In “Politics,” the book that founded the study of political science, Aristotle distinguished three basic forms of government: kingship, or rule by a single person; aristocracy, or rule by a minority; and democracy, rule by a majority. Each, Aristotle felt, had both advantages and liabilities. Rule by a single person concentrated authority and permitted rapid action, which might be essential in times of crisis. It also tempted abuse and limited access to the population ruled. Sufficiently abused, it led to what we would today call tyranny.
Rule by a presumably enlightened minority widened the scope of discussion, while not unduly frustrating action, but tended to concentrate wealth and encourage self-interest at the expense of the common welfare. The downside here led to oligarchy, the selfish rule of a few.
Majority rule made for, at best, popular consensus that conferred legitimacy on the actions and functions of government. But it also meant including the less educated, able, affluent and virtuous in the exercise of power. Persons of reasonable means but not excessive wealth could consult the popular interest. The overriding need of the poor would be to alleviate their poverty, and so the redistribution of wealth would be their chief agenda.
Democracy had a further drawback: the potential persecution of minorities. Other forms of government had to take into account the interest of the majority on some level, if only to forestall rebellion. Majority rule had no such check. To some extent, law and custom might protect minorities, but prejudice could undercut this, and in time of crisis, minorities were apt to be persecuted or even killed.
Aristotle concluded that the best and most stable form of government combined elements of aristocracy and democracy, a responsible elite governing a population with the right of consent. He felt broad-based distribution of goods was essential, such that extremes of wealth and poverty were minimized if not wholly eliminated. Political stability would thus rest on a healthy middle class.
Our Founding Fathers had read their Aristotle, and studied the fate of ancient republics. They created what they hoped would be a viable system in which democratic elements were checked by an aristocracy of merit. This would, in effect, constitute the political class. It would be, in Lincoln’s terms, a government for the people, but it would not necessarily, or even desirably, be one of and by it. The people would choose by elections and consent by the operation of representative institutions. They would not, except by such indirect means, control.
This system, inscribed in the Constitution, did not survive the turbulent election of populist Andrew Jackson. It was compromised from the start by the institution of slavery, which nearly destroyed the federal Union. Afterwards, the planter aristocracy having yielded to industrial capitalism with its immense concentration of economic power, the country was torn by labor struggles and mass protest. At the height of the so-called Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an estimated 2 percent of the population controlled 75 percent of the nation’s wealth. Aristotle could not have foreseen the Industrial Revolution, but he would have fully understood the consequences of so much power in the hands of so few.
Protest over such inequities did bring some reform: the direct election of U. S. Senators, the graduated income tax and women’s suffrage. These were insufficient to check the concentration of wealth, however, and it was only with the Great Depression that the government stepped in to effect a modest redistribution of wealth. This, with the Second World War, created for the first time what looked like an Aristotelian middle class. This class was the basis of the mythical American dream. It lasted about 40 years, and has been crumbling ever since. Wealth concentration today is approaching Gilded Age levels once more. This time, however, the rich have taken care to defang the democratic process. Labor unions are toast. Both major political parties have been captured by wealth, differing only marginally in their policies and rhetoric. Of the two, however, it is the modern Republican Party that has most overtly and unashamedly made itself the tool of power. It courts various interest groups, but, unabashedly, it serves the rich.
To win elections, the Republicans have created a new form of governance that should perhaps be set alongside the classic ones of Aristotle. I call it “minocracy,” rule that in a nominal democracy works not by means of a majority, but with minority support alone, both electoral and institutional. Electorally, it means playing on economic, social and racial resentments to create a core constituency that is fashionably called a “base” today. But the party more resembles a tenuously united and geographically dispersed mob. Such a group typically votes against what others regard as its objective class interests, and tends to be a minority. To win elections, then, it is necessary not only to maintain the base but to discourage or deny the votes of ethnic and racial groups such as Blacks and Latinos. This is done by gerrymandering and systematic voter suppression through ID requirements, name cross-checking and reduced access to the polls. These tactics, long practiced but now reduced to a science, have been highly effective.
Institutional means are even more critical. These include a U.S. Senate so skewed by the Constitutional provision that each state have two senators regardless of population that half of the present-day upper house of Congress is elected by 18 percent of the population. The Electoral College has similarly made it possible for the presidency to be decided by a minority of popular votes, as it was in 2000 and 2016. Republicans have systematically stacked the federal courts with conservative, not to say reactionary, judges. The U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates to elections bought by money in 2010, and three years later, gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which enfranchised Southern Blacks a century after the abolition of slavery. And if any doubt could remain about the Republican campaign against the vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scotched it for good when he described the recent proposal to declare Election Day a national holiday as “a power grab.” Right. If it were easier instead of more difficult to vote, if the franchise were actually respected, who knows? The majority might actually elect those who govern.
Donald Trump has put the capstone on the “minocratic” state by cultivating a base unified less by policy or prejudice than by identification with a demagogic leader. Republicans will support Trump to the end in hopes of consolidating this base behind his successors, much as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s. The demagogue will be the new executive model.
Down this road lies what Aristotle thought we had to fear only from kings: tyranny.