If you read Donald Kagan’s account of The Peloponnesian War, the politicians of Athenian democracy come in for some rough treatment for their dishonestly, stupidity and fecklessness. Kagan is especially tough on Alcibiades, who he mostly blames for the disastrous Sicilian Expedition. Whether that is fair or not is debatable, but Kagan’s description of Alcibiades as a duplicitous and egotistical politician, with a penchant for snapping penises off of statuary, strikes a chord with anyone who follows politics today.
Look around Washington, and with few exceptions, the place is full of the worst sorts of people. It is not just dishonesty, which is a permanent feature of politics, regardless of the system. That is a self-correcting feature. The main issue in our politics is that our system attracts the worst people. It is impossible to find an elected official who has ever done honest work. Most are phenomenally stupid, outside their reptilian ability to fool voters and cozy up to the billionaires that bankroll them.
That comes through clearly in this story from Miami about Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who no doubt has a bright future in politics.
As the “Me Too” movement gained steam across the nation last fall, Miami Beach City Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez went public with her own harrowing tale: that a political ally, Rafael Velasquez, had pulled out his penis and tried to force her to touch it while the two sat alone in a car.
But according to a newly released memo from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, prosecutors have declined to charge Velasquez, saying there was not enough evidence to prove a crime took place.
If anything, investigators found evidence that conflicted with the commissioner’s account — although they also declined to pursue Velasquez’s counter-claim that the commissioner made the whole thing up and filed a false police report in order to promote her congressional campaign.
“This commissioner used these false allegations for political purposes, and the power of her office, to basically destroy my name and reputation in our community,” said Velasquez, who at the time was locked in a close race for the Miami Beach commission. “The only taxpayer-funded seat this criminal commissioner should occupy is a bench in state prison.”
Prosecutors said they informed Rosen Gonzalez and her attorney last month “that no criminal charges could be filed in this matter” because they “would not be able to meet [the] burden of proof to establish a crime had occurred beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.” But in a statement to the Herald, Rosen Gonzalez claimed she was the one who told prosecutors she did not want the case to go on.
It is not hard to see what happened here. The woman saw her opportunity to knock off a political opponent and took it. That may not strike you as a big deal, but this is why Washington is the land of a thousand sociopaths. The farm system that develops elected officials selects for them. In anything resembling an orderly system, Kristen Rosen Gonzalez would never get a purchase, she would be weeded out at the initial point of entry. Instead, you can bet that the big shots in Tallahassee are looking at her as a star.
It is tempting to say that this is just the natural result of democracy. There is a lot of truth there, as this was the result of Athenian democracy, as well. The standard critique of democracy is that it brings together a bunch of not so smart and wise people, expecting them to be collectively what they are not individually. Dumb people do not become smart when their numbers increase. Therefore, the antidote to the defects of democracy is limiting the franchise to the best people. That is the argument for a representative republic.
The counter to this is the public is always choosing between two terrible choices when they go to vote. It is not that they are choosing poorly, so much as they can only choose poorly. At election time, you get to select between two degenerate sociopaths, so the result is fixed. It is hard to blame the public for bad choices, given what we see on display in our elections. The reason Trump is in the White House, despite his long list of liabilities, is he was the most honest guy on stage. Think about that for a second.
Another problem with the standard brief against democracy is the Romans limited public life to the credentialed elite, but they eventually succumbed to the same temptations we see today. Our own experience with republican government in America is an obvious another example. Those sensible elites steadily expanded the franchise, until everyone had the vote. Clearly, limiting the vote to the best men of society is not the solution, at least not in the long run. Eventually, it becomes the rule by the worst.
The solution, if there is one, is to figure out how to put a set of requirements on people entering public life that are easy to defend, even in times of extreme duress or extreme leisure. The Romans came pretty close during the Republic. The requirements placed on a public man worked as a sorting mechanism. It was only when they stopped abiding by these rules that things started to go sideways in a hurry. The puzzle is how to devise a set of barriers to entry that are very hard to violate, even in times of crisis.
It is easy to produce rules that would “solve” many of the problems we face today but implementing them and enforcing them is never mentioned. Assuming the West is not headed for a dark age, ushered in by collapsing demographics, the people of the future will sift through the wreckage and tease out lessons from this failed experiment with mass democracy. The next phase of moral philosophy is applying what is emerging from the cognitive sciences to weed out the sociopaths before they get on the ballot.