Democracy: a Terrible Form of Government


The 1965 TV show Slattery's People ,starring Richard Crenna, always opened with a voice-over: "Democracy is a very bad form of government. . . . All of the others are so much worse." Crenna played a local California politician struggling with the human and structural problems of guiding society from a state legislature. Slattery's People won praise for its realism, but lost out in the competition for sponsorship, and disappeared forever after just a season and a half.

The show's voice-over probably originated with a similar statement by Winston Churchill, who led Great Britain through the dark days of World War II as its prime minister, but lost out with British voters at the War's end. They turned him out unceremoniously, once peace had returned. Stung by the loss, Churchill remarked ruefully, "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried."

The German journalist Timo Frasch tackled the democracy-as-terrible question in "Progressiv," an article that Frasch publishedfor the Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper on 11th December 2022, using alternating modern and old Gothic letter-characters. The curious title could have used a question mark at the end, to indicate Frasch's ironic take on "Progressiv," since he uses the word only once . He could just as easily have titled the article "Konservativ." 

Americans, conditioned by the 24/7 cable-news media, think of "Progressive" and "Conservative" as static monoliths who act in predictable ways; when in truth, people may change sides as easily as deciding to vacation at the beach instead of Disneyworld. Opinions about music, art, and political personalities may change a person's stance one way or the other, while the aesthetic parameters themselves might change.

Frasch mentions life-long supporters of the German Socialist Party, the SPD, whose children want to free themselves from it--"Emanzipieren," Frasch calls it--from the minimalist lifestyle of their socialist parents to a lifestyle fueled by wealth. Like any normal people, their children want more of everything--a home of their own, with a garage in which to park an upscale SUV, and a different setting to start a different kind of life.

America itself has plenty of these examples. The Marxist playwright Arthur Miller lived on a spacious pre-revolutionary estate in Connecticut. The Marxist historian Howard Zinn lived well and left his own children well-off, with homes near Cape Cod. Likewise, the left-wing gadfly Noam Chomsky enjoys a prosperous lifestyle, thanks to his making shrewd investments. Any seriously normal person wants more of everything, especially in a free society.

Frasch actually uses the word "Progressiv" only one time in his article, when he talks about progressive art--or just the accumulation of it. Aesthetic progressiveness allows its owner to feel "innerlich progressiv und reich"--truly progressive and rich. Purchasing revolutionary art also acts as a kind of "Ablasshandel" for wealthy people. Frasch refers to the religious practice in Medieval times of purchasing an "Ablass"--paying Church-leaders money for the forgiveness of sins. A wealthy art-patron buys off his guilt by purchasing revolutionary-art, to indicate implicit support for revolutionary activity, itself.

You also define yourself as "Progressiv," Frasch continues, when you retire from making money, engage in philanthropic work--like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett--and buy off your wealth-guilt by flirting with left-wing causes. Frasch describes such people as "im Auftrag des Weltgeistes unterwegs," i.e. to act in accordance with the spirit of the times, to cover all the elements in a person's conscience.

America's political structure and the moving parts of the voting public give our nation its interesting complexity. Both Progressives and Conservatives have learned the secret art of shapeshifting, and transition easily between victim and victimizing-ogre. We can wonder in amazement over the dubious alliances that result. Just remember the quote from Slattery's World, that Democracy is a terrible form of government, if you scratch its surface, and become more informed about its caveats, you become less enthusiastic over Democracy.