Democracy Imperiled?

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?