The spirit of democracy

We had dinner in D.C. with a friend and her new boyfriend not long after the 2016 election. He’s a civil servant, high up in a federal bureaucracy, so I took the opportunity to ask him what many of us were worried about: Would the new administration destroy American democracy?

He was no fan of the president-elect, but he reassured me that American republicanism was up to the challenge. Our norms and institutions, including our federal bureaucracy, would easily withstand this threat.

Just over five hundred years ago, a similar threat presented itself to republican Florence when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici took over the city with a papal army. The Florentine historian and political theorist Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and an acquaintance of his countryman Nicollo Machiavelli, wondered if Florence’s republic would survive the invasion.

Guicciardini’s Florence were a liberty-loving people. This was significant to Guicciardini because it limited what a would-be tyrant could do. A ruler, Guicciardini thought, was limited by the nature of the people he ruled. In a way, this approach to how a city could be governed anticipates Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Both Guicciardini and Montesquieu argued not for government based on universal standards but based on what a particular people needed. Guicciardini believed that “it is useless to speak of government abstractly and in general,” summarizes J. G. A. Pocock in his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment. “One must take into account the individual character (natura) of both the people and the area (luogo, sito) to be governed.”1  And for the Florentines who were used to governing themselves, “good government is no substitute for self-government.”2

Guicciardini examined his country’s past. The Florentines were “anciently free.” (Pocock here characterizes Guicciardini’s thoughts.) Maybe the Florentines had taken a hiatus from this freedom in the years before the Medici family first came to power in 1434 to resolve Florence’s extreme factionalism, Guicciardini acknowledged, but Florence was free when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici and his army invaded Florence in 1512.3 In 1495, in fact, a year after the Medici family was first overthrown, Florence had adopted a constitution that included the Consiglio Grande, a legislative body that institutionalized a democratic element in the Florentine republic. Thanks to the Consiglio Grande, according to historian Kenneth Bartlett, “never before had so many [Florentine] citizens been able to serve the state.”4 Even before the new constitution, Guicciardini argued, Florence was (again, in Pocock’s words) “addicted to concerning themselves with public business.”5

Detail from Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X and His Cousins, Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (1518 – 1519).

Such an addiction can change a people, Guicciardini argued:

The natures of the men, or at least their social and political dispositions, can be changed; but the only two forces recognized as capable of working such a change are custom and use on the one hand, which work slowly, and political participation on the other, which quickly works effects that it takes time to undo.6

Based on the quick work of Florence’s democratic innovations, Guicciardini concluded, the reign of the restored Medici was insecure.3 If de’ Medici was to be successful in converting Florence to an autocracy, he had better act slowly.

One wonders if the 2016 election found the United States with the “custom and use” of democracy or with the “political participation” to withstand the president’s depredations. Before the election, had we been fundamentally transformed in Guicciardini’s sense by our custom and use or by our experience of political participation? Would a ruler’s actions taken to delegitimize our elections, our intelligence community, our free press, and truth itself come across as acting “suddenly and brutally,” to use how Pocock describes Guicciardini’s characterization of the Medici’s actions, so that there would be little opportunity for the people “to forget the experience of citizenship”?8

I don’t think so. Our public realm, for the most part, is but a sleep and a forgetting. We have little democratic “custom and usage” or “political participation.” Voting is important, but it isn’t democracy. (Until the recent past, in fact, voting was considered an aristocratic practice; sortition was the more democratic way of filling offices.9) We have forgotten what Tocqueville discovered about us a generation after the Founding, which can be described in the same way that Sheldon S. Wolin defined democracy: “originating or initiating cooperative action with others . . . throughout the society in response to felt needs.” Through this action, “political experience is being made accessible, experience that compels individuals to deal with the complexity of interests and the conflicting claims that have hitherto been reserved for politicians and bureaucrats.”10 This is the transformative experience that would slow down or stop Guicciardini’s would-be tyrant. Instead of this, however, we have what Wolin in 1989 called “a politics without memory” and a “democracy without the citizen.”11

Florence’s democracy, limited though it was, exceeded ours in direct participation. Despite this, just before Medici’s army entered Florence in 1512, most of the functions of the Consiglio Grande had been taken over by an aristocratic senate.12 Likewise, we began to self-identify more as consumers than as citizens long before 2016. Wolin, in fact, wrote Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism eleven years before our last presidential election. We’re used to being managed.

Medici, who later became Pope Leo X, and his successors in Florence ultimately destroyed the country’s republic. From the time of the 1512 invasion, the Medici family ruled Florence continuously until 1737.

  1. J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, at 141.
  2. Id. at 141.
  3.  Id.
  4. Kenneth Bartlett, The Italian Renaissance Course Guidebook, The Teaching Company 2005, at 162.
  5. Pocock, supra.
  6. Id. at 144. This is, again, Pocock’s summary of Guicciardini’s writing.
  7.  Id.
  8. Id. at 143.
  9.  Id. at 134; see also Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws 2.2 (13): “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.”
  10. Sheldon S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, at 150.
  11. Id. at 184.
  12. Pocock, supra, at 122.

The unvanquished

Last night we bought a bed. Before we did, we had a date. The salmon was as good as I’ve ever had. It lay on a wonderful reduction. She had trout crusted with parmesan and ate it all.

Our waiter was an older man, and he was busy. But he had us say our names. He repeated them deliberately, first looking at her and saying her name, then doing the same with me. Then he never called us by our names. Maybe he’s using them now in prayer. The service, anyway, was good.

Before our meals came, I looked at her, and I found myself looking at her. Our eyes met every so often, and she averted hers, unless she was speaking. I’ve always liked this.

On one level, she’s aware I’m looking at her, and she likes it, too. Closer to the surface, she’s thinking. She averts her eyes to continue thinking. I’m watching her think.

My eyes can rest with very few people. My mother’s another. She’s 92, convalescing slowly from a fall, and when I visited her in Richmond last weekend, I told her that she meant a lot to me because she was one of the few people with whom I can sit in silence and simply see.

Brynmawr in the 1920s.

Eye contact has a lot to do with silence, I think. There’s a story somewhere in Conversations with William Faulkner about Faulkner reducing an angry stranger to silence over several minutes by only looking at her. There’s a story, too, in Douglas Steere’s Prayer and Worship, published the same year as The Unvanquished, about Peter Scott, who tried to give a homily to a bunch of unemployed Welsh miners:

They said nothing back to him as he talked and talked. But their silence searched him, choked him, and at last reduced him to silence. He went away inwardly humiliated, but he returned soon to throw in his lot with theirs, to help them pool their capacity, to work and to rebuild their community on a basis of co-operative and self-help enterprises.

The “Brynmawr Experiment” began.

This week I read that fear and hatred stick immediately to the nerves, while gratitude and appreciation don’t stick unless we wait on them for at least fifteen seconds — much longer than it takes for me to read a Tweet. (This fifteen-second rule is from Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness as summarized in Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance.)

A “national conversation” is an oxymoron. We can’t change a thing if our eyes haven’t met.

God and mammon

Oligarchists (to the end they may keep all others out of the government) pretending themselves to be saints, do also pretend that they in whom lust reigns are not fit for reign or for government. But libido dominandi, the lust of government, is the greatest lust, which also reigns most in those that have least right, as in oligarchists; for many a king and many a people have and had unquestionable right, but an orlgarchist never; whence from their own argument, the lust of government reigning most in oligarchists, it undeniably follows that oligarchists of all men are least fit for government.

-James Herrington, A System of Politics (ca. 1661)

Is Elizabeth Warren too conservative for America?

In the eighteenth century the French centralized despotism was viewed as the vehicle of reform and progress; only conservatives such as Montesquieu could see advantages in what was generally held to be the corrupt, disorganized, fractionated and backward English political system.

– Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968)

I’m reading a seminal work of conservative sociology — Robert Nisbet’s 1952 book The Quest for Community — and that context makes me view Elizabeth Warren as what would be either party’s most conservative presidential candidate. Nisbet argues against the forces that substitute power for community. View Facebook and its times through Nisbet’s eyepiece:

All too often, power comes to resemble community, especially in times of convulsive social change and of widespread preoccupation with personal identity, moral certainty, and social meaning.

Fearing a loss of the local community and, with it, freedom, conservatives used to challenge liberalism’s embrace of laissez faire economics. They argued that the unregulated marketplace flattened local life and eliminated public life. The result, they sometimes warned, would be a form of equality one often finds in despotism — the one against all.

Warren’s proposal to break up the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon is an unexpected flowering of this old-time civil religion. As conservatives used to argue, the effects of unchecked market forces go beyond economics. Warren points out that these giant tech companies adversely affect democracy. This insight and her other economic policies seem to make Warren Tocqueville’s candidate. Indeed, after reading Robert Kuttner’s Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, which is largely a nostalgic view of America’s postwar economic consensus around Bretton Woods, I’m about ready to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat in her honor.

° ° °

Attempts at reconstructing local communities involve difficult choices, ones beyond closing Facebook accounts and patronizing local shops and farmers’ markets. A friend of mine passed along to me a criticism of John Brown: instead of sticking with the intentional community he helped to begin, he got involved in national politics. Brown’s struggle, thus expressed, led me to buy an old biography of him.

The tug between the draw to intentional communities and the draw to national politics also got me re-interested in Bonhoeffer, and I just finished Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. As the first director of the first Confessing Church seminary, Bonhoeffer sets out to make disciples instead of preachers. He preaches instead of instructing in homiletics, he prays long prayers in contravention of Lutheran sensibilities, he promotes music, and he insists on recreation. The seminary’s routines and activities suggest both a monastery and my more idyllic memories of the neighborhood I grew up in.

Oddly, in the context of the biography, Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot against Hitler’s life seems a natural outgrowth of his focus, wherever he travels and works, on the local community. I wonder how that tension will play out in Brown’s biography.

Meanwhile, in our own longstanding community of disciples, we wait. Or to use that Old High German cognate, we abide.

The point of caprice

As we all know, just after declaring a national emergency, the president said that he didn’t need to. Many think his comment undermines his declaration because emergencies tend to be compelling. These critics, however, assume the rule of law.

In saying that he didn’t need to declare an emergency, the president merely stated the facts of life under an autocracy: the autocrat’s will is the only drama, the only question before the body politic. His will, in fact, constitutes the entire public realm.

The distinction between the rule of law and of one man’s will is the point of the emergency. Hamilton refers to this distinction in the Federalist in an ironic oxymoron: “favourable emergency.” A tyranny, he warns, can start with an emergency declaration. We know it happened later in Germany.

The president’s comment this week about the primacy of his will is similar to his last-minute change of heart in December concerning Congress’s compromise. An autocrat’s caprice draws attention to his will, and this earlier caprice shut down the government, costing our economy tens of billions of dollars. Many call this cost a waste, but not so: those billions, far exceeding the cost of the wall funding he then sought, helped to fund our education in autocracy.

The president’s comment after his declaration frames the issue properly. The question is not whether an emergency exists at our southern border; the question is whether the president wills that an emergency exists.

The president’s proper framing of the emergency declaration gives every senator, congressperson, judge, and justice that may be asked to vote or rule on the matter a stark choice: do we remain under the rule of law, or are we now ruled by one man’s will?

Executive function

I have just been conversing with one man, to whom no weight of adverse experience will make it for a moment appear impossible, that thousands of human beings might exercise towards each other the grandest and simplest sentiments, as well as a knot of friends, or a pair of lovers.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Politics,” 1844)

The president, the headlines have said off and on for weeks, may or may not declare a national emergency. It’s an off-again, on-again kind of possible national emergency. How, some ask, could there be a national emergency if the president himself must mull over whether the situation around our southern border is, or is not, a national emergency? Isn’t a national emergency, by definition, compelling?

Not according to the president. What is compelling, the president wants you to know, is his will. The president’s mulling, and not events at the border itself, generates suspense and focuses our attention. The declaration or non-declaration of a national emergency will be as much of a “big reveal” as a presidential Supreme Court nominee. The president is deliberately equivocal, in this as in most other policy matters, contradicting and reversing himself so as to focus our attention on his will. We are being trained in autocracy.

The president, of course, has the Constitutional authority to make court nominations. He does not have Constitutional authority to override Congress’s action or non-action by declaring a national emergency at the southern border. But we participate with the president in overriding our Constitution’s balance of powers by understanding his role as that of “the decider,” in the words of President George W. Bush. Obama, after Bush, riled half the country with executive orders that, because they generally lacked constitutional authority, were easy enough for his successor to reverse. All of this is part of our tragic project of replacing our Constitution’s balance of powers with a hegemony of function.

Is the executive “the decider”? The issue predates Bush, Obama, and the current president, and even our Constitution. When Thomas Aquinas argued for the primacy of man’s intellect over his will, he described the will, in Hannah Arendt’s words, as “an executive organ, necessary to execute the insights of the Intellect” and subservient to that intellect.1 Our seventh-grade shorthand for our government’s separation of powers reflects this Thomistic understanding: the legislature is the brains of the outfit, and it makes the laws. The executive merely enforces what the legislature passes.

We’re losing our civics-class understanding of the executive. Our modern understanding of the executive is more like that of Duns Scotus, Aquinas’s near contemporary during the thirteenth century. Scotus believed that (again, Arendt’s words) “the Intellect serves the Will by providing it with its objects as well as with the necessary knowledge; i.e., the Intellect in its turn becomes a merely subservient faculty.”2 Scotus’s notion of the executive, then, is that of Bush’s “decider.” Because the president has become “the decider,” Congress is becoming merely one of the president’s advisory boards.

Both Aquinas’s and Scotus’s understandings were variations on Augustine’s theme: man is memory, intellect, and will. One can see these three elements respectively in our Constitution’s three branches of government: the Supreme Court (memory), Congress (intellect), and the presidency (will). By making Congress the first among equals, the framers expressed their preference for Thomas’s view of the intellect’s primacy.

Thomas’s view of the intellect’s primacy, for instance, shows up in our Constitution’s requirement that Congress declare war. The president and the Armed Forces in his charge then execute that declaration. But Thomas’s cumbersome balance between the powers of the intellect and the will seems outdated in our push-button-annihilation age. And national emergencies, even slow ones and nonexistent ones, seem to be going the way of modern wars, becoming strictly executive prerogatives to declare as well as to execute. Is our Constitution out of date?

Yes, fortunately: our Constitution was out of date before it was even ratified. The theory behind the American constitutional arguments leading up to the Revolutionary War, as A. F. Pollard has pointed out, “was essentially medieval.” According to Samuel Huntington in his essay “Political Modernization: America vs. Europe,” the American colonies maintained the Thomistic notion of the rule of law over the more modern and Scotian notion of sovereignty:

In seventeenth-century Europe the state replaced fundamental law as the source of political authority, and within each state a single authority replaced the many that had previously existed. . . . In America, human authority or sovereignty was never concentrated in a single institution or individual but instead remained dispersed throughout society as a whole and among many organs of the body politic. . . . The continued supremacy of law was mated to the decisive rejection of sovereignty.3

This medieval understanding, according to Huntington, led the framers to create three coequal branches of government with blended functions but balanced powers. Our president, though, if we may use Huntington’s distinction, wants to bring our government fully into the modern age in which sovereignty is vested in what was formerly a single branch of government.

And our government could become modern. Huntington, who wrote his influential essay in 1966, begins its conclusion with this warning: “Divided societies cannot exist without centralized power; consensual societies cannot exist with it.”4 We are a divided society. Our doom seems complete, and only love can save us. Just as one man must love himself to maintain a balanced mind, so our polity must recreate what Lincoln in his First Inaugural called the Union’s “bonds of affection.”

Love seems a naive concept with which to end a piece on politics. But Emerson ended his essay “Politics” with this very proposition: see the above epigraph. (Who was Emerson talking to? I’d love to talk to that man.) And Augustine said that his man of memory, intellect, and will couldn’t present himself as a single constitution without love:

This will of Augustine’s, which is not understood as a separate faculty but in its function within the mind as a whole, where all single faculties – memory, intellect, and will – are “mutually referred to each other,” finds its redemption in being transformed into Love.5

Covenants, such as our Constitution, are grounded in, and provide the grounding for, the rule of law. But constitutions are like marriage covenants: they happen only in love. If our people, as Emerson put it, “can exercise towards each other the grandest and simplest sentiments,” then perhaps we can covenant again and save ourselves from this modern scourge of one man’s will.

And my Augustinian prayer for our president is that his will would “mutually refer to” the other branches and parts of local, state, and federal government, and that his will would find “its redemption in being transformed into Love.”

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind: Willing, at 126.
  2. Id.
  3. Samuel P. Huntington, “Political Modernization: America vs. Europe,” World Politics, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Apr. 1966), at 382.
  4. Huntington, supra, at 405.
  5. Arendt, supra, at 104.

A history of Jupiter

I’m reading a biography of Emerson to help me through another book, a good history of Transcendentalism. The people who seem to be in constant contact in the latter book – Emerson, Thoreau, Channing, Everett, Alcott – seem miles apart in the bio. That’s understandable: a bio puts people at home. They write letters, they kiss their children, they read the paper while sipping coffee. They walk with friends; they have fallings out with friends. Emerson had long fallings out even with Thoreau and Carlyle.

Like histories, timelines bring figures and events into close contact. I remember the planets, also, large and close, strung out like beads above the timelines in my childhood classrooms. Walking home, I sometimes expected Jupiter to rise as big as the moon.

Emerson is the American champion of subjectivity. He said that there is “no history, only biography.” But subjectivity alone is lonely. History and its claims to coherence permit a public life.

Ilk & elk

Is there a correlation among high ceilings, high church, and the highbrow? Among low ceilings, low church, and the lowbrow? I’m returning to a delicious, low-ceilinged affair on Groundhog’s Day, Graves Mountain Lodge’s annual Wild Game Night. Venison, buffalo, and bear with steak sauce. The last time I was there, February of 2016, I saw a sprinkling of red MAGA hats, the first ones I’d seen.

Our little condo boasts nine-foot ceilings. But where I’m from, high ceilings echo the big house. The indentured servants and the slaves didn’t live there. Most of the country still sleeps beneath low ceilings.

Emerson believed that Napoleon became “the idol of common men, because he had in transcendent degrees the qualities and powers of common men.”1 This is why, I think, European highbrows thought Elba his end. They considered Napoleon common. But the lowbrows found him common to a transcendent degree.

Emerson on Napoleon brings to mind Arendt on the Nazis:

…they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system.2

The highbrows didn’t consider this: many lowbrows owed their political awakening not to the French Revolution but to a dictatorship. Elba was mere interlude.

  1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men (EriK, 2017), at 113.
  2. Hanna Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Houghton Mifflin, 1968), at 311.

Survivors

Alarums. We compared the sounds we use to move us from our dreams to the day to come.

And chimes. This morning’s wind, and we spoke of the high-hat cymbals crashing along suburban sidewalks. No low notes.

A teacher is a weather system, a symbol on a weather map. Students are the energy that activates him, that sends papers skittering across the linoleum. That came up, too.

Then this morning’s reading, taken from the prophet Isaias:

Israel’s watchmen are blind. . . . “Come,” says each of them, “let me fetch wine, strong drink, and we shall swill it down; tomorrow will be like today, or better still!”

The righteous perish, and no one is concerned; all who are loyal to their faith are swept away and no one gives it a thought. The righteous are swept away by the onset of evil . . . (56:10 – 57:1, REB)

I finished Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom, written by Ariel Burger, a student. Wiesel talked warmly of his world before the camp:

We spoke of our love for the cadences of Talmud and the humor of Yiddish, the constant references to old texts and quotes from medieval commentators, the wordless melodies running through conversations. . . . I saw [Wiesel] as someone deeply connected to both the Old World and the New, and when he said, “We are here, after all, to build bridges between worlds,” this was a relief.

Wiesel’s death was a kind of rapture: one was taken, the other left.

From one of his pines hung my father’s wind chime. It clanked low like the steel buoys we’d sail to and climb as kids. It was a gull to the songbird-like wind chimes hanging from our neighbors’ porches. On windy nights the tidal James seemed to break its banks, and our house, now a hull, swam in it. Pop was its pilot.

Survivors die, eventually. Then what?