Threats to Democracy

People Power

Exactly how democracy doesn’t function.

We tend to think of democracy as an inevitability. Indeed, Violet Brown, the current oldest person alive, was born in 1900, 124 years after the establishment of democracy in the US. Even my host country, South Korea, has been democratic longer than my sister has been alive.

However, our current wave of democracy is only the second in human history and it’s the first wave to spread beyond the classical, Greco-Roman sphere of dominance. If we think about the structure of a democracy, this rarity and fragility starts to make more sense. For a representative society to function, the society must share enough values for members of each faction to see their rivals as legitimate foes rather than foreign evils or domestic traitors. The victors in democratic elections must value the system more than their own partisan goals because if they don’t, the obvious course of action is to destroy the opponent. To put this only slightly different, the American republic can persist only so long as the Republicans allow the Democrats to exist and vice versa. A democracy is, thus, an exercise in restraint against one’s opponents. To do so is – make no mistake – unnatural, difficult and precarious.

Indeed, a student of the history of democracy will find that the vast majority of new republics fell into chaos, civil war and despotism. In the French Revolution, the radical left Jacobins effectively destroyed the Republic (and kicked off the Terror) when they declared moderate and conservative political factions to be traitors. In the Haitian Revolution, emancipated slaves used their newly won freedom to establish a line of incompetent strongman dictators and institute a string of genocide attempts. Oliver Cromwell’s 17th century parliamentarian democracy ate itself alive rather than tolerate Anglicans. More recently, the tragically ironic “Arab Spring” of 2010 saw millions of people, voting for the first time, choose militant, sectarian leaders who rushed to slaughter their political enemies and re-impose despotism.

A student of history will further find that one of the most common characteristics of successful young democracies is that they have not just a few, but A TON of ways to thwart the will of the people. In both the classical Greco-Roman sphere and 18th and 19th revolutionary democracies, this took the form of restrictive voting rights. You were not allowed to vote in Rome unless you were a property holding man in good legal standing who had also served in the military. The early United States was similarly restrictive, limiting the franchise to property-owning Anglo Saxon protestants. In more modern democracies, the means of thwarting the will of the people take the forms of party nominations, judicial systems and unelected bureaucracies. Whether through voting restrictions or party nomination politics, the necessity to thwart the will of the people emerges from the same two, basic factors.

First, in all democracies there is a need to keep the factions close enough ideologically that they stand to gain more by cooperating and observing democratic norms than they do by fighting to the death. British Labor and Tory party members, for example, both value the same basic human rights, both believe in the desirability of private enterprise, the protection of free speech and the rule of law. Because they aren’t actually that different, there simply isn’t much incentive for one party to massacre the other. Romans and the Greeks achieved the same thing through voting restrictions. By limiting the franchise to veterans who owned property, they were effectively ensuring that everyone with the power to vote had a vested interest in the survival of the Roman Republic.

The farther apart the parties are, the more tenuous this becomes. The Spanish Slaves’ Party, if it had been allowed to exist, would have been perfectly happy to watch the Roman Republic burn to the ground. Likewise, English democracy would not last long if Maoists replaced Labour and Mussolini replaced the Tories. To sum this up, all democracies must protect themselves from ideologically extreme politicians, even when those politicians are popular.

The second reason is that the common people really don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time. The American voting public, for example, has believed for decades that it is possible to cut taxes, increase social program spending and reduce the deficit, all at the same time. A plurality of the British public believes that it is possible to withdraw from the EU, block immigration AND maintain a free access to the European market. The people of Myanmar genuinely believe destroying sinister Muslim invaders – the Rohingya – will bring order and prosperity to their country.

This is not because most people are stupid but rather because it is unreasonable to expect accountants, nurses or truck drivers to understand political and economic realities as well as a member of the political class would. A nurse, after all, spends all day focused on patients and has little time for abstract theorizing on foreign relations. Because of this inevitable ignorance on the part of the common people, they are almost always susceptible to “people’s champions.”

In the past, American elites and insiders have been able to curb the people’s affinity for extremists through the party nomination process. Until the 1970s, both major parties chose their candidates in smoke filled rooms, far from the prying eyes of the public. Because of this, Americans enjoyed centuries on end of mostly boring, establishment type presidents and a corresponding total lack of authoritarian people’s champions like Hugo Chavez or Adolf Hitler.

This is not because the American people were immune to the charms of demagogues, quite the opposite. In the 1920’s, Henry Ford ran for the Republican nomination on a platform of empowering the working class, eliminating the corrupt establishment and destroying a supposed global conspiracy of Jewish bankers. Ford comfortably led opinion polls but ended up withdrawing after the Republican Party elites informed him that they would never, in a million years, nominate him. Likewise, George Wallace, the longtime Dixiecrat governor of Alabama, ran for the Democratic nomination in 1964, 1968 and 1972. Wallace ran on a platform of revolutionary white resentment. He promised to “shut down every highway in the country” until segregation was reinstated and to lead a hunt against “pinko infiltrators.” He was hugely popular in all three primaries but the political elites in the Democratic Party feared his populist extremism and shut him out. These are just two in a very long list of popular, ideologically extreme, anti-establishment politicians the parties successfully disposed of.

However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s both parties opened up the nomination process. The Democrats reserved the so-called “super-delegates” in order to partially veto the will of the people, but the Republicans went for an entirely people-power process. As such, the number of outsider, extremist politicians to mount serious candidacies has skyrocketed.

In addition to the rise of the demagogues, the American Democracy is also facing the most extreme partisan polarization since the Civil War. Left wing people increasingly live, work, shop and socialize in self-segregated urban cores. Right wingers likewise have fled the cities and taken up residence in ideologically homogeneous rural areas. The internet has inflamed this problem. Where before a few giant corporations fashioned the media in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience – an inherently moderate stance – we have moved onto a society in which the production and dissemination of media is so cheap customers can conveniently segregate themselves into any of an unlimited number of information bubbles.

This has driven a hard increase in partisanship. Indeed, a quick browse of my friends’ Facebook profiles statuses makes it clear that “Trump is terrible, but I’ll vote for anyone if they promise to stop the Democrats” and that “I met my first Trump supporter today. Gross!” In such a fragmented, ideologically extreme environment, it is increasingly difficult to accept one’s political rivals as legitimate. After all, if your opponents truly are “gross” or so bad you’ll vote for anyone in order to stop them, why would you recognize such a person as legitimate when they win an election?

In the past, these problems led the Romans into the embrace of Caesar, the French into the grasp of Napoleon and the Venezuelans to Chavista domination. One wonders if we are on the same road.



  1. Nathan Franklin · · Reply

    I think this has been my favorite article, so far. Thanks, Ben!

    1. Glad you like it dude. ^^

  2. I think you make an excellent point that most historical societies were authoritarian rather than democratic. We may be in a brief (on historical timescales) recess of authoritarianism, which may end at some point.

    On the other hand, democracy is far more widespread than it was in its first age. Today, even most societies that aren’t democratic make an effort to pretend that they are. If it had stayed confined to western Europe, like it did to to the Greco-Roman regions in ancient times, I could definitely see the second age of democracy eventually ending up like the first.

    But looking at a broader time scale, hunter-gatherer societies are very egalitarian, and humans lived that way for millions of years before agricultural societies forced us into stratified hierarchies. It may be that the incentive structure for industrial and information age societies is closer to the hunter-gatherer structure than the agricultural one. Or maybe it’s some other factor. Something made democracy far more successful the second time around. Whatever that is, as long as that factor is around, democracy may endure.

    I personally don’t buy that limited suffrage makes a democracy more robust. I think it’s the opposite. My reading of history is that the Roman Republic’s chief problem was that the upper class held on too tightly to their ability to veto the masses, which eventually made them vulnerable to “hero of the people” authoritarians, which is largely what the earliest emperors were.

    Yes, voters often aren’t wise. But history shows that neither are most authoritarians. Whatever else democracy is, it doesn’t guarantee that a society will take the wisest course of action. But that’s a false standard since nothing else ever tried has either. What democracy does help with is that when the vote-enfranchised are suffering, the society will be more likely to take their interests into account. It seems like the broader that scope is, the healthier the society will be. I think a societal order tends to fail when too many of its residents decide their interests no longer align with it.

    Finally, I’d just note that our current problems always loom larger in our perspective than historical ones, particularly ones we can now look back on and see the eventual solutions. By the standards of the Civil War, Great Depression, World Wars, or even 1970s oil crises, our current challenges are modest.

    1. Hey Mike,

      First, thanks for swinging by. It’s always great to hear from you.

      I read your article on hunter gatherers and, while they do indeed tend (though not universally) to egalitarianism within the group, I think they might be egalitarian in such a tight radius that, in a modern context, we might more accurately call them oligarchies. Let me explain what I mean. When hunter gatherer groups encounter each other or end up competing for the same areas, the two solutions are expulsion of one group or killing the men, subjugating/raping the women and either abducting or killing the children of the losing group. This behavior, to my eyes at least, bears a strong resemblance to the behaviors of dukes and warlords when you try to usurp their hereditary privileges. (It’s also a behavior we share with chimpanzees.)

      I also wonder if the need for hierarchy isn’t so much an incentive as it is the prerequisite for complex action. Even hunter gatherers, when they need to coordinate complex behaviors like dangerous game hunts or raiding parties, establish hierarchies. Agricultural and industrialized societies would, if you accept my hypothesis, have hierarchies because they operate continuously at levels of complexity impossible for egalitarian consensus.

      I would quibble with your reading of Roman history (I think the Gracci were the biggest leap in a long series of steps toward Caesar), but in general, I accept your position vis-a-vis the desirability of democracy. When I sing the praises of smokey rooms and political elites, I’m not advocating authoritarianism. Instead, I propose that the smokey rooms are best employed as gatekeepers, as means by which the elites might restrict rather than eliminate the electorate’s choices.

      Also, I wanted to clarify one thing – I don’t think that, in the current context, disenfranchisement is the answer. Indeed, I think courts, senates (or houses of lords) and party bosses are better tools in the fight against demagogues than constricted franchises. My point was that disenfranchisement and the combination of party bosses/courts/house-of-lords institutions were two means to the same ends. The latter works better, but it’s just a modern evolution of the older strategy.

      This is part one in a two part series. In the second part, I’m going to dive into the checks necessary to control the elites. However, short version, I think it is good and right that elites exercise considerable power over the masses in a democracy as long as they meet three conditions:

      1. They have earned rather than inherited their power. Demonstrable supremacy in deeds is the only justification for political supremacy.
      2. They must afford the masses some reasonable means of joining their ranks.
      3. While they may (and should) restrict the choices available to the masses, they cannot eliminate them.

      Lastly, are you familiar with the concept of ozio? I think it is a greater threat to the stability of a nation than actual hardship, whether depression or war, is.

      1. Hey Ben,
        Hunter-gatherer morality does have a disturbingly tight radius in who it grants personhood to. They typically have a word for people in their own, and perhaps surrounding tribes, but a different word for people further afield. It appears to be human nature to regard people too different from us as less than human.

        Most hunter-gatherers (as well as most people living in traditional agricultural societies) tend to have a schizophrenic attitude toward neighboring tribes. They typically regard those tribes, which they often compete with, with disdain, but also trade with them, including marriage partners. In the end, the relationship between neighboring tribes is typically…complicated.

        The Gracci brothers were who I had in mind with Roman Republic history. It seemed like every time the populace asserted their own interests, the Roman elite cut them off, violently and outside of their constitution if necessary. Roman democracy seems like it had a lot of compromises. (Of course, ancient democracy in general was far more limited than the modern versions.)

        On disenfranchisement, sorry, I misunderstood your position. I definitely agree that there needs to be some check on the passions of the populace, but I think those checks should ultimately be accountable to the people. Otherwise, those checks become little more than preserving the interests of an entrenched elite. (Ironically, that’s exactly what the checks started out as, but some of them morphed into a healthy function.)

        You made me look up ozio. Thanks! I’m guessing you mean it in the sense of sloth and idleness? My response would be the same as above. Today’s slothfulness and/or other vices loom larger than the vices that people have had throughout history. People are always convinced that the current generation is going to hell in a hand-basket.

        My own take is that the sources of vitality in a society are always changing. As long as a society is adapting to these changes, it’s (mostly) going to be healthy, but the changes always look decadent to those opposed to them. It’s when a society refuses to change that it’s really in danger. Consider the 4th century Roman attitude toward competent generals and soldiers who happened to be foreign born.

      2. We’re going to have to talk more about the Gracci some day. I knew the elites had grown recalcitrant, but I was pretty sure the Gracci were the first to employ mob violence and were among the worst norm breakers before that point. I could of course be wrong. Either way, it is consistent with my general observation on declines – entrenched elites kill the nation slowly, through a process of calcification and incompetence, the people kill it quickly through Caesar/Robbespierre/Mao. And of course, the first provokes the latter.

        It’s entirely possible I’ve just got recency bias with regards to the US’ current problems but I have a couple reasons to suspect that’s not the only thing. First, I was a lot more optimistic about the US before I left. The contrast between the US and the people I work with here is pretty apparent. I mean, the elites are comparable (or if anything I think the American elites are even more impressive), but the middle and lower classes are so far apart it’s truly jarring. I simply don’t see the hopelessness, the anger and the shocking ignorance here than I do when I go back home. I don’t see anywhere near the levels of learned helplessness. The American lower classes worry me a lot.

        The second reason I don’t think I’m just falling to recency bias is the culture of victimhood thing. There’s a very early Christian feel to this from my point of view and that didn’t go well last time.

        That said, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

      3. “I simply don’t see the hopelessness, the anger and the shocking ignorance here than I do when I go back home.”

        I guess maybe it depends on which circles you move through. When I talk with working class or poor people, I’m always struck by how much joy they’re able to extract from life despite their circumstances. Sure, if you bring up those circumstances, or politics in general, you can get anger and occasional hopelessness from them, but more often I get rueful jokes about it, admittedly tinged at times with a lamentable portion of ignorance, but then I often find the educated to be ignorant about many of the same things.

        On victims, I have to admit I’m not quite sure what your position is. When I read your prior post, I came away wondering what you see as the right course of action for people who have been attacked or harassed by someone with power over them. Certainly some people have a tendency to make themselves the victim every chance they get, but reflexively putting someone in that category when they complain about abuse seems like it risks being callous to real injustice.

      4. Nevada, California and Oregon. Wal-Mart. White trash. Ghettos. I worked security at a 7-11 that had been hit my armed robbers three times in three months (black ghetto). When I lived in Sun Valley (white trash area) for eight months, my apartment complex was the scene of weekly drug busts, a fatal stabbing, a non-fatal shooting and another non-fatal stabbing. When I lived out in the countryside, one of my closest friend’s grandpa killed himself, his wife and mother after years of seclusion, squalor and hopelessness. One of my grandmother’s good friends – they called her Dirty Sue – murdered at least two hobos in order to cash their government checks. I doubt this is typical, but I haven’t seen anything remotely similar here, just boring stuff like alcoholics and hookers. Part of that is I’ve lived in much nicer neighborhoods but part of it is also the fact that I’ve never even seen, in the entire country of 47,000,000, neighborhoods as bad as West Sparks, Riverside, Sun Valley or Fourth Street – all in the Reno area, population 300,000.

        As for the victim thing, I am an advocate of dignity. For example, the first kids to integrate schools in the South, look at pictures of their faces as the crowds spit venom at them. Stoic, composed, courageous and hugely inspirational. Look at tank man in Tianemen Square, facing death but unmoved, confronted with the entire weight of a despotic state but standing ramrod straight. Pay attention to the way John McCain talks about his torture at the hands of the Vietcong, the way Angela Merkel spent years defying the Soviet police state or how Marie Curie literally starved rather than allow the Tsar deny her education.

        These are all massive injustices and none of those people ever, even once, emphasized how broken apart or traumatized they are. None of them attempted to portray themselves as pathetic. Instead, by embracing courage and dignity, they show their enemies to be craven in comparison. That’s not how I would portray the Tea Party Patriots, MeToo or BLM, suggesting instead an Oppression Olympics dynamic.

        For an explanation of the psychological difference between a dignity culture and a victim culture, this might be interesting.

      5. Your experiences sound pretty stark. I’ve had some exposure to those kinds of things, but clearly not nearly as much as you have. That said, I think it would be a mistake to see those problems as uniquely American. You only have to read Les Misérables, the works of Charles Dickens, or even some of the stuff you’ve shared before, to know that misery and despair are cross cultural and have been with us for a long time.

        Regarding advocating for dignity, how does that translate for someone attacked or harassed by an executive like Harvey Weinstein? Or for a black person routinely pulled over because of their appearance? You seem to be saying that filing a complaint, publishing their story, or engaging in public protest is undignified. What action could they take that would be more dignified, particularly in a culture that historically closed ranks and protected abusers?

        Myself, I think dignity is a relative thing that exists in the eye of the beholder, something we see or fail to see because of the values and biases that color our perception of people’s actions. Today it’s easy to look back at the civil rights era and see what they did as dignified. Their historical success in changing our culture has ratified their actions as right and proper. But many of my older relatives didn’t see it that way at the time, and frankly some still don’t. Dignity isn’t an objective thing. For some, NFL kneelers are the epitome of dignity, for others they are crass agitators.

      6. Do you know Thabo Sephalosia? He handled his victimization with considerable dignity. Same with the kneelers.

        As for the Weinstein victims – it would be so incredibly easy to mock him. It would be possible to call a press conference, bluntly state the truth and challenge the public. The difference is deciding whether or not to proclaim yourself gloriously defiled/broken/pathetic.

      7. I’d encourage you to read that article. I think there’s more than eye of the beholder in a dignity culture.

  3. “One wonders if we are on the same road.” Absolutely not.

      1. The Government in Washington is either being slowly dismantled (like tearing up 16 regulations for every new one written) or shifting away from an Authoritarian center to local gov’t (like passing responsibility back to the individual states).

      2. There have been lots of anti-government, local power folks in history to destroy Republics. In fact, the process you describe above is basically a copy of what happened after Simon Bolivar died and all the South American Republics collapsed into localized, petty authoritarianism. De-centralization and the removal of regulations were also characteristic of Post Roman Europe, as well.

      3. In your examples, was the de-centralization prompted by the main gov’t overstepping its bounds? or years of usurping powers?
        The U.S. functioned quite well with the Federal gov’t and the state gov’ts keeping within the domains set up for them by the founders.
        This is what I meant by dismantling. Not a destruction, but rather a reversion back to a more stable style which has been historically successful and functional.

      4. Rome and Greater Columbia were centralized (Rome) or undergoing attempts at centralization. The dark ages and the disolution of South America were de-centralizing movements.

        I also am not sure if I can accept your analysis of states’ rights. The Articles of Confederation were … not super effective.

      5. Not Articles of Confederation…U.S. from 1930’s – 1980’s.

      6. Ah, so after the federal expansions of the Progressive Era and including both the New Deal and the Great Society? 😉

        Might I suggest that the size of the government doesn’t have much of a relationship with liberties?

  4. Authority, power, money…. Have significant threat to Democracy especially in 3rd World Countries, it is almost infringed

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