Episode 11: Third Wave Feminism

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode eleven, the Hooligans discuss a hypothetical situation where the female cast members pretend to be male and the lone (alpha!) male entertains the idea of being a woman going on a first date. During the main segment, the cast discuss some of the nuances and importance of third wave feminism.

Episode 11: Third Wave Feminism

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast.

Part 2: Donald Trump: Why Reasonable People Vote for Him

The Bible is right: a deluge of images does encourage idolatry. Look at the cults of personality in America today. Look at Hollywood. Look at Washington. I’d like to see the next presidential race be run according to Second Commandment principles. No commercials. A radio-only debate. We need an ugly president. I know we’re missing out on some potential Abe Lincolns because they’d look gawky and gangly on TV.”—A. J. Jacobs

The United States is the first nation founded solely upon a series of shared principles. England and France, for example, became nations due to a combination of historical factors like geography and shared ethnicity. For its part America was founded upon principles articulated by John Locke (1632-1704) and Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755), e.g. For a government to be legitimate it required the consent of the governed to rule; people themselves possessed the inherent right to self-determination; moreover, the People had the right to overthrow governments that did not protect the interests of citizens; and the ancient Greeks and Romans contributed the idea of Natural Law to the mix—a belief human beings are born possessing certain inherent and inviolable rights.[1]

Let me begin by admitting I love America (or at least the idea of it); and if I can say I have a faith, it is certainly a civic one reflected in the spirit of liberty as described by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, in the actions and principles of John Adams and George Washington, and in the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Something has changed for me though: until relatively recently I believed there wasn’t much difference between the Canadian and American conception of liberty and freedom. However, I came to appreciate America’s and Canada’s differences through the popularity of Donald Trump. A populist like Trump could never successfully win political office in Canada (or at least I hope this is the case).[2] If someone like Trump ran in Canada, and if they spoke in the same way as he did, they’d more than likely be arrested for violating Canada’s anti-hate laws.[3] Yet, in order to avoid charges of hypocrisy or over-simplifying a complex situation, it’s not that Canada hasn’t had its problems with violence, racism, chauvinism, intolerance, and plain old-fashioned stupidity (we have); we just go about it differently than the Americans and the differences are telling.

Many years ago I read Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada by Canadian academic, Martin Robin. In Shades Robin describes how the Ku Klux Klan (an American white supremacist group) established itself in Saskatchewan in the late 1920s in an effort to take advantage of Euro-Canadian anti-Indian sentiment. The Klan appealed to some Western Canadians because of a growing regional distrust of the Liberal Party in Saskatchewan and Alberta. I laughed out loud, as though I was reading a punchline, when Robin explained why the Klan failed to establish itself permanently in the Canadian West:

The Canadian Klan remained a Yankee import without the cultural resonance recalling the noble days of Reconstruction, or the home-baked apple-pie chauvinism of Babbit America. A bootleg import that slipped in under the cultural barrier, the Klan ran smack into British tradition, institutions, and cultural idolatry. Itself an alien institution in British North America, the Klan could hardly feed on anti-alien sentiments. From the moment of their arrival, Klansmen had to contend with reams of editorials and political pronouncements from diverse opponents, condemning the Klan’s ways as foreign, American, and inimical to the British tradition of commitment to fair play, common sense, tolerance, give and take, and the rule of law. For all of their bombast and righteousness, Canadian Klansmen remained a nervous, fidgety, non-violent lot, who shunned tar and feathers, avoided lynching, drove cars by day instead of horses by night, and abandoned even their soiled bed sheets in search of an acceptance they never won. [4]

The Klan leadership complained Canadians were all talk (they wouldn’t actually lynch or terrorize anyone). So the Klan left. Regardless, Canadians are just as capable as the Americans of racism; however, Canadian racism is fundamentally British in character: it is understated, felt deeply but kept inside, reflecting a sort of passive aggressiveness even, and its adherents are keen to avoid drawing attention to themselves through overt acts or expressions. Yet, even the most reactionary Canadian, with exception, deep down has an appreciation for the beauty and importance of the rule of law (something I believe is unique in a sense to Canada and England).[5]

So what makes Trump a viable candidate in the American context but not in the Canadian? I think it’s safe to say Trump’s appeal cannot be boiled down to a simple appeal to the usual suspects like either racism or economic frustration. Although these certainly are factors, I think Trump’s popularity is mainly a reflection of a uniquely American conception of liberty: fundamentally speaking, liberty to an American means government stays as much out of the lives of ordinary citizens as possible. In the Canadian context, citizens actually expect government to step in to protect the freedoms of the people while ensuring some degree of equity exists. Americans (especially conservatives) don’t look at it this way; rather, any government intervention is simply regarded as interference, even un-natural. Also, according to certain interpretations of Natural Law, Americans invoke the idea of God actually establishing the social and political order as it exists that we feeble human beings cannot and should not meddle with.[6] This belief in a divinely ordained social/political order, especially for a state calling itself truly democratic, is a curious feature peculiar to the United States—neither France, Canada nor England’s path to democracy involved an appeal to God (on the contrary, in France and England they repudiated the need for an Almighty altogether). This is not the case in the United States where some conservatives literally believe the Constitution was handed down from Jesus Christ.

The belief that there exists a natural order to things is synonymous with the idea of liberty in the American psyche. For this reason the Thirteen Colonies could fight a war of liberation (1776-1783) from Great Britain while simultaneously maintaining the institution of slavery at home. There was no contradiction in it. Natural Law dictated some men are slaves and others are masters; it was sufficient that the masters (the white people breaking away from Britain) had liberty. This psychological compartmentalization of liberty—that it does not exist universally but exists in “pockets” (or tight spaces)—is foundational to American political culture; and for this reason it was not incompatible to believe liberty was preserved while whites enjoyed full-citizenship while being simultaneously denied to African-Americans until the 1960s.[7] Trump’s popularity reflects this fundamental lack of flexibility within America’s democratic tradition.[8]

People support Trump because he promises to bring certainty to an uncertain situation: many Americans are tired of decades and decades of post-modernist[9] and progressivist reforms altering the fabric (natural order) of American society: people are tired of political correctness; tired of feminism; tired of apologizing for past wrongs; tired of empowering historically marginalized groups like gays and African-Americans; there’s too much democracy, too much liberty, too much change to the natural order of things. Interestingly, despite Trump’s abrasive style he appealed to people across all sorts of educational, financial and ideological lines.[10] According to Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, authors of Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, there is one thing Trump supporters do share in common with one another: they are all favorably disposed to the idea of authoritarianism and order.

Authoritarianism is an ideology where power isn’t shared but is concentrated in the hands of either a dictator or small group; authoritarian societies tend to sweep away diversity in an attempt to make citizens “one”. Authoritarianism creates the illusion of security and certainty; it promotes the belief that the world works a certain way (a “natural” way) so you better accept it, or get out…or else. Authoritarian-minded individuals do not see any value in pluralism[11] or sharing power across the population; moreover, power should only be in the hands of a select few so as to maintain order and stability above all else. Italians in the 1920s and Germans in the 1930s gave in to the temptation to solve their problems by abandoning democracy and embracing populist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler respectively. Trump, arguably, belongs to this tradition. (For the record I am not claiming Trump is some sort of analogue to Hitler; rather, I’m suggesting populist leaders on the right, generally speaking, favor authoritarianism over pluralism.) Non-authoritarians also exist in the United States obviously: unlike the authoritarian-minded, the non-authoritarian tends to value personal autonomy over conformity. Hetherington and Weiler contrast authoritarians (strong conservatives) with non-authoritarians (liberals) in the following way:

…[Authoritarians] tend to favor the concrete and immediate, seeing the world in black and white terms. Those scoring low in authoritarianism are more inclined to favor the abstract, seeing the world in more complex terms. Solutions to problems that might be obvious to one side might seem overly simplistic to the less authoritarian or relativistic to the more authoritarian. Even if issue preferences are not miles apart, political conflict can seem polarized if it has a fundamental difference in outlook at its foundations. It is this more subtle understanding of polarization that we believe characterizes American politics today.[12]

The polarization in America right now is not new: despite assertions to the contrary, there’s always been significant divisions in the United States. America was never a “melting pot”. If anything, it was a series of different pots—black, yellow, white, Christian, Muslim, atheist, gay, straight, and so on. Many of these groups not only oppose one another in theory; some go so far as to refuse to recognize the right of the others to even exist at all. Tolerance it seems is a luxury people only can afford when the economy is doing well. Yet, even before the Great Recession in 2009 the sense of division among average Americans—Democrat and Republican alike—was palpable.[13] The melting pot metaphor is an idea the wealthy and well-educated liberal elite understand and might even assent to; however, as you climb down the socio-economic ladder tolerance for differences disappears and the illusion of a melting pot boils away.

A good friend of mine, an American, admitted he wanted to live in a “conservative” country.[14] I understood what he meant but, as a Canadian, I wondered to myself: regardless of the label you apply to yourself you live first and foremost in a Liberal democracy. Just to clarify I am not using the word “liberal” in the 20th century sense, i.e. liberalism broadly associated with a series of social reforms like universal healthcare, unemployment insurance, or political correctness. Instead, I am using the word in its Lockean[15] sense where according to Natural Law every citizen is born free, enjoys certain inalienable rights, e.g. right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and, more importantly, no other citizen, not even the government, has the right to dictate what shape that happiness ultimately takes for the individual affected. The problem, I suppose, with my interpretation of liberalism is it can be used to defend the “pocket” approach to liberty where one group enjoys liberty and security while simultaneously denying it to others who are different, e.g. I am justified not selling wedding cakes to gay people because doing so violates my faith and my particular “happiness”.[16]

The problem with possessing a self-centered, inflexible conception of liberty is it encourages social and legal inequality. In principle people are all born equal in a society governed by the rule of law; however, the First Amendment[17] in America is being used as a legal instrument to quite literally justify segregation—people are not only not being sold wedding cakes for being gay; gay people are also fired from their jobs, do not enjoy full child custody rights of their children, and are being denied access to healthcare providers and obstetricians. Although the right to disagree is protected by law, when that same law is used to justify oppression (or second class citizenship) the law becomes less an instrument of justice and more one used to justify the exercise of arbitrary power. Martin Luther King Jr. observed as much saying when law and order fail to secure everyone equally or uphold justice they become “dangerously structured dams blocking the flow of social progress”.[18]

This speaks to the problem of not having a more universal understanding or application of liberty. Thomas Jefferson was heavily influenced by the political philosophy of John Locke. Locke’s approach was at its root rational, not emotional. The English philosopher formed this understanding of liberty as a result of seeing his countrymen needlessly butcher one another over religious differences. Locke conceived of a liberal society where governments didn’t exist to discourage conflict or force agreement between society’s members; people were free to form their own attitudes and believe in what they wanted; yet, and this is important, Locke didn’t favor a completely hands off approach to social order either; membership in society came with certain obligations like respecting the rights of others and taking the needs of one’s neighbor in to proper consideration; and finally, government played an essential role in managing the differences inevitably emerging between people living in a complex society; therefore, the role of the law in such societies, at least ones calling themselves democratic, Locke argued, was “not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge [my emphasis] freedom”.[19] Unlike many Americans believe, if full and equal rights were given to everyone their society would not fall apart; being cruel and repressive isn’t any more “natural” than being compassionate or considerate. The fact remains though is American democratic traditions are not recent innovations but emerged out of a time when individuals tended to relate first and foremost with their tribes instead of the nation as a whole. This might cause one to despair nothing will change: nevertheless the United States might take a lesson from the French intellectual tradition where people acknowledge that all institutions are created by man and therefore can be changed by man.[20] We are never quite as pigeon-holed or without options as we think except in our own thinking.

[1] Natural Law: the doctrine that human affairs are governed by universal ethical principles that are part of the very nature of things and that can be understood by reason. For example, it was God (and not kings or queens) who endowed a person with the right to freedom, liberty and equality. Natural Law, or the origins of human rights as we know them, were first articulated by Greek and Roman classical philosophers and jurists.

[2] The last three populist politicians of any significance in Canada were John G. Diefenbaker (1895-1963), Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000), and Justin Trudeau (1971-present). All three men became prime minister at times when Canada was experiencing problems related to regionalism, economic downturn, and social malaise. Canada has elected overtly racist and xenophobic members to Parliament, e.g. Conservative Jim Pankiw (1997-2004).

[3] Trump publicly called Latinos rapists and murderers, generalized all Muslims were terrorists, and said some pretty disgusting things about women and the disabled during his campaign in 2016. According to Canada’s Criminal Code he would have been guilty of violating our anti-hate crime laws: everyone who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of an indictable offense (Section 319). Interestingly, some aspects of Section 319 have been repealed to avoid encroachment on Charter rights respecting the right to freedom of speech.

[4] Martin Robin, Shades of Right: Nativist and Fascist Politics in Canada: 1920-1940, p.83-86.

[5] The rule of law is in the blood of Canadians: for example, we preserve the integrity of our political decision making process by wisely limiting the ability of special interests to donate money to candidates and shape elections; we apply concepts like freedom and equality universally and consistently instead of arbitrarily, e.g. minorities and the majority experience roughly the same security; most Canadians see some value in pooling the country’s collective wealth to take care of society’s most vulnerable; and we have a tendency—and I’m convinced we’ve picked this up from the Scots—of being self-deprecating as opposed to overly proud thinking we’re the best or only country on the planet. Canadians understand they do some things well, and some not so much, and that’s just how it is. This humility reflects a distinctly Canadian tendency to think of themselves as simply one of many as opposed to the one and only.

[6] Conservatives and monarchists like Edmund Burke (1729-1797 AD) used essentially an identical argument to justify keeping England locked in tradition under the rule of a monarchy forever into perpetuity. Arguably, it’s this sense of a God-given traditional order that has contributed to so strong a sense and respect in the rule of law held by both Canadians and British alike today. The Americans also have a love for the rule of law; however, they strangely appeal to Natural Law to justify the preservation of inequities, e.g. the “natural” segregation of African-Americans from whites or, more recently, the 2016 decision by legislators in North Carolina to pass laws requiring people to use the bathrooms that correspond with their biological sex, i.e. this law was clearly directed at people identifying as trans-sexual which law makers regarded as “un-natural”.

[7] History is repeating itself in America in 2016: despite being granted marriage equality discrimination against gay people is actually increasing; and the First Amendment (the law) is being invoked by opponents to homosexuality to justify the discrimination. For anyone interested in learning more about this unfortunate trend check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGkGfznvijg.

[8] Most people associate the word “democracy” with the idea of the “rule by the many”. In reality, the word literally translated means “people power”. So, in principle, if the majority (white people) have power they possess freedom and therefore democracy exists: whites alone possessing power was the litmus test, at least in the American context, for the existence of liberty. The powerlessness of African-Americans was not, and is not, indicative of a lack of either freedom or democracy; instead, the lower status of minorities reflects what is believed to be a divinely inspired order where God apparently favors white Americans over black.

[9] Post Modernism: is defined broadly as a rejection of the idea of objective morality (or that anything like universal morality exists); it is also philosophical position that is skeptical anything is true or can be proven; and it is suspicious of reason while emphasizing the role of ideology plays in maintaining the political and economic status-quo, e.g. post-modernists make arguments like governments run by white men are fundamentally racist and chauvinist.

[10] Following the presidential election in November (2016), on CBC’s The Investigators journalist John Cruickshank provided some interesting insight as to the significance of Trump’s unexpected victory. He said the campaign was covered “as if it were a plebiscite on the character of Donald Trump, but it wasn’t, really. It had a lot more to do with the fact that for almost all of the American population, they haven’t had a raise in 40 years”. All of his supporters weren’t racist so much as opportunists trying to improve their employment situation. You can watch the interview by following this link: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/americans-vote-out-media-1.3846307.

[11] Pluralism is a condition or system in which two more groups co-exist in a single country enjoying equal access to resources and equal protections under the law, e.g. Canada.

[12] Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, p.32.

[13] The Great Recession is a term in reference to a sharp decline in economic activity (2008-2009) which is generally considered the largest downturn since the Great Depression (1929-1939).

[14] Although political conservatives are closely identified with anti-gay rights positions and more hawkish responses to foreign policy, it is important to note that authoritarianism and conservatism are not the same thing. Authoritarianism is not preference for laissez-faire economics and conversely, that conservative “distaste for change” does not automatically imply “distaste for other races”; nor is it true that “commitment to economic freedom” somehow suggests an interest in moral regulation and political repression. Hetherington and Weiler, p.39.

[15] John Locke (1632-1704 AD) was an English political philosopher who was one of the first thinkers to articulate what a modern liberal state should look like, e.g. government’s role was to ensure disagreement between society’s members was managed peacefully instead of destructively; and that genuinely democratic societies emphasized values like tolerance and pluralism rather than blind conformity or obedience to rules. Locke was one of, if not the first political theorist, to argue citizens had a right to overthrow the government if leaders acted selfishly or followed policies not in the public interest. See Locke’s books Letters on Toleration and Two Treatises of Government for more.

[16] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3464222/Gay-couple-feel-dehumanized-Christian-baker-refuses-make-wedding-cake.html

[17] The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, ensuring that there is no prohibition on the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

[18] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Why We Can’t Wait, p.88.

[19] John Locke, Two Treatise of Government, p.234.

[20] “All the idols made by man, however terrifying they may be, are in point of fact subordinate to him, and that is why he will always have it in his power to destroy them”—Simone de Beavoir, Nature of the Second Sex, p.97.

Episode 10: Talking Trump & Mental Illness

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode ten, the Hooligans discuss the Trump phenomenon in the United States and use the segue as an opportunity to talk about mental illness.

Episode 10: Talking Trump & Mental Illness

Click on the hyperlink above to download and listen to the podcast. Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comments section below. One of the cast members will respond.

Thanks in advance for listening and check back regularly for updates to the site and podcast.

Notes & Clarifications
1). During the podcast Rick wasn’t sure if it was Atlanta, Georgia which privatized fire and police protection. He did some digging and it was in fact Atlanta. If you follow this link (http://isil.org/the-town-that-privatized-everything/) you can gain an appreciation for the extent of market fundamentalism’s influence on the American psyche. If you are interested in reading a critique of this particular social experiment please see Naomi Klein’s book Disaster Capitalism.

Part 1: Donald Trump: The Problem of Relying on Men and Not Principles

When people think of ancient Athens they usually associate it as the birthplace of democracy. Although the association is valid the city-state did not always have a representative government. Athens has had a monarchy for a time and even when it was democratic it had an empire. In the latter part of the 6th century BCE, Athens was the imperial center of a network of Greek cities ruled by an oligarchy of powerful and wealthy ruling families. Interestingly, even when Athens was an oligarchy it possessed certain qualities making democracy eventually possible. In this article, I’ll be discussing the problems affecting pre-democratic Athens making it necessary for the oligarchs to give supreme executive authority to Solon to prevent the city-state from descending in to civil war. My hope, in a sort of roundabout but relevant way, is to make certain connections between the politics of ancient Athens and the United States in the present day.

Setting the Stage

Before the time of Solon important families didn’t enjoy unrestricted access to power. Power meant responsibility, not profit. Wealthy individuals were required to serve as members of Athens’ government; members didn’t serve indefinitely (like a senator would in Canada’s upper chamber) but for a short preset period to prevent any single person (or family) from gaining too much influence over decision-making. Athens was divided in to basically two classes—and the class one belonged to was determined fundamentally by how much land one owned.

Athenians, regardless of class, were taught two civic virtues: firstly, to appreciate the importance of pursuing policies producing the greatest good for the greatest number of people; and secondly, to not view government as some sort of personal springboard to power (or place to pursue one’s own narrow self-interest). On the contrary, citizens were encouraged to view participation in the government as a sort of sacred duty. In many respects, working in government actually meant a reduction in one’s influence because of the aforementioned civic virtues. So, at an abstract level at least, a check existed minimizing corruption and keeping the wealthy—at least in theory—accountable to both the lower class and to one another.


Nevertheless, over time—as is the case with essentially any political system—the ruling families found ways, and used what wiggle room the system afforded, to pursue their own narrow interest at the expense of other citizens. For example, members of the lower class were not allowed to hold office; and as such they did not possess any executive decision-making power. Despite the civic virtue practiced by the Athenians corruption entered the system (an inherent problem involving any human institution) and the lower class found itself exploited and heavily indebted to the oligarchs. In order to pay off their debts many members of the lower class were forced to sell themselves in to slavery. With the lower class decimated, Athenian society became fractious; and as the ruling families jockeyed with one another for power Athens threatened to descend in to civil war.

In an effort to avoid civil war, Athens’ oligarchs took the extraordinary step of giving emergency powers to an aristocrat named Solon (638-558 BCE). Solon was named archon (magistrate) and given supreme executive authority to implement binding legal reforms to restore stability to Athens. At the beginning of Solon’s dictatorship, the city’s citizens were politically divided in at least two ways: firstly, the lower class wanted to drastically reduce the power of the oligarchs by confiscating and redistributing their land among the poor; and secondly, the oligarchs themselves were in mortal conflict with one another. Although Solon was a land owner himself, he did not his use his executive decision making power to benefit his class; rather, his reputation as both a practical and principled man was well-founded: he enacted reforms reflecting a sort of “middle-ground” neither giving the lower or upper classes entirely what each wanted; and to ensure he could not be pressured to overturn any reforms he eventually went in to a self-imposed exile.

In an effort to unify Athenian society, Solon enacted the following reforms:

  • Forbade the selling of Athenians into slavery
  • Secured the freedom of citizens already sold in to slavery
  • Enabled the lower class to regain possession of property without actually forcing the wealthy to surrender any land
  • Established a new balance of power by dividing the males of Athens in to four classes determined by income (measured in grain), i.e. by splitting up the wealthy checks and balances were introduced to the political decision making process by convention
  • Continued the practice of allowing only the most wealthy Athenians to occupy the most important political offices
  • Created a general assembly (called the ekklesia) composed of 400 men belonging only to the top three classes; the assembly passed laws and made decisions; it was difficult to dominate or hijack because membership was determined by lot as opposed to election

In the latter 6th century BCE, Athens experienced exceptionally difficult times requiring the dictatorship of an exceptional man. What ultimately led to Athens’ instability making Solon so necessary? There are a number of factors to consider, e.g. Athens relied too much upon the civic virtue, or tradition, for stability; over the passage of time corruption inevitably creeps in to any political system (people are great at finding ways to exploit laws or the lack thereof for personal benefit); human nature being what it is it is unreasonable to presume citizens will consistently sacrifice their own narrow interests for the greater good; power wasn’t distributed equitably among Athens’ population but was exercised fundamentally by the oligarchs which meant they could exploit the non-landing owning class; and lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Athens relied upon fickle and whimsical human beings rather than a written constitution to establish a society of laws. Thus, a charismatic and capable individual was required in order to solve Athens’ problems because no effective appeal to the rule of law could be made for reform.

There exists a curious similarity between Athens of the 6th century BCE and the United States in the 21st century, i.e.  the political system is widely viewed as rigged, hijacked, and controlled by a corporate oligarchy which ignores the needs of the other classes; also, as in the Greek context many Americans have embraced a man (Donald Trump) who has promised to set everything right. Donald Trump appeals to many Americans because he purports to be an anti-establishment man  (“not a politician but a businessman”) who possesses the personal power to “make deals” while ending the corruption making Washington, D.C. so obviously dysfunctional and hated.

The parallels between Athens and the United States are curious: the Americans, like the Athenians before them, currently believe a man with purpose can either reform or meaningfully change a broken political system. In Solon’s case, he successfully brought stability to Athens for a couple decades, his reforms failed to address the greatest problem affecting Athens, i.e. you cannot establish long-term peace or stability when you both marginalize a whole segment of society (the poorest class known as the thetes) while also retaining special privileges for the wealthiest citizens. Any time one segment possesses special privileges or greater power denied to others you get contempt, envy, and a recipe for civil strife. Arguably, this is the situation in the United States today where billionaire oligarchs like Sheldon Adelson, George Soros, or the infamous Koch brothers, own the political decision-making process; that is, they spend extraordinary amounts of money to help push through desired policies in Congress through PACs and lobbyists (and members of Congress who they helped get elected). So, despite the fact the people are sovereign in America it would appear some individuals are more sovereign than others.

Within 20 years of Solon introducing his reforms, self-interested ruling elites were back at it again threatening Athens with civil war. Solon’s constitution did not succeed in the long-term because it relied too much upon people as opposed to governing principles. He should not have counted on the good character of the aristocracy to maintain order. Again, human nature being what it is people in the aggregate are selfish creatures who aspire to power. President Abraham Lincoln, one could argue, was successful in both the short and long term precisely because he did not rely on the “good character” of people to uphold the law but upon an appeal to democratic first-principles, i.e. he preserved the union by upholding the rule of law as presented in the Constitution, i.e. there existed peaceful mechanisms within the union enabling states to work out the differences among them; and in the long-term, Lincoln’s vision of an inclusive America, a society of laws, a liberal state, etc. as presented by the Declaration came to fruition.

Lincoln appealed not only to principles extant in the Constitution but also to those articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence; that is, despite slavery’s continued existence after the Declaration’s publication in 1776 the document was pregnant with possibility; that being, that all men were created equal and that in time all men and women would be equal regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sex or sexual orientation. Slavery was on the wrong side of history. Oligarchy was on the wrong side of history. History, it would seem, supported an expansion rather than a limiting of human rights; moreover, history was also on the side of establishing, and keeping, power accountable to the People. Ultimately, all citizens in a society governed by the rule of law are politically equal; they do not have to be economically equal in order to be politically equal.

The clear solution, or at least one part of the solution, is to reform the election campaign process: a good start would be to simplify the process for selecting leaders of the two parties in the United States; the process is drawn out over weeks and weeks and requires huge sums of money for a candidate to be successful; and this just invites corruption and cronyism. Given the fact we have television and the Internet one would assume all of this could be decided over the course of two weeks as opposed to eight months.

So while the Koch brothers only donated 2.5k to Romney directly they donated millions of dollars to a PAC (political action committee) called Restore Our Future which had the objective of taking out ads to influence public opinion and such. Advertising works to shape public opinion, e.g. the tobacco industry popularizing the idea smoking doesn’t cause cancer sound familiar?

Another necessary reform is the repeal of Citizens United (a suspect decision reached by the Supreme Court enabling billionaires and others to donate as much money as they want to political action committees (PACs)). The reason people and corporations are legally limited to donating 2,500 dollars to a candidate is to avoid the problem of exchanging financial support for political favors; however, candidates do receive indirect help through PACs (who have no limit on how much money they can collect from donors) who pursue elaborate marketing campaigns to help mold public opinion. For example, the Koch brothers only donated 2,500 dollars to Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency; however, the Kochs donated millions to a PAC called Restore Our Future whose objective was to propel Romney to the oval office. To put it simply, even though Romney’s campaign staff did not receive millions directly they still received and benefited from it indirectly through the efforts of PACs.

Certainly the people who establish PACs have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech; nonetheless, their capacity to shape the political decision-making process does have the potential to undermine democracy, i.e. PACs enable billionaires to propel favored candidates to Congress and fill the presidency. For this reason Congress cannot be depended to change itself or repeal Citizens United, i.e. the powerful benefit from keeping things the same. This does not mean that the People lack the means to rectify the situation. They do have the courts that in principle could be used to repeal such legislation. The judicial branch is separate from the legislative and executive branches for a reason (so it can keep the other two accountable by interpreting and upholding the law). I’m waiting for a ballsy district attorney, a 21st century Jim Garrison or Clarence Darrow, to challenge the constitutionality of Citizens United. Even if a DA failed to actually change anything, attention to the hijacked political decision-making process would be increased making the possibility for change (or strife) increase.


Why was Lincoln’s vision ultimately successful while Solon’s was not? The legitimacy of the American system (in the 1860s) did not rely upon the charisma, charm or talent of an individual; on the contrary, the legitimacy of the American political system consisted of an appeal to reason, not charisma (meaning the system would continue to function even after the death of an important president); and this is one of the reasons I find it odd (but not surprising) people in 2016 are looking to an individual like Trump (or Barack Obama in 2008) as opposed to the law to solve America’s problems.

Over the next few weeks (and as time permits) I’ll be publishing a series of articles discussing the circumstances surrounding why people are placing their confidence in Trump as opposed to the rule of law, Trump’s prospects for success, and the implications for democracy. In the great scheme of things, and if history is any guide at all, the prospects for preserving democracy in the United States depends less upon the actions of an individual and more upon an appeal—as Lincoln did—to the proper observance of the intent, spirit and letter of the Declaration and Constitution (1787).

If you enjoyed reading this article, you might be interested in related stories or podcasts. Explore the list below:

Part 1: Donald Trump: The Problem of Relying on Men Instead of Principles
Part 2: Donald Trump: Why Reasonable People Vote for Him
Part 3: Donald Trump: Where’s It All Heading
Elections 101: Kang and Kodos on Clinton and Trump
Trump Makes Promises He Can’t Keep
Podcast (audio): Why You Should Vote for Trump