As my students will know only too well, there is a fundamental problem passing any meaningful legislation under the current conditions of Periclean Democracy. Pericles you may recall was the leader who led Athens into war against Sparta in a war chronicled most famously by Thucydides. Periclean Democracy arises when, in order to maintain or strengthen their power base, oligarchs broaden the electoral franchise while depriving newly christened voters the wealth, leisure, good health, and education they would need to govern themselves responsibly. Under such conditions, the oligarchs are able to use the tools purchased and maintained by their economic and social advantage to bring their newly enlarged power base into line. The advantage that Periclean Democracy enjoys over its lesser cousins, simple tyranny and despotism, is that Periclean Democracy is able not simply to maintain the appearance of democracy, but to maintain actual democracy itself, the real thing, while serving the interests of the oligarchy.
Periclean Democracy comes to mind when reviewing the healthcare debate in the United States, a debate that has been on the books ever since Roosevelt’s election in 1932, because it is the narrowest of oligarchic elites, those who dominate the health and insurance industries, who have proved themselves more than worthy of Pericles’ cynical mantle. Through their control over the largest privately owned system of propaganda in history, these oligarchs have single-handedly deprived Americans of at least two of the four conditions that Aristotle believed necessary for responsible self-government: education (including accurate information) and health. Indirectly, of course, these oligarchs are also responsible for peddling the lies of neoliberalism, lies that ensure that the vast majority of Americans will also never realize the other two conditions mentioned by Aristotle: wealth and leisure.
So, is it any surprise that both insured and uninsured Americans are skeptical over the benefits of universal healthcare? No, of course not. Or is it any wonder that what passes for an independent “third estate” in the United States has failed miserably in its duty to inform the public over the countless ways their wills and minds have gone to the highest bidder. No. Moreover, as an educator I must confess some responsibility both individually and for my profession for our own failure to help students understand republican values and institutions — values and institutions shaped by and directed toward res publica: the wealth we hold in common.
I am all in favor of doing all that we can to promote public health care. Nevertheless, health care needs to be appreciated as part of a larger battle, the battle for res publica more generally. For only when we seize control of health, education, and welfare from the private oligarchs who currently occupy our “republic” will we hold any chance of passing anything remotely like meaningful legislation, whether for health care or for anything else.