The Paradox of Benevolent Hegemony

Tom Frank’s op-ed piece in the Guardian has been bugging me for much of the day, especially in light of my thoughts from yesterday.

The real lesson of Arrow’s Theorem, as I have noted before, is not that “democracy” is impossible, but that democratic process produces outcomes that are not “rational,”   orderly, and predictable.  If you insist on outcomes that are rational, your recourse is “dictatorship.”  Of course, Arrow’s “dictatorship” is not like the kind of real life dictators we imagine, but someone delegated with the authority to override the majority (or, in principle, everyone but him/herself) if necessary.  Indeed, this is the foundation on which every political, social, and economic institution is built on:  the few elites who make decisions are empowered to do so because even the masses recognize that some semblance of orderliness in collective decisions is better than the chaos that often accompanies pure “demcoracy.”

With the delegation of power, some abuse is impossible to avoid.  Lord Acton was slightly mistaken when he said “power corrupts.”  Power does not corrupt:  power IS corruption, in that it consists of the use of authority in a manner at odds with the intent of those who delegated it in the first place.  This is even more true in a democracy:  power is delegated to elites in a democracy preicsely because “the people” are necessarily schizophrenic and cannot decide what they want consistently.  Thus, the elites always profit at the expense of the masses–but this is tolerated to the degree that the masses prefer order to chaos, up to a point.  This is, of course, Hobbes’ argument about the Leviathan.

The trouble is that the delegation of power to the Leviathan is rarely completely willing or necessarily unconditional.  The elites are always conspiring, sometimes with other elites, sometimes against them, in order to keep out the “riffraff” (and the associated uncertainty and other undesiderata) from the decisionmaking process, while ensuring that they keep as much of the profits from power, often at the expense of the masses.  This comes takes the form of various manner of “agenda setting” or “institutions rigging.”  By manipulating the rules of the game, increasingly smaller group of elites are empowered to overrule the masses.  This is not necessarily unique to any one party or even a country, but of ALL polity.  Of course, all the rules rigging will take place through the established norms and procedures, at least in the good lawyerly sense.  So, in general, absolutely no “cheating” is involved (to the degree that cheating is defined narrowly, in the sense of “illegal” dirty tricks of desperation at the last minute, like stuffing ballot boxes.).  At the same time, however, the masses do not share the same respect for the “law” that the elites have:  they know they don’t know it, they don’t control how it is implemented, and they lack the same access to it as do the elites.  They might trust it if they are given assurances that it works on their behalf much of the time–and the only thing they can trust are the results that they can see with their own eye and understand in terms that make sense to them.  If the masses are convinced that the elites are cheating them, the rationale for the delegation disappears.  The chaos of pure democracy  is preferable to the order of limited dictatorship (in Arrovian sense.)

This is the troubling development.  If Arrow is right, no amount of electoral engineering and institutional ingenuity will suffice to prevent “democracy” from unleashing chaos upon us all, if not now, some time.  For all the institutions talk in Federalist #10, James Madison also argued (and for this observation, I need to thank political theorists) that without virtue among the elites and wisdom among the masses, or at least, enough self-awareness that they are only lent the power that they hold at the sufferance of the masses.  At the Virginia ratifying convention, he said, “No theoretical checks–no form of government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”  Whatever devices that the elites can come up with can be both sufficiently “democratic” to allay the suspicions of the masses while still allowing them to keep advancing their own agendas at the expense of the masses endlessly.

But those in power have trouble keeping up their end of the promise to keep their own hands tied.  In 1960s, Democrats in Congress were powerful because they became universalistic, as Mayhew observed.  But this power came at the expense of a commitment not to pursue policy in absence of very broad consensus.  By mid 1970s, factions of Democrats decided that they wanted to take over the party machinery and use it to advance their own agenda and reshape the Democratic Party i their image, and in so doing broke the Democratic Party for decades to come.  But, as Mayhew would remind us, there were other sources of pressure that were straining the Democratic Party by mid 1970s already:  the White House, the activists, and the changes in information technology, as well as the interactions among these factors. The elites, in any institutions, will steadily abuse their power until the institutions break.  In a “delegative democracy,” where the masses delegate to a group of “dictators” in face of the threat of democratic chaos, the institutions break when the price of chaos seems smaller than the price of putting up with the “dictators” to a sufficient number of people.

People put up with a hegemon only if the hegemon is not so greedy that they’d prefer a chaos.  In order to keep the people happy, the hegemon has to accept constraints of his powers, i.e. not be such a “hegemon.”  If he tries to play a hegemon by actually using the alleged powers to do things he wants to, the price of chaos begins to drop.  This is the  paradox.

This stage, if it arrives, will doubtlessly confuse the wonks, trained to look at what it is that people want, in a stage highly constrained by institutional restrictions that they are taught to treat as God-given.  The revolting masses do not “want” anything specific over the status quo–after all, they’d rather gamble on a chaos.  A possible alternative for the elites is to stave off the culminating point of the revolt, by buying off pieces of the “would be revolting coalition” that happen to be cheaper.  Upton Sinclair’s Jungle has an unflattering (and only slightly fictionalized) account of how African Americans came to be a large part of Chicago’s political landscape:  many of them were coaxed to come working in factories, to help break the potential for collective action by the existing workers.  Of course, in some sense, the novel’s protagonists, immigrants from Eastern Europe, were part of the same attempts by the elites to manipulate the incumbent masses.  When I look at the modern Democrats’ glee at their “diversity” combined with their oft-expressed contempt for the white working class, once the mainstay of their support base, I shudder as I remember history.

Democrats were given a chance to remake history:  Sanders was not demanding that Democrats become more “liberal,” but that they share the wealth and become more universalistic.  This opportunity was rebuffed in favor of more of the same.  This spells trouble, perhaps not necessarily for 2016 election, but for decades beyond.  We have never been in a greater danger than we are facing now since 1932, or perhaps since 1860.  Instead of a FDR and a Lincoln, however, we have a Trump and a Clinton.

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