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Democracy Imperiled?

Six reasons our democratic republic is in trouble.

by
Herbert London

Bio

January 13, 2011 - 12:00 am

For a variety of reasons, Plato was suspicious of democracy. The idea of majority rule could lead to excesses that undermine the body politic, he noted. His alternative of rule by the intelligentsia is equally flawed in my judgment, but at the moment in which fractures in this democratic republic are increasingly apparent, it seems appropriate to assess the conditions that have given rise to our problems.

First, and perhaps most notably, a democratic republic depends on an educated populace and adherence to certain norms of behavior. It is evident, however, that Americans have a far greater interest in amusing themselves than in educating themselves. Even the extraordinary number of college graduates reveals little about educational attainment since so many are trained in incapacity. Many colleges in the United States are only faintly related to education at all, and many that purport to train simply instill an ideological canon on their students.

In a recent ISI survey on civil knowledge, a majority of college graduates could not name the three branches of government.

While democracies confer rights, these rights only have meaning when understood against concomitant duties.  The duties of citizenship fall into the categories of understanding, work, loyalty, trust, and sacrifice. If individuals are so self-absorbed that they cannot assist others, democracy cannot succeed. The sinews of the state are dependent on civil understanding and cooperation.

At the moment, many Americans suggest the government must do something to assist them. As one Obama supporter noted at the end of the presidential campaign, “Maybe now someone will pay for my mortgage and assist with my bills.” But democracy was not conceived as the “nanny state,” nor can it survive attempting to care for all its citizens. The idea that government must “provide” is a phenomenon that emerged from officials as arbiters to officials as implementers. A “me generation” now expects the resources of government to be allocated for its specific benefit.

Second, a government that assumes enlarged authority over the economy can browbeat those in the private sector to accede to its desire. It is now evident that the Obama administration played hardball with banks involved in the Chrysler deal because it had leverage through TARP funding. The presumption is that expanded government action was necessary to bolster an economy teetering on the brink of disaster. But this new definition of government’s role means in effect that Washington has replaced New York as the financial capital of the nation. It means as well that the government which has insinuated itself into the automobile, insurance, housing, banking, and financial services industries now controls most of the means of production.

Third, the power of demagoguery is enhanced by a press corps that engages in cheerleading. The truth is nothing more than what the president says it is. President Obama speaks soothingly of nonpartisanship on his watch, yet invariably acts in a straight-forward partisan manner, and as one might expect in the present environment, no one calls him on it.

Democracy is endangered when there isn’t accountability. The weakness of the political opposition, the assertiveness of the Democratic majorities, and the assistance of the press have resulted in a devil’s brew that makes it relatively easy to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, notwithstanding Republican success in the 2010 off-year election cycle.

Fourth, as Juvenal once wrote, those in power want to remain in power. In order to do so, they will make any gesture, compromise any principle, and purloin any aspect of the economy in order to retain their positions. Acting in what is reputed to be the public interest, a class of politicians acts to build constituencies for reelection. The public welfare is mere cover for actions that lead to incumbency.

Fifth, if self-restraint does not exist, external restraint must be imposed to assure domestic tranquility. At issue is the moral basis for civic cohesion, namely, families, churches, associations, and schools, which are in disarray and cannot provide the mediating structures between the individual and the state. As a consequence, government is obliged to fill the moral vacuum playing a role that was not intended in a democratic republic.

Sixth, a democracy cannot work if the system of taxation is used to take from the productive elements of society and give to the unproductive sector. Not only does this action breed resentment, it always leads to a reduction in productivity. As Thomas Jefferson noted, “A democracy will cease when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.”

It is worth recalling the poignant exchange between Benjamin Franklin and an interested party outside the Constitutional Convention. “Tell me sir,” asked the inquisitive party, “what kind of government have you created?” Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Yes, the key words are “if you can keep it.”

If Lincoln’s words of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people” were uttered today, the typical response would be “which people?” and “what will this government do for me?”

At the moment, this democratic republic seems to be in jeopardy, albeit democracies are notoriously resilient in the face of challenges. That is the point that offers hope in a climate of despair. It doesn’t require all the people to realize what is happening at this historic juncture. But it does mean that those who do appreciate the magnitude of the changes that have been wrought, speak out. As Sam Adams once noted, “It does not take a majority to prevail … but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”

Where is Sam Adams when you need him?

Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books).
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