T Nation

Democracy: A Good Thing?

The word “democracy” has been tossed around quite a bit these days, in that the US is attempting to install one in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other assorted fun holiday spots around the world.

But is that a laudable goal? Is democracy even a desirable form of government? Is it not, in fact, hypocritical, considering that the US is not itself a democracy, but a federal republic?

I ran across this interesting (and anonymous) article, which I include in its entirety.

Disclaimer: to paraphrase George Patton, “I didn’t write that. I didn’t write anything like that… but I wish I had!”


Res Publica v. Democracy

It has been argued that the United States houses a democratic government. However, the word democracy is a slippery word that must be examined a bit closer. The word democracy is Greek for “government by the people”. This is contrast in the works of Plato and Aristotle with aristocracy (government by the virtuous), timocracy (government by the honorable), oligarchy (government by the wealthy) and tyranny. The most famous democracy existed in Athens. While there was a deliberative body (each male citizen was required to serve in at least once in his life), all elections that concerned the people were held among the people. Contrasted at this time would have been Sparta, which was a representative democracy where there was a king. This representative democracy would become the most used form of democracy (among other places that formed their polis in this fashion at the time were Carthage and Crete).

When speaking of Sparta, Carthage or Crete we don’t call them democracies, but republics. Why is this? Sparta, like Athens, had a deliberative body that was chosen by the people and yet it is not properly called a democracy. The Spartan regime did not require the people to vote on matters concerning them. The Spartan constitution placed that responsibility in the hands of the deliberative body that was chosen from among the people. The Romans would latter refer to this as “res publica”, or “representation of the public.” The Romans even adopted this form of government, not the Athenian democracy, as their own.

In Athens, all males were required to vote who were citizens of Athens. In Rome, only land owning free males could vote. In Rome you could very well be denied suffrages even though you are a citizen of the republic. Within the scheme of democracy there exist two styles: direct and representative. Representative democracy is not republican form of government. It can very well be argued that the Athenians had both direct and representative democracy in their history of being a democracy. Under Pericles the Athenians were a direct democracy.

With that out of the way, and I do hope that the distinction between the two forms of democracy and republic are clear, let us move on to the United States. The Constitution of 1787 ought to point us to what form of government our nation has. Constitution after all means, form of government. Looking through the Constitution of 1787 I find nowhere that it says “democracy”, but it does say, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government” (Article IV section 4). Within many of the states after the American Revolution there was representative democracy. Under this form of government the will of the majority trumped the rights of the minority. It was because of this that the Founders did not desire a democracy, but instead wished for a republic.

Democracy in any form was viewed as chaos, eventually a democracy (or so it was believed) would lead us to the tyrannies that were committed by King George III. Republic, however, was viewed as order. Many aspects of our republic have been stripped away: property requirements to vote, state selection of the US Senate and the like. These ideas were inherently undemocratic; they were entirely and wholly republican. If you want to view America as a democracy you must go back to the time before the Constitution of 1787. America, properly speaking, is a Federal Republic (Federal because it is made up of sovereign states). The CIA fact book website even says, “Constitution-based federal republic; strong democratic tradition”. You never hear in the international stage the United States called, “the democracy of the United States of America”. When the President goes to speak before the U.N. they introduce him as, “President of the Republic of the United States of America.”

Democracy is government of people, republic government of law. When the people become more important than the law you have a democracy. In the pre-Constitution era of America we had a democracy, because the law meant nothing compared to the people. Our government is a republic, not a democracy either representative or direct. We have slowly been trying to move toward a representative democracy since the progressives came to power. Democracy is centered on equality of the people, whereas a republic is centered on the liberty of the people. If the people possess liberty, there is no need for equality. If the people are equal, they will have no liberty. Before anyone goes off on me saying that the Founders intended us to be “equal” let me quickly educate. John Locke stated that all men are equal insofar as there is no difference great enough to make on man a natural ruler and another a natural slave. Aristotle said that political rule is the rule among equals, where everyone can rule and can be ruled. These were the understandings of equality taken on by the Founders, not that the government should make it so everyone is the exact same in every aspect.

If you would like here are quotes from the Founding generation on republic and democracy:

“We are now forming a republican form of government. Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy . . . . If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.”- Alexander Hamilton

“…democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”- James Madison

“Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”-John Marshall

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.”- Alexander Tytler

“If we advert to the nature of republican government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.”- James Madison

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” - Benjamin Franklin

“No good government but what is republican… the very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.’”- John Adams

“If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition is just, the British constitution is nothing more or less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government’s being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend.”-John Adams

Here are quotes from others, not of the Founding on democracy:

“In a democracy the majority of citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppression upon the minority… and that oppression of the majority will extend to far great number, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. Under a cruel prince they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under their sufferings; but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes are deprived of all external consolation: they seem deserted by mankind, overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species.”- Edmund Burke

“These, then, will be some of the features of democracy… it will be, in all likelihood, an agreeable, lawless, parti-colored commonwealth, dealing with all alike on a footing of equality, whether they be really equal or not.” - Plato

“Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike.” - Plato

Popular sovereignty is the doctrine that the state is created by and therefore subject to the will of its people, who are the source of all political power.

I like this better!

[quote]derek wrote:
Popular sovereignty is the doctrine that the state is created by and therefore subject to the will of its people, who are the source of all political power.

I like this better![/quote]

And if the people decide the dictator isn’t so bad because they’ve never had anything else? What then?

The fact is, the people don’t always know what’s best for them.

Note: I’m not arguing against popular sovereignty, just trying to create a discourse.

[quote]Beowolf wrote:
derek wrote:
Popular sovereignty is the doctrine that the state is created by and therefore subject to the will of its people, who are the source of all political power.

I like this better!

And if the people decide the dictator isn’t so bad because they’ve never had anything else? What then?

The fact is, the people don’t always know what’s best for them.

Note: I’m not arguing against popular sovereignty, just trying to create a discourse.[/quote]

I suppose “in a perfect world” would be a fitting phrase but I am willing to trust, yes trust the “people” to do the right thing.

The truth of the matter is that “We the People” are about as represented in the US as they were in the old USSR.

Even my State Rep. continues to fulfil his own agenda (he was honestly my best friend growing up, we were inseperable for years. I helped him get elected Class President and carried his drunk ass up to bed many times. Can you tell I’m a little bitter?)

[quote]derek wrote:
Beowolf wrote:
derek wrote:
Popular sovereignty is the doctrine that the state is created by and therefore subject to the will of its people, who are the source of all political power.

I like this better!

And if the people decide the dictator isn’t so bad because they’ve never had anything else? What then?

The fact is, the people don’t always know what’s best for them.

Note: I’m not arguing against popular sovereignty, just trying to create a discourse.

I suppose “in a perfect world” would be a fitting phrase but I am willing to trust, yes trust the “people” to do the right thing.

The truth of the matter is that “We the People” are about as represented in the US as they were in the old USSR.

Even my State Rep. continues to fulfil his own agenda (he was honestly my best friend growing up, we were inseperable for years. I helped him get elected Class President and carried his drunk ass up to bed many times. Can you tell I’m a little bitter?)
[/quote]

So whats the answer? If our elected officials cannot be trusted, who can we trust? Can we really afford to use referendums and direct voting for all important issues? Who will decide whats important enough to be left to the people?

If “we the people” are not represented (and trust me, I agree with you 100% here) what is the solution? How can we change the system to better represent the individuals of the US? Especially when so many of them just don’t give a damn, or are incredibly ignorant (the “Is Anna Nicole, like, our Vice President or something” kind along with the racist kind).

[quote]Varqanir wrote:
The word “democracy” has been tossed around quite a bit these days, in that the US is attempting to install one in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other assorted fun holiday spots around the world.[/quote]

It’s very naive to think the US cares, or ever cared, about democracy. Democracy for Washington, is acceptable only if it approves of the winner. If a nationalistic party/candidate that puts his country’s interests above those of the US and challenges the status quo favorable to the local elite - is elected, the US never failed to intervene. e.g: Venezuela, Lebanon, Haiti, Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Laos, Ghana, Bolivia, Brazil, Grenada…

Prior to 1989, Communism was a wildcard that the US drew everytime it needed to overthrow someone whom it wasn’t particularly fond of. The fall of the Berlin wall changed that, and the new buzzword became democracy.

To get back to Iraq, democracy isn’t even an option IMHO. Democratic elections would inevitably be favorable to the Shiite majority, and by extension, to Teheran. Something the US will never allow. Also, the Kurds in the north would get power and undermine the repressive war that - US-backed - Turkey waged against them for decades.

If the US cared about democracy, why did it support Saddam in the 80s? Why did it undermine the chances of the anti-Saddam resistance after the 1st Gulf war? After the war, General Schwarzkopf ensured that Saddam Hussein remained in power, permitting Iraqi helicopters to slaughter rebelling Shiites and Kurds and preventing Republican Guard units who were planning to depose the dictator from reaching their weapons caches.
Why did the US support Suharto?
Duvalier? Hassan II?..

[quote]lixy wrote:
If the US cared about democracy, why did it support Saddam in the 80s? Why did it undermine the chances of the anti-Saddam resistance after the 1st Gulf war?
Why did the US support Suharto?
Duvalier? Hassan II?..[/quote]

I imagine for the same reason John Dillinger robbed banks.

[quote]Varqanir wrote:
The word “democracy” has been tossed around quite a bit these days, in that the US is attempting to install one in Iraq and Afghanistan,

lixy wrote:
It’s very naive to think the US cares, or ever cared, about democracy. [/quote]

I am many things, but “very naive” is not one of them. Re-reading that sentence, I realize I probably should have written “supposedly” in there somewhere.

There are problems with this analysis.

The first, and perhaps least important, is that res publica did not mean “representative of the people.” It meant thing of the public or people. By laying “representative” over “thing,” we place our own preconceived notions of the structure of such a government into the word itself, burdening it with historical meanings it never had.

Second: Alexis de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in the 1830s… well before the so-called progressives “took power,” unless one would wish to equate “progressives” with essentially everyone who wasn’t a Federalist.

Of course Adams, Hamilton, and Madison desired a Federalist system; they essentially established aristocratic roots as the basis of the emerging democratic movement in the United States. But there were certainly those who argued with this view, or felt it too strong; Jefferson is one such individual.

Despite some missing historical or philosophical nuance, the question must be raised: to what end was this piece written? There are, generally, three reasons to write about the distinction between democracy and republican government. The first reason is pedantry, but I’ll do the anonymous author the justice of assuming that not to be the case. The second is to justify policy or forms that violate what the hoi polloi may consider to be democratic principles. The third is as a call-to-arms against the aristocratic, and therefore (so the argument goes) pernicious doctrines at the root of republican government.

So which is this? The slant of the argument gives most weight to the second option. And yet, there is little to be gained from such a distinction; whether democracy is direct or representative is a completely different issue from whether or not the will of the people is to be respected. Ultimately, of course, the font of all power is the people.

The machine of government operates independently of our view of it, republican or otherwise. So to raise the distinction is to suggest that there are bounds to the will of the simple majority, which is easily accepted. It is also to suggest that certain proxies for direct democracy are redundant, or indeed, contrary to the spirit of the republic itself. I speak here of public opinion polls and the sort of dime-store demagoguery that asserts the will of the people governs the actions and opinions of the day.

And yet, our representatives ought to represent us, and our senators ought to represent our states (even if such a notion is antiquated). The leveling spirit of Democracy of which Tocqueville wrote is still at work today. Equality of conditions remains a problem; we are convinced of the good of democratic rule, while seemingly blind to its defects. The forms of government, as I mentioned earlier, are still apparently democratic in spirit, and yet we are satisfied even less today by their efforts because we have all but abandoned the very democratic local institutions to which we ought to cleave. The rise of federal power increases the tension.

But this article fails to capture this nuance, or to even provide a reasonable summary of the great political thought that has analyzed these problems before him. It has the feel of a first draft.

Still, it is an interesting (if pedantic) topic that, perhaps, we ought to periodically revisit in order to understand ourselves and our institutions better.

Democracies are overrated. Just wait till some majority votes to annihilate a minority in a democratic vote in some country somewhere…

We have seen the problem with democracy.
On the one hand, our airways have been flooded people who MARKET ideas. I mean, we very rarely see ideas rationally discussed. Instead, each hawker directs his message to people’s emotions, rather than reason.

One would hope that a less centrally controlled medium like the Internet would be better. Well,it is. Unfortunately people tend to go to sites that re-enforce their current beliefs. Somebody dubbed this phenomena, “The Daily Me”.

Some have suggested that a Benign Dictator would be the best form of governmetn. BUT benign for WHOM? Society is by definition PLURALISTIC.
Who is the Benign Dictator going to side with in the case of a labor dispute? One or the other side will then find the “Benign” Dictator less than Benign.

No. We need more democracy, not less.
However, I am not for transfusing democracy into other countries (like Iraq). You can’t do it.

[quote]entheogens wrote:
Well,it is. Unfortunately people tend to go to sites that re-enforce their current beliefs. Somebody dubbed this phenomena, “The Daily Me”.[/quote]

Or as has also been said, “people don’t think, they simply readjust their prejudices.”

[quote]Some have suggested that a Benign Dictator would be the best form of governmetn. BUT benign for WHOM? Society is by definition PLURALISTIC.
Who is the Benign Dictator going to side with in the case of a labor dispute? One or the other side will then find the “Benign” Dictator less than Benign.[/quote]

And how does that differ from pure democracy, which is the dictatorship of the majority?

[quote]nephorm wrote:
res publica did not mean “representative of the people.” It meant thing of the public or people. By laying “representative” over “thing,” we place our own preconceived notions of the structure of such a government into the word itself, burdening it with historical meanings it never had.[/quote]

Nice job, Neph. I was wondering who’d catch that. Yes, “public thing” would be a more literal translation, but the phrase also had in Roman times the connotations of “public affairs”, “public property” and “politics”, as well as “the state” or “commonwealth.” The equivalent Greek word is politeia, which is of course the title of Plato’s famous dialogue (rendered in English as The Republic). Confusingly enough, the modern Greek word for “republic” is demokrateia.

[quote]There are, generally, three reasons to write about the distinction between democracy and republican government. The first reason is pedantry, but I’ll do the anonymous author the justice of assuming that not to be the case. The second is to justify policy or forms that violate what the hoi polloi may consider to be democratic principles. The third is as a call-to-arms against the aristocratic, and therefore (so the argument goes) pernicious doctrines at the root of republican government.

So which is this? The slant of the argument gives most weight to the second option. [/quote]

Judging from the nature of the site on which I found this article, and the internet handle of our anonymous author (“federalistnowandforever”), this would seem to be a safe assumption.

Oh, and Neph? Speaking of pedantry, you don’t need to use “the” before hoi polloi, as the Greek word hoi is itself a definite article. :stuck_out_tongue:

[quote]The machine of government operates independently of our view of it, republican or otherwise. So to raise the distinction is to suggest that there are bounds to the will of the simple majority, which is easily accepted.

The forms of government, as I mentioned earlier, are still apparently democratic in spirit, and yet we are satisfied even less today by their efforts because we have all but abandoned the very democratic local institutions to which we ought to cleave. The rise of federal power increases the tension.[/quote]

True.

Yeah, I’ll agree with that. I didn’t post this as an example of brilliant political commentary, or even of good writing. I had been thinking along similar lines for the past couple of days, and when I ran across this article, I thought it would be interesting to throw it onto our forum and see what our regulars would make of it, particulary the more strongly opinionated and vocal among us. It seems they have not yet arrived.[quote]

Still, it is an interesting (if pedantic) topic that, perhaps, we ought to periodically revisit in order to understand ourselves and our institutions better.[/quote]

Okay, then here’s a followup topic: to what extent would you say are the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties faithful to the principles of democracy and republicanism?

Or how about this one: why is it that countries that call themselves “democratic republics” are usually communist dictatorships?

As far as hoi polloi goes, I’ll expect to never see “the alligator” or “the lacrosse player” attributed to your screenname in the future…

[quote]Varqanir wrote:
Okay, then here’s a followup topic: to what extent would you say are the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties faithful to the principles of democracy and republicanism?
[/quote]

I will say that they are perfectly faithful to the princples of constitutional republicanism, in the sense that Madison wanted to create a system that would survive being run by devils.

[quote]nephorm wrote:
As far as hoi polloi goes, I’ll expect to never see “the alligator” or “the lacrosse player” attributed to your screenname in the future…
[/quote]

You got me with the first one, but not the second. The definite article in “the lacrosse player” refers to the player, not the game (“le joueur de lacrosse”). I would indeed never say “the lacrosse.”

I would also never eat a pizza pie with crimson red chile peppers, or a cheese steak sandwich with au jus sauce, nor swim in the ice cold, azure blue Rio Grande river during the El Niño for fear of contracting the HIV virus.

[quote]nephorm wrote:

I will say that they are perfectly faithful to the princples of constitutional republicanism, in the sense that Madison wanted to create a system that would survive being run by devils.[/quote]

Not the type of answer I was looking for, so I’ll rephrase the question: to what extent are the Democratic and Republican parties faithful respectively to the eponymous principles they purport to represent?

[quote]Varqanir wrote:
You got me with the first one, but not the second. The definite article in “the lacrosse player” refers to the player, not the game (“le joueur de lacrosse”). I would indeed never say “the lacrosse.” [/quote]

But in English, we only use one definite article. So you would be right if you were to say, in English, “The player of lacrosse,” but if you were to say “the lacrosse player,” you would be violating those rules of English that are supposedly violated by inserting a definite article to begin with.

You actually add grist to my mill… “la” is a definite article in French, Spanish, Italian, etc… not in English. The same way that hoi doesn’t mean “the” in English.

[quote]nephorm wrote:

But in English, we only use one definite article. So you would be right if you were to say, in English, “The player of lacrosse,” but if you were to say “the lacrosse player,” you would be violating those rules of English that are supposedly violated by inserting a definite article to begin with.[/quote]

Tell me, Neph: to which word in the English phrase “the lacrosse player” does the definite article refer?

If you say “lacrosse,” then this conversation is over.

Grist I may add, but you grasp only straws.

The word hoi is a masculine plural definite article in the nominative case, the equivalent of los in Spanish, les in French, and i or gli in Italian. All of the above are synonymous with the English definite article the. Using two articles (even from different languages) in the same phrase seems redundant to me.

Just as I would avoid referring to the mythical city of gold as “the El Dorado,” to the cemetery where Napoleon is buried as “the Les Invalides,” to Mussolini as “the il Duce,” or to the Muslim god as “the Allah,” I would also avoid saying “the hoi polloi.”

You may do so if you wish.

[quote]Ren wrote:
Democracies are overrated. Just wait till some majority votes to annihilate a minority in a democratic vote in some country somewhere…[/quote]

Yes, but then you forget the second half of the definition:

Democracy is the rule of the majority, with the consent of the minority.

[quote]Varqanir wrote:
Tell me, Neph: to which word in the English phrase “the lacrosse player” does the definite article refer?
[/quote]

I don’t contest that the definite article refers to player, but rather that we do not make such a distinction in English at all. There is no situation in English in which it would be appropriate to say “the the anything,” regardless of whatever subject the definite article might refer to. Example: You would never say “A the Congo dweller,” even though we generally preface “Congo” with “the,” and the indefinite article “a” clearly refers to the dweller, and not the Congo.

Using two articles is only redundant if the articles are understood as such. “Hoi” does not convey the meaning of “the” in English; it is part of an appropriated phrase.

[quote]
Just as I would avoid referring to the mythical city of gold as “the El Dorado,” to the cemetery where Napoleon is buried as “the Les Invalides,” to Mussolini as “the il Duce,” or to the Muslim god as “the Allah,” I would also avoid saying “the hoi polloi.” [/quote]

These examples don’t hold water, because you generally wouldn’t use a definite article with proper nouns in English anyway. So you wouldn’t say “the New York,” “the Saul’s Cemetery,” “the America’s Mayor,” or “the God.”