The Perils of Democracy
In America, it is nearly a ubiquitous truism that ours is a democratic nation. In popular imagination, all virtues spring forth from the fountainhead of democracy, and all vices consist of its aristocratic or reactionary opposition. Yet we were blessed with the founders’ vision to anticipate the instability and capriciousness of mob-majority rule, and our Constitution was imbued with individual rights, sanctioned by no less than the Almighty itself.
The terms democracy, freedom, and liberty are retained in our popular vernacular without meaningful engagement of the historical circumstances that gave rise to them in the culture. The intellectual doctrines of the progenitors of these terms, Locke, Paine, Madison, and Jefferson, among others, are obliterated in the people’s education, while their persons are held aloft as exemplary and heroic. Even as their names are occasionally invoked for the expediency of politicians, these great thinkers’ innovations and exhortations have tended to become progressively inaccessible to most citizens.
Over time, such conceptual errors as the conflation of majoritarian fiat and individual liberty, surely propagated by the enemies of freedom, prove fatal. We are at pains to point out that the American revolution, which was not simply a revolt against the tax-slavery of Britain, but rather an unprecedented revolution of philosophical bearings away from collectivist tyranny, turned out as it did almost precisely because it was not the French Revolution. In France, democratic fervor soaked the decrepit land in blood, providing fertile soil for the regrowth of an authoritarian form of governance. Sprung forth from the chaotic masses was the spirit of nationalism, which renounced the emancipatory powers of self-rule, and instead crowned an emperor.
Thus, in revolutionary France, unbridled passion led the unthinking mob to dethrone a monarchical despot, only to cede all power to a nationalistic dictator. At least the monarchy had the wisdom of studied self-preservation on its side; the new regime, self-confident and poised to sweep up the continent, embarked on a heady crusade to remake the ancien regimes of Europe in its own image.
The impending disaster of the Napoleonic Wars foreshadows the experience of twentieth century Germany, whose National Socialist movement was nearly as romantic and just as collectivist; but the latter departed from the French by implementing “scientific” methods of manipulating and controlling society. We are loathe to point out that the great dictator was democratically elected. The formula strikes the modern-day American as hauntingly familiar.
From the great upheavals of the modern era, we may trace a thin pencil line back to the Fourth Crusades, whose impulsive sacking of Constantinople removed a Christian bastion stemming the rising tide of the Musselman. Therefrom we may leap back to the doomed Sicilian expedition of the Athenians, a hasty gambit that was pitched to the war-weary citizens by demagogues in the language of greed and glory. The dispassionate historian Thucydides displays the Athenian ploy’s divergence from reality as a retreat into sheer hubris.
The common theme of these historical events is that there is no “wisdom of the people,” as a populist politician of late would have us believe. The desire to promote “the common good,” as the current opposition party has enshrined in its latest pledge to the American people, is as vacuous and venal as the politicians themselves choose it to be, and is merely an homage to the democratic status quo.
With each passing generation, we depart from the exceptionalism that is the hallmark of the American tradition, the individual and his capability of transforming the world through humility, hard work, and rational self-interest. America’s reverence for the individual is what made it a shining beacon to the world, driving millions to come to this nation’s shores. Today, the individual is culturally and politically absent, brushed away from the history books, and disappearing into competing democratic mobs.
The poor man retains the prejudices of his forefathers without their faith, and their ignorance without their virtues; he has adopted the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions without understanding the science that puts it to use; and his selfishness is no less blind than was formerly his devotion to others.
Self-interest devoid of rationality is anathema to civil society; and it is no surprise that the deposed oligarchs of the ancien regime would eventually seek vengeance upon the wayward children of the European and American revolutions by retaining the politically useful aspects of their historical movements, while stripping them of their redeeming cores.
In Europe, the supposedly ineluctable drive for equality gave way to uncritical reception of the primitive ideology of socialism. The irony of socialism is that it does not lead to the promised utopia of perfect equality, but rather to a state of severe impoverishment of the preponderance of the people, led by the naturally self-interested oligarchs who impose a socially ossified system.
The genius of the American revolution is that its core tenet of liberty nurtures men who learn to rule themselves. A hardy, self-directed people, innocently propelled to meet their own needs, provides the general equality conducive to what Aristotle considered the best society, the one directed by a vibrant middle class.
America’s impending reversal from individual rights and resultant self-reliance to a political system of paternalism and patronage will foist conditions on the nation that will appear in many respects like pre-revolutionary France. The hard left has deliberately fostered revolutionary conditions in this nation and has sought to implement social upheaval that will engulf the American people and lead to the return of the state. The imagined revolution will feature the reaction of the increasingly mislabeled “conservatives,” who now find themselves in the awkward position of radicals, strangers in a strange land.
Should the dreaded hour arrive when we are forced to choose, when our nation reaches some unforeseen but steadily approaching breaking point, will we choose the “democratic” revolution of France or the individualist revolution of our forefathers? Our country’s clamoring for “democracy” will presage socialism, the chosen model of the beneficiaries of the welfare state, as well as the preferred ideology of elites who seek to return man to a neofeudal order animated by the secularized religion of altruism. If we persist in our ignorance of the perils of democracy, we will undoubtedly choose in error, and become prey to the hubris that precedes all calamitous falls.