Friday Takeaway:  Ilan Stavans

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home.

Published: 11/2/2018 1:10:25 PM

With another looming election before us, it seems fitting to reflect on the current role that elites have in the governance of democracies.

I should qualify that some of these reflections stem from a rereading I recently did, in this time of narrowing liberties, of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (1532), a persistently profound treatise about a despot whose reign is based on sheer manipulation.

Basically, there are three systems of government: In 1. autocracies, the question of who is the ruler is succinctly answered: an individual, a family or a dynasty. In 2. plutocracies, it is a ruling class that is in charge, perpetuating itself though birth and wealth. And in 3. democracies, it is a roster of people that are elected by a majority to serve as leaders.

On the face of it, these options, which seldom come in pure form, look like a pyramid, with power either concentrated in a single individual or disseminated throughout the polity. History, people like to believe, is a march toward representativeness, that is, toward a governance that doesn’t fall on one person alone.

Reality likes to play jokes. Or else, it comes in cycles. At any rate, the rise of populism today is about the anointment of a prince as “absolute” ruler: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to name the most salient. All of them, mind you, were elected into office, meaning they are democratic leaders. Yet it is preposterous to portray them as champions of democracy.

I emphasized the word absolute because in this case it is a somewhat relative term. The list in the previous paragraph (all men, by the way) doesn’t feature monarchs per se. Let’s call them quasi kings. All of this is to say that democracies have much in common with autocracies and even more with plutocracies.

Why are we witnessing such consolidation of power in an individual? The explanation, in my view, has to do with a deep-seated exhaustion. People are genuinely tired of inefficient political elites focusing on self-preservation rather than on governing with the people’s will in mind. Rather than spreading power over a number of ill-prepared individuals, the masses are ready to deposit their trust in just one larger-than-life ruler. A toss-up, they reckon, might produce a better outcome.

This exhaustion is unsurprising, and so is the trend toward populism. We have seen it countless times before, with figures like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. Democracy is based on a rather ambitious, even dangerous proposition: that the polity will know how to govern itself. In truth, it doesn’t. In fact, left to its own devices, the majority often tends toward anarchy.

What precludes an idiot from convincing the masses that he is the right leader? Only common sense. Yet that’s precisely why democracies are easy to manipulate: because those who reach power are often deprived of common sense.

To prevent the idiot’s triumph, democracies need to be trained. The higher the median level of education, the less likely it is for a farfetched candidate to reach the highest office of the land. This explains why certain parties prefer to keep the population ignorant.

Raising the overall level of education isn’t enough. It is also important to prepare a group in the art of governance. This, evidently, is what plutocracy is about: grooming a select few for control. Democracy needs this elite as well, because while anyone should be eligible to govern, only a few are truly electable. It is in the best interest of democracy to keep power in rotation yet not allow that rotation to end up in the idiot’s hands.

How are the power elites put together in democracy? The response is contained in one word: meritocracy. The theoretician of meritocracy, as well as one of its most acerbic critics, was Michael Young. In his satire “The Rise of Meritocracy” (1958), Young argued that “I.Q. + effort = merit.” The problem, in his opinion, is when those who achieve power through merit preclude others — who show equal I.Q. and effort — from doing the same.

Yet that is human nature: a jungle-like habitat where the achievement of power turns one delirious, obstructing the advancement of others based on sheer merit.

If we are to remain a democracy, who shall govern us? Not an idiot but the bright, the practical, the educated, the dexterous, the humble — those aspiring to better the conditions for the rest of humankind.

Democracy cannot be simply about voting. That’s a foolish proposition. It must be about education for all, in order to make informed choices, and about a special education for the few who merit being rulers. Failing to recognize who has that merit and not giving them a chance leaves us with an autocracy where an ignorant, irascible buffoon is in command.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.

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