America Is Not a Democracy

The real danger isn’t the erosion of democratic norms: it’s the installment of them.
Protesters transporting the statue of Colston towards the river Avon. Edward Colston was a slave trader of the late 17th century who played a major role in the development of the city of Bristol, England, on June 7, 2020. (Photo by Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Giulia Spadafora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Take a moment and google the phrase “Trump is destroying democracy,” and you’ll see a trend so obvious that it hardly needs describing. “Republicans Are Destroying Democracy to Protect Trump’s Precious Feelings,” wrote Eric Lutz at Vanity Fair. “If the GOP doesn’t quit its Trump addiction it’ll suck the life out of American democracy,” agreed Linette Lopez at Business Insider. Similarly, Austin Sarat and Dennis Aftergut in the Guardian: “Donald Trump is still busy trying to bulldoze democracy.”

These are all from November alone, when the accusations that Trump is anti-democracy had gathered a head of steam amid investigations into the integrity of the presidential election. But a steady drumbeat of similar assertions has underscored the last four years: Trump, it is routinely claimed, poses a unique danger to something called America’s “democracy.”

A survey of the relevant articles reveals that this “something” is roughly understood as the right of the American people to vote for their leaders. “This has been the president’s plan all along,” the Guardian article asserts: “if he loses, fracture democracy’s foundation, the vote.” If a Biden win doesn’t result in an actual transition of power, then this thing called “democracy” is no longer effective: votes no longer equal results.

Being as generous as possible, it must be said that these assumptions are at best hasty and flawed in both their generalities and their particulars. The word “democracy”—which appears nowhere in our Constitution or Declaration of Independence—has a meaning, and it doesn’t merely describe the right of the people to vote for and choose their leaders.

It will apparently surprise pundits the world over to learn that the kings of early Rome were elected by the people, as was the Nazi Party. Neither Rome’s monarchy nor the Weimar Republic was a democracy; nor is “giving the people what they want” a recipe for rainbows and sunshine. What the word “democracy” actually refers to is a form of government that was as innovative when invented as it is disastrous in its pure form.

What is Democracy?

In the third book of his Politics, Aristotle describes the three “pure” forms of government—that is, the most basic ways that communities can govern themselves and achieve justice. In a democracy, the “sovereign power” rests with the “multitude”—that is, not the rich only, nor one man, but the majority of the general public. Since only a few people can be rich in any given society, Aristotle more bluntly says that democracy is when “the poor” are in power.

But what’s at issue fundamentally isn’t money, except in the sense that possession of property is one of the central things a government has to make decisions about. What’s at issue is justice, and who gets to decide what justice looks like in any given instance. One of Aristotle’s problems with democracy is that “men are bad judges where they themselves are concerned” and “inasmuch as both parties put forward a plea that is just up to a certain point, they think that what they say is absolutely just.” In other words: you need someone from the outside, someone not involved in the dispute, to decide. If all you have is the people themselves judging their own disputes, the majority will simply impose their will on the minority—regardless of how just their cause actually is in anyone’s eyes but their own.

These few facts are the foundation on which much of Western political philosophy has been built. The perils of democracy preoccupied writers from Livy, to Cicero, to Polybius, who wrote in his own history of Rome that as the virtue of a democratic society declines over time, the rich “begin to lust for power and cannot attain it through themselves or their own good qualities,” so “they ruin their estates, tempting and corrupting the people in every possible way.”

“Eat the Rich”

The solution is to balance all three forms of government against one another in a republic, which is what America actually is. And it’s that way for a reason: next to kingship, the founders feared pure democracy more than almost anything else because of its vulnerability to “faction.” That word usually gets used these days in terms of partisanship and political parties, but it goes much deeper than Republican and Democrat divides. It refers to all the bitter and often violent ways that humans entrench themselves against each other and pervert justice, especially when power is at stake.

For evidence, one might only look at our own rather fragile republic, in which “democracy” in its pure form has been given more and more license over the years. From direct election of senators, to constant referenda in failed states like California, to increasingly passionate demands to abolish the Electoral College, our hunger for democracy in its true sense isn’t merely rhetorical. It’s a rather hazy, but nevertheless deeply held conviction that “the people” are the ones who should decide everything, with no intermediating authorities or stopgaps.

But though Aristotle’s references to the unwashed masses who rule the democratic state might seem unsavory, his frank elitism is helpful for correcting one misconception of our own: “the poor” are not uniquely virtuous any more than the rich are. Given complete free rein over their neighbors they will—quite literally—demand to confiscate the property of the wealthy minority and even eat them alive.

All this they will do in the name of “justice,” which—because everyone is blind and self-interested in his own case—will come gradually to mean just “the power we have to take your property, which we want.” Given enough scope and a charismatic leader, a hungry democratic majority might even put something to that very effect on a pithy and chipper (and expensive) sweatshirt—without noticing even a hint of irony.

None of this is because “the people” or “the masses” are uniquely vicious. It’s because they’re human, and that makes them prone to evil. This insight is at the heart of the Federalist Papers, where the founders do use the word “democracy”—mostly in cautionary tales. “A pure democracy,” wrote James Madison in Federalist #10, “can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.”

The only effective remedy to guard against this disaster scenario is, the founders and the ancients agreed, a delicately calibrated republic in which representatives and judges adjudicate cases impartially when the people come into conflict. That is the system you want in place when, for example, the results of an election are contested: in such a case, you make recourse to the courts, which are there to decide exactly the question of what is most just.

By making use of that recourse, Trump was about a million miles away from “destroying democracy”—or, to put it more precisely than his critics do, of undermining the people’s right to govern themselves. He was operating well within the system, making his case and that of his voters against what he believed to be widespread fraud. If we really did have a “democracy” in this country, the ongoing aftermath of this election would, it’s safe to say, have been a whole lot messier.

The Real Threat

And so in point of fact it is not Trump who has been “undermining our system” lo these many years. The real threat to our republican norms, values, and structures comes from mobs who take to the street and mutilate or topple statues of cherished historical figures when the justice system delivers outcomes they find distasteful. It comes from sustained censorship of news outlets like the New York Post when they engage in legitimate acts of investigative journalism. It comes from one faction—coronavirus extremists—being granted tacit license by the state to harass and abuse their maskless countrymen who disagree with them.

The real threat to the American system comes, in other words, from all the ugliest excesses to which democracy itself is prone. We are not in danger of a Trumpian dictatorship so much as we are in danger of mob rule, which in turn is fertile ground for demagoguery and eventual autocracy. In truly tragicomic fashion, the self-styled “defenders of democracy” against “Trumpian dictatorship” are setting us on exactly the course which leads to the kind of tyranny they pretend to fear.

Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, noted the importance of achieving harmony and balance between the rights and interests of competing social classes in order for a republic to thrive. What we are facing currently is a dedicated effort on the part of our ruling classes to sow disunity and rancor among Americans along socioeconomic and racial lines. The form this effort takes is almost always framed as an effort to incite riot and violence on the part of the general public against undesirable individuals or groups—white men, for instance, or “the rich.” If you want to find behavior that’s “dangerous” for the continued health of the American regime, start there.

What Conservatives Are Trying to Conserve

In light of all this, Madison’s conclusions in Federalist #10 are worth reflecting on. First he notes, “There are…two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” But then, wonderfully, he rejects both of these cures as worse than the disease: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

In other words, if you want people to be free to think and act as they choose, they are going to form factions and associations with competing interests. The petty tyrants stoking our own present discord, fundamentally illiberal as they are, love to propose the eradication of exactly those freedoms as the solution to the problems they themselves cause: no one, they say, will riot in the streets if everyone is taught from grade school on to believe the same progressive dogma.

It goes without saying that such a “solution” would be anathema to the founders. Instead, says Madison, create a republic in which “the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few,” while at the same time “they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude.”

This careful and delicate balance, now tottering so precariously on the brink of collapse, is the only real path to freedom without chaos. Conservatives who want their country to outlive these next four years ought to be thinking how to keep the growing hyper-democratic faction in check—most notably, by keeping control of Congress and seeking redress for grievances in the courts.

We are still not—thank God—a democracy. Those who imply that we are usually have some interest at stake in getting their own way which, of course, is exactly the kind of democratic overreach our system was designed to defend against. But fortify the walls that make our republic what it is, and we may yet survive this perilous moment.

Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Booksand The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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