Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Revolution: A Cautionary Tale

I like the idea of eating frog legs. It’s manly, kinda gross, and makes a great story. A lot of people have a hot crush whom they like the idea of, but would never bring home to their mother. Some people like the idea of a pet, until it poops on their bed. All people like the idea of having power, that is, until they are actually forced to use it. Then it ends up being a big stinky mess that they find smeared all over their thigh after a long day at work.

America is witnessing a surge of populism movements that claim to represent putting the power back into the hands of the people. Bernie Sanders’ campaign was populist. Donald Trump’s run is populist. Hillary Clinton wants to be a populist, but come on, who’s really gonna buy that? We see similar movements in other countries. There’s BREXIT in the U.K. and the nationalist front in France. The student protests in the Arab world and in Hong Kong all ring with populism, with the tender shoots of political revolution. Indeed, our own history is rife with populist sentiment. It’s embedded into our national ethos, into our constitution.

Yet, our founding fathers were not so gung-ho for populist movements as we might be. There is a reason that the electoral college exists, that senators were once appointed and not elected. With our twentieth century lens we might accuse them of being selfish landowners bent on protecting their own power, and they might have been, but they saw a peril that most of us aren’t willing to see. The potential tyranny of democracy.

The fundamental weakness of a democratic government is its tendency to become inefficient, and Americans hate inefficiency. Democracy is good at the slow transformation of law and culture, but bad at sudden and decisive action. It’s why we have an executive branch in the first place. If everything were up to Congress, nothing would get done in the case of a natural disaster or a war.

Populist movements feed off of inefficiency. Their power surges while the strength of democracy putrefies. Populism can quickly turn a democratic nation into an authoritarian state.

Examples include Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Iranian Revolution, the French Revolution, the Maoist Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, and the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, practically all of the revolutions in the past one hundred years have led to at least a temporary, if not relatively permanent, state of dictatorship.

The reason is that all of the populist movements invest their power into a single person, a man (I guess men have a penchant for military dictatorships) who represents their movement. He promises to “get stuff done” and “throw out the oppressors.” Yet, as in the case of the Iranian Revolution, tyranny is overthrown with tyranny. A state that brutally suppressed its people merely manages to murder a few high ranking citizens and then it returns to the subjugation of its people.

We Americans have to be extremely cautious of any person claiming that they will singlehandedly change government. That is the hallmark of a demagogue at the least and a murderous tyrant at the worst. So maybe we should tone back our “I hate the government” rhetoric and start looking for ways to work within it. That doesn’t mean that we allow our government to harm or discriminate against people. It means that we shouldn’t be rash and arrogant, imagining, like every generation, that our ideas will work much better than our forefathers’. That’s how we get Napoleons and Hitlers, Maos and Pol Pots. If our political discussions center around “showing the other side what’s up,” or “throwing out the Washington cartel,” or any of those self-aggrandizing clichés, we should expect dangerous populist movements will follow.

The end result is anarchy, economic ruin, and widespread violence. That power that we once longed for will become a proverbial turd in the bed of our lives.

In the fashion of Victorian authors, Oh Reader, be ye warned by my cautionary tale.

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