Anger, despair, and scorn

Should we flatter King Demos?

A reader writes:

This was a close loss; the Democrats need some reframing and a more forceful candidate but no fundamental change in direction; the Administration’s attempts to claim a mandate and to define “reaching out” as “everyone’s welcome to support the President on everything” are not unexpected but are utterly outrageous and mendacious. Anger is both utterly appropriate and much more useful than despair. No mourning, no recriminations, no scorn directed at the electorate. Back to work.

That sounds entirely right to me, with the exception of “no scorn directed at the electorate.” If that means that Democratic spokespeople ought to avoid dissing the voters, that’s obvious. But if it means that we shouldn’t feel, and express, scorn about the behavior displayed by almost 52% of the voters on Tuesday, I have to disagree.

The convention that the majority embodies wisdom is, after all, rather a silly one. It’s tactically necessary for candidates to pretend to respect the opinions of the voters, but then it’s tactically necessary for courtiers to pretend to respect the opinions of the monarch.

The technical term for someone who seeks power by pretending to admire the powerful is “flatterer.” As Aristophanes (I think) pointed out, the difference between the flatterers of an ordinary king and the flatterers of King Demos is that the flatterers of King Demos are more likely to succeed.

The commitment of a small-d democrat is to respect the authority of the majority, not to pretend to respect its wisdom or virtue.

If, for example, you think that the Bush regime has made the United States both a user of torture and an active accomplice in the use of torture by others, and if you think that is wrong, an electoral defeat shouldn’t change those opinions.

And if you think that, then what are you supposed to feel about the majority that either (1) didn’t believe the facts; (2) didn’t think that torture is wrong; or (3) didn’t think it was important enough to vote on? I’d think “scorn” a relatively mild word to use.

No, torture wasn’t an explicit issue in the campaign. But that, surely, reflects the judgment of Sen. Kerry and his handlers that it wasn’t a winning issue: that is, their judgment that, in this regard, a majority of the voters would act contemptibly.

Consider the following pair of premises, each of them, I believe, true:

1. All power corrupts.

2. Democracy means putting all power in the hands of the voters.

What conclusion follows?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: