A Problem That’s Gone Unsolved for 500 Years, Research Time, 10/05/2017

Thinking about democracy these days brings up its paradoxes. Try googling the phrase ‘paradox of democracy,’ and you’ll find a ton of different paradoxes. Social and institutional forces in a tension that threatened to pull the whole edifice of the country down around its knees.

Something essential will disappear from human civilization if democratic values and governance disappears again. There are good signs – Canada’s still robust multiculturalism, for example.

Look at South Korea’s election yesterday! Their democracy was under its greatest threat over this year, under Park Geun Hye’s corrupt administration. The daughter of the Republic of Korea’s most brutal dictator, in the thrall of the same family of demented gurus.

The new President of the Republic of Korea on the night of his election
victory. Moon Jae In's victory, to me, signalled the idealism that still
exists in South Korea's people for democracy, freedom, and peace,
despite the deathly serious problems the country faces. Hell, Korea
faces its literal near-extinction as a society and people through the
prospect of a short-range nuclear war. But they weren't so afraid of
this that they turned to authoritarian tactics in the name of security,
like the people of one of the world's oldest democratic societies.
Her impeachment and imprisonment led to an embrace of democratic idealism, a rejection of the ineffective steel eyes of the last ten years of hawkish leadership. Moon Jae In, and the new tradition of Korea’s Democratic Party, have the ideal of peace on the peninsula at heart. They’re pragmatists, but let that ideal govern their approach.

That stance earns the name ‘democratic.’

One paradox that jumped out at me reading Machiavelli is the paradox of tolerance. The snarkiest but sadly in-progress tension ripping at democratic values in the West. We’re facing a youth subculture of disaffected, resentful racist, sexist, gleefully disgusting punks who demand to scream their bile as an expression of absolute free speech.

Milo might have been fired, but taking out a figurehead won’t crush a whole cultural movement.

The question of tolerance is an old one. Must a democracy, in the name of universal freedom and tolerance, also tolerate the free expression of advocacy to end democracy?

Karl Popper’s answer was no. And we lean back on the idea in The Open Society and Its Enemies as a defence. But that reference alone doesn’t stop the subculture. That community continues to fester and grow.

It’s a serious threat to our optimism that this idea has existed since Machiavelli’s time. He deals with this when he talks about some of the reasons why democracies collapse.

A democratic government, even the city-states in Machiavelli’s time, were more vulnerable in some ways than the autocratic cities with their princes and military rulers. Democratic government is open – there is always free speech, freedom of association and thought.

The leaders and influencers in the world's older democracies, in
growing numbers, reject democratic methods and ideals in their
governance and missions. Most disturbing about reading the
Discourses on Livy is Machiavelli's idea that the erosion of
democracy and freedom is a natural process in the development
of human societies. For someone raised in an atmosphere of
modernist optimism, it's difficult to face the fatalism of a more
medieval mind.
So that includes the freedom to advocate the end of democracy, and plot to overthrow it. You will always find discontents with the order of things. Sometimes, those discontents are democrats themselves, wanting a more free society. Those are the good ones.

But you can definitely have discontents and malcontents enraged at the freedom of people around them. That was Machiavelli’s problem just as it seems now to be ours.

Yet Machiavelli’s problem was just a little different. Malcontents against democracy didn’t arise in isolation from wider events. The societies that developed anti-democratic movements arose when wealth and power consolidated enough to turn a government into a practical oligarchy. Only a few powerful people really had effective power over the state.

That betrayal of our institutions was the leading edge. There wasn’t yet enough free speech oppression to shut down all criticism. So a generation arises in the wake of democratic institutions having been corrupted, but which still has their personal freedoms.

But they’ve come to associate their institutions – still democratic in name – with corruption and opposition to the people’s freedom. That hypocrisy of the democratic name and its oligarchical control drives the hatred of democracy.

So, Niccolò, how do we combat this self-destructive social trend? . . . . . . . Oh, you mean we don’t? This is just part of the natural causes of a democratic society’s death?

Okay, you’re a very insightful doctor when it comes to diagnoses. But you’re no help at all with cures. Unless I really am asking to cure a natural cause of death.

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