We will be hearing much more from this school of thought over the next months. Its voices will encourage us to feel doubt and disgust at democracy, and they will subtly flatter our elite, or would-be elite, ideas of historical responsibility. They will suggest that a little psychological introspection into the state of our own too self-satisfied souls is all we need to understand what has gone wrong. They will urge us to give up on a stronger democracy, and to rally behind the elite-driven, money-ridden, cynically pandering system we have now. They will say this is the lesson of philosophy and history: that elites must save democracy from itself.
They are right that democracy is cultural as well as political; but they have it backward when they forget that our democratic culture arises from a paradoxical combination: approximate civic and cultural equality combined with pervasive and acute economic inequality, hierarchy, and vulnerability. They are right when they say that “elites”—professionals, professors, journalists, economists, etc.—have the responsibility to fill their roles in ways that protect and promote democratic life; but they have it backward when they forget that the suasions of wealth, economic status, and neoliberal versions of political maturity do more to corrupt those roles than democratic permissiveness or self-indulgence.
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