You know Democracy’s getting pretty intense when there’s a decent chance of two of the dumbest, loudest, guys you know, with the worst, crudest, blame-the-other-guy plans for the country, could go head to head in the general election.

Compared to the past elections I’ve lived through, a Sanders v. Trump matchup is a shockingly representative showdown, representative of the people, that is — the loud, ignorant, contentious people. This is my first experience, in a way, with Democracy, as the official parties are dragged, kicking and screaming, towards putting up these positively embarrassing candidates…candidates that are contemptible in the eyes of their rivals and would-be kingmakers in the exact same way that they despise the voters. It is the victory of the rubes; for the first time in my life, the grasping, envious, self-righteous, dismissive ignorance and condescension of the Progressives is inducing them to vote for a man like themselves, rather than line up quietly behind anybody “electable” with a ‘D’ after his name. For the first time the resentful protectionism of the working poor (along with their wholly correct hatred of politicians) is not being channeled into some approved suit, but into a man who promises the same crude hammers of “solutions” as my coworkers tell each other “somebody oughta do”, shouting over the construction noise.

Don’t get me wrong, there is something good about this situation, and it is this: Of all the awful candidates we’ve ever had, these two are awful the way America is awful, instead of the way Washington DC is awful. And it’s a terrible situation for the same reason. The reins of power are being wrested away (perhaps) from a tiny elite and into the hands of the masses, and back in the days when I struggled with the nobility of Democracy, I would have been devastated to see that this is the result.

You see, there’s a tradition echoed by Obama when he talks about mandatory voting as a potentially positive step, or Sanders when he puts his hope in “getting the money out of politics” (except for the billions the politicians are to confiscate and spend, of course) that if we could just get real Democracy, it would solve our problems. Our problems are then to be blamed on the electoral college, lobbyists, the nomination system, the parties, anything but the voters. And the voters’ defense has been pretty secure for a long time, it’s hard to blame them for repeatedly choosing the lesser evil in a system that makes that only option. But this latest outburst…there are, I’d imagine, a lot of sincere believers in Democracy either scratching their heads, or in denial right about now. And their confusion will get more intense if the unthinkable happens and Sanders and Trump are the nominees.

I would hope that a lot of delusions about the trustworthiness of 51% of the population to have unchecked power over 49% are being shattered right now, or will be shattered when one of these obviously popular representatives gets into office, carries out all his popular plans, and fails. The worry is that the idea of Liberty is so foreign that many will conclude that rule by an elite is superior to rule by 51%. And it isn’t; to rule is to be excused, that is all. A system of government is only a system of pardons for those deeds we think indispensable to keeping the trains running on time. Do the masses fear that society will fall apart if evil ideas spread through it? Censorship is thus made a “legitimate” power of the government, that is, a power that is not opposed en masse. Do they fear terrorists, foreigners, or some other land? The government can sanitize their paranoid frenzy, carrying out arrests and bombardments of the innocent in their name. Few citizens would look down the sights and pull the trigger on one of the children slaughtered in a bombing campaign, but their conscience is wholly silent when these murders are carried out by a representative. “Necessary evil” is a hauntingly precise phrase for the activity of government. And when the masses feel entitled to somebody else’s paycheck, well, the government can sanitize that too, without citizens having to kick down any doors themselves.

This is the true meaning of Severe Democracy, as it exists in every state: As the state depends for its existence and the legitimacy of its powers on the approval of the masses, that approval defines the limits of its powers. The government can do whatever most people don’t mind it doing. Thus we see that constitutional restraints, far from working within the legal framework to restrain unscrupulous government, actually do have value as long as they are popular, insofar as the First and Second Amendment are articles of faith to many people, who may not know much about government policy or morality, but by instinct cry foul the moment they see censorship or disarmament. The same phenomenon could be present in a state with no written constitution, but a strong tradition (or even prejudice) among the great mass of people that only tyrants censor or disarm subjects. They may approve of taxation or random execution, they may not mind a ruler that spends their money on explosions over civilian cities in foreign lands, but if they have a real, mass instinct against a particular behavior of government, that act does not have legitimacy, and the operators of the state risk their power and their skins by doing it.

Isn’t this a good thing? Does this argument add up to a claim that real Democracy is present in all states, and that the Orwellian power state, imposed from above, is a fictional monster? Well, partly. The Orwellian power state, that is, a state which has power, and thus creates compliance regardless of the population is indeed a fiction, however, the Totalitarian nightmare of 1984 is far, far from fictional. Both of these facts are plain to anyone who does an analysis of the successes and failures of various regimes that directly challenged popular belief and custom. And the conclusion of that historical analysis (if I have done it right) is perhaps more horrible than Orwell’s implication that mere power can keep a mere elite on top of a populace. For that conclusion is exactly what the believers in raw, pure, noble Democracy cannot bear: Totalitarianism is popular. The power of propaganda is not infinite, Fascism was not imposed via brainwave or bare threat, it was chosen. It was chosen by the majority.

We might fairly say that a populace has available to it, a luxurious variety of insane charlatans and raving fanatics. The attachment to a Tyrant (in the old sense) was a choice or taste in line with the values and fears of the people who followed him, and his power, in an exceptionally obvious way, relied on this buy-in from followers. In my youth I spent ink trying to account for the impossible anomaly of the German public attaching itself to the man who led it to its destruction. In truth, they themselves were in error, in deep, moral and intellectual error, and they found their voice in a madman who shared their madness. And they burned in their error together, dragging in their children and neighbors as well. My failure to understand these rather dull and obvious events was a consequence of my worship of Jeffersonian Democracy, and faith in the many. Now I still prefer the many to the few, but the truth is that just as the Tyrant is only a man and not a god, so the voters are only men and not gods. Man cannot deserve the trust we put in him when we accept a system of government.

I am winding up at the conclusion that everyone I know has already dismissed, because they think the Necessary Evils are necessary. My neighbor thinks that the children will starve without the strong arm of the state wrenching funds out of the greedy hands of all the other citizens who aren’t enlightened enough to pay to feed them. Another thinks a nuclear arsenal and domestic spying keep the wolves at bay. Still another fears for the poor consumer who risks an un-approved product, and so stands by the police power in licensing and product regulation. And though they agree that no one man should wield these powers, nor club of men, or mob of men, should have the keys to the nukes or tax their neighbors at gunpoint, the Holy Institution: Democracy, has for them some magic in it that makes these powers safe to wield. There are lines men were not meant to cross…unless they voted to cross them, then, apparently, it’s safe.

It will be objected that if man is so untrustworthy (as he obviously is) then neither Liberty nor Authority can save him, especially if the Severe Democracy thesis is true and a government cannot correct the public (as in the dreams of Progressives), but only express (or fight futilely against) the common customs. And that is true: A sufficiently corrupt populace cannot be saved, except by a change in its own practices and beliefs. If it is so that the true power of the state is only to do what the population accepts, then no government can really override culture, politics must always remain a trailing indicator, and the Enlightened Despot dream is dead, right along with Enlightened Democracy and Enlightened Liberty.

The part of this thesis that relates to the impotence of government in doing positive work is entirely correct. But the gulf between Authority and Liberty is made greater and not less, by this situation. Remember the effect that Democracy’s holiness has on the consciences of my neighbors. It would hardly be different if they thought the Hapsburgs had the noble character necessary to use fire and sword safely, or if their superstition centered on some little talisman that if you wear it, you become infallible and worthy to slay children or stifle livelihoods and call it “good”. The beliefs of the masses define the legitimacy of their governments, and the masses believe that government can legitimately bombard, terrorize, seize, spy, and torture. Through the superstition of the state, evil is given a welcome place in the world. Only by accepting the idea of a Necessary Evil, does the normal man I know embrace evil, welcome it, fund it, and ultimately collude with all his fellows to perpetrate it against others and say, “We have done nothing wrong.” Only through belief in the state does he give outlet to his vengeance and his envy, his cruelty, paranoia, prejudice, and indifference to the plight of his fellow men.

What Authority adds then, is a loophole in the conscience. However good or evil a man is, he can be more evil, or approve of greater evil in others, through the official channels and forms of a legitimate state. However corrupt the public, if it believes in the state, any state, it believes in a monopoly of certain powers. That is, all its members may claim for themselves the right to do all kinds of evil…but there is some evil reserved only for the state. Some terrible weapon is too great for the common man, and only the Great Man, or the Holy Institution, or the wearer of the Special Hat can be trusted with it. It thus may be welcome among men who should have been working to abolish such a horror.

The featured image is © Robert Voight / Adobe Stock.