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How to Destroy a Democracy

There's more to our form of government than just the right to vote; without virtue in the people and their rulers, a democracy becomes a mob.

Statue of Polybius. Shutterstock

Jim Gaffigan advocates moderation in consumption of ranch-style salad dressing. In one of his comedy specials, he made fun of people who eat too much of it. “I like to dip my pizza in ranch dressing,” he said, using a mocking tone to imitate a hypothetical ranch fan. “That’s fine,” he continued. “You’re just not allowed to vote anymore.”

Gaffigan is the funniest opponent of universal suffrage, but he’s not the only one. A Forbes article a few years ago declared that “angry old people shouldn’t be allowed to vote.” A British pop star argued that those over 75 shouldn’t be able to vote because they were unlikely to experience the consequences of their vote. Another journalist argued that white people shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

These examples are rare and appalling for the same reason that Gaffigan’s joke lands: because democracy is part of our American civic religion and opposing it feels a little like blasphemy. Democracy has been bound up in American history and character from the beginning. We can trace it from the egalitarian Quakers through Tocqueville and Walt Whitman to the suffragettes and all the way to our democracy-building justifications for occupying Iraq and the controversies over voter identification laws and mail-in ballots today.

Our instinctive love of democracy makes us sensitive to any attempt to undermine or destroy it. An Unherd article last year compared sore losers in African elections to President Trump’s statements about his own lost election, calling election irregularity disputes and retribution “the destruction of democracy” and “close to death.” An article in the Nation written early in Trump’s term described the way the Nazis’ strategies to limit the voting power of their opponents to destroy democracy and ominously warned that “we would all do well to heed” this “warning from history.”

The enthusiasm for defending democracy that’s evident in these articles is stirring, but also very narrow. If you look closely, you’ll realize that many impassioned defenders of democracy have only a vague and limited idea of what democracy actually means. Most of our public discussions of democracy center around the numeric definition of democracy that we teach in elementary school: if everyone is safely voting their conscience, then it’s democracy, and if less than everyone is voting, then it’s not democracy.

However, the numeric aspect of democracy—percent measurements of how many people’s opinions are aggregated to determine policy—is not all there is to democracy. The great historian Polybius claimed as much, writing that “it is not enough to constitute a democracy that the whole crowd of citizens should have the right to do whatever they wish or propose.”

Political scientists today may nod along with Polybius, agreeing that more than universal suffrage is required for democracy’s success. There should also be a healthy, free press, an impartial and consistent rule of law, and other legal institutions and practices. But none of these are what Polybius had in mind when he wrote that universal suffrage did not guarantee democracy. Instead, he wrote the following about the minimum requirements for democracy:

Where reverence to the gods, succour of parents, respect to elders, obedience to laws, are traditional and habitual, in such communities, if the will of the majority prevail, we may speak of the form of government as a democracy.

Polybius believed that the definition of democracy had not only a numeric but also a moral or even spiritual component. The raw percent of voters is merely rule by the many. The moral rectitude of the voters was what determined whether rule by the many constituted democracy or its dark brother mob-rule, also called ochlocracy. Nor is this moral component of constitutions limited to rule by the many. Describing other forms of government, Polybius wrote:

We cannot hold every absolute government to be a kingship, but only that which is accepted voluntarily, and is directed by an appeal to reason rather than to fear and force. Nor again is every oligarchy to be regarded as an aristocracy; the latter exists only where the power is wielded by the justest and wisest men selected on their merits.

Polybius viewed the universe of possible constitutions not in the one-dimensional, purely numeric terms with which we often view it today. Instead, he thought of forms of government as varying in two dimensions, the numeric and the moral/spiritual:

Rule by the goodRule by the bad
Rule by the oneKingshipDespotism
Rule by the fewAristocracyOligarchy
Rule by the manyDemocracyMob-rule

Polybius’s table of constitutions. Note that constitutions vary on the percent of voters and also their moral and spiritual state.

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In our scientific age, we are obsessed with numbers and things that can be easily measured, and so we have focused only on the vertical axis of Polybius’s table. We seek to increase the numbers or percent of people who can vote, both at home and abroad, thinking that these numeric increases guarantee that we are building and defending democracy. Meanwhile, we ignore the horizontal axis, and even as we push more people to vote, we nevertheless fail to build democracy because we’re powerless to avoid the strong gravity of mob-rule. We rarely remember that there are two ways to destroy a democracy: first by limiting the franchise, and second by corrupting the people—turning them into a mob.

Mob-rule has been a concern for democracy enthusiasts going back many centuries. An Atlantic article described James Madison’s efforts to avoid mob rule, writing that

Madison referred to impetuous mobs as factions…Factions arise, he believed, when public opinion forms and spreads quickly. But they can dissolve if the public is given time and space to consider long-term interests rather than short-term gratification…. The Framers….built into the Constitution a series of cooling mechanisms intended to inhibit the formulation of passionate factions, to ensure that reasonable majorities would prevail.

As a statesman, Madison was limited in the levers he could pull to improve the spiritual state of the people and prevent them from becoming mobs. He and the other Framers couldn’t directly change people’s innermost attitudes; they could only create systems and processes to encourage their best possible behavior. But legal procedures can’t permanently arrest or reverse the corruption of a nation’s people. Maybe Madison knew in his heart that his system wasn’t foolproof: that legal systems can ossify or get corrupted, that cooling mechanisms can become stultifying vetoes, and that wickedness finds a way even in the best of systems.

Polybius knew that the slide towards mob-rule wasn’t merely a result of lacking the right parliamentary procedures. He described the natural course of political decay as follows:

When a commonwealth, after warding off many great dangers, has arrived at a high pitch of prosperity and undisputed power, it is evident that, by the lengthened continuance of great wealth within it, the manner of life of its citizens will become more extravagant…[this] will prove the beginning of a deterioration….when that comes about, in their passionate resentment and acting under the dictates of anger, they will refuse to obey any longer, or to be content with having equal powers with their leaders, but will demand to have all or far the greatest themselves. And when that comes to pass the constitution will receive a new name, which sounds better than any other in the world, liberty or democracy; but, in fact, it will become that worst of all governments, mob-rule.

Prosperity, power, then extravagant living, then moral deterioration, then resentment, then disrespect for the law and entitled demands leading to mob-rule. Reasonable people may differ in their assessment of whether this describes the last several centuries of American history. But if it’s a correct description of the natural course of political decay, then it’s not something that can be stopped by Madisonian legal niceties.

The news doesn’t need to be all bad. If democracy can be destroyed by corrupting a democratic society, then conversely, democracy can be established by improving a mob. But we tend to focus only on the numeric aspect of democracy because none of us can agree on what good and bad even mean: Who is the mob, and how could anyone improve its moral or spiritual state? Polybius mentioned reverence to the gods as a precondition of successful democracy, but today we wouldn’t be able to agree on who those gods were or how we should reverence them. To the extent that we have national discussions about how to ensure that good rather than bad people are running the country, our discussions tend to be shallow and mean, like advocacy of the denial of the franchise to the old or the white. We’ve lost what Roger Scruton called the “pre-political ‘we’,” a shared identity and vision of the good life that allows us to debate without rancor and agree on the most fundamental aims of life and politics.

Thinking about democracy in multiple dimensions can force us to ask some hard questions: Are we the mob? Is rule by a limited but good aristocracy preferable to “democratic” rule by a wicked mob? What is it exactly that makes a ruler morally good, and how do we foster those qualities in the people? Conservatives need to spend more energy taking up the challenge of answering these questions, and less focusing on short-term electoral victories and culture war flash points. Polybius believed that the ideal constitution contained elements of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy fused together. As Americans, we may disagree, since our love of pure democracy runs too deep in our blood. But if we do love democracy and wish to defend it, we should at least understand better what it is and how we can avoid the ever-more-plausible nightmare of being ruled by a mob.

Bradford Tuckfield is a data scientist and writer. His personal website can be found here.

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