On Bread and Circuses (and Basketball)

“Tedski”  (Ted Prezelski) posted on his Facebook page, and rightly so:

Hey [U of A] students: if you want to know why you have so little influence at the legislature, consider something. We have to summon a phalanx of police to break up a riot after a basketball game, but nary a peep from y’all about a state budget that will continue to shoe horn you into overcrowded lower division classes. But hey, Bear Down.

What are Cats fans — not all of them were students by the way — a bunch of soccer hooligans? (Sorry Ted, I couldn’t resist).

Ted makes a salient point. Everyone at this blog tries to provide you with the information you need to be an informed and engaged citizen. Every American has an obligation to be an informed and engaged citizen. How many times do I have to post that democracy is a participation sport, and that democracies die from neglect?

I am reminded of the words of the Roman satirist and poet Juvenal (circa A.D. 100), who wrote about the decline of the Roman Empire:

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses […]

Sports, entertainment, the Internet, etc. have become the “bread and circuses” of our age.

Stein Ringen, an emeritus professor at Oxford University and the author ofNation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience,” has a provocative opinion at the Washington Post this weekend. The fall of democracy?:

Behind dysfunctional government, is democracy itself in decay?

It took only 250 years for democracy to disintegrate in ancient Athens. A wholly new form of government was invented there in which the people ruled themselves. That constitution proved marvelously effective. Athens grew in wealth and capacity, fought off the Persian challenge, established itself as the leading power in the known world and produced treasures of architecture, philosophy and art that bedazzle to this day. But when privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, the lights went out.

It would be 2,000 years before democracy was reinvented in the U.S. Constitution, now as representative democracy. Again, government by popular consent proved ingenious. The United States grew into the world’s leading power — economically, culturally and militarily. In Europe, democracies overtook authoritarian monarchies and fascist and communist dictatorships. In recent decades, democracy’s spread has made the remaining autocracies a minority.

The second democratic experiment is approaching 250 years. It has been as successful as the first. But the lesson from Athens is that success does not breed success. Democracy is not the default. It is a form of government that must be created with determination and that will disintegrate unless nurtured. In the United States and Britain, democracy is disintegrating when it should be nurtured by leadership. If the lights go out in the model democracies, they will not stay on elsewhere.

It’s not enough for governments to simply be democratic; they must deliver or decay. In Britain, government is increasingly ineffectual. The constitutional scholar Anthony King has described it as declining from “order” to “mess” in less than 30 years. During 10 years of New Labor rule, that proposition was tested and confirmed. In 1997 a new government was voted in with a mandate and determination to turn the tide on Thatcherite inequality. It was given all the parliamentary power a democratic government could dream of and benefited from 10 years of steady economic growth. But a strong government was defeated by a weak system of governance. It delivered nothing of what it intended and left Britain more unequal than where the previous regime had left off.

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Meanwhile, the health of the U.S. system is even worse than it looks. The three branches of government are designed to deliver through checks and balances. But balance has become gridlock, and the United States is not getting the governance it needs. Here, the link between inequality and inability is on sharp display. Power has been sucked out of the constitutional system and usurped by actors such as PACs, think tanks, media and lobbying organizations.

In the age of mega-expensive politics, candidates depend on sponsors to fund permanent campaigns. When money is allowed to transgress from markets, where it belongs, to politics, where it has no business, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be — those they wish to fund — and what they can decide once they are in office. Rich supporters get two swings at influencing politics, one as voters and one as donors. Others have only the vote, a power that diminishes as political inflation deflates its value. It is a misunderstanding to think that candidates chase money. It is money that chases candidates.

In Athens, democracy disintegrated when the rich grew super-rich, refused to play by the rules and undermined the established system of government. That is the point that the United States and Britain have reached.

Nearly a century ago, when capitalist democracy was in a crisis not unlike the present one, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Democracy weathered that storm for two reasons: It is not inequality as such that destroys democracy but the more recent combination of inequality and transgression. Furthermore, democracy was then able to learn from crisis. The New Deal tempered economic free-for-all, primarily through the 1933 Banking Act, and gave the smallfolk new social securities.

The lesson from Athens is that success breeds complacency. People, notably those in privilege, stopped caring, and democracy was neglected. Six years after the global economic crisis, the signs from the model democracies are that those in privilege are unable to care and that our systems are unable to learn. The crisis started in out-of-control financial services industries in the United States and Britain, but control has not been reasserted. Economic inequality has followed through to political inequality, and democratic government is bereft of power and capacity. Brandeis was not wrong; he was ahead of his time.

Democracy is hard work. It has to be defended and nurtured. It takes an informed and engaged citizenry to make it work for all citizens. Ignorance, apathy, and complacency are the enemies of a democracy. Democracies die from neglect.

What will you tell your children and your grandchildren that you did when the Great American Experiment with democracy was threatened by the über-rich wealthy elite plutocrats who seek to enslave you in the serfdom of a corporatocracy? It’s time to stand up and be counted.

2 responses to “On Bread and Circuses (and Basketball)

    Thanks to D MORALES for sharing this post from Blog For Arizona and for his quote about “bread and circuses on his wall.

    I know that what happened in Tucson is not the most important thing that’s happened in the world lately…but….I feel that this could be a teaching moment to those who feel our police force in America has become to militarized. Maybe…just maybe…we ask all of those college adult students and non college people to think about why the police are allowed to do what they do within our country and its government ? And…will this as a lesson to open their eyes to all of the injustice/racism/poverty/cruelty that is so prevalent in this world .

    I am torn on this in that… I wish those who were out in the streets yesterday protesting over a basketball game were with us (apologies to those who have been with us in the past non-violently protesting) in the past trying to change the institutionalized racism in our public school system and a whole litany of other things/causes but…they…fall into the hands of the astro-turfed corporate/Koch opiate of the masses (sports).
    Leonard Clark 🙂

  2. Tucson Tommy

    I hope you will allow digression into the first topic in this column. The so called riot. This community should also examine the role of the police in this “riot.” And I am an old guy. For the last two months the cops have been hitting all the establishments on University and Fourth, discussing how they will handle Final Four disturbances. It is almost like a self fulfilling prophecy. Further this community should consider what I call the post 9-11 militarization of local police departments, with grants for riot gear, armored cars, etc. How much of this is the mentality of “we got it, now we have to use it.”