A More Perfect Tyranny

October 3, 2022

Scott Yenor

Washington Fellow

Daniel Klein and Michael Munger are right to worry about tyranny. But reforming the system that oligarchic tyrants control is a fool’s errand.

This essay was originally published on October 3, 2022 by Law & Liberty.

Understanding a political moment is always difficult. Partisan loyalties cloud perspective. Events seem to have outsized importance while we live through them. Political actors make overwrought charges to rile up partisans. Every election, we hear, is “the most important election of our lifetime.” Most aren’t. Things that seem important often are not, while small changes can lead to political revolutions. Revolutions often come without countries or political communities knowing, until it is too late.

Two distinguished analysts have recently argued in Law & Liberty that America has descended from a republic into a tyranny. Daniel Klein and Michael Munger think tyrants rule outside of law to “protect themselves against the sanctions due them for their crimes.” Such tyrannies, they argue, can be stable, in that they can effectively and forcibly prevent any effective opposition from arising. The liberal mechanisms that might resist the descent into tyranny—i.e., free press, election integrity—are, they think, “being dismantled” in America. A return to neutral liberal institutions is their solution, against the “governmentalization of society” by the Left in reality and by the Right in aspiration. No one is standing up for liberal values—and our authors profess to do so.

The question, however, is whether their liberal framework is the best way to understand our situation. Ancient political thinkers see tyranny arising within factional conflict. Stopping tyranny requires a particular set of factional arrangements, not merely appeals to liberal values, to upset the tyrant’s power. 

Aristotle’s More Tyrannical Tryanny

Political philosophy can help students of politics gain perspective. Aristotle’s Politics summarizes data from more than a hundred political communities, though most of the individual cases are lost (only his Athenian Constitution survives). Among other things, Aristotle describes democracies, oligarchies, and tyrannies—and then offers advice on how statesmen could preserve such regimes. Aristotle even advises tyrants on how to preserve their tyrannies in Politics Book V, Chapter 11.

Good tyrants, Aristotle believes, transform themselves into constitutional monarchs by introducing regular laws and building up the common people. More tyrannical tyrants maintain themselves by weakening the people—debauching the many and sowing fear among their leaders. More tyrannical tyrants ensure that the people (1) have only “modest thoughts”; (2) “distrust one another”; and (3) have an “incapacity for activity“ that might pose a threat. 

Tyrants do everything to keep people “as ignorant of one another as possible” since knowledge itself “tends to create trust of one another.” Populations are distracted with bread and circuses, also passing their time out of doors so they can be observed. These more tyrannical tyrants also seek to keep the people mired in the present with worries of survival or with concerns about running afoul of the tyrant. High thoughts of the good life or living in the long-term or the good of their soul give way to low thoughts of the present and living for the here and now. Low thoughts are more concerned with the body and immediate survival, while high thoughts are concerned with the soul and the long-term health of the community. Tyrants set friends against friends—and make friendship less possible. Spies and informers exist to notice if something of moral gravity threatens to catch the attention of the people, or if some sort of social trust seems to be taking hold. Aristotle illustrates with examples from the ancient world. Modern tyrannies like the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin conform to Aristotle’s model.

America’s reality today should be measured against Aristotle’s description of this more tyrannical tyranny. There will, of course, be a diversity of opinion on whether and how much such attributes are present in our country. Is social trust high or low? How low? Are citizens capable of action or not? How capable? There is no perfect measure. Nor are there perfect measures of what the regime is doing. There are countervailing tendencies in every regime. While grasping the broadest trends is essential, it is also elusive. It will be difficult to disentangle accident from intention. Everyone’s mileage may vary. Trendlines, however, towards tyranny are difficult to deny: the population more and more reflects the hallmarks of tyranny.

The Prevalence of Low Thoughts

American society has always been more materialistic than most, but there used to be countervailing institutions that brought Americans out of themselves. This is less so now. Religious belief is in a society-wide decline, as are the actions most associated with living for the long-term like church attendancechurch membershipfamily formation, and having children. Philosophy, long on life support, is dying in our modern universities, and along with it the standards of thinking that make philosophy possible and noble. Knowledge of American history and world history is no longer required even of our history professors, nor is knowledge of our folkways and principles of justice. Void of historical knowledge and appreciation for America, it is easy for citizens to fall for the lies, so useful to the dominant left-wing power structure, propagated through the 1619 project and critical race theory generally.

Our society’s acceptance of COVID restrictions showed that for a large segment of America’s population safety and health (whether properly understood or not) could be used to justify the most draconian policies. The identity politics movement answers the question of who we are by pointing most of all to low things like skin color or sex. The sexual revolution generally makes sex the most important part of human identity.

Meanwhile, each generation is more taken with distractions and anti-social devices. Video game use and social media consumption soar, and nothing is more emblematic of low thoughts than rampant pornography consumption, which strikes at the will and heart of young men and consigns their thoughts to the low and trivial.

Less capable of high thoughts? Check.

The most significant cautionary tale about this Aristotelian treatment is that no one can name the tyrant. No one knows where the one power center of this tyranny is or if it even has just one.

The Decline of Trust

Trust is the foundation of all community. Institutions of trust are in decline, when judged on a generational basis. Marriage is less healthy now than it was in the 1990s, and it was less healthy then than it was in the 1970s. The chickens are coming home to roost, as marriage decline is a product of the broader decline of community in general. Most Americans have fewer friends and thinner friendships than they did in years past. Americans also do not trust each other overmuch with only about one-third of Americans saying that they trust others, the lowest total on record. Relationships are less common. People get their identities and meaning now from their careers more than from communities of trust. America has moved from being a high trust society to a low trust society in a matter of fifty years.

Large corporations and government institutions also have done their level best to corrode the institutions of trust. From governmental programs that corrode intergenerational trust (like Social Security) to collusion between big technology companies and law enforcement on issues like internet bans, doxing, suppression of speech, and the general lack of transparency in our laws, America’s trust in institutions has never been lower. Some opponents of our new regime welcome this decline in trust since it shows that people generally do not trust institutions that objectively are out to get them. The problem is that there are no trustworthy institutions (yet!) arising to take their place.

Decline of Trust? Check.

Less Capacity for Action

Are Americans in a position to resist these forces? This is very difficult to measure precisely. Analogues exist. Canadian authorities crushed the Canadian trucker strike of Spring 2022. Not only did they crush it, but they exposed those who donated money to it. Are similar things happening here? One does not have to be a Trumpian to see that those associated with President Trump—his lawyers and associates—are suddenly being subpoenaed and having their phones seized and being indicted. Even President Trump is an object of criminal proceedings. People have been removed from platforms where they could raise money to defend themselves. Action depends on information—and tech censorship makes organizing more difficult. FBI swat raids on law-abiding citizens, something unimaginable in the past, are now almost daily occurrences. This appears to be an attempt to discourage people from organizing in the opposition to America’s rising tyrannical regime.

Just as crucial is the rise of cynicism and the amazing decline of civic engagement, belief in the power of voting, and civic trust, as noted in opinion polls. Americans enjoy more phone time and less active time. Could Americans organize to build their own communities outside this oligarchic control? Only if enough see the problem and have the will to do something about it.

Inability to Act? Check.

Cautions and Remedies

Things could obviously be worse in all these regards. There could always be fewer high thoughts, less trust, and less ability to act. The tyranny tolerates many healthy practices, though it does not honor them and nudges people from them. Many people still marry and stay married, having children and raising them to honorable adulthood. Many still have large families, though our tyranny prefers as few strong relationships as possible. Women are free to become nuns (and America has about 420 nuns under the age of forty), but more women become Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion administrators (Big Ten schools alone have about one thousand DEI personnel). Many people worship God every week, though fewer than decades ago and many less seriously. Twitter and Facebook, enforcement arms of the tyranny, still haven’t banned anywhere near all dissident voices. Though many Trumpians are under investigation, many remain on the loose. Our phones may be spies, but it is not clear how effective they are. Harvey Mansfield has not been fired from Harvard. Heck, I can even write this essay, as could Klein and Munger. Things could be worse!

Current trends, however, show few signs of reversal, and many of consolidation. Knowing that things could be worse hardly prevents them from getting worse.

The most significant cautionary tale about this Aristotelian treatment is that no one can name the tyrant. Munger and Klein do not deal with that problem. No one knows where the one power center of this tyranny is or if it even has just one. All apparatchik seems easily replaced by different ones, as they move in and out of government, high finance, charity sectors, and media. An ever-tightening oligarchy, where every part is indeed replaceable, is, Aristotle mentions in Politics 4.6, akin to a tyranny. This narrow oligarchy has its henchmen and enforcers, but also its power centers. The characteristic of an oligarchy, after all, is to have many heads and centers, with many aligned clients to debase the people and consolidate power.

The tyranny descending has an oligarchic flavor. It is no more salubrious for being marginally more dispersed.

Aristotle’s prediction for oligarchies that tighten? For every action, there is a reaction, of course, though there is no predetermined cycle of regimes. Oligarchies tend to fracture. Defectors become leaders of the other side. Revolutions, slow or quick, peaceful or violent, proceed as the capacity is built up for the people to trust one another, to elevate their thoughts, or to act. Trying to reform the system that the oligarchic tyrants control, however, is likely a fool’s errand.