WORDS: 2,234 — Aristotle is credited for the quote in the title above. It calls to account that only the best should rule. What it doesn’t say is who determines who is best to rule… nor what it means to rule “best”. In America democracy “rules” yet is it the best for picking the “best” to rule?
At a time in our current history where our politics is so vitriol and the word “patriotism” is used by all sides as some measure of Constitutional morality, this post might be a bit of a challenge to comprehend. Part of being an American is being completely sold on the merits of democratic rule, even to the point of ignoring the down side to representative government. Oh… you didn’t know there were down sides to our democratic republicanism? “HERESY! You Commie-pinko, fascist, Marxist, authoritarian-loving, socialist bastard!”, you scream at me. (“Commie-pinko”? Does anyone even use that term anymore? Another Boomer “thing”.) I suggest you get a grip.
Churchill is oft quoted as saying, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others.”… although that’s a bit of a misquote from his speech to the House of Commons in 1947…
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, and that public opinion expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”
Nonetheless, the point here is to recognize that the polar opposite to representative government is authoritarian rule, yet the common factor to both are the leaders who lead, albeit the process of selection can be quite different, and most certainly how much power is given (or surrendered) by the citizenry in which to rule. So am I daring to suggest that authoritarian rule is any better than democracy? No. What I am daring to suggest is that most, if not all, forms of government have their distinct advantages and disadvantages, much depending on certain situations or events… and social custom or religious preference. This is why early education, into high school, should include not only a civics understanding of how our republican democracy works but also the reasons other forms of government, as practiced by other nations, might work under different conditions. Here’s a current example.
During the earlier “heyday” of the pandemic when nations were scurrying about trying to control the spread with quarantines, mask mandates, and lockdowns the nations with authoritarian leaders and oppressive governments tended to do better than more democratic nations in controlling the spread of the disease. Why? Because a central authority was calling the shots and the civil government infrastructure was in place to enforce unquestionable compliance from the population. Policy debates were not heard of and authoritarian rule was simply a natural order of things. As this post is being written the Communist Chinese government even now is rigidly enforcing testing and quarantining and hospitalization not only with its own people but also with foreigners attending the Olympics. The result is a slowing down of the spread of Covid in China.. even during such a huge world competition and spectator event as the Olympics, which normally would have all the makings of a super-spreader event. But the cost to China, or the Chinese people, has meant mask mandates, constant testing, vaccines, lockdowns, as needed and as dictated, with compliance assured or face the risk of detention and/or arrest.
A representative government such as a democracy is by design meant to NOT be a fast process. It’s meant to be slow, contemplative, deliberate, in order to engage in discourse and debate to create laws that reflect a compromise of the will of the people. Our Founding Fathers were pretty much fed up with the authoritarian rule of monarchs, tyrants, dictators, single-voiced authoritarian leaders throughout human history and created our Constitutional government in part founded on precepts of freedoms outlined as reasons for proclaiming our independence. Now, this is not to say that the world has not seen a share of benevolent authoritarian leaders or governments throughout the ages. I would guess the exact number in order to compare is lost but to the ages and the Almighty. But we all know the stories of the “nasties” of history are certainly well known. We’ve also come to understand the foibles of man in general and his/her susceptibility to the temptations in having absolute power. Yet there’s this lingering perception that under certain circumstances, conditions of urgency, emergency, necessity… in times of great trial and tribulation, where the leadership of one person can meet the moment when there’s no time for talk and debate…. or the job is mission-specific toward a greater goal. The officer on a battlefield needing to command his troops toward a victory… a team captain in the middle of a sporting event, a CEO of a corporation, on a ship on the high seas. All are examples of absolute rule required of an authoritarian, an absolute leader.
As Americans the thought of any sort of absolute leader is abhorrent to the spirit of our existence as a nation. Yet we should realize that there will be times where we, the people, might have to surrender a portion of our collective democratic power for the sake of the expediency to make the necessary decisions to meet the urgency at hand. Example… when America entered WW2 following Pearl Harbor Congress recognized the need to engage in our national response by ceding the power to shift our domestic manufacturing capacity from the theoretical “butter to guns”, and to place our agricultural priorities to assist in the war effort to defeat Japanese imperialism and European fascism, to the President… thus expediting decision-making. That was the War Powers Act. The key to that allowance by Congress was a trust in the institution of the Executive, a trust in the man to exercise and uphold moral guardrails, and most importantly, set a time limit on the President’s extra authority to no longer than three months following a surrender. His decisions, right or wrong, were absolute because we needed that kind of leader.
The example I have used before regarding the need for leadership with absolute authority is taken from the movie, U-571. The sub’s commander has died and left the executive officer in charge. In front of his men he hesitated in providing decisive orders and was called out on it by the Chief of the Boat…
“This is the Navy, where a commanding officer is a mighty and terrible thing. A man to be feared and respected. All knowing; all powerful. Don’t you dare say what you said to the boys back there again, ‘I don’t know.’ Those three words will kill a crew, dead as a depth charge. You’re the skipper now, and the skipper always knows what to do whether he does or not.”
Strangely, in spite of the fact our sitting presidents are not absolute rulers, we do expect of them to at least act like ship captains, giving us words of encouragement, uniting our efforts, cheerleading us and focusing and reminding us of our moral obligation as Americans, and promising to meet our needs. We WANT our presidents to give us hope.. to tell us their administration is working out the problems. Too often it’s in their doing that which gets them into political trouble when things don’t exactly work out. Honestly, I have no idea why anyone would want to be president, but we should be thankful that some do.
Then there’s the current pandemic. The first time in modern history (since 1918) where a deadly disease ravaged the land. The pride of our technical ability created a vaccine in record time. Our national response was appalling. Why? Far too many “leaders” calling the shots according to political bias… too many captains… and a Congress too much engaged in divisive politics to transfer the necessary power, having waited before any “War Powers” delegation regarding vaccine development, testing, manufacturing of personal protection supplies. The response remains half-hearted and fractured… a mirror of our political divide. No trust in the institutions of government, no trust in whoever is the president. Democracy has NOT served our nation well in this pandemic emergency, which then places significant doubt as to future national emergencies. To make that worse, half the nation has doubts about our elections. Doubts? No. It’s lack of faith in leadership and in our Constitutional ability to chose a leader… a “captain” we can believe in. We’ve been fighting a war with a bug that has killed more Americans than any shooting war in American history… made heroes of our health system and medical personnel trying to keep us alive in spite of ourselves. Deaths are at 900,000 and climbing, and a national health system stretched to its limits with those that have been infected…. with still no one with the authority to take charge to lead us out of this. It is less up to the sitting president and far more about Congress in its inept squabbling over nationalistic political nonsense, and the pandemic disinformation is killing people.
This is precisely the reason we have a semblance of a War Powers Act. To assign a single leader.. not let 50 different politically infected politicians leading each state to do anything they want that fits their political bias. Our health scientists, by doing what they know best to stop the pandemic, bring strict recommendations to the table and half the country calls them traitors and complicit to wanting to take away all our freedoms. Think of it this way… democracy allowed those pandemic victims to die without a fight. But we can’t ever admit to that. So those who have died and will die from this pandemic are simply casualties of war. Too bad, so sad. But no one takes away our freedoms with health mandates, right? After all, we live in a country of conspiracy around every corner… corruption to gain money and power…. no faith in government serving the people. We certainly have little or no faith in the Constitution, and most certainly we have little or no faith in each other. Don’t forget.. “I’ll be damned if I ever approve of giving the President of another party enhanced powers to do whatever the hell they want to tear down America!” Yeah.. right. Even if it kills us.
So as we begin to kick back and start imagining the next national emergency (and there will be more) and trying to apply the lessons learned from this one we might want to consider the powers Congress can provide to the the captain of our ship of democracy to pull us through if the situation were dire enough to focus the effort of the entire nation toward our national survival.
But also in play is the idea that even in spite of a benevolent Congress to temporarily broaden the powers of the presidency, it does not assure that any said president will make the correct decisions all the time when trying to save the country. Just as a captain on a ship cannot always make the correct decision in properly setting the sails to an unknown or unexpected weather condition, a president with expanded powers is only human and is not impervious to making mistakes. That’s where faith in leadership is important. But we are a long way away from anything resembling faith in this country… and we are way too busy fighting ourselves rather than fixing our problems. Democracy run amok and no one in the batter’s box waiting to lead us back.
But you know, even in all that cloudy crap permeating the countryside these days we can fall back on this….
“America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, and who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”
I’ll finish this with another quote from Hollywood. While movie characters, fictional or otherwise, are just repeating words from a screenplay authored by writers not normally credited with sage wisdom of the ages like a Churchill or an Aristotle, they often do present a reflection of “us” in telling a story of “us”. Words can and do have meaning regardless how they are spoken or by whom. This is from “The American President” (1995).. written by Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”).
Lewis Rothschild (President’s Speechwriter/Michael J. Fox): People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas): Lewis, we’ve had Presidents who were beloved who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand ’cause they’re thirsty. They drink the sand ’cause they don’t know the difference.