Getting Real About Democracy

In 1959, Vice President Nixon and Russian Premier Khrushchev met in a model American kitchen in a Moscow exhibit, and talked about democracy. The actual specifics of the discussion were rather more subtle than what the public, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, ultimately got out of it. What the US audience heard was that democracy is better than communism because the average capitalistic American can afford a refrigerator and the average communist Russian can’t. But even in the subtleties of real conversation, the fact that an ideology supposedly based on dialectical materialism considered certain kinds of public ideals more important than material comforts, while a culture supposedly founded on the ideals of freedom and equality valued its kitchen appliances more than either, never came up. (Nor, oddly, did the fact that, for a large part of the year in a large part of the USSR, people don’t really need refrigerators, they just need an unheated space for storing perishables. But I digress.)

Is freedom valuable only because and to the extent that it produces material prosperity? Some philosophers decry this outlook as a merely “instrumental” view of something valuable in its own right. Aristotle talks about it surprisingly often. Indeed, freedom is not the only ideal we value for its economic advantages. Max Weber attributed the same advantage to particular kinds of Protestant religiosity. So do many on the Religious Right today. Are freedom, and virtue, good because they are good for business? Only because they are good for business?

This is no mere abstraction. The more prosperous parts of the Middle East are doing some serious soul-searching on the subject as we speak. And so, closer to home, are the citizens of Chicago. It’s hard to find, or even to coin, a term for the form of government which has ruled Chicago (with a brief interregnum) for 50 years, but it sure as hell isn’t a democracy or even a republic. Maybe a political monopoly.

The closest parallel I can think of is an altercation I had many years ago with our newspaper. We were signed up for delivery, and our delivery service was outrageously spotty. I kept calling the paper circulation department to complain, with no results. The circulation people told me they had contracted delivery out to some private service. So couldn’t you contract it out to some other service, I asked, baffled. Well, no, they couldn’t, because there was no other service. And, they pointed out, no other service was likely to spring up, because the current service had an exclusive monopoly on delivering both Chicago papers. That’s a pretty good analogy to Chicago politics over most of the last half-century. The Machine has a monopoly on government. And no alternatives are likely to come into existence, because there is no niche for them to occupy. Now Daley II has announced his retirement, and next week we have to vote on his successor. We all seem to be really awkward about this. After all, no Chicagoan under the age of 40 has ever had the experience of a serious multi-candidate mayoral election.

There’s more to it than that, in both Chicago and the Middle East. From the outside, business and other political entities find a monopoly (or dictatorship, or kleptocracy) easier to deal with than a democracy. You know where to send the bribes. (I’m only partially joking here. Chicago took longer to get television cable service than just about any other large city in the US because that phase of development happened during the “interregnum” mentioned above, when Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and Eugene Sawyer held the office of mayor, and the political scene ran from free-form to chaotic. As a result, the cable companies couldn’t figure out whom to bribe in order to get the concession.) You know where to apply the pressure. As a result, sometimes the citizens of a monopolistic polity really are more materially prosperous than those of a poor but honest democracy. Once the Daley dynasty was back in charge, Chicagoans had no trouble getting cable.

Back in my English teacher days, I often used my students as guinea pigs in informal sociological studies. Since I taught in both private and community colleges, and often at satellite campuses in suburbs and obscure neighborhoods, I actually had a pretty good demographic spread of subjects. For several years, I asked all of them: If you had to choose between (a) a benevolent dictatorship in which you were guaranteed a job, a good income, a nice home with all the modern conveniences, a car, health care, and education for your children, but no right to vote or choose your leaders or have any part in deciding on the laws that would govern you, and (b) a democracy in which you would have the right to vote, choose your leaders, advocate for laws and causes you believed in, with some chance of effecting the system, but a really bad economy, with poorly-paid jobs, so that most people could not afford a decent home, a car, education for their children, or health care—AND IN NO CASE COULD YOU HAVE BOTH DEMOCRACY AND A GOOD ECONOMY—which would you choose? I had to belabor the point that they could not choose “both,” on pain of a failing grade, because so many of them almost automatically assumed that democracy always produced prosperity that I could not otherwise get them to accept the premise, even for the sake of argument.

The ethnic differences were interesting. African-Americans almost always chose the poor but honest democracy. Hispanics almost always chose the benevolent dictatorship. Immigrants, from almost any country, tended to favor the benevolent dictatorship model. I could not discern any difference between men and women, or older and younger students. Everybody else pretty much split right down the middle.

If I were setting up the same survey today, I might formulate it a bit differently. Instead of a benevolent dictatorship, I might posit a state run like a corporation, in which the ordinary non-shareholding citizens got good jobs, good benefits, the right to live in a well-run company town, but no part in choosing the Board of Directors or the CEO, and no right to buy shares (kind of like George Pullman’s initial vision) versus the aforementioned poor but honest democracy. So okay, my fellow Alexandrians, which would you choose? And why?

Red Emma


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