Mixture of elites good for democracy

In a recent bond election, some 7 percent of eligible San Antonians voted.

This is pretty much in line with recent voting history. In Dallas, for example, more people have attended a single professional baseball game than cast a ballot in primaries.

Is this democracy? Well, I think democracy is defined less by how many vote than who has a right to vote, and whether a government rules by consent of the people rather than by compulsion. The vast turnouts and huge majorities achieved by totalitarian regimes certainly do not represent “rule by the people.”

In Texas, the great majority may vote if they can prove citizenship; tabulations are reasonably honest; and people who take no interest in public affairs (whom the Athenians called “idiots”) are free to do so. And the non-voting majority usually consents to the judgment of the minority. Like it or not, this is American democracy.

The fact is, the “people” in so-called modern democracies have never actually run “their” governments. Even Switzerland, which holds popular referendums on most big issues is a federal confederation made up of small republics.

Only tiny agglomerations of people can handle direct democracy. San Antonio, Texas, and the U.S. elect representatives to manage their public affairs, which means we are governed by professional politicians, insiders, and various skilled elites. (We may elect amateurs, but like streetwalkers, when office-holders accept pay or benefits, they become professionals.) All governments are directed by elected or appointed elites; their key to legitimacy is approval by the majority as to “which people” rule.

Democracy demands political equality of citizens, which is expressed in the U.S. Constitution; it does not require social or economic equality, which are not. Unfortunately, liberté and égalité are hostile ideals: Freedom for both the wolf and lamb does not create fraternité.

Another fact is, all organized societies, in all times and places, have been directed by some sort of elite. (Elite is French, referring to accomplished people separated from the masses but who are not necessarily aristocrats. Anglo-Saxons have never much liked the concept. Ivy League students today vehemently deny they are an “elite,” thinking it is politically incorrect.)

Historically, elites may be wellborn, military, political, economic, technical, financial, clerical, or learned (mandarin), usually in combination or alliance. Over the millennia birth, war-skills, and land ownership have declined in favor of industrial, scientific, financial, and political power.

I believe one reason for American success is that we have always thrown up a mélange of elites, none of which became utterly dominant. Military regimes (Latin America), and purely political elites (Nazis, Communists) are disasters. Businessmen make poor politicians, and politicians are lousy businessmen. It follows that business should never try to run government, and politicians should never try to run business or an economy — both should treat the needs of the other with respect.

I hope that we never give government, or business, education, or science, too much control over our lives — none is fit for the role unless balanced by the others. Societies in which elites work together prosper.

T.R. Fehrenbach, Express-News columnist