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The True Democracy and the False Democracy

To conclude: Democracy has two faces—one is the face of Aristotle and Jefferson, a completely decentralized system in which power is exercised at the lowest possible level and is subject to law and tradition. As Aristotle noted, any democracy in which the will of the people takes precedence over law and tradition is only another kind of tyranny.

The other face, the false face, is that of the demagogues of the Athenian Assembly, and also of Robespierre and Abraham Lincoln and both political parties today. This is a system based on the principle of untrammeled majority rule, subject to neither law nor tradition. If the people want to overturn any clause in the Constitution, they are free to do so. This explains why the Bill of Rights, which were designed to protect the states and the people from the federal government are now used to reinforce the power of the federal government against the people and the states.

In reality, of course, the the people has no power, since we are all under the control of tiny oligarchic cliques and pressure groups that monopolize wealth, power, and prestige. How false democracy devoured Jefferson’s true democracy is a long sad story, punctuated by wars and revolutionary legislation. But if Americans ever wish to be free, they shall not only have to go back to the thinking of Adams and Jefferson but also to the ancient writers and ancient languages that formed their minds and inspired their imaginations. And even we if cannot recover our political freedom as a nation, we can liberate our minds from the propaganda of civics books and discpline our free minds on the classical curriculum. ~Thomas Fleming, The Autodidact

Aristotle and Jefferson’s visions of local, lawful democracy are very good and welcome antidotes to what most people think of as democracy. I recommend Dr. Fleming’s article in its entirety. When I have denounced democracy here and elsewhere, it has always been aimed at the distortions of these visions and the false democracy that most Europeans since at least 1789 have seen as the only sort of democracy they have ever encountered. The Swiss were, and still are to some extent, a sterling example of true, locally-based democracy as it should be practiced if it must be. But today even the Swiss endure a relatively centralised and consolidated state, and this is due to the influence of modern, European democracy on the respectable burgher self-government that grew up naturally in Switzerland.

The democracy of historical Athens degenerated and became the debased form that gave democracy such a bad name for the next 2,000 years. Athenian democracy was corrupted through the expansion of its commercial and political empire. That observation has become a commonplace, but what usually does not follow that observation is the additional observation that regimes premised on the rule of the many are often more prone to territorially expansionist policies than more narrowly-based regimes. Increased territory is most in the interest of the many, as it makes practicable the ancient popular demand for the distribution of land.

In the modern case, populist and nationalist enthusiasms have replaced the drive for land with ideological drives for advancing this or that national ideal and affirming the power of the nation. This has, if anything, made the many in any given state even more prone to expansionism and conflict than they were before. This is a short way of saying that warfare states have not been foisted on “the people,” but they have willingly embraced the small band of oligarchs who proposed to create warfare states. The many want expansion and hegemony, always and in every culture, and war is the demagogue’s best resource.

In the Roman Republic, providing land for veterans was one of the continual pressures for expansionist warfare, and thus plebeians had as much, if not more, of a vested interest in that warfare as the aristocracy. The military demands of the expanded state required the building up of permanent armies that came to identify with their commanders, which almost immediately militarised the factional conflicts of the city to the ultimate destruction of the old Republic and the establishment of the moderate, restrained dictatorship of the Principate.

The American Republic was infected by the same corrupted form of democracy as Athens, most of whose advocates were constantly urging an expansion fundamentally injurious to the stability of the Republic. (The fatal flaw in the early republican endeavour was connected to its central principle of self-government, as self-government and expanded participation in that self-government came to be regarded as one and the same thing, even though they are contradictory.) This was the perverse realisation of the greater decentralisation Jefferson imagined would result from continuing westward expansion. In practical terms, there was greater decentralisation, but with territorial expansion came a need to find bonds uniting the disparate communities, and thus there was all the greater impulse to identify with the interests of larger regions or with the Union in abstract. Instead of the distance between far-flung communities in the West inoculating whole regions against political enthusiasms originating in the cities, these communities were no less prone to embracing these enthusiasms, and perhaps more so given their lesser experience of them. Partisan attachments and popular participation in elections at the national level strengthened these tendencies to identify with interests other than those of one’s own community.

American democracy, the sort Jefferson codified and idealised, fell prey to large-scale and rather ideological democracy. It remains debatable whether this was avoidable once self-government and expanded franchise were linked in practice and the new democratic state constitutions of the 1820s and 1830s began muddling the understanding of self-government held by the Founders.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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