Democracy and Danger


Mr. Eden in the house the other day expressed pain at the occurrences in Greece, ‘the home of democracy.’  Is he ignorant or insincere?  ‘Democracy’ was not in Greek a word of approval but was nearly equivalent to ‘mob-rule.’                                           

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1944

          The United States as a polity has survived for 247 years because it was not and still is not a democracy.   Our government as it happened was envisioned as a constitutional republic, in a world of monarchies, variously absolutist (Austria-Hungary, Prussia) or constitutional (United Kingdom) .  The term republic, res publica, is from Cicero, the public thing or public arrangement.   There was an ancient Roman  republic pre-Augustus, admired by no less than St. Augustine, that had, as Aristotle might have predicted, devolved into a euphemistically presented autocracy.   Attempts to revive the republican model in its native terrain had been ephemeral.    But there were certain characteristics that belonged  (at least in theory) toe republican government:  a constitution, written or unwritten, a ruling oligarchy,  a numerous and successful m middle class, broad consent of the governed, and a restricted or qualified franchise, limiting electoral power to property owners or others thought foresightful.  Founded as a republic, the United States has become more and more a democracy:  abolition of any property qualifications, direct election of senators, proposed abolition of the electoral college (which represents states not populations}, expansion of suffrage so that in some cases citizenship is not required.   

           Above and beyond these considerations there was and remains the question of authority.   For the Hellenistic world in which Aristotle wrote his Politics, authority came from the gods, and government was instituted with prayer and sacrifices.  In Rome the Capital was associated with the worship of Jupiter, the Father of all. In the Christin monarchies that followed, the prince was installed at a coronation assumed to represent the blessing of God with whose authority the prince then ruled. 

          In the anglosphere what remained of the theory of the divine right of kings was stringently qualified after 1689 by the theory that authority came from the consent of the govern med., a doctrine formalized by John Locke in the Second treatise      Republican government was largely an invention of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  It took different forms:  the quasi-constitutionalism of 1689 in England, the revolutionary republic of France after 1789.  Authority no longer descended from God, giving the king or prince rule by divine right.   This was essentially settled when the axe fell on Charles I in 1648.   

          In the late eighteenth century there were books and authorities; the world was full of theories: Hobbes,  John Locke, Montesquieu, the Cromwellian experiment, and above all in the background Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics..  And there was Aquinas.    “In his later years, in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas proposed a hybrid of the three. The best form of government, he argued, would be one where a monarch would be kept in check by a group of elected aristocrats who were put into power by a polity of the masses.”  It is difficult to know whether  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison ever read Aquinas, but they were influenced by these ideas five hundred years later as they wrote the founding documents of America.  They resemble Aristotle’s prescription for the best government.  

          If authority is not divine, the prince is the people.     Authority in the American republic was to have two sources;  the consent of the governed framed by certain truths held to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which rights were to be rendered specific by the Constitution.  Whether these truths are in fact self-evident, as well as the definition  of ‘equal,’ have become increasingly vexed over two centuries,  In American jurisprudence it is toxic to make reference to something as harmlessly transcendent as natural law.   This leaves democracies with the appeal to themselves.   First Things quotes Oliver O’Donovan The Desire of the Nations:

 The doctrine that we set up political authority, as a device to secure our own essentially private , local, and un-political purposes, has left the Western democracies in a state of pervasive, moral debilitation, which from time to time inevitably throws up idolatrous and authoritarian reactions

          Lacking any transcendent ground for their authority, democracies are not especially stable because they are subject to the political passions of the electorate,   an electorate that inevitably increases from the limited numbers of those fulfilling certain qualifications as the founding of a republic to an expanded franchise that does not sometimes include non-citizens.  Masculine republics (valuing justice and truth) give away to feminine democracies (responding to electoral priorities), and feminine democracies give way to tyranny.  “Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.”  “In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme. Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”  Thus Aristotle.  

In democracies the masses, that is you and I, are notoriously subject to short term interests, passions, and resentments, and more than a little subject to the influence of demagogues, political leaders who seek support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of the electorate rather than to justice.  And causes do not always mean a leader; they simply need a cause.   The hard times of the thirties and forties were laid on by the failure of liberal democracy: in Italy in 1921, in Germany in 1933, in Spain in  1936.   In two of these the idea of a political savior who would set things right and avenge past wrongs  [ It could be argued that democracy was weakened in the United states by the economic measures of Franklin Roosevelt, who, had he lived until 1948 might well have been elected again. ]  In the case of Italy, Germany and Spain, the precondition for the collapse of democracy was a bitterly divided people. 

          Who should have stopped the slide of these governments into self-destruction?    Aristotle and Aquinas would have answered that it is the business of the wise men, the aristocrats or ‘ ‘the best ” to have put a halt to the descent of societies into chaos.   Where are the wise men unmoved by political passions and dedicated to the political peace and good of the country?    Such men are, alas, the products of a culture and of an education.    

The salvation of contemporary democracy lies in keeping the attention of the population carefully focused on their economic blight, ministering to that successfully and avoiding deeper questions, but those questions will arise.

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