After the collapse of most Western monarchies, democracy got to be seen as the best political system imaginable, perhaps the only decent one possible. But this adulation didn’t start yesterday.
Franchise has been steadily expanding in all Western countries, with democratically elected institutions acquiring more and more power. It has got to a point when no argument about, and especially against, democracy seems to be imaginable.
Well, not as far as I am concerned. I can start and finish a credible argument against democracy with two short words: Joe Biden.
A political system can be judged on many criteria, but surely the most important one is its record in elevating to government those fit to govern. And, comparing unchecked democracy with even absolute monarchy, I’m not convinced the former emerges the clear winner.
Actually, the extreme, absolute form of monarchy hasn’t existed anywhere in the West for the best part of three centuries, longer in England. Democracy, on the other hand, has been absolute everywhere in the West for at least a century.
Still, even allowing for an impure comparison between a system long since extinct and one well-nigh dominant, monarchy more than holds its own. The usual argument against it is that there’s no guarantee that hereditary succession won’t throw up an incompetent monarch.
True. In this world we aren’t blessed with perfect systems. T.S. Eliot pointed this out in poetic form when he decried “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good”.
However, while thanking people for pointing out the woeful imperfection of monarchy, one can still take exception to the implication that democracy is conspicuously better in that respect. That’s when it helps to utter the two words I mentioned: Joe Biden.
Moreover, I’d suggest that a man who is from early childhood trained to govern by the best minds of his time stands a better chance of getting good at it than someone who has to learn on the job. Especially if he happens to be a chap who became a professional politician soon after graduating from a provincial law school.
Joe Biden is such a man. He graduated 76th in his class of 85 at Syracuse University. Part of the reason for such a low ranking was a paper he wrote, or rather plagiarised, from a law review article.
That wasn’t a one-off lapse: when Biden first stood in a presidential election in 1988, he similarly ripped off a speech by Neil Kinnock, who himself couldn’t be easily confused with Demosthenes or Cicero.
Biden’s career in the Senate was marked mainly by soporific speeches that even Obama, himself not the sharpest chisel in the box, found crushingly boring. He also liked to wear his Catholicism on his sleeve, while voting with remarkable consistency for every anti-Catholic measure (such as public financing for abortions).
That such a man could eventually be elected president in his dotage is a poor advertisement for democracy. Even in his prime, Biden didn’t come within a million miles of the level expected from the Leader of The Free World.
But he is well beyond his prime now. Two brain aneurisms and malignant tachycardia Biden has suffered have severely hampered his cognitive ability, which wasn’t of sterling quality to begin with.
Take it from me – all old men suffer some decline. Yet much depends on their starting point. An intelligent man with an IQ of 160 may lose a quarter of his top level and still end up with an IQ of 120, way above average. The same decline in a man with an IQ of 100 will produce an idiot.
I don’t know what Biden’s IQ was before he went gaga, but hardly a day goes by without him coming across as a confused man who doesn’t quite realise where and what he is, nor recognise the people around him.
He can’t even read the teleprompter fluently and, whenever he has to say a few words off the cuff, he sounds incoherent and pathetic. At his press conference the other day, instead of answering a question, he assumed a praying position by bowing his head down on his hands.
Joe Biden is incompetent at even running the routine business of quotidian governance. When a crisis arrives, he becomes what Americans call a clear and present danger.
All this was already evident during his campaign. And yet the electorate put him into the White House where he manifestly doesn’t belong.
Why? All sorts of spurious reasons, the principal one being that he wasn’t Trump.
Now, for all my reservations about the previous president, I doubt he would have handled the current situation in Afghanistan in Biden’s craven and inept way. That too was predictable, but the electorate wasn’t sufficiently smart to predict anything.
Nor is it just an American problem. In fact, I can’t think offhand of many great Western statesmen in my lifetime. Adenauer, perhaps. Thatcher, with a few reservations. Reagan, maybe, with even more reservations. De Gaulle? Fine, I’ll give you that. Anyone else? Well, you get my point.
Speaking specifically of American presidents in my lifetime, I can’t think of anyone who could be described as a statesman without fulsome generosity. Yet in the 17th century, during the period as long as my lifetime, France had Richelieu, Mazarin and Colbert – outstanding statesmen every one of them.
And that was during the reign of two absolute monarchs, Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Moreover, if you insisted, I could perhaps name a few others during the same period, who each stood head and shoulders above any modern politician, as far as human material is concerned. Manny Macron, anyone?
The idea that democracy doesn’t depend as much on individual brilliance doesn’t quite wash. It may not need statesmen of Colbert’s standard, but it’s certainly vulnerable to chronic and, what’s worse, ideologised idiots like Biden. If you don’t believe me, ask those Afghanis at Kabul airport. Or, better still, the families of the 13 US soldiers brought home in coffins.
The greatest political thinkers from Plato and Aristotle onwards, all the way to Burke, De Maistre and Tocqueville, were well aware of the congenital drawback of democracy. They knew that, to be successful, democracy heavily depends on a highly educated and limited electorate.
In Athens, the required quorum was only about 5,000 men. And both great Athenians suggested that this was not only the minimum acceptable but also the maximum desirable number of active participants in a democracy. Burke believed that only 5,000 Britons were qualified to vote in his day. Anything more, and democracy turns into mob rule (“deviant constitution”, as Aristotle described it).
And a mob made up mainly of functionally illiterate philistines can’t vote intelligently and responsibly. Bono publico? They don’t even know how their own bono could be served best.
It’s worse than just having nincompoops at the helm. For, after several generations of democracy run riot, a certain type of politician evolves, one who knows how to get elected but neither has a clue how to run a government nor gives this matter much thought until he has to. By then it’s too late.
Then the vicious circle closes: an unqualified electorate cultivates unqualified leaders, who in turn condition the electorate to remain unqualified. Rather than merely producing the Bidens of this world, this vicious circle practically guarantees that first mostly and then only Bidens will spin out. It’s only by an increasingly rare accident that this circle is ever broken.
So do our politicians and political scientists spend sleepless nights trying to think of wise and just ways to limit democracy and counterbalance it with other mechanisms of power? Quite the contrary.
Instead they talk about expanding the franchise even further, to include 16-year-old children, though not yet their pets (canine Americans?). And their public pronouncements are full of sycophantic praises of “the people”, who are invariably commended for their goodness and sagacity.
Are you surprised that a Joe Biden comes out at the other end? I am not.