The Pathos of Politics (42) The Dream of Democracy

The Dream of Democracy

A democracy is a government in the hands of men of low birth, no property, and vulgar employment. ~ Aristotle

Every revolution has for its beating heart a figment that indispensably inspires those that strive for its success. The men that led the English, American, and French revolutions looked upon democracy as a culmination of man’s struggle for freedom: a vacuous notion with no basis in actuality, as civilization is defined by an entanglement of endeavor, and government an erratic check on freedom (erratic in sanctioning certain inequities while proscribing others).

Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike. ~ Plato

As long as democracy was only a dream, it was impossible to appraise its viability. Discussions of democracy, from Plato to Rousseau and Burke, suffered from a sense of unreality in whether it would work.

In a true sense of the term, there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. It is contrary to the natural order that the greater number should govern and the smaller number be governed. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in tribute to tribal power via numerics

The majority is the best way, because it is visible, and has strength to make itself obeyed. Yet it is the opinion of the least able. ~ French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal

Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people. ~ American clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick

Democracy’s defenders often saw it as a paradise within reach of rational men. Its opponents predicted it would lead to the destruction of society and decent moral values.

Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy. ~ Plato

Various early thrusts toward democracy failed. The Puritan Revolution in the 1640s (aka English Civil War) had a democratic inspiration but crumpled back to monarchy. 4 decades later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 established an active parliament, albeit aristocratic rather than democratic.

18th-century England welcomed liberal aristocrats like Montesquieu, but had no room for radical democrats like Tom Paine, who had to flee his native land after defending the French Revolution against its assault by Edmund Burke.

The French Revolution, which began with little violence in 1789, ceased its ersatz democratic experiment a decade later when Napoléon established a military dictatorship on the way to rolling his own brand of monarchy.

Napoléon’s 1814 abdication led to the reactionary rule of the Bourbons, who attempted a reversion to kingship by divine right via alliance with the clergy and aristocracy. That monarchial exercise ended with the July Revolution of 1830, establishing a constitutional monarchy that secured sociopolitical ascendancy for the bourgeoisie (upper middle class). That at least opened the way for popular government.

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A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49. ~ Thomas Jefferson

America’s founding fathers sought to temper majority rule by distorting its representational power: awkwardly aiming at a ruling class a cut above the common man by making land more important than people in the upper house of the legislature (the senate), and by indirect election of the president: with votes going to electors of the party a candidate is in, not the candidate himself. Thus, the United States was designed as a diluted democracy.

If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it. ~ Mark Twain

Distrust is the marrow in the body of democracy. It runs both ways. Politicians are always wary of the public’s capacity for comprehension. Conversely, citizens’ confidence in politicians’ competence is ever shaky.

This picture of the blind leading the blind is an apt portrait of the Collective. It certainly is no advertisement that democracy is a sensible political system.

(The Collective are the great mass of humanity, unwashed of ignorance and often bereft of moral virtue.)

Alex de Tocqueville

The main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country, as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

French political scientist, historian, and politician Alex de Tocqueville (1805–1859) had a liberal aristocratic background. He spent 9 months in the United States (1831–1832), ostensibly to study its prisons. From that experience de Tocqueville wrote a keen analysis of the vitality, excesses, and potential of American democracy.

I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville’s 2-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840) was a seminal work of sociology and political science; an impressively prescient accomplishment for a man barely 30 years old when the 1st volume was published. His thematic intent – that a properly organized society could retain liberty in a democracy – became flotsam in what he found.

The taste which men have for liberty, and that which they feel for equality, are, in fact, 2 different things; and I am not afraid to add, that, among democratic nations, they are 2 unequal things. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville understood that the federalism upon which America’s founding fathers had hoped would lend itself to largely local control was contradicted by democratic forces, which tended toward centralization.

Almost all the able and ambitious members of a democratic community will labour without ceasing to extend the powers of government, because they all hope at some time or other to wield those powers. It is a waste of time to attempt to prove to them that extreme centralization may be injurious to the State, since they are centralizing for their own benefit. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville noted the paradoxical lust for and resentment of power in a democratic system. This is reflected today in the low opinion the public has of government; the very same public that constantly lobbies to siphon as much leverage and largesse out of the government that it can.

Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands the central power is vested; but they always love that power itself. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

The most chilling foretelling by de Tocqueville was the nascent socioeconomic inequality which he witnessed under the American political system.

Not only are the rich not compactly united among themselves, but there is no real bond between them and the poor. The poor have few means of escaping from their condition and becoming rich.

The manufacturer asks nothing of the workman but his labour; the workman expects nothing from him but his wages. The one contracts no obligation to protect, nor the other to defend; and they are not permanently connected either by habit or by duty.

The territorial aristocracy of former ages was either bound by law, or thought itself bound by usage, to come to the relief of its serving-men, and to succor their distresses. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it, and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public. This is a natural consequence of what has been said before. Between the workman and the master there are frequent relations, but no real partnership.

The manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes, is one of the harshest which ever existed in the world. If ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate into the world, it may be predicted that this is the channel by which they will enter. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

Despite this, de Tocqueville could not betray his liberal heart. He retained an unsupported optimism that the world of man was perfectible, and that democracy was the instrumental polity by which such perfection may be attained. As history has shown, his apprehensions were truer than his hopes.

I am full of apprehensions and of hopes. I perceive mighty dangers which it is possible to ward off – mighty evils which may be avoided or alleviated; and I cling with a firmer hold to the belief, that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous they require but to will it. ~ Alex de Tocqueville


A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant, and respectful. ~ American jurist Charles Pickering

Democracy relies upon a common decency and wisdom: the very thing that has been the greatest concern to political theorists, as to whether these virtues were sufficiently abundant in the populace.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. ~ American scholar H.L. Mencken

Most apparent about democracy is that its quality invariably reflects its participants. The recommended remedy has been to raise the consciousness of the citizenry.

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Practically, democracy has always been a package deal. Its vitality has always depended upon an educated populace, which has also been key to economic prosperity.

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Yet, in most democratic countries, education has not been esteemed in a way commensurate with its essentiality to either political or economic well-being. This is one of democracy’s great failings: to leave too fallow the fields of human minds upon which reasonable success for the polity depends.

It as if democracy’s soul is not understood by those responsible for its keep: an inscrutable ignorance of history, and proof that common sense is uncommon, even in those granted power to rule.

Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve. ~ Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw

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Democracy rests upon 2 pillars: one, the principle that all men are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and the other, the conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization. ~ American jurist Louis Brandeis

From a societal standpoint, the dream of democracy has never been realized, nor was it ever realistic. For most people, material constraints shackle liberty and hamper the pursuit of happiness.

Only with material equality, or at least equal opportunity, not simply equal treatment under the law, can liberty be equally pursued by all. Yet very few modern men would call compulsory sharing of resources individual liberty.

It is a strange fact that freedom and equality, the two basic ideas of democracy, are to some extent contradictory. Logically considered, freedom and equality are mutually exclusive, just as society and the individual are mutually exclusive. ~ German social critic Thomas Mann

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Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy. ~ Benito Mussolini