The Not-So Veiled Tyranny or small "r" republicanism
- by Rodney Foxworth
"Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye than the ease with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to their rulers. When we inquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as to the most free and most popular."
- David Hume
I very much admire the contributions of the celebrated "leftist" man of letters Gore Vidal. He is obviously brilliant, if not overtly arrogant, though brilliance does seem to breed this sort of foible. That said, me being a black male, he could never hold a place in my heart reserved for black intellectual notables such as James Baldwin or W.E.B. Du Bois. To go further than that, he could never take the place of my "blue-collar scholar" grandfather, a man's whose influence upon me supercede that of any public or historical figure. Just as Vidal was born with white privilege, I and those with skin similar to my own were given a sort of innate black advantage, the sort Baldwin referenced in "The Fire Next Time": The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling.
I bring this up because Vidal describes himself as the last small "r" republican - as if this were something to boast about. I suppose it might be better in the sense that it disassociates him from the current batch of large "R" Republicans and Neocons, but being a strident defender of American republicanism while passing yourself off as a defender of the ordinary American citizen is a bit hypocritical: unless you have a differing definition of what the "ordinary" American is, as if we ever defined it in the first place. This is important, because Vidal's love affair with the founding fathers' and the form of government they initiated is something foreign to black thinkers such as Baldwin and Du Bois.
This, coupled with Vidal's family upbringing, makes me question whether the often quoted dissident exorcised himself of the prejudices and subliminal beliefs that come along with white privilege as vehemently as his one-time heir Christopher Hitchens espouses George Orwell did. This is all to note three things:1) American republicanism as a way of governance should be given the same critical eye all other forms of government are subjected (as Hume recognized, both free and despotic governments employ opinion control) 2) even the most intelligent and astute amongst us, such as Vidal, find themselves unable to divorce from the powerful mechanisms utilized by American political socialization and 3) black Americans, or any member of a traditionally oppressed group, are better able to shed themselves of said mainstream socialization.
Casual readers of the Federalist Papers will discover in paper ten that James Madison, writing under the pseudonym of Publius, advocates for a republic over pure democracy under the presumption that it would better protect the citizenry from tyranny of any sort, be it from a majority or from a minority. Developing factions raised the ire of Madison and his cohorts, as factions, defined as citizens united by a common passion adverse to the rights of other citizens as well as the interest of the community, were seen as a dangerous thing, with faction possibly leading to tyranny. In dealing with faction, Madison saw two possible options: destroying the causes of faction, or controlling its effects. The cause of faction, as said by Madison, is liberty, and the destruction of liberty would have been far worse than the existence of faction. Thus, Madison suggests giving the citizenry the same opinions, passions and interests, but then determines that this is impossible as liberty breeds individuality. The only logical conclusion Madison deduces is controlling the effects of faction through the implementation of a republic, as the discerning, wise men elected as representatives would regulate the various public interests and determine what was best for the nation.
The question then becomes, who exactly is being protected from tyranny with the establishment of a republic, especially considering that the legislature, presidency, and judiciary are staffed solely by members of the elite? Lest we forget those immortal words of Madison's contemporary John Jay: "Those who own the country ought to govern it." Suppose that the Federalist papers were pieces of propaganda (I would never attach such a tawdry word to our forefathers unless it were a hypothetical.) Let's imagine that Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and the rest weren't concerned as much for the liberty of the proletariat as they were their own pursuit of property, er, happiness. Madison was too well-read and intelligent to believe that opinion control was impossible - Hume's "Of The First Principles of Government" refutes that argument, and don't pretend that Madison never read Hume's work. Introductory political science students have read about political socialization, and they know this not to be true as well. Opinion control of the masses is in the tool box of every government; why else would we all recite and believe so wholeheartedly in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?"
Of course, Madison was too shrewd to come out and say that socialization, or power of opinion, would be in the repertoire of whatever government they established: after all, how could any government control the opinion of a liberated people? And of course Madison and his ilk wanted the citizenry to be liberated, why else would they go through such trouble to create a government in which they were in control?
Consider what republicanism as set forth by Madison was. It was a means to negate tyranny of groups over groups, even the minority. How a minority rises to power in a pure democracy bewilders me, as I've always thought "pure" or direct democracy lends itself toward majority rule. Minority rule arises through tyrannical, fascist means, and dare I say, through a republican system that is populated by members of a particular group, forming a…plutocracy. This is all hypothetical of course.
Maybe being black brings with it a sort of innate skepticism or cynicism, but we've concluded two things: 1) a minority was placed into power via the American republic to govern the country and 2) opinion can be manipulated by the government, despite Madison's claims that this is not possible in a liberated society. So wait, does that mean liberty doesn't exist in America? No, I didn't say that, don't re-read that please. But let's add two and two together. A minority (in this case, wealthy landowning white men) established power over the majority, and have as utensils the ability to manipulate mass opinion. That's truly scare stuff. Sounds very democratic.
This is just all to make a point. It infuriates me when people say things like, "America is getting too corporate," and that "politicians are in the bed with big business and forgetting about the little guy." It's always been so, except corporate originally meant white wealthy landowners that were male. And they always knew what was best for the country. The fact that you can go through twelve years of public school education without realizing that America is a republic and not even an anemic democracy is sad. I'd say it's very much a plutocratic republic, but that's just one black boy's thoughts. No one ever said you had to use military force to be considered a tyrannical force, though our republic has resulted in force to reprimand its own citizens, or have we forgotten COINTELPRO?
I don't' know about you, but I'm a bit uncomfortable with one group controlling so much of what affects my day to day living. Of course, it would be unfair to call what we have as tyranny, but it would be just as unfair to call it democracy.
Rodney Foxworth, 20, attends CCBC-Catonsville in Maryland and is a registered Green. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.