The Keyes Constant
The Keyes Constant is the idea that about a quarter of the population is batshit crazy. How a society deals with this crazy minority determines whether you get a stable and prosperous country or a failed state.
- 31% of Americans believe in young earth creationism
- 30% don’t support mandatory vaccinations
- 25% are birthers
- 24% supported Nixon until the bitter end
A quarter to a third of the population in a modern democracy is irrational. I’d argue that this is fairly constant outside of brief bursts of mass hysteria. Figuring out strategies to suppress, marginalize and otherwise limit the power of this group is the key to preserving civilization.
There’s nothing new under the sun. The Polybius came up with the idea of ochlocracy in the 2nd Century BC. The Greeks, Romans and framers of modern republics have been obsessed with preventing mob rule and separating powers ever since. Bowing to traditional, I’ll call our angry mob the ochlos.
The irony of modern times is that a republic needs to take the interests of the masses into account without actually giving them too much political power. If the ochlos comes into power, they’re likely to establish a right-wing, communist or theocratic dictatorship. Not particularly appealing.
Israel vs. Saudi Arabia
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are officially theocracies with sizable groups of religious fundamentalists. Israel has found a way to keep its hardliners from dominating day to day life. Tel Aviv is a de facto secular city with a modern economy and vibrant society. Riyadh, not so much.
The house of Saud came to power by striking a deal with ochlos and discharging their political rivals. The kingdom has been paying the price ever since.
The GOP pandered to the ochlos for cheap and easy votes. The ochlos took over, drove out the old school fiscal conservatives and we’ve hit our current nadir.
Companies market to the ochlos, because selling garbage to poor people is easy money. Once a company goes down that rabbit hole, they’re rarely coming back to the mainstream. You can’t make some capital with some sleazy, spammy product and then switch to high-end clients.
Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security thinking that the ochlos are a small minority. Intransigent minorities are incredibly powerful.
Win and Destroy
Modern kleptocrats and authoritarians from Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Berlusconi to Trump use the same trick. Use the ochlose to eke out an electoral victory or otherwise in power. Once you have the trappings of the state under your control, undermine the very institutions that brought you to power. Winning 75% of the vote without stuffing the ballot box is easy when you control the media, courts and legislature.
This Isn’t New
I’m lucky that I studied Latin in high school and have always like the classics. Rather than demonizing ‘dead white males’ and worrying about micro-aggressions, had the left been pushing the classics and early history of the American Republic—enough already about slave owners writing the constitution, we’d be in a different situation today.
We need to have a societal discussion of how to limit the power and influence of radical minorities such as the alt-right and Salafists without sliding into authoritarianism.
The Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic have radically different editorial slants, yet I value both of them since I believe they are written in good faith. I can respect Ron Paul and Jeff Flake, even if I fundamentally disagree with many of their positions, since I see no reason to doubt their sincerity. Without good faith, freedom degrades into chaos.
This is also not new. Russia bribed Polish legislators in the 18th century to vote against Polish interests, leading to the eventual partitions of Poland.
I don’t have an easy solution.
Fox News, Breitbart and RT are not acting in good faith. It’s hard to imagine politicians funded by the Koch Brothers are truly representing their constituents. I don’t see a place for Russian money in domestic political organizations such as the NRA.
For good reason Nazi symbols are banned in Germany. This hasn’t led to some slippery slope. Why are swastikas and Confederate flags, under which so much American blood has been let, allowed to fly?
We as a society are facing a reckoning for our naïveté and heedlessness. Once the dust settles, we’re going to be left with some tough questions.