Is statesmanship possible in contemporary democracy?

Television has a way of thwarting statesmanship and its attendant rationality.. “Live” television compels national leaders to react immediately to international crises with little time to reflect, to consult and consider alternatives.

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

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People complain of the ills of Israel's government, but no one to my knowledge goes to the root of the problem, namely, the ills of contemporary democracy.  Let me explain.

In the youth of democracy, when democracy had just overcome monarchy, liberty took precedence over equality.  Alas, in the old age of democracy in which we live, equality takes precedence over liberty.  In its youth, democracy was “normative,” still influenced by religious and aristocratic values.   In its senility, democracy is “normless,” preoccupied with security. 

Moreover, the individual’s right to the “pursuit” of happiness has metamorphosed into a right to happiness – now prescribed by government standards or entitlements—a far throw from Jeffersonian democracy.

Jeffersonian democracy was based on self-government.  What made self-government possible for Jefferson is the primacy of reason linked to man’s moral sense.  What prevails today is the primacy of the emotions, so evident in modern psychology which obscures the difference between noble and base emotions along with the moral sense. 

Divorced from reason and the moral sense, all lifestyles become equal.  Moral preferences are merely matters of taste, like one’s preference for this or that flavor of ice cream.  Hence there is no place for honor and deference; all is reduced to moral equivalence, and this is why statesmanship is not possible in contemporary or normless democracy. 

Let us define statesmanship as the application of philosophy to action.  But philosophy in normless democracy has become a household term.  There are now competing philosophies of dieting, dating, and interior decorating!  What Socrates died for -- the love of wisdom -- has become the possession of every Jill, Jack, and Jane.  True, universities still boast of “professors of philosophy,” but one should not confuse a professor of philosophy with a philosopher.  At a national convention of philosophers I attended there were about one thousand present.  The number amazed me. 

If wisdom means knowledge of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, the quest for such knowledge is short-circuited in a normless democratic era when every college student “knows” that “everything is relative.”  Relativism so permeates the mentality of this era that one person’s opinion regarding the True, the Good, and the Beautiful is now deemed as valid as another’s.  Since opinion has replaced wisdom, politicians consult opinion polls!

Actually, opinion polls hardly reach the level of opinion.  They record people’s offhand responses -- typically a “yes” or a “no” -- to simplistic questions concerning complex public issues. Polls are often used by adversarial groups to generate public opinion via the media.  The influence of the media has propelled democracy into a post-democratic era.  Even the etymological meaning of democracy as the rule of the people is obsolete.  To speak of democracy as the rule of the people via their elected representatives no longer fits reality.

Democracy has succumbed to “mediacracy.”  The spin doctors of the media, facilitated by enormous fundraising campaigns, made an unknown person president of the United States for eight years.  The dominant and most expensive medium is of course television.   One no longer needs to be even the shadow a statesman to achieve the highest office.

Television fosters showmanship, not statesmanship. TV journalists pose as morally neutral.  In the old age of democracy, however, moral neutrality has degenerated into moral reversal, like supporting the despotic Palestinian Authority over democratic Israel.  This requires a psychological analysis of egalitarianism.

The primacy of egalitarianism in normless democracy is actually a manifestation of resentment against noble values.  As this resentment develops, it turns into moral reversal: evil becomes good, and good becomes evil.  This development leads to stupidity.  Here’s an example. 

Caroline Glick of The Jerusalem Post addressed some 150 political science students at Tel Aviv University, where she spoke of her experience as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army’s Third Infantry Division during the Iraq war. Any mind or person uncorrupted by relativism would favor the U.S. over the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Yet the general attitude of her audience was expressed by a student who asked, “Who are you to make moral judgments?” Now ponder this exchange between Glick and a student who spoke with a heavy Russian accent:

Student: “How can you say that democracy is better than dictatorial rule?”

Glick: “Because it is better to be free than to be a slave.”

Student: “How can you support America when the U.S. is a totalitarian state?”

Glick: “Did you learn that in Russia?”

Student: “No, here.”

Glick: “Here at Tel Aviv University?”

Student: “Yes, that is what my professors say.”

Ms. Glick spoke at five liberal Israeli universities. She learned that all are dominated by moral relativists.  Their relativism, if consistent, would render them neutral in the war waged by Arabs against Israel.  But some academics identify with Israel’s enemy.  This is a manifestation of moral reversal.  How should statesmen deal with this phenomenon?  None denounce academics for moral reversal – which is really moral treason.  Thus, in the specious name of academic freedom, professors are free to corrupt youth and undermine their own freedom while their country is confronted by the sworn enemies of freedom.  

Academic freedom has become a license for professors to sacrifice their intellects. This is Normless Democracy, where nihilism renders statesmanship impossible.

Let’s come back to the surface of politics. Television has a way of thwarting statesmanship. “Live” television compels national leaders to react immediately to international crises or risk public disapproval. A president has little time to reflect, to consult and consider alternatives.  While the public is being inundated by live TV coverage of some crisis, he must respond to the importunities of reporters.  This encourages spin, really mendacity.  Spin diminishes the rationality associated with Jeffersonian democracy.

To appreciate the power of the mediacracy, the mere fact that its mandarins can select which events shall be televised and which shall be ignored determines what people deem “newsworthy” or important.  Since the notion of importance implies that some things are more important than other things, the media’s selection of events cannot but shape people’s political and moral attitudes, which in turn will influence the agenda of politicians.

Moreover, how any crisis is portrayed by the media, and who their reporters interview about a crisis, is indicative that we are living in a post-democratic era in which TV mandarins, politically unaccountable to the people, play a decisive role in opinion-making, hence in policy-making.  Under such conditions statesmanship is more ardently to be wished for than expected.

Another obstacle to statesmanship in Normless Democracy is hedonism.  The democratic preoccupation with immediate gratification hinders statesmanship.  Alexis de Tocqueville goes to the heart of problem in his classic Democracy in America.  He attributes modern hedonism to democracy’s equality of conditions, which makes it possible for everyone to strive for physical comfort:  “The effort to satisfy even the least wants of the body and to provide the little conveniences of life is uppermost in every mind.”  This “passion for physical comforts,” he writes, “is essentially a passion of the middle classes; with those classes it grows and spreads ...From them it mounts into the higher orders of society and descends into the mass of the people.”

Countering this desire for immediate gratification is religion.  “Religions,” he says, “give men a general habit of conducting themselves with a view to eternity.”  What thrives in democracy, however, is not religion but skepticism.  Hence Tocqueville, actually a friend of democracy, warns its partisans:  “In skeptical ages it is always to be feared ... that men may perpetually give way to their daily casual desires, and that, wholly renouncing whatever cannot be acquired without protracted effort, they may establish nothing great, permanent, and calm.... [Accordingly], in those countries in which, unhappily, irreligion and democracy coexist, philosophers and those in power ought to be always striving to place the objects of human actions far beyond man’s immediate range.”  

Unfortunately, Tocqueville’s “philosophers” have disappeared, and the mortals in power are not statesmen.