Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard. – H. L. Mencken
“The European philosophical tradition”, English mathematician and philosopher A. N. Whitehead once said, “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Within the European philosophical tradition can be found the history of serious Western political thought. This too, to a great extent, is an expansion and commentary on ideas first presented by Plato in his dialogues, especially The Republic and The Laws.
After a century like the 20th, in which utopian ideologues caused never before seen levels of human suffering in their attempt to politically and socially engineer a paradise on earth, it is understandable that many look with apprehension and suspicion upon the exercise in theoretical city-state building which Socrates and his friends enter into in Plato’s Republic. As a result there has been much written which pits Plato and Aristotle against each other, purporting to find in the two Athenian philosophers the source of rival political traditions, one utopian and idealistic, the other empirical and realistic that have influenced the Western world to this day.
While there is a degree of truth to this, neo-Thomistic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that Aristotle is best understood, not as Plato’s rival, but as the first and greatest interpreter in the Platonic tradition, with the role of interpreter necessarily including that of corrector at times. (1) This view of the relationship between Plato and Aristotle in the history of Western thought seems to me to be more accurate than the other.
Moreover, those who regard Plato as the father of modern utopianism seem to have missed much of the point of The Republic. Plato was not trying to draw up blueprints for the perfect city-state which he expected actual governments to build. The city-building exercise was part of an attempt to define and defend the concept of justice against the cynical view expressed by Thrasymachus in the early part of the dialogue.
While the sophist Thrasymachus was a historical person, in Plato’s Republic he is made to be the mouthpiece for the view that justice is an irrational concept created by the strong to serve their interests. Justice constrains self-interest, but those who impose it upon others are not themselves bound by it, Thrasymachus argues. It is to the advantage of the strong to be unjust themselves and to force those weaker than themselves to answer to the demands of justice. This is encapsulated in the familiar saying in English “might makes right”.
This viewpoint expressed by Thrasymachus is what Plato wrote The Republic to refute. Justice, in the Platonic tradition, serves the common good, not just the good of the strong, and injustice ultimately serves no one’s good. It is the standards of justice which determine the right and wrong uses of power, not power which determines what is right and wrong.
Thrasymachus’ view has had its advocates down through the years. In the 19th Century, Friedrich Nietzsche distinguished between “master morality” and “slave morality”. These were two different ways of identifying “good” and “bad”, the first arising out of the thinking of the strong, the second out of the thinking of the weak. Nietzsche favoured “master morality”, which he associated with Greco-Roman civilization, over “slave morality” which he associated with Christianity. Placing an announcement of the death of the Christian God in the mouth of his fictional prophet Zarathustra, he set before mankind a choice. Embrace the values of the strong and rise to the heights of the Übermensch (Superman) or choose the morality of the slave and sink to the depths of mediocrity occupied by der letzte Mensch (the Last man).
In the 20th Century, Leo Strauss once remarked to George Grant that he was “lucky to have lived in the present period, because the most comprehensive and deepest account of the whole has been given us by Plato, and the most comprehensive criticism of that account has been given us by Nietzsche”. (2) In his The City and Man (3), Strauss radically reinterpreted Plato. He argued that the views placed in the mouth of Thrasymachus were actually Plato’s own views and that they were the central message of The Republic, that Socrates’ was in essential agreement with Thrasymachus and that the appearance of disagreeing with the view that justice is the advantage of the strong is an example of the kind of “noble lie” Socrates recommended to the rulers of his hypothetical city-state.
Nietzsche and Strauss were both opponents of modernism, who rejected pre-modern Christianity as a viable alternative to the liberalism and relativism of the modern era. They identified – falsely in my opinion – Christianity as the source of the liberalism they despised. Rightly suspicious of modern democracy, they failed to see that it is fundamentally an example of Thrasymachian “might makes right”.
Most proponents of modern democracy fail to make this connection too. Indeed, they see democracy as being quite the opposite, as the form of government that is uniquely “fair” which empowers the weak and places them on an equal level with the strong.
When I say “modern democracy” I am not speaking about all forms of democracy. I am not speaking, for example, about democracy as one element of a balanced, mixed, constitution. Canada is a parliamentary monarchy with a constitution derived from that of the United Kingdom. That constitution is a mixed constitution which includes a democratic element, along with an aristocratic and monarchical element. This is the best form of government the world has ever known, in my opinion, and the democratic element is a fundamental part of the constitution.
In our constitution of parliamentary monarchy, the constitution prescribes that certain offices of state be filled by individuals chosen by popular elections held on a regular basis. This is the democratic element of our constitution. This is how the members of our House of Commons are chosen. Other offices of state, our constitution prescribes, are to be filled in different ways. Our head of state, for example, in whom political sovereignty is vested, inherits her position according to constitutionally established rules of succession. In our constitution democracy and monarchy are two principles, both of which are necessary, and the balance between the two makes for a superior constitution than either would be on its own.
The doctrine of modern democracy is very different from this. Modern democracy is based upon the idea that “the people” possess both a) a collective “will” and b) sovereignty, which means that “the people” have a right to have their “will” enforced. 18th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau romanticized this idea of the “general will” and the idea that to be legitimate government must be the voice of the will of the people. From Rousseau’s day to our own, this idea has spread like wildfire, and an increasing number of people have come to regard modern democracy, based upon the idea of popular sovereignty, as the ideal form of government.
It is no such thing, of course. There is no ideal form of government and the very idea of an ideal form of government is itself a dangerous one. When I say the British/Canadian constitution of parliamentary monarchy is the best form of government the world has ever known I am not saying that it is an ideal form of government. An ideal form of government is a supposedly perfect form of government, drawn up on paper, which because of its perfection is believed to be something towards which all societies should aspire. The temptation that comes, when we think up ideal forms of government, is to try to force our imperfect societies made up of imperfect people into the mold of our ideal constitution. That, as the Twentieth Century bears witness to, causes massive problems and suffering for large numbers of people.
The problems with modern democracy, however, go beyond the mere fact that its advocates regard it as an ideal form of government. In our traditional parliamentary constitution democracy is one element which must be balanced with others. In the doctrine of modern democracy the “will of the people” is an absolute which cannot be balanced by other elements.
Now some modernists do try to balance democracy with the doctrine of liberalism. Liberalism is the idea that the individual is more important than the community or the society and is possessed of natural rights which government of any sort cannot legitimately interfere with. A “liberal democracy” is a government which is constitutionally restrained from interfering with the private affairs of individuals, but where matters which pertain to the common good of the community are decided by the principle of majority rule - or if it is a liberal representative democracy, are decided by elected representatives of the people.
Liberalism alone, however, is incapable of providing balance to democracy. If “the will of the people” is sovereign but the rights of individuals are absolute who decides what the rights of individuals are and where the dividing line between “the common good” and “the private affairs of individuals” lies? If the answer is “majority vote” then democracy overrules liberalism and liberalism balances democracy in the same way that a feather balances a large lead weight. If some higher law established rights of individuals which government of any sort cannot legitimately interfere with then it is that higher law and not the “will of the people” which is truly sovereign.
This does not matter much to the believer in modern democracy. Balance is a classical idea. To the modernist, the classical idea that good statecraft consists in harmonizing the parts with the whole, and balancing the good of the individual with the good of the community, and the good of the few with the good of the many, is outdated, a thing of the past.
So is the idea which Christians call “Original Sin” – the idea that suffering and evil in this world exist because of a flaw in human nature called sin, which resulted in man’s exile from Paradise, which man cannot regain through his own efforts. Modernism rejects this idea, which supports the classical ideas of limits and restraints on human ability, in favour of the idea that Paradise is attainable through political means if the social causes of evil – poverty, illiteracy, inequality, discrimination –etc. are eliminated by democratic government.
The modern egalitarian argument for democracy is a utopian dream. The argument goes that democracy is the “fairest” form of government. What makes it “fair”? It gives everybody an equal say – one vote per person. If democratic governments have not given us Paradise on earth, therefore, it is only because the ideal of egalitarian democracy has not yet been met. This is the thinking that lay behind the constant expansion of the franchise towards the ideal of universal suffrage that took place over the last couple of centuries.
First the vote was extended to all classes to achieve the ideal of “one man, one vote”. Then the women’s suffrage movement came along and “one man, one vote” because “one person, one vote”. Still Paradise on earth had eluded us. Now the franchise has been extended about as far as it can go – although one hears calls to eliminate the age of majority and end “age discrimination” from time to time – and so those still enamoured of the democratic dream have switched their demand from universal suffrage to “proportional representation”.
The idea of proportional representation is the idea that the makeup of the body of representatives should reflect the breakdown of the popular vote. The popular vote is the total number of votes cast by all voters in an election. If 55% of the votes went to the Rhinoceros Party, 25% of the votes went to the Christian Heritage Party, 15% of the votes went to the Libertarian Party and 5% of the votes went to the Green Party, then, each of these parties should have the percentage of seats in the House of Commons according to the notion of proportional representation.
Why does this not already happen?
It does not happen because people are not just individual members of a large body of voters. They are members of neighborhoods and communities and our constitution evolved to take this into consideration. Members of the House of Commons are elected to represent areas we call ridings and when people are asked to vote in an election they are not asked to vote for what percentage of the House should be given to a particular party but for who should represent the riding in which their neighborhood, their community, is located in the House.
The established electoral system is superior to proportional representation because proportional representation dehumanizes people. Instead of being real people, the faces and names who live in a community, proportional representation treats people as faceless numbers and percentages.
To those who believe that achieving “true democracy” will finally usher in a golden age of fairness and justice for all, however, the traditional electoral system is just another roadblock in the way of the will of the people as represented by the popular vote which must be thrust aside. While previous revolutions such as the reduction of the role of the monarch to that of ceremonial figurehead and the extension of the franchise to all men and women of the age of majority failed to achieve Paradise, this time around the proportional revolution is sure to succeed.
Some true believers in democracy have gone even further. After the most recent provincial election in Manitoba, for example, Frances Russell in her October 6, 2011 column for the Winnipeg Free Press blasted what she perceives as the injustices of the traditional electoral system and wrote:
Taken together, it builds an ever-stronger case for genuine democratic reform involving some form of proportional representation and Australian-style compulsory voting. Alone among British-origin democracies, Australia has had compulsory voting since 1924. The law is enforced with a modest fine of $20, rising to $50 if the voter cannot supply a valid reason for failing to exercise his or her franchise.(4)
So if you have a valid reason for not voting you are only fined $20? What happens if the non-voter doesn’t pay the fine? Does he go to jail?
In this suggestion we have a chilling reminder that the father of modern democracy and the father of totalitarianism were one and the same – Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Although many naively equate democracy with freedom, the more democracy has evolved in the direction of the ideally “fair” system of “one person, one vote”, the more democratic governments have felt free to impose their will upon us in areas of our lives that were until recently considered to be entirely private. The simple fact of the matter is that modern democracy is a form of “might makes right” of the imposition of the will through force.
Imagine you were walking down the street and someone came up to you and pulled out a shillelagh and said “you are now my slave, you will do everything I say, or I will bash your head in”. Would the fact that this person is armed and capable of following through on his threat mean that he has the right to boss you around?
Of course not. The use of force – or the credible threat of force – does not confer legitimate authority upon anyone. We have a word for the person who relies upon weapons and the threat of violent force to make others obey his will. That word is “tyrant”.
Lets alter the situation somewhat. This time you are walking down the street and someone comes up to you and says “you are now my slave, you will do everything I say”. This time he does not produce a weapon. You say “No way am I going to be taking orders from you”. He responds with “I will make you”. To which you answer “Oh yeah, you and what army”, at which point he says “This one” and a gang of thugs steps out from the back alley and surrounds you. You are hopelessly outnumbered. This time around would you say that the gang boss has the right to give you orders?
Of course you would not. The two situations are virtually identical. All that has changed is mode of force. The first would-be-tyrant relies upon a cudgel the second upon a gang of thugs. The force you are threatened with in the second situation is the force of numbers.
There is also, however, no substantial difference between the thinking of the second would-be-tyrant and the theory of modern democracy. The theory of modern democracy asserts that having a large enough number of supporters – a majority of the population – makes a government and its policies legitimate and just. This, like the thinking of the thugs in the hypothetical situations above, is a variation of the idea “might makes right”. Modern democracy – democracy as the theory of popular sovereignty and majority rule – is an inherently violent form of government.
This is one of the most important reasons why democracy needs aristocracy and monarchy to balance out a constitution. (5)
As we noted earlier, most advocates of modern democracy do not think of their ideal of “the sovereign will of the people” in terms of domination by force. They prefer to think of democracy as being “fair” as “empowering the weak” and “giving a voice to the voiceless”. There is, however, a kind of movement that recognizes democracy for what it is and embraces it.
Populism is the name we have for movements like this. A populist movement is a movement which charges elite groups with having betrayed the public interest. It gathers followers in the hopes of gaining large enough numbers for its claims to speak on behalf of “the people” to be taken seriously. It makes demands in the name of the sovereign will of the people.
In populism, the violence and reliance upon force that is inherent within democracy is not explained away or hidden but brought to the forefront and put on display. Populism knows of no moderating force. The will of “the people” is law and its demands must be met. Successful populism is the “tyranny of the majority” which Alexis de Tocqueville warned the Americans about in the 19th Century.
What populists and other advocates of democracy do not often tell you is that “the rule of the majority” is a fiction. Unless you live in the smallest of communities the governing of the community will always be conducted by a minority – an elite. Even if your community is small enough that every single decision pertaining to the affairs of the community can be decided by majority vote an elite will still rule. The people in the community who are the most skilled at getting the majority to vote their way will be the elite in such a community and they will call the shots.
This is inevitable. It is what Robert Michels called “the iron law of oligarchy”. (6) It cannot be changed, it is just the way things are. Complaining about it is as foolish and unfruitful as complaining about the law of gravity.
For our purposes the significance of this fact is two-fold. First, it shows that the doctrine of modern democracy is built upon a false foundation. The reason a minority always controls a group, community, organization or society is because there is no such thing as “the general will” or “the will of the people”. Rousseau’s volonté générale does not exist. It is a fiction. Only individuals have wills.
Secondly, it shows that populism is itself a means for a few – the leaders of the populist movement – to gain and exercise power. The people – the crowds of supporters of the populist movement – do not themselves possess power. They are the power – the power which the populist elite uses to challenge the governing elite.
While it is always true that an elite minority will hold the reigns of power in any society the constitution of the society and the ideals held by the society will affect the kind of elite that a society has. When democracy becomes the overriding principle of the constitution and popular sovereignty becomes an ideal of the society, this does little to improve a society’s elite. The more democratic the constitution, the more selfish, deceptive, and power-hungry the people who compose the ruling class become. This is really quite self-evident. To win an election, you have to first run in an election. To run in an election you must desire power. The desire for power is not an admirable trait in a leader but a dangerous one. After a person decides to run in an election they must win the election before they can exercise power. That requires convincing more people to vote for you than for your opponents. That generally involves being the best liar of the bunch which might explain why so many politicians used to be lawyers.
What kind of elites do populist movements tend to produce?
Since populism embraces the force of numbers inherent within the concept of democracy it would be reasonable to conclude that successful populist movements have a tendency to give power to people who desire power and are willing for their power to be rest upon force rather than constitutional legitimacy. History bears this conclusion out. It is full of people who desiring power for themselves, gained followers by accusing the elites of corruption, then when they had enough popular support overthrew the constitution of their country and ruled tyrannically in the people’s name. Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the last days of the ancient Roman Republic, defended the ancient constitution against populist movements which condemned the Senate and the patrician aristocracy, movements which popular generals and war heroes like Gaius Marius sought to exploit for their own personal interests, and which ultimately led to the overthrow of the constitution and the rise of Caesarism. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, the conservative and Catholic aristocracy in Germany, watched with dismay as Austrian demagogue Adolf Hitler gained supporters through a populist campaign, was elected into office, made himself dictator, and maintained a high level of popular support even as he madly plunged his country and the world into a disastrous war. The ultimate populist ideology – Marxism which accuses the elite “haves” of oppressing the many “have nots” and calls for a universal revolution to bring about a property-less, classless, egalitarian society – established “People’s Republics” around the globe in the 20th Century, which made slaves out of all but the elite members of the “Communist Party”, threw millions of people into forced labour camps, and murdered about a hundred million people.
While you cannot blame an ideology for everything that is done in its name, it is the very nature of populism to place the democratic concept of the will of the people above the constitution. This makes it a natural means for those who would overthrow their constitution, seize power, and rule tyrannically.
We have looked at a number of the dangers to a stable, constitutional order and a free society that lie in democracy and populism. There is an important question that arises out of this. What if the populists are right about the elites? What if they really are betraying the interests of their country, their society, and the public?
This question is vitally important because there is a great deal of evidence that says that the current elites are doing just that.
I will address that question in Populism Part Three: Treacherous Elites.
(1) This interpretation can be found in Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).
(2) Grant recounts this in his essay “Nietzsche and the Ancients” in Technology and Justice (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1986).
(3) Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964).
(5) There are many ways in which diluting democracy by mixing it with monarchy and aristocracy lessens its potential danger. Perhaps the most important is that it separates sovereignty from the people. In a monarchy the people are never sovereign. The constitution vests the office of the monarch with sovereignty and the king or queen who fills that office inherits his or her position from the previous monarch in accordance with a line of succession defined by the constitution. This sovereign authority is therefore derived directly from the constitution and not from the “will of the people”. This is true even if the authority of the king of queen is exercised in the sovereign’s name by elected officials.
(6) Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy (New York: Collier Books, 1962), a translation by Eden and Cedar Paul of a book which first appeared in German in 1911. The phrase “iron law of oligarchy” is Michels’ but he acknowledges his dependence on Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto for the concept behind it. See also James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, Gateway edition (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1963) originally published by John Day in 1943.