Michael Wolff

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Being a classicist has left me with two not always useful habits of mind: to measure new things against old texts, and to think about current events as part of what the French call the longue durée.  This means that I’m always asking whether what looks like a crisis of the moment isn’t in fact a symptom of a much larger, slower change–the headache in the body politic that turns out to be not just a hangover, but a brain tumor. So in the wake of Michael Wolff’s new bestseller I’ve been wondering about our peculiar President of the moment.  Is Donald Trump just a headache that will go away at the next election, or is he a symptom of something slower growing and more serious? I think he is, and that the diagnosis might be found in Aristotle.

In the Politics (book 3, chapter 7 = 1279a) Aristotle sets out to consider “how many forms of government there are, and what they are.” He goes on to speculate about the correct or characteristic shape of each, and then about their “perversions” (παρεκβάσεις).    This gives the following scheme:

Correct Form Perversion
Rule by One Kingship Tyranny
Rule by a Few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Rule by Many “Polity” (what we might call “democracy”) Democracy (really ochlocracy)


In the correct forms, whoever governs, whether one or few or many, governs in the common interest, “but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one, of of the few, or of the many, are perversions.”  What Aristotle calls “polity,” πολιτεία—literally just “(form of) government”—happens “when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest.”

The people who wrote our Constitution looked at Aristotle, filtered him through Polybius’ account of the government of the Roman Republic, and set up a “mixed constitution” with elements of all three forms: a monarchical President, an aristocratic Senate, and a House of Representatives answerable every two years to the people at large. In theory, these should check and balance one another and prevent perversions.  If a president threatens to become a tyrant, the aristocrats in the Senate can check him; if the Senate becomes merely a rich man’s club, the House can refuse to fund their follies; if the House seems to be letting mass sentiment override prudence and the common good, a wise President will refuse to allow their bills to become law, and so on.  Behind it all lie the sovereign People, who have their say at every election.

But could the Founders have foreseen that all three elements of the mixed constitution would become perverted at the same time? That a toxic brew of populism, income inequality, and a Tweet-mad president would push the common good off the agenda of government?  And that the sovereign people would have devolved into a mix of identities and tribes that make finding and agreeing on the common interest nearly impossible?  I don’t like Aristotle’s diagnosis, but it seems to fit the symptoms.

–Lee T. Pearcy

Addendum 1/7/18: Shortly after writing about Aristotle and the common interest, I came across this post from one of my favorite old-retired-academic-guy bloggers (who turns out to be also a transplanted Arkansawyer), John V. Fleming, on the tax bill:

In my opinion, a genuinely humble one, a large part of our dilemma is a failure to recognize a truth that Theodore Roosevelt stated as “the fact that in addition to, not as a substitute for, individual responsibility there is a collective responsibility.” How can it be that the greatest democracy the world has yet known—a nursery and proving ground of seemingly infinite industrial, intellectual, and artistic invention and innovation–has a legislature that simply doesn’t work?

What he said (in my also humble opinion).



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