Monday, October 9, 2023

The perils of democracy

James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, was a commenter on politics as well. From an appreciation of James Fenimore Cooper's The American Democrat:
People pride themselves on “speaking truth to power” — leaders, big shots. In a democracy, this is very easy to do. Usually, you get nothing but applause for it. What is hard is speaking truth to “the people” — for, in a democracy, that’s where power lies.

Cooper writes,
The constant appeals to public opinion in a democracy...induce private hypocrisy, causing men to conceal their own convictions when opposed to those of the mass.... A want of national manliness is a vice to be guarded against, for the man who would dare to resist a monarch shrinks from opposing an entire community.
Pretty much everyone in my business knows politicians who say one thing in private — their true beliefs — and another when before a crowd. Moreover, the same applies to not a few media personalities. ....

On the character of the officeholders, says Cooper, the character of the institutions depends. Thus, it is the “duty of every elector to take care and employ none but the honest and intelligent in situations of high trust.”

Every system of government has its dangers — some more than others, of course. “The peculiar danger of a democracy,” writes Cooper, “arises from the arts of demagogues.” So, again, “it is a safe rule, and safest of all, to confide only in those men for public trusts in whom the citizen can best confide in private life.” ....

...[A]nother subject — parties and partisanship:
Party is known to encourage prejudice, and to lead men astray in the judgment of character. Thus it is we see one half the nation extolling those that the other half condemns, and condemning those that the other half extols. Both cannot be right.
An additional statement to absorb: “No freeman, who really loves liberty, and who has a just perception of its dignity, character, action, and objects, will ever become a mere party man.” But that “mere” is important. Cooper goes on to say,
He may have his preferences as to measures and men, may act in concert with those who think with himself, on occasions that require concert, but it will be his earnest endeavour to hold himself a free agent, and most of all to keep his mind untrammeled by the prejudices, frauds, and tyranny of factions.
Bad actors fan popular passions. They prey on ignorance and resentment.
This is the weak point of our defences..... Opinion can be so perverted as to cause the false to seem the true; the enemy, a friend, and the friend, an enemy; the best interests of the nation to appear insignificant, and trifles of the moment; in a word, the right the wrong, and the wrong the right. ....

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