Over the course of history, most societies have had a class of ruling elites and a much larger group of everyday people who are often called the masses, the public, the demos, the citizenry, or the hoi polloi. A common tenet of political philosophy has been that the degree of political stability in a state depends on how well it balances the divergent interests of the masses and the elites. One explanation for the current state of instability in our country is that we have lost this balance. Instead of negotiating policies that consider the interests of the masses and elites, the elites enact self-serving legislation by fiat, prompting the masses to vent their rage through symbolic demonstrations of violence and unrest.
According to Polybius, an ancient Greek historian who wrote extensively on the various forms of government, the instability that results from an imbalance between the masses and elites is a threat because it tends to lead society to one of two kinds of political corruption: either the result is oligarchy or ochlocracy.
But a society can’t be ruled by both a small group of elites and be ruled by the mob; oligarchy and ochlocracy are mutually exclusive.
The first—oligarchy—is where society comes to be ruled by a small ruling class, one that is wholly unaccountable to the people they rule. Oligarchies justify themselves on the grounds that the rulers are more fit to rule than the unwashed masses, who are better served when an enlightened, virtuous minority charts the course of society on their behalf. In practice, though, when unchecked by the power of the masses, a regime run by a cabal of elites usually governs out of self-interest, disregarding the needs and well-being of everyday people. While republican Rome is often cited as an early example of representative democracy, in practice, it was an oligarchy: a disproportionately small group of patricians in seats of political power, largely insulated from public accountability. More recently, the new Russian regime that was established after the fall of the Soviet Union is cited as a modern oligarchy.
The other type of corrupted democracy develops when the masses (rather than elites) have excessive political power. This situation is called ochlocracy, an obscure term that is typically translated as “mob rule.” Because many advocates of democracy celebrate the “power of the people,” it is less than obvious why ochlocracy is a bad thing—after all, why wouldn’t we want to maximize the political power that everyday people have in our society? The reason that the power of the masses must be limited is precisely because they are the masses; the average person does not possess the extraordinary traits required to be an effective leader, nor does he have the education or training to rule wisely. The Reign of Terror, a period of the French Revolution when the urban masses agitated for reforms via public displays of remarkable violence, is a testament to the volatility and danger of ochlocracy.
This brings us to America in 2021, which suffers from an imbalance between the interests of the masses and the elites. If such an imbalance tends to result in either oligarchy or ochlocracy, which is it in our case? Are we succumbing to oligarchy or ochlocracy?
On the one hand, our political system seems to be devolving into an ochlocracy, where the whims of the masses drive policy decisions and the trajectory of public culture. Remember the public protests and riots last summer and the inability (or unwillingness) of officials to bring order back to our cities? Viewed from another angle, though, the power of the demos (the everyday people with no particular aptitude or expertise in governing) has been completely appropriated by an increasingly tiny group of elites. Consider the sweeping exercise of state power in response to COVID-19 or the way that Big Tech oligarchs were able to control the spread of information in the 2020 election. But a society can’t be ruled by both a small group of elites and be ruled by the mob; oligarchy and ochlocracy are mutually exclusive.
In what follows, I argue that the events that seem to be indicative of “mob rule” are, in fact, tightly controlled affairs, ones that are curated by the same oligarchic powers that populist action aims to dislodge. What often masks itself as popular uprising and control is actually a rapid descent into oligarchy.
THE LEFT OCCUPATION OF PUBLIC SPACE
In a society where more and more power is transferred to the ruling class, the occupation of public space is one of the primary political tactics that remain available to the citizenry. Historically, we saw this approach in the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the 2002 occupation of a Russian theatre by Chechen terrorists (which left nearly 200 dead after the Russians pumped toxic gas into the building to reclaim the space). Recently, we’ve seen these examples of popular demonstrations in America, too, by both the left and the right.
Occupy Wall Street was glorified as a virtuous testament to the “power of the people,” and the occupation is now idealized and romanticized in public memory.
Perhaps the most seminal example is that of left activists occupying public space during the Occupy Wall Street movement (I use the term “movement” lightly, given that the label is also applied to simple hashtags that trend on Twitter). For nearly six months in late 2011, people protesting economic inequality held camp in Zuccotti Park in the financial district of Manhattan. It was a mostly cushy enterprise. Despite the fact that the group had no particular demands—no action plan for how to end “economic inequality”—their efforts were relentlessly celebrated by the corporate media and accommodated by city officials of New York.
The occupation began in September. Soon, meal service was being provided for the protestors—one that cost about $1,000 dollars per day. Local businesses offered their bathrooms so that protestors could wash and use the toilet during the occupation. Professional librarians staffed a “People’s Library” in the park, an operation complete with interlibrary loan privileges for the activists. By mid-October, the city was planning to clear the park out “for cleaning” but ultimately capitulated to the protestors’ refusal to vacate their space. This went on for months. The group had none of the permits required by the city of New York, and officials allowed the occupants to break city rules by setting up tents in the park. Eventually, the city succeeded in clearing the park—protestors were forced out of Zuccotti Park on November 15th, 2011, after then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared that the encampment had become a health and safety hazard.
Despite its less than glamorous end, Occupy Wall Street was glorified as a virtuous testament to the “power of the people,” and the occupation is now idealized and romanticized in public memory. Other examples of the valorization and accommodation of left activism in public space abound.
Consider when Scott Walker, then Governor of Wisconsin, brokered an agreement with state representatives to reign in public-sector unions in 2011. The day after Valentine’s Day, thousands protested outside the State Capitol building and were ultimately allowed to occupy it. Rather than letting security forces loose to clear that hallowed space, the protestors were accommodated for days. By February 20th, they had claimed the interior of the Capitol, and it looked like they intended to stay awhile: local businesses were providing free food to stock food stations inside, and medical professionals were colluding with protestors to accommodate and enable their continued absence from work. As with Occupy Wall Street, this occupation was tolerated and praised by legacy media outlets as another example of “democracy in action.”
In 2018, during the confirmation process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, protestors were allowed to enter the Capitol and disrupt the opening statements. Some were arrested but received only slaps on the wrist and fines of fifty dollars or less. One would think that given the disruption of the hearings on the first day, the Capitol police might have beefed up security on the second day to safeguard the “citadel of our democracy.” But no—not only were demonstrators again allowed into the Capitol, their disruptions intensified, threatening to derail the entire confirmation process. Again, these efforts were celebrated by the press.
Finally, who can forget the riots in the summer of 2020? As rioters raged in cities across the country, burning and looting and vandalizing public and private property in response to the killing of George Floyd (which served as the symbol of a supposed epidemic of “police brutality”), House representatives kneeled in kente cloths to signify their reverence and support for the cause. The urgent moral demand to wear a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was suspended because racism was a more pressing “public health hazard.” Broadcasting in front of a fiery inferno sparked by rioters, CNN’s screen labeled the events as “mostly peaceful” protests. The press excused looting as moral redress for economic equality. For almost a month, activists from Antifa and Black Lives Matter took over a piece of downtown Seattle, declaring the space to be free from any obligation to observe city or state law. They called this space the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). City officials effectively ceded the space to the protestors—it took much time and a good deal of bloodshed for authorities to work up the nerve to reclaim the space.
THE RIGHT OCCUPATION OF PUBLIC SPACE
Unlike left-wing occupations, occupations by the right are treated much differently: not only is there less free pizza for protestors, but they are also labeled as dangerous enemies of democracy… and treated as such.
The events prompted a whole media narrative about the decline of civic culture in democracy, a narrative that was used to portray conservative opposition to the bill as uninformed, extreme, and sometimes racist.
One of the earliest examples of this distinction in the modern era occurred during a recount of votes in the critical state of Florida during the contested presidential election of 2000. Frustrated with endless recounts, which increasingly seemed to be tailored to the demands of the Gore campaign, Republican staffers and protestors disrupted the recount with signs and chanting. Needless to say, the event was framed as an attack on American democracy (an all-too-familiar refrain by now). The New York Times dutifully reported that “several people were trampled, punched or kicked when protesters tried to rush the doors outside the office of the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections. Sheriff’s deputies restored order.” The name given to this event—the “Brooks Brothers Riot”—indicates how it was viewed by our institutions: an evil perpetrated by monied white men, and therefore an inauthentic expression of popular activism.
Some readers will also recall the public anger over the way that the Affordable Care Act was being pushed through Congress back in 2009. During that summer’s congressional recess, representatives returned to their hometowns, and many held “town hall” meetings to hear their constituents’ views on overhauling the healthcare system. Across the country, many citizens expressed outrage over the legislation, often yelling at their congressperson amid group chanting. There was no violence here, but in many places, police removed people who were accused of being “uncivil.” The events prompted a whole media narrative about the decline of civic culture in democracy, a narrative that was used to portray conservative opposition to the bill as uninformed, extreme, and sometimes racist. Of course, the Affordable Care Act passed, raising the cost of healthcare for millions of Americans.
Readers might also recall the 2014 standoff between Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The Bundy family’s cattle had grazed on what had become public land for decades. When the family refused to keep the livestock out of those areas, the BLM attempted to confiscate the animals. Ammon Bundy resisted, and other Nevadan ranchers and protestors joined in the effort to resist the government’s attempt to reclaim the area. Shockingly, the Bundys were successful: the Bureau of Land Management blinked first. But Bundy was indicted on over a dozen felonies by federal authorities. Although these cases were ultimately dismissed on the grounds of misconduct, Bundy was tied up in court for years and was and is extensively demonized by the media.
More recently, we saw another example of a protest at a capitol building. No, not that one—I refer to citizens of Michigan, who, in response to Gov. Whitmer’s draconian lockdown policies in the early months of COVID-19, set upon the statehouse to register their opposition. Hundreds of protestors entered the building. Some were (legally) armed, but there was no violence—mostly just yelling and finger-pointing. But this peaceful protest dominated media coverage; the protestors were labeled as domestic extremists, a threat to civil society. Perhaps worse, they were portrayed as anti-science because some were not complying with the state’s mask mandate. The reverence that Nancy Pelosi and others showered upon the Democrats who occupied the Wisconsin capitol was noticeably absent from the coverage of this affair. Tellingly, the entities that demonized the protestors for not wearing masks were the same ones who studiously avoided any mention of the masklessness of the hordes roving the streets a few months later during the anti-police riots.
In November, Michigan would once again illustrate the officials’ intolerance for right-wing protestors’ use of public space. In the days after the presidential election, as ballots were being counted in the closely contested state of Michigan, election officials cheered when observers who represented the state Republicans were removed from the venue. When private Trump supporters began amassing outside to watch and record the counting through the windows, the windows were covered. Similar events—where conservatives were removed, marginalized, or disallowed access to the space of the ballot counting—curiously occurred in other critical states such as Georgia and Pennsylvania.
January 6th was a tragedy. It was wrong to storm the Capitol, not least because it allowed the left establishment to justify the draconian exercises of power that followed.
Of course, that other mostly peaceful Capitol protest—the one on January 6th—cannot be ignored. That riot involved only a few hundred of the tens of thousands of people who attended the rally outside the Capitol, while the officials inside prepared to certify Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College—a narrow win in a historically unorthodox and anomalous election. A half a year later, this is still portrayed as the single most horrific event since the founding—some continue to insist that it was “worse than 9/11.” Framed by the media as an “armed insurrection,” the event was leveraged to justify massive censorship and surveillance of conservatives by the government and private entities.
This was not the first time that violence erupted inside our houses of government. In 1983, communist leftists detonated a bomb in the halls of the Senate. No one was killed, but the event apparently did not require a months-long military occupation of Washington, DC, as January 6th did. That day, there was one death that was directly linked to the riot—a Capitol police officer shot and killed a woman who had entered the building. The media deliberately misrepresented the body count and its causes in an effort to amplify the severity of the event. Many Americans still believe that rioters bludgeoned Officer Sicknick to death with a fire extinguisher—a piece of media disinformation that has since been definitively debunked. Curiously, the number of Capitol police officers present on January 6th who later committed suicide now stands at four. Although authorities have not linked the death to the riot, headlines nonetheless read, “Asian American becomes 4th officer who responded to Capitol riot to die by suicide.”
January 6th was a tragedy. It was wrong to storm the Capitol, not least because it allowed the left establishment to justify the draconian exercises of power that followed. Nevertheless, the reaction to January 6th, and the way it’s presented as a moment where American democracy was on the verge of toppling, is a prime example that shows American institutions simply will not countenance any public expression of discontent by conservatives.
Never mind the video footage that shows the staff at the Capitol allowing protestors into the building. Never mind the evidence that seems to show officials instigating the crowds prior to the Capitol entry. Never mind that those who entered the Capitol mostly took selfies and meandered the halls like tourists. January 6th, according to ruling elites, was a grievous attack on the very foundations of our society—“the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War.” Not Pearl Harbor. Not 9/11. January 6th.
THE OLIGARCHIC ORCHESTRATION OF POPULAR POWER
So, we return to our original question: is America becoming an oligarchy, where all political power accrues to a small group of institutional elites? Or are we becoming an ochlocracy where the masses’ public expression of power trumps that of the elites, who can do nothing but seek to appease the public through legislation designed to respond to impulses of the mob?
The cases above reveal a complex truth. Both the left and the right attempt to wield power and influence decision-making through popular activism in public space. But while the efforts of the mobs on the left are valorized by the media, funded and commodified by corporations, and accommodated by public officials, popular movements on the right are treated much differently.
Our elites will encourage and assist the ochlocratic power of the people when it can be leveraged to advance their leftist agenda.
Right-wing popular uprisings are mocked and attacked by the media, and (on the whole) state officials and agencies aggressively work to undermine public demonstrations by the right. When they fail to prevent these demonstrations, they will not praise the “power of the people”—instead, they will furiously investigate and prosecute the organizers and offenders. While most of those arrested for violent activity as a part of Antifa and Black Lives Matter will have their charges dropped or their penalties reduced, the protestors from January 6th still sit in jail awaiting formal charges and prosecution, when US attorneys will seek the maximum penalties.
In short, our elites will encourage and assist the ochlocratic power of the people when it can be leveraged to advance their leftist agenda. Any popular exercise of power that is not conducive to this agenda, though, will be openly suppressed, mocked, prosecuted, persecuted, silenced, and misrepresented. The potency and effectiveness of popular demonstrations on the left create the illusion that the masses retain significant political power—even that we are descending into ochlocracy. But the truth is that whatever power remains for the masses can only be expressed with the permission of the oligarchy. And this is one indication of the staggering power of our institutions: the ruling oligarchy is so powerful that it can instrumentalize and harness the oppositional efforts of the masses in order to protect elite power. This situation, defined by the illusory appearance of the popular agency that is characteristic of healthy democracies, is instructive. It shows why “The Resistance” succeeds and flourishes, even while resistance is futile for the rest of us.