Democratic power springs from an enlightened electorate. The neglect of this possibility in America, the failure to protect and advance it with new form and content during a century and a half of expanding area and population, of complicating economy and frequently revolutionized technology, and broadening relations with the rest of the world, has resulted in an electorate so demoralized that it is a question if it is possible to govern democraticaIIy at all. We tend to take lightly Jefferson’s famous remark about the necessity for a revolution every twenty years, every new generation, but it is probably literally true, to renew democracy as he conceived it. (Jefferson was not, in fact, given to ill-considered slogans nor even dogmatism; but in stupider times his Enlightenment daring seems outlandish.) Meantime, during that century and a half, while the democratic power was being corrupted and was dwindling, other kinds of power and inertia have boldly filled up the vacuum, up to our present feudal system of monopolies, military and other bureaucracies, party machines, communications networks, and Established institutions.
The Kennedy Administration came in—one speaks as if it were there a thousand years; will we get out of it alive?—after a marvelously established regime of business as usual. And it was going to “make America move.” It would be a rule of things by active personalities instead of a bureaucratic staff; it would be a “disorderly” Administration, in the sense that ideas and people could leap-frog the chain of command and clash and have it out; it would be rich with ideas, as guaranteed by putting in or near power such notorious thinkers of new thoughts as academics from prestigious colleges. What the activity and thought were to be toward, what the purpose was, was not clear—there were no issues in the campaign, no effort to enlighten the electorate— but it was called the New Frontier. Now in this essay I want to show that this image of a government, of active persons with no idea, indeed fits the real situation better than its only rival did, and the voters were esthetically wise to choose it—by a squeak.
After a year, including a Hundred Days and everything, and having learned that it is powerless and irrelevant except to “lead” in an intensified Cold War (which is itself, of course, powerless and irrelevant to any human good), the boyish elan is more sober. A philosopher close to the President now explains to me that the best to be hoped from government is to “mitigate the evils of modern life.” This Niebuhrian political theory is not very wise, for if the aim is merely to mitigate, and not attack the structure and causes of the evils, one will not even mitigate, for the structure aggrandizes itself and produces new evils. It is as with civil liberties: if one merely protects them, without increasing the opportunities of freedom, one loses them. So...
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