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Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy

Professor Harvey C. Mansfield of Harvard University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution is famous for his scholarship on classical political philosophy (I often recommend his edition on Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy) as well as his provocative commentary on social and political issues.  While I liked his take on Machiavelli, I warmed to him further when, after his book on manliness came out and some reporter asked Mansfield if it was “manly” to carry a gun? He answered to the effect, “Yes, but not as manly as carrying a sword”.

Mansfield has a new article out in Defining Ideas  on the nature of elections and democracy worth reading:

Are You Smarter Than a Freshman? 

….Machiavelli believes that human beings are divided into the few who want to rule and the many who do not care to rule themselves but do not want to be ruled by others either. Then those who want to rule must conceal their rule from the many they rule if they wish to succeed. How can they do this? Machiavelli went about conceiving a “new mode of ruling,” a hidden government that puts the people “under a dominion they do not see.” Government is hidden when it appears not to be imposed on you from above but when it comes from you, when it is self-imposed.

Machiavelli recounts a psychological truth about humans: “wounds and other evils that a man does upon himself spontaneously and by choice hurt much less than those that are done to you by someone else.” It sounds crazy to claim that it hurts less when you break your leg yourself than when someone or something else does it. But when you do it yourself, the hurt is less because it doesn’t include resentment against whoever or whatever did it to you.

A further step in the argument: The many, the common people, resent government because of the necessary hurts it imposes—as people say, death and taxes. Government demands sacrifices in return for the peace, comfort, and justice it provides. But government hurts less, and is even hidden from you, when it comes from you—when it comes from an election.

An election is not so much a positive choice, as you might suppose from Aristotle, as the purging of resentment against government and the humbling of the few who run for office. As we see in the contest between Obama and Romney, an election forces the rulers to seek our approval, our vote. It enables us to choose one, and perhaps more important, to deny the other. Partisanship often shows itself less in having your side win than in defeating the other side.

In this way, an election allows people to think that their government comes from them, when in fact it remains pretty much the same whether it’s Obama or Romney. The particular candidate may win or lose, but the class of “politicians” that we decry, the few who desire to rule, always wins. For their part, the people indulge in the luxury of throwing out the losing candidate, expressing their resentment against being governed, while (almost) incidentally electing the winner, who then governs in their name with their consent. 

A while back, I had an interesting discussion in the comment section with “SZR” , Duncan Kinder and LC Rees over Donald Kagan’s interpretation of the Athenian statesman and general Nicias.  Kagan’s version of Nicias was a man who feared “the resentment of being governed” of the Mob and who therefore flattered the people with his own modest pretense and that this apprehension led to the disasters that befell Athens in Sicily.  Pericles, too, comes in for criticism by Kagan who is unsympathetic to the advocacy that Thucydides showed toward the former’s defensive strategy.

I think as a rule, Machiavelli’s view of politics proves to win out wherever the system of government is not actively coercing politicians toward’s Aristotle’s ideals of governance. The gravity of the lowest moral common denominator exerts a strong pull in politics in the absence of a countervailing power.

8 Responses to “Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy”

  1. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    Got to like this quote: “Yes, but not as manly as carrying a sword”.

    Mansfield’s essay at City Journal is also good and can be found here

    To the point of your last sentence, a good reason to value and extoll a moral and virtuous life…

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    Romney should have dressed in chain mall at the convention, but then again he did get to stand next to the “V.P.”.

  3. L. C. Rees Says:

    Kagan’s argument against Nicias is a subset of Kagan’s larger effort to counter a line of argument offered by a faction of well-born Athenians (Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Euripides), lower class but pro-aristocratic ideologues (Socrates, at least in his Platonic ideal), and their followers (Aristotle, Isocrates). This men portrayed Athenian democracy as vulgar, capricious, and stupid. The influence of this line of argument rolled down the centuries to our own time where it continues to inspire great minds like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman.

    Kagan argues, using the same techniques of extrapolation from remains of alternative historical sources and Thucydides terrifying silences he uses against Thucydides’ account to argue that Athenian democracy was far more stable and far more effective than its enemies (like Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Euripides, apparently Socrates, Aristotle) would admit. The modern political context of Kagan’s argument is similar to Buckley’s “I’d rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston phone directory than by the entire faculty of Harvard University” i.e. the competence of our professoriate or meritocracy may not be any greater than the competence of 100 people whose names start with “A”.

    A strain of thought among ancient writers classified any system that relied on voting for representatives as an oligarchy. Democracies were only democratic if its governing members were selected by lot. The Athenian democracy not only selected people by lot but it compelled them to participate in government. The only similar institution in our current system is the jury. It may be that some problems with our current institutions could be mitigated if more participation by the American people was required to participate not just in liturgical rites like voting but in actual governing of their locality, if more legislators were selected by lot (and rotated out of office shortly thereafter), or if the lot was creatively mixed with the electoral principle (my favorite example being the mechanism used to elect the Doge of Venice which combined elements of election and the lot from 1268-1797).

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Scott,
    You raise a good point:
    ” …. a good reason to value and extoll a moral and virtuous life”
    Virtue and virtu’ . Not the same thing, but a relationship between possession of moral goodness and the exercise of good citizenship and as an actor in public life and garners trust, legitimacy and authority for a leader. George Marshall, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Eisenhower, Truman had both and were remarkable American leaders because of it.
    Genuine scoundrels rarely make good leaders in the sense of effective service to the higher national good (some exceptions, like Talleyrand and Sulla) but having real virtue does not guarantee the kind of statesmanlike virtu’ either. Jimmy Carter had virtue personally, but very little in the way of virtu’, and that kind of otherworldly naivete was damaging for the country. Cato the Younger’s political power was based upon his real reputation for incorruptible personal virtue and consistent adherence to old Roman pieties, which made him widely admired (if not loved) which even his enemies like Caesar acknowledged. But Cato’s virtu’ as a statesman lagged because his judgment was untempered by moderation. Cicero, who wrote much on virtue, struggled with virtu’ when he had to act as consul against the Catiline conspiracy and appeared (as I read it) to have been acting as much from fear as any other motivation. Yet, in time, when the Republic was dying, instead of keeping his head down, Cicero found his courage and dared to issue his Philippics against the thuggish and crude Marc Antony.
    There seems to be a requisite “hardness” in virtu’, the resolution to take stern necessary measures in defense of the community/state/nation that may not , in isolation (or even in context), seem “moral” that is absent from virtue but would not be compelling or would be repudiated if the leader was not also seen (trusted) for their virtue. Eisenhower had to sign off on the firebombing of Dresden. He sent men to die by the thousands on the beaches of Normandy, at Market Garden, the Bulge and in 1000 plane daylight raids. Truman had to weigh using atomic bombs vs. the deaths incurred by invading Japan’s home islands and fighting every yard with an enemy that viewed surrender as morally far worse than dying for the Emperor. It is hard to see a gentler, more “virtuous” figure – say a Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama or Billy Graham doing those things, perhaps to the greater cost.
    The Founders were remarkably wise in constructing constitutional safeguards on the assumption that virtu’ was a matter of chance and the inevitably, virtue would fail in some men whose hands held power. Many of these safeguards could use strengthening as they have eroded with time and an elite that subscribes to constitutional values halfheartedly at best (lacking virtu’) and seems prone to personal and collective indulgence of corruption that an earlier generation of pols would have relegated to grocery bags of unmarked bills handed off in the dead of night (lacking virtue).
    Hi LC,
    The influence of this line of argument rolled down the centuries to our own time where it continues to inspire great minds like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. “
    Well said, and generally true though I think Aristotle was far more inclined to a moderate republic(a “mixed” constitution) than was his mentor Plato who was a pimp for the Thirty Tyrants and the Ephors/Gerousia. I am also inclined to think that Socrates was more complex a figure than Plato’s sock puppetry has made him. He defied his former proteges, risking execution, during the oligarchic regime and stayed in Athens when Xenophon thought it politic to “pursue other opportunities” while it was under the hand of vengeful democrats, refusing to speak in the assembly and later parading his contempt for his accusers during his trial. but yes, philo-Lacedaemonism runs through this crowd of Athenian dissenters.
    It may be that some problems with our current institutions could be mitigated if more participation by the American people was required to participate not just in liturgical rites like voting but in actual governing of their locality”
    Having once participated in governing locally, I both agree and disagree. Or at least I disagree if the coerced officeholder has no consequences for being an intransigent, anti-reality, fantasist. It was harder to be an obstructive and unreasonable nutcase in Athens when your official acts could be (and often were) subject to an official inquiry and severe consequences like ostracism once you relinquished power. Government today would generally improve by the breaking of incestuous, insider clique’s monopolistic hold on power but the number of mildly mentally ill/anti-social personality disorder cohort in the population gives me pause

  5. Nigel Says:

    I came to this site through a recommendation from Helen Szamuely.  I am glad that I did.  My knowledge grows and my education continues.  Thank You

  6. zen Says:

    Welcome Nigel and thanks! I will have to thank Helen as well – she and Charles and I also happen to post together at Chicago Boyz blog from time to time.

  7. L. C. Rees Says:

    Aristotle strikes me as the Beard of Understanding for the Macedonian ruling class, at least as long as they swung Cassander-ways and not late Alexander-ways. Alexander-ways stank too much of medizing instead of good old fashioned Greek tyranny.

    During a debate over the historicity of Jesus, that Moby Dick of the religious atheist, a high school friend of mine argued that Socrates was as much of an invention of Plato’s imagination as Atlantis and (by implication) Jesus was of Paul’s fevered imagination. He was shocked (shocked!) to learn that history is a whole new way to plagiarize. He condemned (condemned!) Aristophanes and Xenophon’s preemptive and unethical theft of Plato’s intellectual property and the Socrateses they counterfeited to prove the existence of Jesus. Such is a mind armed with more philosophy than sense. Whatever sophistry Socrates peddled, it was probably unfriendly to the Athenian democracy.

    For most philolaconic Athenian aristocrats, Sparta was probably more of a club they used for domestic political arguments than a garrison state they aspired to live in. I suspect most, like Thucydides, simply wanted a return to the days before Peisistratus and even Solon when their class ruled and the common people lied there, obedient to their commands. If an Athenian aristocrat followed Spartan discipline, they were usually either slumming in exile, like Alcibiades, or they’d drunk the koolaid black broth like Xenophon.

    Rule by frequently rotated juries of 100-1000, randomly drawn from residents of a locality who are compelled to serve, is a better way to throw some sand in the wheels of politics as usual than the solution as usual (to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson), “To teach the republic to elect Good Men!!!”. Most of those who pose as Good Men to be elected are often covert agents of the mildy mentally-ill/anti-social personality disorder cohort in the population”. Since such people constitute a sort of floating population at present, mixing them in with their fellow citizens so that their fellow citizens can keep an eye on them seems socially constructive.

  8. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy Says:

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