The perils of democracy

By Daniel Stratford

Rachel Tumin/Collegian

Democracy: it is an interesting word. It is one most prevalent in our present political discourse. It is a word that is exuberant yet mystical, glorious yet arcane. It is used as a synonym for all things good, and it is treated, at least by television talking-heads, as a panacea for the world’s myriad problems. However, just as often as it is used, it is often misused, inappropriately characterized, and simply misunderstood.

Most Americans recognize that democracy and the ideals it represents, such as liberty, equality, and community – Liberté, égalité, fraternité in the parlance of the French Revolution – are universally accepted as the most ideal and indeed the most utopian form of social organization imaginable. Despite this, the reality of democracy is much more turbulent and much darker than any member of the public really wants to believe.

For the sake of clarification, it must be asserted that we do not live in a “democracy.” Indeed, that notion is enough to attract the ire of most serious students of political science. We do, however, live in a republic. Republics, in short, differ from democracies – the latter of which has rarely been seen in history while the former has been somewhat more common. Both recognize that that man is a fundamentally flawed creature.

Republicans correctly note that man is given more to emotion and passion than to a cerebral reflection on what must be done to preserve, and expand, the common-wealth of the nation. They are, as such, the champions of a compromise system, which recognize that ultimate legitimacy is derived from the populace, exercised through the right of voting, protest and the petition of government. Natural rights, the rights of minorities, the rule of law and the election of well-educated, prudent and dispassionate representatives to enforce those laws and navigate the treacherous waters of politics are treated in a manner most reverent.

This is in direct contrast to a strictly democratic system, where, as one modern adage interestingly states, “two wolves and a lamb” decide what to eat for lunch. This is not to say that a direct democratic system is not the most ideal system of government. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton once declared in a speech that, “It has been observed that a pure democracy if practicable would be the most perfect government…” It is just that it is dangerously utopian, designed for a perfect world that does not exist by any stretch of the imagination. It assumes an evenly-distributed perfect political education and that the vast multitudes of people are all-wise, all-knowing, and prudent enough to jointly make critical decisions that affect the future of their country. This is something that, at risk of sounding cynical, is patently untrue.

Indeed, in any conceptual “real” democracy there is no true safeguard for the ideological minority – it is, in modern parlance, a “tyranny of the majority.” The frenzied many are able to suppress and even destroy the dissent of the few, contributing to the decay and self-destruction of society itself in the process. This was validated in the latter half of the aforementioned quote by Hamilton, which was given in a speech urging the ratification of the very republican U.S. Constitution – “…Experience has proved that no position is more false than this.”

Indeed, even in the present day, with information distributed over a wide range of cultures and languages thanks to modern telecommunications, there seems to be some confusion between and even conflation of the ideas of democracy and republicanism. People oftentimes wrongly refer to them as if they were synonyms, with the United States referred to as one of the world’s great “democracies.” The Founders would be repulsed by such libel, as they designed our government based not on abstract, romantic, and ultimately impracticable principles of social leveling, but upon a multi-faceted, constitutional, and moderate conception of the role of government. Our Forefathers government is one that would, through checks and balances and the separation of powers, forestall the tyranny of the frenzied masses just as much as it would the tyranny of governmental overreach. At the same time, it would provide the adhesiveness necessary to bind together the then disparate states of America. To cite the ever-quotable Hamilton once again, “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

This fear of Hamilton’s, of rule by passion rather than by reality, presents itself even in today’s complex and labyrinthine foreign policy arena. A centerpiece of American foreign policy over the past decade, and a cornerstone of neo-conservative thought, has been the idea that the United States possesses the best systems of government and social organization imaginable. Furthermore, it should be exported, by force if necessary, to recreate the world in our utopian image. Simply stated, this desire to “spread democracy,” aside from being technically incorrect as discussed at length in the above paragraphs, clouds actual matters of national interest. These include stability in key energy-producing regions and trade issues, with the opiate of a crusading romanticism. The great irony of all of this is that the Founders would stand aghast as utopian speculators tear apart not just the moderate, balanced form of government that they labored to create, but the realist, sensible statecraft that especially the Federalists endorsed.

This argument is strengthened by the reality of “democratization” on the ground – many so-called “democracies,” especially manufactured ones such as Iraq, only become so after a long, arduous, and expensive struggle. This is proof that republics, as great as they are, are not the universal standard of governance for all people in all circumstances. Gloomy as it may sound, we must deal with the world as it is, not attempt a large-scale revolutionary reform.

As made evident by the success of the American Revolution, the chaos of the overly-democratic French Revolution, and the horror of the Reign of Terror, forming a republic is like threading the eye of the proverbial needle. They are certainly more practicable and functional than democracies. Republics are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, suited to a specific time and place. However, their beauty lies not in their over-romanticized glory, but in their practicability, modularity, and ability to deal with the world as it really is.

Dan Stratford is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].