Kagan and the Demise of Democracy

Posted on May 2, 2013 by


Donald Kagan, a history professor, gave a “farewell lecture” at Yale University last week and made the statement “Democracy may have had its day.” Dr. Kagan is not one to shy away from controversy and has often raised the ire of his colleagues through his public statements and actions. By way of explanation, he argued that universities “are failing students and hurting American democracy. Curricula are ‘individualized, unfocused and scattered.’ On campus, he said, ‘I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness.’ Rare are ‘faculty with atypical views,’ he charged. ‘Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our Western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values.’ He counseled schools to adopt ‘a common core of studies’ in the history, literature and philosophy ‘of our culture.’” (quote from Matthew Kaminski’s Wall Street Journal article.
Dr. Kagan has expressed similar concerns before in his career. When Cornell buckled to protesters in 1969, he objected. He later left and went to Yale. He was joined in that protest by Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind expressed some of the same thoughts Kagan articulated in his farewell address. Again in the 1990s, Kagan sought to get his colleagues at Yale to recognize the importance of teaching the ideological foundations of Western Civilization, believing as many of our Founding Fathers that an informed citizenry was essential in maintaining the Republic. His colleagues, overwhelmed by their own politically correct ideology, refused to accept his argument. They chose rather to embrace a relativistic understanding of civilizations, and failing to see that what has allowed western civilization to develop the highest standard of living in the history of world and provided the strength necessary to defeat world tyrants like Adolf Hilter and Saddam Hussein is also that which made western civilization distinct.
Conrad Black, writing for National Review, responded to Kagan’s lecture with an article entitled “Democracy on Its Way Out?” He suggested that democracy was struggling because it has become perverted. “This happens when a free people is labored in the name of redistribution of wealth from those who have earned the money to those who have not, beyond what can be reasonably justified (and in implicit exchange for the votes of the self-interested, pseudo-conscientious majority).” He has a point. America’s democracy took a hard left turn when the federal government began to take on the role of providing for the needs of its citizens. This turn was done with the best of intentions and President Franklin Roosevelt suggested during the Depression that this role of government should only be for a short time. But even he could not resist the lure of political power that such a role provides. America’s political history is full of demagogues who figured out that they can buy votes by promising something of value to voters. When Roosevelt opened the door for the government to provide basic needs, Pandora’s Box was opened. Few politicians today can get into office without playing the game. “Vote for me,” they say, “and I will give you something more.” When was the last time you heard a politician offer to take away an entitlement you or someone you know enjoys? It does not happen very often, because it does not result in a victory on election night. Black is right that this has perverted democracy. For me, I tell my students that this process has fundamentally undermined what democracy is supposed to be. Black is optimistic, however, that it can be saved. We just have to do away with the perversion.
I am not sure Kagan shares his optimism. At least, his lecture seems pessimistic. Then again, Kagan devoted his life to education, and educators are inherently optimistic. They believe that they can have a positive influence on the next generation of society by educating the young. And herein lies Kagan’s solution to democracy’s demise. If America can properly educate its citizenry, it can regain the democratic republic that it once had. It will take a disciplined, well-educated electorate, that can understand that the country’s long term success is more important than the individual voter’s short term desires. I am not convinced that education is the end all, but I think Kagan is on to something. A thinking electorate would recognize that America has attempted to solve its problems by spending tax dollars for almost three quarters of a century and it has failed. We cannot solve our problems by spending more. If our own history is not a sufficient teacher, surely the economic woes of much of Europe should provide the needed lesson. Let us hope that Kagan’s “farewell lecture” hits the mark.