When it was originally aired, between 1999 and 2006, during Bill Clinton’s and George W Bush’s presidencies, Aaron Sorkin’s White House drama The West Wing, a fictional representation of competent, humane, political leadership was a beacon of hope. I remember watching it unfold season by season, a vision of how things could be in a better world.
Until Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Jed Bartlett played by Martin Sheen appealed to many of us as the best president American never had. The series even presaged Obama’s victory in the Hispanic character Matt Santos who succeeded Bartlett to the fictional presidency.
But watching The West Wing now would be a futile and painful exercise in nostalgia. The promise of the Obama years has given way to the demagogic mummery of Trump and his pack of alt-right hyenas. Like all would-be tyrants they are both terrifying and ludicrous (the more terrifying for not being able to see how ludicrous they are).
Obama was an articulate, intelligent, and decent president, stymied at every turn by a Republican majority in Congress determined to prevent the implementation of progressive policies at all costs. Ironically, their very success ultimately created Trump’s impoverished and disenfranchised constituency. Their irresponsible and self-interested opposition to Obama created a monster who despises them as much as he does the Democrats.
In 1992, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called The End of History and the Last Man in which he argued: “What we are witnessing is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Plato knew better and we would do well to heed his warning. In Book VIII of The Republic he explains in some detail how tyranny arises from the failings of democracy to care adequately for all its people. When things get bad in a democracy, he says, the people look for a saviour:
And is it not always the way of a demos to put forward one man as its special champion and protector and cherish and magnify him?
At first, an elected demagogue provides hope:
Then at the start and in the first days does he not smile upon all men and greet everybody he meets and deny that he is a tyrant, and promise many things in private and public…
But when promises fail and opposition arises:
Then the tyrant must do away with all such if he is to maintain his rule, until he has left no one of any worth, friend or foe…
[He] is always stirring up some war so that the people may be in need of a leader… that being impoverished by war taxes they may have to devote themselves to their daily business and be less likely to plot against him…
The end of history? I think not.