One of Showtime’s most popular series is called The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. Dr. Benjamin Wiker reminds us there is an element of circus to all political processes, and our presidential election is no exception.
The Founders of the American regime knew their history, which is why the more sober among them did not think that their creation, however ingenious, could avoid eventual political decay. We are now experiencing in our presidential race one of the things they most feared: political circus.
So, here we are, 200 plus years after the likes of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison steered the ship of state, looking at the depressing prospect of a pitched battle for the nation’s highest office between an aging socialist, a dangerously dishonest Lady Macbeth, and a vulgar reality-show billionaire. And all this, at a time of the greatest political, moral, and economic crises.
Luckily, there are other candidates from other parties in the wings. There is the Transhumanist Party candidate, Zoltan Istvan, who promises a new Bill of Rights, where (to quote from Article I), Istvan declares that, “Human beings, sentient artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and other advanced sapient life forms are entitled to universal rights of ending involuntary suffering, making personhood improvements, and achieving an indefinite lifespan via science and technology.”
Then there is Vermin Supreme, running on the platform of stricter dental hygiene (by law, all citizens will be compelled to brush regularly), zombie apocalypse awareness, and the provision of a free pony for everyone.
In America, anyone can grow up and be president.
How have we come to this? And what does it mean for the long-term health of the American regime? A good, deep look at history might help clarify things for us.
I tell my students, when we read the ancient Greek historian Thucydides (460-400 BC), that they are studying one of the most influential texts for the American Founders, and that they should strive to pull out of his account of the self-destruction of democratic Athens, the political lessons learned by those who constructed our Constitution.
The chief lesson taught by Thucydides is that democracy—popular rule—all too easily slides into political circus, where demagogues vying for political power turn the sober business of self-government into a vulgar popularity contest, where the most outlandish and entertaining candidate wins the crowd, and the prudent statesmen are foolishly shoved aside.
Thucydides was an eyewitness to Athenian democracy’s self-destruction during the long war between Athens and Sparta. Let’s look at one particularly relevant instance, the popular affirmation of the clownish demagogue Cleon as general.
Cleon was a fool who knew how to whip up a crowd, in this case, the Athenian Popular Assembly—the democratic body that decided state policy. Nicias was a great, prudent, and deeply experienced general, whom Cleon hated. Cleon took it into his head to taunt Nicias, in front of the Assembly, that a particular military venture “would be easy” to pull off if Athens “had men for generals,” and that “if he had himself been in command, he would have done it.”
Ah, the outlier speaks!
Nicias, both wise and fed up, resigned his post as general, saying to the rankest of military amateurs, “Well, if it is so easy, you do it!”
That got the crowd roaring! An inexperienced demagogue as general! What a hoot! The crowd howled in amusement, and shouted their affirmation. Cleon blanched. Seeing that he couldn’t wriggle out of it, he was, by popular declaration and for popular amusement, made a general—and “the Athenians could not help laughing at his fatuity…”
In other words, in the time of deepest crisis Athenian democracy, opting for laughs, sided with circus. Soon enough, Athens was beaten by Sparta.
The American Founders read Thucydides very carefully, and from this episode (and many others like it), decided that the democratic election of presidential candidates was dangerous because it can all too easily turn into a circus, a cause for amusement for a bored and anxious populace, a platform for vulgar demagogues who knew how to play on the looser and more frivolous strings of the human heart.
There is all the more a danger in times of political crisis because people are inclined, when overtaxed with political and economic anxiety, to look for comic relief and quick crackpot cures for the deepest problems, and so to side with the passions and prejudices of the moment rather than with the hard-won prudence achieved through long experience.
So we read, in our Constitution, in Article II, that the Founders opted for indirect election of the president. We bristle today at the notion that we the people shouldn’t directly elect our president, and have overridden that original mode of election. Whatever the merits of doing this—and they are worth looking at—one bad result is the conversion of presidential elections into a circus fit for mass entertainment.
And Showtime’s The Circus? It is worth watching, if only to help us make our elections less of a circus.