Democracy, as an abstraction, cannot be substituted satisfactorily for the authority of God. The modern mind has fallen into the heresy of democracy–that is, the ruinous error of vox populi vox dei, that an abstract People are divine, and that truth issues from the ballot box, as in the abrupt ascent of the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
For democracy is neither a political philosophy nor a plan of political organization; rather, it is a social condition that may have political consequences. Two centuries ago, not one of the framers of the Constitution of the United States employed democracy as a term of approbation. To the framers, democracy signified the rule of the crowd; and of such politics, they had beheld sufficient in Shay’s Rebellion. The Constitution of 1787 established not a democracy, but a federal republic.
A measure of democracy did develop in America with the electoral triumphs of Jefferson and Jackson. Yet that was what Orestes Brownson called “territorial democracy,” rooted in township or county, hostile to political centralization, suspicious of executive power, bound up with the rural interest. It did not resemble in the least the “plebiscitary democracies” and “people’s democracies” of our era.
For no inconsiderable number of our citizens, democracy seems to mean opportunity to indulge one’s appetites, unrestrained. Milton wrote, “License they mean, when they cry liberty.” Plato discerned that the fundamental impulse within democracies was for every man to do as he might arbitrarily choose to do, without regard for others. Having cast aside those Christian mores of which Tocqueville wrote, they find in the ideology of Democratism warrant for every excess. If one man’s values, or absence of values, is as good as any other man’s, why not gratify every craving? When Democratism of this description has corrupted society for a few decades, at most–then it is terminated by force and a master, out of the human instinct for the preservation of some sort of tolerable society.
The more dramatic and perilous consequences of the ideology of Democratism, nevertheless, occur in the conduct of foreign affairs rather than in the internal concerns of this Republic. On one occasion, Democratism enfeebles the diplomacy of the United States, subordinating practicality to sentiment; on another occasion, Democratism propels America into rashness abroad, even to large-scale war. We suffer from the notion that Democracy must be instituted throughout all the world, at whatever cost, and that every democracy must be cloned or reconstructed in the image of the latest embodiment of American Democracy.
There is another fashion, as well, in which Democratism plagues American foreign policy. Much of the time the United States is governed by vociferous minorities, not majorities of the whole people. Thus, no matter what the government of Israel may do, Washington may be counted upon to back up Tel Aviv, for there are many people of Jewish stock in the United States, while the only concentration of Arabs is in Dearborn, Michigan. Similarly, Turkey is reproached and menaced with suspension of military aid from time to time because there are many voters of Greek extraction in this country and few of Turkish descent. The interest of certain ethnic groups may be advanced by the American government even though those groups’ demands are contrary to national interest. This is a corruption of the democratic dogma, of course; but it is justified in the name of Democratism: Some minority pretends to speak for the American majority when in fact the majority may have next to no interest in the policy at stake.
Then let us not worship an abstraction called democracy. Let us come to understand that democracy may be procedurally useful but does not present a moral ideal. The democratic political forms are one means for attaining a tolerable civil social order; but those forms are not the only means for enabling human beings to live together in peace. In some ages and some circumstances, democratic forms may be suitable means for social organization; in other times and conditions, democratic form may not function at all.
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