Beware of “Democracy in Danger”

The rhetoric of imminent threats to the political system has been used and abused throughout history to stifle dissent, polarize politics, ostracize opposition, and much, much worse.

Political persuasion has been an art for millennia, going back to the very earliest non-absolutist systems such as ancient Greece and republican Rome. In those days, the targets of persuasion were primarily a socially-homogenous elite oligarchy which controlled politics without real input from the majority of the people. As time went on and these systems evolved (with fits and starts) into their more modern and recognizable forms, bringing more people into the political process, the targets of persuasion broadened. This expansion of the electorate, especially after the democratic revolutions and reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries, helped lead to the simplified messaging, inflammatory rhetoric, and hyperbolized language we are so familiar with today. Perhaps the easiest message by which to persuade voters to your side is the invocation of peril, especially to the political system or “way of life.” Much of the power of this message emanates from the association of the State with the People more broadly; instead of Louis XIV’s formulation “L’état, c’est moi,” we have a more pluralistic – although no more accurate – vision, “Létat, c’est nous.” This binding of People with State makes it possible to expand a narrow political danger to encompass all of society, feeding an attitude of existential menace. This stoking of a feeling of danger to the very foundations of the nation (and thus the People) is a powerful motivator by which to get your way politically; as such, it has been used by governments repeatedly over the past two centuries to achieve their goals – often for the worse.

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Blood, Iron, & Fortune: Otto von Bismarck & the Role of Chance in Statesmanship


History is, by its very nature, contingent; that contingency has gone by many names over the eons: luck, chance, fate, or – if one is inclined to see the workings of the divine in history – Providence. The famed Renaissance political philosopher and theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, in his masterwork The Prince, called this element of randomness Fortune and saw it as a major factor in the passage of history and the practice of statesmanship. He did not, however, see Fortune as the only factor in human affairs, instead writing that “I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”[1] What is more important than luck is how the statesman deals with that element of chance – fortune or misfortune – and his ability to succeed in achieving his goals regardless of the quirks of fate. That, for Machiavelli, meant that a key job of the statesman was to “direct his actions according to the spirit of the times” so as to tame the whims of Fortune and use them to his own advantage.[2] To bring this idea down from the lofty heights of political philosophy to the everyday practice of government, Machiavelli analogized Fortune to a flowing river, saying:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.[3]

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