The Revolt of the Masses

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            From his lofty perch as a professor of Metaphysics at Complutense University of Madrid, and as contributor to the newspaper El Sol, the Spanish philosopher, José  Ortega Y Gasset expressed his apprehension at what he described as the rise of the "mass man."  He observed in his seminal book, The Revolt of the Masses, "Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself -- good or ill -- based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else."

            A critic of bourgeois culture, Gasset warned about the glorification of mass values - what John Kenneth Galbraith later excoriated as "conventional wisdom " - and the consequences of conformity - the desire to be just like everyone else: "The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: 'to be different is to be indecent.' The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated."


            Gasset's primary concern was that when ideas and principles were reduced to their lowest common denominators, democracy itself and liberal values that informed it would be imperiled. As he noted, "The Fascist and Syndicalist species were characterized by the first appearance of a type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions. That was the novelty: the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: 'the reason of unreason.'"


            Gasset's concern was prophetic given subsequent triumph of General Franco and the fascist dictatorship that he imposed upon Spain though his Falange  party. It also has particular resonance in American politics today. That dictatorship, lest we forget, promoted and protected the interests of the wealthy, destroyed labor unions and stifled every form of dissent. all in the name of restoring Spain's past greatness.


             A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, "How Global Elites Forsake Their Countrymen." Ms. Noonan, an unctuous, life-long reactionary and stalwart defender of the 1%, correctly claimed that elites throughout the Western world all too often disparage ordinary people and are increasingly disconnected from those whom she argues are victims of their policies: "the top detaching itself from the bottom, feeling little loyalty to it or affiliation with it....From what I've seen of those in power throughout business and politics now, the people of your country are not your countrymen, they're aliens whose bizarre emotions you must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage."


            Noonan concluded, "our elites have abandoned or are abandoning the idea that they belong to a country, that they have ties that bring responsibilities, that they should feel loyalty to their people or, at the very least, a grounded respect."


            Ms. Noonan professes to have little confidence in the candidacy of Donald Trump, even as Trump proclaims himself to be the kind of advocate for the common man and opponent the kind of elite that Noonan rails against. But the "elite" that both Noon and Trump castigate is not the economic elite that controls the levers of power in this county - the Koch brothers, the Romneys and Trumps of this world who received a leg up from inherited wealth - but rather some mythical liberal elite that does not  share their or America's values. In addition, Noonan, a former speech writer for Ronald Reagan, espouses the same kinds of policies that Trump endorses. Those policies would only exacerbate the chasm between the 1% and the many and further impoverish ordinary working Americans.


            Rhetoric and bluster aside, one need to look no further than the 2016 Republican Party platform that calls for massive tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of Wall Street, abolition of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, repeal of existing environmental laws, restricting the ability of workers to join unions and to bargain collectively through the enactment of a national right to work law, repealing the federal minimum wage law,   cutting the benefits and pensions of public sector employees, and privatizing Amtrak, Medicare and public schools, among other harmful proposals.


            Trump, as Gasset has warned,  is "the type of man who did not care to give reasons or even to be right, but who was simply resolved to impose his opinions:" he epitomizes "the right not to be right, not to be reasonable: 'the reason of unreason.'"

          In the tradition of so many dangerous demagogues, Trump has succeeded in persuading many "low information" voters that, despite his vast wealth, lavish life-style and unsavory business practices, he is the champion of decent, hard-working people whom our economy has left behind. Implicit in his message is the inference that other less deserving people - i.e minorities, immigrants, etc -  have been permitted to jump t the head of the line. Like Generalissimo Franco, he promises to restore traditional values and to make the country great again. Sadly, many of his supporters,especially those who have been most disadvantaged by current economic policies that have favored the very wealthy, because of their anger, frustration and disenchantment, fail to understand how inimical Trump's policies are to their own best interests.   


            In  his dialogues, Plato has Socrates describe people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, who face a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from things passing in front of a fire behind them, and they begin to give names to these shadows. The shadows are as close as the prisoners can ever come to viewing reality. 


          If Plato's allegory is not to serve as a metaphor that defines this election, informed citizens throughout this country will need to become more engaged and with fact-driven information explain to their family members, friends and neighbors the importance of this election to their own lives and those of future generations of Americans. The stakes could not be higher, nor the danger to our admittedly imperfect democracy greater. 

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