Democracy’s Dog Days

Instead, southern Europe is reeling, the result of the proverbial people voting themselves entitlements and perks that the state could not pay for. In the fashion of the fourth century Athenian dêmos, pensioners, the subsidized, and public employees blame almost everyone and everything else for their own self-inflicted miseries.

The European Union avoids national referenda in fear that democratic and open elections would lead the EU to unravel. Instead, the EU in large part is reduced to appealing to German war guilt, to German mercantile self-interest, and to German philanthropy to subsidize much of a failed Mediterranean Europe.

Westernized democratic societies -- Europe in particular -- are shrinking. The bounty of free market capitalism, the emancipation of women, technological advances, and the non-judgmentalism of egalitarian democracy have all emphasized enjoying the good life rather than the sacrifices of child-raising. The result is a demographic time bomb of a dwindling and aging population.

Here in the United States, we are engaged in a great struggle to save constitutional democracy as we once knew it. President Obama seems intent -- by ignoring enforcement of existing statutes, by piling up record debt, by vastly enlarging the size of the federal government, by expanding the money supply, by enabling unprecedented numbers of Americans to enroll in food stamp, disability, unemployment, and various entitlement programs, and by politicizing federal institutions from the Justice Department to the IRS -- on creating an “equality of result” society. The aim of making everyone about the same is seen as justifying the illiberal means necessary to achieve them.

“Liberty” is now a word that earns an IRS audit. “Fairness” is proof of one’s patriotism. It is as if the failed and violent French Revolution, not the successful American alternative, is now the inspirational model.

In short, democracy’s culture worldwide is in crisis. It cannot pay its bills. It chafes at constitutional protections of individual rights and expression. It seems to encourage rather than to mitigate racial and class tensions. It offers more entitlements to a growing aging cohort and less opportunity for a shrinking younger population to pay for them. It appears unable to offer non-democratic societies moral and ethical models.

Most cannot decide whether the democracies are plagued with a particularly poor generation of demagogic leaders, or whether we are suffering the inevitable wages of rule by plebiscite that eats away at constitutional law and prefers executive fiat. What Jefferson and Tocqueville thought might save us from the mob-rule of ancient Athens -- the independent agrarian and small autonomous businessperson anchoring checks and balances to 51% majority rule and demagogues -- is no longer our ideal.

I offer a modest suggestion amidst our current angst. Let us put a moratorium on the use of the word “democracy” altogether in our lectures about the Arab Spring and promoting Western values. Cease using it, given that the word has lost all currency and has regressed to its root Hellenic demagogic meaning of “people power.”

Most people simply do not appreciate the complex constitutional system that democracy’s modern incarnation is supposed to represent, and prefer to equate democracy with what on any given day the majority is said to want -- which is almost always a state-mandated equality and a redistribution of wealth -- or a way to implement authoritarianism. In the Middle East, an election without a ratified constitution and the rule of law is a prescription for tyranny.