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I recently had a read of the ultra-conservative, autocratic nineteenth-century Russian scholar, Konstantin Pobedonostsev. Allegedly, he was the inspiration for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor. As a continuation of Pobedonostsev’s long career supporting the Tsardom, he wrote a work entitled Reflections of a Russian Statesman. Titled somewhat more provocatively is a chapter within this work, The Falsehood of Democracy.

Now, while I’m not a supporter of ultra-conservative autocracy, it has to be admitted that Pobedonostsev’s assessments of democracy’s shortcomings are pretty damn… well, accurate. To illustrate this, let’s compare some of his critiques with the most famous democracy of them all, the United States of America…

“In theory, the election favours the intelligent and capable; in reality, it favours the pushing and impudent. It might be thought that education, experience, conscientiousness in work, and wisdom in affairs, would be essential requirements in the candidate; in reality, whether these qualities exist or not, they are in no way needed in the struggle of the election, where the essential qualities are audacity, a combination of impudence and oratory, and even some vulgarity, which invariably acts on the masses; modesty, in union with delicacy of feeling and thought, is worth nothing.”

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“Experience shows that in great assemblies the decision does not belong to reason, but to daring and brilliancy; that the arguments most effective on the mass are not the most symmetrical – the most truly taken from the nature of things, but those expressed in sounding words and phrases, artfully selected, constantly reiterated, and calculated on the instinct of baseness always dominant in the people. The masses are easily drawn by out-bursts of empty declamation, and under such influences often form sudden decisions, which they regret on cold-blooded consideration of the affair.”

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“What is a Parliamentary party? In theory, it is an alliance of men with common convictions, joining forces for the realisation of their views in legislation and administration. But this description applies only to small parties; the large party, which alone is an effective force in Parliament, is formed under the influence only of personal ambition, and centres itself around one commanding personality.”

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“Any vagabond babbler or unacknowledged genius, any enterprising tradesman, with his own money or with the money of others, may found a newspaper, even a great newspaper. He may attract a host of writers and feuilletonists, ready to deliver judgment on any subject at a moment’s notice; he may hire illiterate reporters to keep him supplied with rumours and scandals. His staff is then complete. From that day he sits in judgment on all the world, on ministers and administrators, on literature and art, on finance and industry. It is true that the new journal becomes a power only when it is sold in the market – that is, when it circulates among the public. For this talent is needed, and the matter published must be attractive and congenial for the readers. Here, we might think, was some guarantee of the moral value of the undertaking – men of talent will not serve a feeble or contemptible editor or publisher; the public will not support a newspaper which is not a faithful echo of public opinion. This guarantee is fictitious. Experience proves that money will attract talent under any conditions, and that talent is ready to write as its paymaster requires … The healthy taste of the public is not to be relied upon. The great mass of readers, idlers for the most part, is ruled less by a few healthy instincts than by a base and despicable hankering for idle amusement; and the support of the people may be secured by any editor who provides for the satisfaction of these hankerings, for the love of scandal, and for intellectual pruriency of the basest kind.”

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“In our age the judgment of others has assumed an organised form, and calls itself Public Opinion. Its organ and representative is the Press. In truth, the importance of the Press is immense, and may be regarded as the most characteristic fact of our time – more characteristic even than our remarkable discoveries and inventions in the realm of technical science. No government, no law, no custom can withstand its destructive activity when, from day to day, through the course of years, the Press repeats and disseminates among the people its condemnations of institutions or of men.”

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Never been a time like this? I would suggest Donald read a book… but just our luck the one book he’d read would be that of a Russian autocrat!

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