As my long-time readers know, I hold the Spanish philosopher
Jose Ortega y Gasset in very high esteem, although his one-time
global popularity has declined in recent decades.
Sr. Ortega wrote many brilliant books before his death in 1955,
but one book endures most almost a century after it was written
in 1928. Its title was The Revolt of the Masses, and it chronicled
in elegant Spanish prose (which translates well into English) a
long-term pattern in human behavior beginning with the
Renaissance in Europe and culminating in post-World War I
western civilization --- namely the gradual and unrelenting
coming-to-power of the masses as they overthrew the
institutions of feudal and imperial rule.
What made The Revolt of the Masses so remarkable, of course,
was its prophetic account of the rise of totalitarian fascism and
communism; its specific prediction in 1928 of Hitlerian nazism
and Stalinist communism, and their consequences, well before
these totalitarian upheavals murdered tens of millions of
persons and violently disrupted the lives of hundreds of
Sr. Ortega, for all his prophetic brilliance, had his intellectual
shortcomings, and they have led to his decline as a universally
acclaimed figure in modern thought. He was, for example, a man
of aristocratic bent with many 19th century prejudices about
women and the mass of humanity (paradoxically, the very group
whose rise he predicted). In today’s politically-correct world,
some of his commentary would seem archaic and tone deaf.
He was also very much a Europhile who somehow (even as late
as 1928) did not perceive the United States as the imminent world
power and civilizing force it would soon become.
Ortega y Gasset argued, in short, that the masses of humanity,
long ruled over by feudal lords, kings, emperors and dictators,
were assuming real power in the world as they gradually
overthrew authoritarian institutions. He further argued that
this “revolt” was taking two forms. The first was “indirect”
power in the form of representative democracy. The second
was “direct” power in which societies acted through
totalitarian action, often by violence, without law, without
legislation and discourse, and without accountability. It was
his prophetic notice of the latter then making their first
appearances in Germany, Italy and Soviet Russia that
worried him. In the decade following the publication of
The Revolt of the Masses, his anxieties would come all too
terribly and unspeakably true.
Sr. Ortega’s insights did not stop with the end of World War II,
or with his death. The historical process of the “revolt” has
continued with its two aspects in full force. As I pointed out,
he greatly underestimated the role of the U.S. in world affairs,
and of the endurance of its “liberal” or representative
Nevertheless, the phenomenon of mass “disturbance” has
apparently come to America in 2016, not in the pathological
form of any “direct action” movement, but in the form of
“indirect action” mutinies against the establishments of both
major political parties.
The liberal media and political establishments thought for a
while that this mutiny was limited to the other side, the
conservative side, when “outsider” Donald Trump suddenly
appeared and presumably has won the Republican nomination
for president, demolishing “political correctness” and
establishment power in the process. But this Liberal
smugness has now been replaced by the Democrat’s own
mutiny in the form of “outsider” Bernie Sanders and his
wave of populism.
Whereas Mr. Trump’s GOP opponents retired from the field
in the wake of his upset victories in the cycle’s primaries and
caucuses, Mr. Sanders has refused to withdraw, even in the
face of the enormous mathematical odds against his
nomination. Not only has he failed to retire, he has won an
impressive string of primary victories after the race was
“declared over” by the media and the political class, including
most recently, a win in Oregon and a virtual tie in Kentucky.
His actions, designed to move the Democratic Party far to the
left, apparently will be played out at the Democratic national
convention in Philadelphia two months from now. Before that,
the California primary will occur in June. This primary will
send a huge number of delegates to the convention.
Mr. Trump’s opponents have not been entirely inactive either,
but their efforts, almost certainly too late, will not likely change
the outcome at the GOP convention in Cleveland.
The 2016 U.S. election is both a fulfillment of Ortega’s insight
into the long-term rise of the masses, and a rebuke to his anxiety
about the strength and persistence of representative democracy.
After it occurs, history is easy to explain, But before it happens,
it almost always produces surprises.
Copyright (c) 2016 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.