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  • Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy

    Posted by Zenpundit on September 1st, 2012 (All posts by )

    Cross-posted from

    Professor Harvey C. Mansfield of Harvard University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution is famous for his scholarship on classical political philosophy (I often recommend his edition on Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy) as well as his provocative commentary on social and political issues.  While I liked his take on Machiavelli, I warmed to him further when, after his book on manliness came out and some reporter asked Mansfield if it was “manly” to carry a gun? He answered to the effect, “Yes, but not as manly as carrying a sword”.

    Mansfield has a new article out in Defining Ideas  on the nature of elections and democracy worth reading:

    Are You Smarter Than a Freshman? 

    ….Machiavelli believes that human beings are divided into the few who want to rule and the many who do not care to rule themselves but do not want to be ruled by others either. Then those who want to rule must conceal their rule from the many they rule if they wish to succeed. How can they do this? Machiavelli went about conceiving a “new mode of ruling,” a hidden government that puts the people “under a dominion they do not see.” Government is hidden when it appears not to be imposed on you from above but when it comes from you, when it is self-imposed.

    Machiavelli recounts a psychological truth about humans: “wounds and other evils that a man does upon himself spontaneously and by choice hurt much less than those that are done to you by someone else.” It sounds crazy to claim that it hurts less when you break your leg yourself than when someone or something else does it. But when you do it yourself, the hurt is less because it doesn’t include resentment against whoever or whatever did it to you.

    A further step in the argument: The many, the common people, resent government because of the necessary hurts it imposes—as people say, death and taxes. Government demands sacrifices in return for the peace, comfort, and justice it provides. But government hurts less, and is even hidden from you, when it comes from you—when it comes from an election.

    An election is not so much a positive choice, as you might suppose from Aristotle, as the purging of resentment against government and the humbling of the few who run for office. As we see in the contest between Obama and Romney, an election forces the rulers to seek our approval, our vote. It enables us to choose one, and perhaps more important, to deny the other. Partisanship often shows itself less in having your side win than in defeating the other side.

    In this way, an election allows people to think that their government comes from them, when in fact it remains pretty much the same whether it’s Obama or Romney. The particular candidate may win or lose, but the class of “politicians” that we decry, the few who desire to rule, always wins. For their part, the people indulge in the luxury of throwing out the losing candidate, expressing their resentment against being governed, while (almost) incidentally electing the winner, who then governs in their name with their consent. 

    A while back, I had an interesting discussion in the comment section with “SZR” , Duncan Kinder and LC Rees over Donald Kagan’s interpretation of the Athenian statesman and general Nicias.  Kagan’s version of Nicias was a man who feared “the resentment of being governed” of the Mob and who therefore flattered the people with his own modest pretense and that this apprehension led to the disasters that befell Athens in Sicily.  Pericles, too, comes in for criticism by Kagan who is unsympathetic to the advocacy that Thucydides showed toward the former’s defensive strategy.

    I think as a rule, Machiavelli’s view of politics proves to win out wherever the system of government is not actively coercing politicians toward’s Aristotle’s ideals of governance. The gravity of the lowest moral common denominator exerts a strong pull in politics in the absence of a countervailing power.


    2 Responses to “Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy”

    1. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I once attended a lecture by Kagan about the Athenian democracy. Resentment toward Alcibiades was a direct cause of the Sicily disaster. He was a controversial figure but the Athenian mob destroyed their own society by recalling him on bogus grounds.

      It’s interesting that the sentiment of wishing to defeat the opponent is expressed by several leftists at Ann Althouse’s blog. They would rather defeat Romney than elect Obama. Odd reasoning but it has a long history.

    2. Anonymous Says:

      I think Nicias had plenty of opportunities to avoid the Sicilian disaster but chose not to use any of them, perhaps to save his own skin. I think one problem there might have been the harsh treatment the Athenians meted out to failed generals, but I don’t think Athens was exactly alone in doing that, in that time period.

      Alcibiades was just self serving poison, later on in the war he moved from opportunist to outright traitor, after all.

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