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Democracy Isn’t Democratic

The ugly truth is that democracy must be created and defined by highly undemocratic and even authoritarian means, hence “regime change.”
Inequality, conceptual illustration

American political disputes often revolve around a dichotomy between democracy and authoritarianism. In domestic policy disputes, the separate political parties use the rhetoric of that dichotomy against each other. Each party perceives the other as the party of authoritarianism, and describes itself as the party of democracy. Democrats see the Republicans as the party that staged an insurrection in order to undermine an election, the party moving to restrict voting rights, etc. Republicans see the Democrats as the party that stole an election, the party of big government, etc. From either side, it is always a case of democracy v. authoritarianism.

In foreign policy, this dichotomy is not so straightforward, even though the rhetoric has long been present there in a bipartisan consensus. The motivation for America’s many wars, invasions, and military operations abroad is “to make the world safe for democracy,” against the threat that supposedly lies in the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and elsewhere. The political parties are joined together in their commitment to changing those regimes—by military force, if need be—as if they were standing in the way of history, whose direction is toward none other than liberty (as President Bush so eloquently put it).

Implicit in the bipartisan consensus that military intervention must stand ready to secure the globalization of democracy is a recognition of the fact that democracy cannot stand alone. The ugly truth is that democracy must be created and defined by highly undemocratic and even authoritarian means, hence “regime change.” The U.S.’s violent interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria—not to mention the rapid expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite repeated assurances to the contrary—demonstrate that even by the U.S.’s own calculations democracy cannot be created without the use of authoritarian measures, up to and including the use of military violence or the threat thereof.

One is reminded in this of the words of Friedrich Engels, in a pamphlet titled On Authority, written against a group of anarchist socialists: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon — authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionists.” What is regime change but an act of revolution? And what is the defense of democracy by a vast military alliance but an authoritarian reign of terror?

On the one hand, America’s crusader-like commitment to the military propagation of democracy abroad may betray the American liberal democratic ideal itself as nothing more than a fraud and a sham. There have been many democratic societies throughout history, yet not all of them were so intent upon the coercive imposition of their democratic regime upon the rest of the world. From this point of view, one is rightly prompted to join certain critics of the United States, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, in denouncing it for imperialistic hypocrisy, as perhaps the worst offender against its own ideal of self-government. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the expansionist ambitions of the U.S. are largely to blame for the paranoia and suspicion displayed by the other great powers of the world, Russia and China, towards American hegemony.

But there is another conclusion to be drawn here. Perhaps democratic and authoritarian forms of governance are not, as they are usually portrayed, mutually exclusive; on the contrary, they may be mutually codependent and reinforcing. Whether their codependence is good or bad is a separate question, one whose answer may depend on the distinct circumstances of individual democracies and regimes. Irrespective of such individual cases, perhaps America is just one illustration of the eternal, inescapable truth that democracy—or if you want to be vague about it, “liberty”—always requires the backing of something that is, in itself, quite undemocratic.

Consider the story of Athenian democracy, as told by Herodotus and Aristotle. The regime that prevailed before the founding of Athenian democracy was heavily oligarchical and stratified by rigid class divisions. As both Herodotus and Aristotle tell the tale, this was the basis for a popular revolution that was to be led by the great statesman, Cleisthenes, who was in a contest with the aristocrat Isagoras for the position of chief magistrate in Athens. Despite many significant setbacks, Cleisthenes rose to power because, in the words of Herodotus in book 5 of the Histories, he “took the commonalty into partnership.” In other words, he was what some today would call a “populist.”

With the support of the lower classes (even amounting at times to violence), he successfully orchestrated a revolution, throwing the aristocratic class out of power and implementing a major regime change in Athens. As Aristotle recounts in the Athenian Constitutions, Cleisthenes dissolved the rigid system of class-based governance that formerly constituted the regime, divided the body politic into ten tribes rather than the previous four, and ordered a more equitable distribution of land and property among them. These reforms, though they were imposed quasi-dictatorially, laid the groundwork for a more democratic system of governance. “Democracy” was born at the hands of a populist tyrant. Herodotus remarks that Cleisthenes was imitating the example of his grandfather and namesake, Cleisthenes the despot of Sicyon, who had similarly reordered the tribes of Sicyon in order to consolidate his dictatorship.

The case of Athens is one among many historic illustrations of Engels’ observation that every revolution is an act of authoritarian coercion. Democratic revolutions do not escape this assessment. The liberation from tyranny in Athens could not have been accomplished without the quasi-dictatorial redistribution of power and property that Cleisthenes oversaw. Democracies are built in violent or quasi-violent ways, with the support and backing of authoritarian power. Arguably, the same principle continues on in the subsequent history of any democracy after its founding: They are enshrined in constitutional forms whose parameters must be non-negotiable at some level and to some degree, in order for the democratic system itself to be sustainable.

None of this sheds any light on what is a good or a bad use of such power. Every democracy may be founded by an act of authoritarian power, yet no two regimes are alike in either form or moral content. For example, in contrast to the democracy of Cleisthenes, American democratic regime change in the Middle East and elsewhere tends to serve not the interests of the global poor, but the global oligarchy, and especially the American oligarchy.

It follows that the most important question is how to exercise undemocratic authority for the good of the demos, that is the people, or for the common good. All political questions must ultimately be resolved to the common good, which is fairly independent of specific questions of regime form. With respect to global governance, the question is how a great power with effectively imperial reach can exercise that power for the good of the lesser powers for whom it bears much responsibility. Within such a framework, there is more leeway for a wide diversity of regimes than even a liberal democratic framework seems to allow—after all, given its track record in international relations, liberal democracy will apparently tolerate no regime other than itself. In this, it shows itself to be just as authoritarian as the monsters it goes abroad seeking to kill.

The same conclusion can be reflected back onto questions of domestic policy, whether on issues of economic or cultural import. Since the riot of January 6, the rhetoric of defending democracy has been increasingly extended to the domestic as well as foreign enemies of democracy. (Of course, the domestic enemies of democracy are simply the other political party and its leaders.) But in light of the above, partisan disputes which have been framed within the false dichotomy of democracy and authoritarianism should be reoriented by the problem of how to use authority well, i.e. for the good of the demos. Absent such a framework, there is a risk that policies enacted for the protection of democracy at home may in fact turn out to be merely thoughtless and even destructive uses of authority.

Democracy by itself isn’t democratic enough—because it may merely disguise a more totalitarian form of authoritarianism. Internationally or at home, politics is always a question of using undemocratic authority democratically, i.e. for the good of the people. 

Jonathan Culbreath is a writer living in Southern California. His writing has appeared in publications such as The American Conservative, the Daily Caller, the Bellows, National Catholic Register, America Magazine, and others. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, a website dedicated to the revival of Catholic political doctrine.