Sunday, March 17, 2013

Is the US Becoming Despotic?

"Avoid the comfortable idea that the mere form of government can of itself safeguard a nation against despotism." ~ Harold Laswell, PHD of Yale University in 1946

Democracy and Despotism

At the end of World War II, Encyclopedia Britannica's film division produced a film exploring how societies and nations rank on the spectrum from democracy to despotism.

Having fought such a violent struggle against fascism, there was much thought given to what had happened and how it might be avoided in future.

Reflecting upon their experience, the warning signs of despotism were noted:

  1. Concentration of power into a few hands
  2. Fewer people considered worthy of respect

These cautions operate in our current era.  They also suggest we should keep power divided and respect other's right to hold different viewpoints.

Concentration of Government Power

We have divided government today.  The supreme court and congress are not concentrations of power at this time.
Divided power

The supreme court is often divided in its decisions with none getting their way all the time.  Most decisions are split and few unanimous. Debate and dissension seems standard operating procedure.

Congress is divided between the left and right; the Senate is Democrat controlled and the House Republican.  Divisions within parties even constantly struggle to gain tactical advantage.  A push and pull between competing ideas is a daily battle which unfolds before us.

Many individual states trend toward one ideology or another.  Many other states have divided ideologies.  There is no clear concentration of political power across the states, although a few states may not be divided.

Distribution of U.S. wealth
Concentration of Economic Power

There appear to be business, individuals or other interests that have concentrated power.

Economic power has become very concentrated.  Fewer and fewer people control the wealth of the land.  This slanting of the distribution of wealth allows hidden political power to accumulate.  While voting may continue, the laws are drafted by those with money to influence more often than the those who represent the electorate.

Over the past 50 years, economic power has become concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.

A strong middle class would be a good counter balance to coalescing economic interests.  Taxes, law and purchasing power can be used to counter balance those whose economic interests attempt to control the people.

The idea that only a few of us should have earned the wealth of the land is warning sign that despots could be near.  I do think there is some secret plot, rather fear a trend that puts our democracy at risk.

I am also not advocating socialism as a solution.  An equal playing field for all citizens to compete fairly will allow wealth and incomes to remain unconcentrated.  Capitalism must be regulated, greed should not be the means for political power.

Worthy of Respect

In the arena of respect however, our society may be at a higher risk of becoming despotic.  People of strong views are often not listening to one another.  We tend to group together in insulated bubbles of ideology.

With many options in media, people flock to political identity groups.  In doing so, we have begun to regularly disrespect one another.

Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh would be examples of voices that frequently show disdain for their opponents on the right.  How they speak to others illustrates incivility.  Using disdain,  interruption, and ridicule as tactics; their lack of esteem for others as human beings is easily heard.

On the left we have examples in Steven Colbert and Huffington Post.  Frequent coarseness, flippancy, and impiety are used to present their political opponents as being less than human.  Often cloaked in humor, the negative impacts can be devastating to persons rather than ideas.

Of course all humans are within their rights to be biased.  It is not the bias that leads to despotism.  It is the lack of respect for others that can do so.

Casting political stones
Mental Violence

While it may be fun to use Ad Hominem (to the person) attacks, they are dangerous when they become the standard means of communicating with each other.

Ridicule, dismissal, disdain, interruption, rudeness, and impoliteness are not tactics that mature, reasoned adults should use in discourse.  Verbal abuse is a form of mental violence.  Allowing constant and frequent verbal abuse leads to devaluing human beings.

Despots thrive in an environment of hate.

What Not To Do

One should not question the moral character of a person who disagrees with us.  Actions  and opinions can be found immoral by one or many of us.  Holding an idea by itself is not immoral.  It is our duty to help others become moral, not dismiss or persecute them as unworthy of morality.  

When a person's circumstances are used to define their views by others, it is a sign of lack of respect. Saying "They only passed that law to gain votes" or "only the uneducated listen to that idea" are disrespectful means of attacking a person rather than an idea.

Guilt by association is another frequent way of disrespecting other people.  This fallacy says "This person thinks a thing and another person we all know is evil thinks the same thing, therefore they both must be evil."  These arguments devalue the person rather than the idea.

Disagreement is Normal

No one has perfect morality, circumstance or association.  We all fail at somethings.  People who claim perfection are acting dishonestly.

Every man is a sinner
When we are all made to agree with one opinion, we risk despotism.  Disagreement is healthy for all of us to learn better ways of thinking and being.  Dissent is healthy and required for a democracy to thrive.

Divided political power is a strength of democracy.  Dictators can not control divided power.  Kings do not prosper when people contend for different views.  It may not be a pretty form of government, it is the best we have found so far.

Divided economic power is also a strength that keeps away despotism.  A strong, vibrant middle class is necessary in order to not allow one or a few to control the land and its laws.

Ridiculing people rather than ideas demeans us all.  Disagree, debate, and vote.
Do not demean people for their ideas, good or bad.

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