Humpty Dumpty on Democracy

In the early years of the new millennium I wrote a series of short columns on the political and ethical distortions of language.  This bit of fluff, trifling as it is, should be enough to debunk the nonsense of democracy

The People, No!

Nobody can define democracy--probably nobody wants to--and if any honest man succeeded in defining it, the liars (always in the vast majority of mankind) would stone him to death for his pains.  Democracy means, literally, rule by the people or rather, As Roger Scruton puts it (in his very useful Dictionary of Political Thought), “by the people as a whole rather than by any section, class or interest within it.”  The trouble lies, as Scruton points out, with defining “who the people are, and which acts of government are truly ‘theirs….”

Most political theorists distinguish between direct and representative democracy, but that is like the difference between traditional Christianity and liberal Christianity--the one is real, the other a fake.  Athenian direct democracy meant that the people ruled through popular institutions: the Assembly of citizens, the vast citizen juries that tried cases, and the ostracism of ambitious politicians.  There was little bureaucracy and hardly any police to speak of.  They did not trust elections, because they knew that wealth and influence would always play a decisive role in them, and they were highly skeptical of professionals who would presume to speak in their name.  So far from creating a centralized establishment, the tiny Athenian polis was as decentralized as Switzerland, and most social regulation lay in the hands of the household, kin groups, and local neighborhoods.  What this has to do with the centralized bureaucracy that runs the entire nation as if it were occupied territory is something it is better not to speculate on.

In America, democracy referred originally to the mass of ordinary people and secondly to the political forms that expressed the popular will.  Jefferson, who was in many respects an authentic classical republican, trusted neither the mob nor the Northeastern plutocracy with the power to direct other people’s lives.  His own vision, sketched out in his plans for public education and for ward government, carry the principle of states rights to its logical conclusion, bringing power back to the people who have to live under it.  Jefferson undoubtedly thought he was wiser than his neighbors in matters of religion or on the South’s peculiar institution, but he did not think that it was up to him to force his neighbors, much less the outlandish people living in Connecticut, to bow to his wishes.

Although most ordinary people cannot help being busybodies, the true principle of democracy can be summed up in a line of Hank Williams: “Why don’t you mind your business, cause if you’d mind your own business you won’t be minding mine.”  This is the opposite of what is meant by democracy when it is discussed by practitioners of a purely academic philosophy.  They hate Jefferson and prefer democracy in the style of Rousseau and Lenin, where in the name of the people the tiniest of oligarchies can monopolize the resources and power of hundreds of  millions of people who surrender their liberties in every election with the eagerness of a chump handing in a lottery ticket with the wrong number.  

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Avatar Patrick Kinnell says:

    I’m with Hank Williams. It would be tempting to put that on a bumper sticker…..on second thought…I think not.