Oligarchs and demagogues, as America teeters

Shortly after the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was accosted by a woman as he came out of Independence Hall: “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”

Franklin’s response was straight to the point: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

The Founding Fathers insisted on keeping any notion of the despised English monarchy entirely out of the foundation documents of the new nation they were creating. And although none of them anticipated today’s rise of political parties, our political practice has always celebrated the primacy of citizen power over aristocracy while at the same time limiting the authority of the popular majority.

The history of republics suggests keeping them is no easy matter. They intrinsically teeter between the slippery ease of an authoritarian regime, often in the form of a monarch or some such “supreme leader,” and the unlimited authority of the masses, best seen in the direct democracy of, say, the French Revolution.

The great English historian Edward Gibbon wrote “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in the latter part of the 18th Century. A real chest-cracker (it was originally published in six volumes), it traces the long, sad decay of the Roman Republic from the early days of upright citizen patriots to a series of corrupt emperors to social and economic disintegration. The book today is regarded as the fundamental examination of the factors that lead to the deterioration of republics, whether Germany (ended by Hitler in 1933), Italy (ended by Mussolini in 1922), even Russia in the 2010’s (ended by Putin and his crowd of klepto-hangers-on.)

By instinct, most Americans believe that republics (and their near variant, democracies), although fragile, are the optimum form of political organization. Anybody who reads President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address experiences a twist in the gut at the image of a government of the people, by the people and for the people not perishing from the earth. Lincoln was right; most have perished. What we have is extraordinarily rare.

Gibbon pointed to two primary factors in the decline of republics: oligarchs and demagogues, two truly dangerous political species made all the more so when they appear in combination. You get all kinds of trouble when small clusters of the extraordinarily wealthy and self-interested are linked with opportunistic demagogues who can mobilize the inchoate anger of the rank and file.

And these days we’ve got big, big trouble. You cannot in good conscience call the folks who pour unprecedented hundreds of millions into today’s secretive political action committees (PAC’s) anything but plutocratic oligarchs. We’ve seen lots of demagogues in American history – in mid-20th Century Huey Long and George Wallace were southern-fried examples, and in the 1950’s commie-hunter ex-Senator Joe McCarthy fits perfectly the type. But today for the first time we are experiencing a demagogue who is coming close to Presidential power.

When I ran a congressional office in Washington in the 1960’s, I would leave the office late in the evening. I would go down to the Lincoln Memorial, deserted, blazing in the bright white night lights. I would stand alone in front of Mr. Lincoln and read his gripping words on the walls. And I would come away comforted.

When my wife Kathy and I were in Washington last month, we went to the Lincoln Memorial early on Sunday morning. There were only a very few people there. And I thought about Mr. Lincoln and the fragile state of our republic. And I literally went down on my knees and prayed for help and comfort for our nation.

As Gibbon wrote, all it takes is an inattentive or bored citizenry to set the stage for the decline of the republic. Today we live in an age when social media trivialize our policy discussions into 140 characters. We see candidates debating on TV indulge in playground insults. And secretive billionaires dump millions of dark money into political action committees.

Why there is not a mass uprising against all this is a complete mystery to me. May God help our country!

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Dick Hooker
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 9:52am
A solid extension of the recent New York Times article on the slide of our democracy toward tyranny. Thank you, Phil, for your incisive, if a bit overly-alarmist, commentary.
David Richey
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:01am
Interesting comments....some how they don't add up to the image you want to project given your organizations receipt of DeVos and Koch Bros. funding....makes it all just a charade.
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:59am
Thank you for protecting us from the vast right-wing conspiracy. I see Amway in the list of funders that appears on this page. There it is. The evil DeVos money, corrupting Bridge Magazine to it's core. I don't see the Koch brothers, but what other forces of darkness have infiltrated The Center for Michigan....Kresge Foundation, MASCO, Varnum Law, Kellogg Foundation, Mott Foundation, Dow Foundation, Frey Foundation, Meijer, The McGregor Fund....the list of conservative puppet masters goes on and on. So thank you, David. For being part of the solution.
David Zeman
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 12:26pm
Mr. Richey, I'm not sure where you are getting your information from. Bridge Magazine and the Center for Michigan receive foundation and corporate support (Bridge funders listed here: http://bridgemi.com/funders/) from a variety of organizations. We also receive individual donations and list our 990 IRS form on the website. The Koch Bros. are not among our investors. David Zeman Editor Bridge Magazine
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 12:47pm
David...You begin by assaulting the honor of the writer, Phil Power, an honorable man and journalist who has just spoken from his heart of his love of America. Then, upon receiving accurate information from the esteemed Dave Zeeman, you post a Wiki page on the Mackinac Center. You clearly are interested in something other than saving our nation from the "extremist age."
Tue, 04/12/2016 - 9:12am
The Center for Michigan (which owns Bridge Magazine) and the Mackinac Center have nothing to do with each other. At all. They are totally separate institutions. [EDITOR'S NOTE: INSULT REMOVED. LET'S BE RESPECTFUL, PLEASE]
Bob Moreillon
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:09am
A fine piece, Mr. Power, that should be sent to every college "government" professor in Michigan for discussion. You intimate that Donald Trump is a demagogue. He fits the description. However, I would be interested in your analysis of the form of our government to control the whims of such a demagogue as President. Our current experience as the status quo has led us into our current sad situation. Although I am a dedicated Democrat, I see Hillary as an extentsion of that status quo. I see both Trump and Sanders as the revolutionists who might pave the way to cracking the status quo and getting us back to "of the people, by the people and for the people."
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:12am
Thank you, Phil. Although some may claim this piece "alarmist," I see it as long overdue - we are not alarmed enough.
Dale Moretz
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:14am
This is an absolutely great piece, Mr. Power! I often refer to the French Revolution as an example of what can happen when wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, while there is a growing mass of people at the bottom, living on the ragged edge. When, as happened in France, a series of bad harvests (or economic crises) push those people over the edge, the masses, having no longer anything to lose, react, and in France, that reaction was extremely violent. So complete was the frustration that when the masses ran out of aristocrats to guillotine, they turned on themselves. We do, indeed, have an increasingly concentrated body of wealth and power in our nation, and sadly, we are no longer a nation whose government is "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Both of our major political parties have sold their political souls to the devils of their respective, and all too frequently, COMMON, special interests. Neither party appears to have access to a Daniel Webster who could offer some hope of redemption. Neither party has recently, does now, will in the future, or CAN represent the best interests of the people of this republic. And it is, as you point out, the fault of the people. Thomas Jefferson stated that a democracy cannot survive without an educated and engaged citizenry. Too many of our citizens are intoxicated by the trivia of popular culture. If there were as much interest in and study of the issues that impact our lives and bode for our future as there is in popular culture, including massively promoted sports, our democratic republic would be blessed with a dramatically more positive outlook for its future. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk stating, "The buck stops here." In a democratic society, we should all acknowledge that the buck stops here - with each and every one of us. We have two candidates who are riding a wave of popular discontent. This fact is fraught with promise and danger. The promise is that, just perhaps, there is a large portion of our citizens who are finally ready to rebel against the rise of the oligarchs, and the purchase of our government. The danger is that they will stop at the rebellion, and forget that it is their responsibility to rebuild their nation as one whose government is one "of the people, by the people, and for the people," rather that abandoning their civic responsibilities by embracing the demigods. We must be aware that the demigods represent, for all intents and purposes, simply a further concentration of wealth and power, accompanied by a dramatic reduction of opportunity for citizen protest. While the most comfortable position, and, unfortunately the default position of too many, is immersing one's self in one extreme camp or the other, or hiding in the shadows, the only position one can occupy with the comfort of knowing that one is not compromising one's intellectual or ethical integrity is a very dangerous and uncomfortable one - placing oneself very obviously in the crossfire between the extremes. But that is our charge, that is our obligation. For indeed, the buck stops here. Dale Moretzdale.moretz@gmail.com
David Richey
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 11:46am
Worth repeating: "While the most comfortable position, and, unfortunately the default position of too many, is immersing one’s self in one extreme camp or the other, or hiding in the shadows, the only position one can occupy with the comfort of knowing that one is not compromising one’s intellectual or ethical integrity is a very dangerous and uncomfortable one – placing oneself very obviously in the crossfire between the extremes. But that is our charge, that is our obligation. For indeed, the buck stops here."
David Richey
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 12:02pm
The quote above is from the preceeding comment by Dale Moretz....
Gary Sickels
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 10:26am
I appreciate your article on the current decline of knowledge by many Americans concerning the fragile building blocks of a democracy. Unfortunately, politics has, through unprecedented stealth and cunning, twisted and pulled the uninformed into a mob mentality for supporting the whims and desires inherent in plutocratic oligarchies that are supported by the highest court in the land. As history always repeats itself America may be on the verge of undermining freedom into a select definition determined by the rich and powerful. Dark Money (Jane Mayer , 2016), suggests how it is happening...the ultimate question though is will the electorate begin to recognize the ascending political fog that engulfs them.
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 12:10pm
I hope you will bear with me as to this request to change topics for a moment to the issue of us, the Michigan residents, non-justly paying for over $1.2. million {$800,000 for one lawyer and $400,000 for the other} for 2 outside criminal lawyers for Snyder's legal defense in regards to his ongoing part in the Flint Leaded Water debacle. Doesn't Snyder trust the legal capabilities of the his multitudinous State Attorney General Lawyers? The Michigan State Attorney General Lawyers exist for this very reason so the citizens don't have pay for outside legal advice and representation to defend the State. Isn't there a law prohibiting the excessive costs of outside legal advice and representation in matters that pertain to the state's business? I am sure that our State Attorney General isn't happy about this slight of his departments inability to review the amounts of paperwork supposedly causing this need for outside counsel. There are plenty of unemployed capable people who could be hired temporarily by our A.G. to review the paperwork involved which would keep this issue in-house and at normal A.G. lawyer expense. Lastly, Snyder isn't exactly a pauper. His vast personal wealth, reputed to be well over $200,000 million, means he could easily afford to hire outside counsel if he feels that his own A.G. isn't capable of defending him in this heinous issue. We need better roads not more expensive extraneous lawyers.
Bill Bresler
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 2:27pm
Why no uprising? Pretty simple, Phil. If you have a job, you're exhausted from trying to keep it. Plus, way too many citizens identify with the people and corporations who own our government, rather than their neighbors. I believe that's called the Stockholm Syndrome.
Duane (not above)
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 5:04pm
Mr. Power seems to see only one fatal flaw in the American political system, individuals’ money and their right to [legally] spend as they see fit. He appears so focused on this that he makes no effort to analyze the actuality of elections. He seems to believe such spending on political campaigns will create the fall of our society when in reality it is only a symptom, it is something that has been created by a void for the voters. Campaigns provide an opportunity for voters to learn about the candidates, assess the candidates, and make their choices on how to vote. If Mr. Power wanted to help the voters become better informed, better able to make their assessments and choices then I would encourage him and others to have a public conversation to develop a set of criteria that voters could use when making their assessments/choices. In truth people only hear what they listen for, so why don’t we capture what is important to listen for and share it with all the voters and candidates?
David L Richards
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 11:31am
Isn't that what Donald Trump is doing, addressing the things the public wants to hear? He says a lot of things that are both attractive to the public and sometimes even accurate. He then offers himself (ludicrously, in my opinion), as the solution. People are unhappy, but the ability to co-opt that unhappiness is very effective.
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 3:20pm
David, Yes, Donald Trump is saying what people are listening for [a vent to their emotion from frustration]. I believe that is also what Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Hillary Clinton are doing/saying. And all of them are spending a lot of money to say it with the expectation the voters will like what they say. Even if the dollars for campaigning were restricted as Mr. Power seems to promote, Mr. Trump [‘oligarch’?] on one side could finance with his own money and Mr. Sanders [‘demagogue’?]on the other side is able to show how he can garner millions with a broad based appeal. That suggests Mr. Powers 'answer' would be ineffective? If anything it would seem that the political campaigns would be driven to the further extremes for money [the 'demagogue' can manipulate any system better than the 'oligarch'].. You mention 'people are unhappy. But is unhappiness the real problem or is it simply a means being used to frame the campaigns. What is the unhappiness; is it trust [in government], is it economic [we seem have greater abundance then a generation ago, we seem to have better medical care than a generation ago, we seem to being doing physically less for more than was required a generation ago]? Is poverty the issue; is it truly worse or is it less severe [do we have famines, out of 300 million how many are dying from starvation, how many in 'poverty' are living in homes with air conditioning, how many have cable TV, how many have cell phones? Are people unhappy? Could or is it the way people are framing the campaigns, even being done by those championing side issues such as financing? We know the media likes an emotion driven campaign because that is how they frame their reporting. If the campaigns are all about emotions that suggests all candidates will be/need to be/are ‘demagogues’. Which do you want, an emotion driven voter or an informed voter? I heard that 'information is power', I wonder why there isn't more interest in how to create a better informed voter. I have seen people become better informed when provided the right tools.
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 6:52pm
I would add one more thing. After World War II We were the last industrialized country standing. This is no longer true. China is breathing down our throat, Both economically and Militarily. Europe has fully recovered and other countries want a piece of the pie. This is causing some Some self-doubt on a part of citizens and leaders. We need to get used to the fact That we live in a competitive world .
Matt Tomasiewicz
Tue, 04/05/2016 - 9:38pm
Phil Powers: is David Richey correct about your receipt of funding from Koch, et. al? Please explain. MATT
Mon, 04/25/2016 - 10:17am
Please take the time to read the following response to your question: David Zeman April 6, 2016 at 12:26 pm Mr. Richey, I’m not sure where you are getting your information from. Bridge Magazine and the Center for Michigan receive foundation and corporate support (Bridge funders listed here: http://bridgemi.com/funders/) from a variety of organizations. We also receive individual donations and list our 990 IRS form on the website. The Koch Bros. are not among our investors. David Zeman Editor Bridge Magazine
John Ashcraft
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 6:17pm
There is a mass uprising against this and Bernie Sanders is tapping into it. It may not prevail this cycle, but it's building and has been for a number of years. Here's hoping!
Kenneth L Tacoma
Wed, 04/06/2016 - 8:19pm
I received this as a link from a professional news clipping service. This, I believe, is a first for me. I have never joined the article comments of the internet as I find them frighteningly banal blathering. But as one who has read and reread Gibbon's work, I simply cannot be restrained by my cooler head. Sir, either you have not really read the “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” or you are simply intellectually dishonest to present this gloss. I wondered how anyone who had seriously studied the work could present this as a thesis for the work without the risk of being called out and I can only conclude it is because you believe your audience will accept your claims because they know no better. And that is probably true - as one who has found Gibbon's work one of the most perceptive views of a very big part of what has formed Western Culture, and considers the work among the most important - I have over the past several years asked every young person who I find who claims a degree in History or Political Science from our colleges and universities if they have read the entire corpus, and I have yet to find a single one who has done so, So your silly, simplistic misrepresentation will be blithely accepted by the group who reads you column. But that does not validate your statements. And while I don't even really disagree with the broad propositions about Oligarchs and Demagogues, that does not excuse what you have written. And the last claim - that you prayed for our nation on your knees - leads me to conclude that the worst combinations of my propositions is true: You have not read Gibbon's work, and you are not intellectually honest.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 8:51pm
Mr. Tacoma, I appreciate your raising concerns with the article. When Mr. Power wants to blame things on ‘oligarchs’ and ‘demagogues’, you seem to agree, I see them as only a symptom of a problem and not the cause. His reference to the fall of Rome is a weak means to justify his view. Others may turn to his reference, but I must admit that I have not read nor plan to read about the fall of the Roman Empire. In relative terms both then and now whether it is poverty and wealth, education and access to information, capacity to communicate, the time between events and awareness are all so different that they are not relevant to each other, then and now. Then poverty meant starvation, deprivation, lack of opportunity of self-control. Today poverty has a whole different meaning, today it is defined by statisticians in Washington [justifying government spending on programs] not in the living conditions of people. I believe what we see of the changes to now from 50 years ago is sufficient to identify today’s problems and their root causes.
Bob Smith
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 8:07am
Mr. Tacoma, I am among the legions who haven't read the work by Gibbons. While you claim (perhaps too proudly) to have read and reread it, you cite nothing from either it or Mr. Powers' article to justify your alarming assault on his integrity. Is it possible that he understands something from Gibbons that you don't, or vice versa? I have read and reread much of Shakespeare's work, but that hardly makes me an authority on English literature. To claim such expertise without demonstrating it would make me guilty of the demagoguery that we all decry. Reasonable criticism is one thing. Calling another a liar or a phony based solely on your claimed proper understanding of a masterwork is quite another.
Mon, 04/25/2016 - 10:21am
Kenneth L Tacoma your post of April 6, 2016 at 8:19 pm is an example of heated wordsmithing that is an insult to the integrity of Mr. Powers
Chuck Fellows
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 12:18pm
And when you educate the young to be compliant, conform and never ask questions (AKA the US System of education), this is exactly what you get, a nation full of sleepwalkers in the thick of very thin thinking. or is that a nation full of sheeple?
Malcolm Macdonald
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 5:50pm
Thanks Phil, for a superb editorial. God help our country indeed. But its not just us; its pervasive, England and France have left and right wingers gaining power; the EEC- originally formed to prevent Europe from turning to war amongst themselves may well be disintegrating, and who knows what to make of the Middle East, let alone the Baltic faction. Keep it up please Mac
Frank K
Fri, 04/08/2016 - 9:35am
Amen I say on your article. However, the statement made that "we are near having a demagogue in the presidency" is inaccurate. We already have a demagogue in the presidency, a seriously bad one, and are about to have another following in his footsteps.
Laurel Raisanen
Fri, 04/08/2016 - 10:10am
Your question "why there is not an uprising?" is very answerable. The conservatives control most of the media. When I try to find answers about the state embracing dictatorships such as the "emergency managers" and throwing democracy out the window; or, why Flint residents were forced to have river water run through their pipes; or, why I cannot find out about ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and the many Michigan legislators who belong to ALEC, I look to our journalists, both paper and TV and see no answers. You are committed to bipartisan journalism. It wasn't until Flint had been poisoned and got national attention from Rachel Maddow did I see much about the dirty water they were forced to use for well over a year. We used to rely on the media for the truth. Like Watergate. If lies get put out there they are not challenged. You guys have a responsibility.