the greater good. I think some of those types still exist. But they are being quickly outnumbered.

I, too, will go back to look at the Federalist papers. 

// posted by uswest

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say that gerrymandered districts equal disenfranchisement. Yes, they are manipulated but I have argued (quite effectively I think) in the past that every method of chosing district borders includes in it baises for and against particular factions. Even having a single national district with perferctly proportional representation (the system used in Iraq and Israel) has dramatic baises against factions that engage the political process in some ways. Bais does not equal undemocratic. All systems are baised, we chose (throuh our constitutional structures) which baises are to be tolerated.

"And any well-functioning government requires honest servants of the people to be working for the greater good."

There is no such thing as the "greater good." There is only individual interest and collections of individual interest.

From Federalist #51 (see convenient link to the right): "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public."
 

// posted by Raised By Republicans

US West said...

Well, the more idealistic part of me bristles at the thought that Hobbes and you RBR may be right about individual interest. There are two ways to look at the greater good. If my community is prosperous, I benefit individually from a happy community. The Nash Equilibrium comes to mind, as does all the centuries old philosophy about the reason for a social contract.

In more communally based cultures, the individual often sacrifices his own desires to the greater good. Shame cultures like those found in Asia and the Middle East come to mind. By "greater good" I do mean for the good of the community or nation as the case maybe.

You might argue that such a thing is really motivated by the individual's interest in being accepted, which is egotistical. I myself have been cynical enough to say that unconditional love is a myth, unless you really don’t mind being a door matt. But I am not sure I have given up completely on altruism and the ideal of civic duty and service. In the absence of those things, you have a Hobbsean world.

I think we may get a whiff of that altruistic tendency from those who enlisted in the armed services in 2003 for patriotic reasons. I don't think politicians like Jimmy Carter are motivated by personal reward so much as by the satisfaction of having served something greater than the self. I don't think people ever operate out of any one motivation. It is a mixture of many things that move us to act.

Anonymous said...

Ah! another thought provoking argument from US West! I won't address the issue of altruism in individuals althought that's a fascinating philosophical question. I'll stick to the socio-political aspects.

Not Hobbes, Locke. I'm not advocating a centralized state like Hobbes did. I'm saying that all society is based on individual interests. That's not Hobbes, it's Locke and Smith, Russeou (sp?), Madison, Jefferson, et al. These philosophers didn't say cooperation wasn't desirable or possible. But they did argue that it would be based on individual rather than collective concepts of what is "good."

Just a quibble perhaps but I think you probably meant to imply that my assertion is somehow a "right wing" assertion or at least a cold blooded one by associating it with the rather infamous Hobbes.

Also, you misunderstand the concept of the Nash equilibrium. It's not a concept based on social benefit. Rather it's fundamentally based on individual interest. Consider the Prisoners' Dilemma (PD). That game has a Nash equilibrium in which both players could do better by departing from their equilibrium strategies (at least in a finitely repeated version).

The concept you are probably looking for to argue against me is Pareto Optimality . But that concept is also based on individual interest.

The outcome of a PD is a Nash equilibrium but it is not Pareto optimal. Other games have Pareto optimal Nash equilibria. Chicken comes immediately to mind.

But this is a bit of a tangent. The point is that no matter what policy is imposed on a population, some part of it will be upset - and legitimately so. Talking about a "greater good" begs the question of who gets to define it. I'm sure that the Christian Coalition is 100% convinced they are acting in to further the "greater good." I'm equally sure that Green Party activists also believe they are working for the "greater good."

My problem with assertions that there is a "greater good" is that it implies that the speaker's personal views of what that "greater good" is, should legitimately overwhelm someone else's view of the "greater good."

That the path to the dark side is (to keep the Star Wars theme alive). 

// posted by Raised By Republicans