Winston Churchill once said: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” In line with this quote, for many in the United States democracy is held as the highest political ideal, Abraham Lincoln described a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Public history classes are replete with examples of the triumph of the progressives over the reactionary forces of the founding era. Checks and balances and other constitutional restrictions, carefully crafted, were (and are) seen as impediments to progress. Even today there are calls for the abolition of the Electoral College in favor of the direct democratic election of presidents. “Power to the people! Let the people decide! Rock the vote!”
But the fact is that democracy can be very dangerous. The various myths surrounding democracy, that democratic elections legitimize political actions, that majority rule is desirable, and that politicians are selfless individuals, harm the political perceptions of Americans.
Myth #1: The myth of democratic legitimacy goes something like this: “Since politicians are elected by the people, the people must have chosen the best possible candidates for the job.” Besides the fact that the behemoth administrative state probably has more direct effect on the lives of ordinary Americans than even their local governments, the truth is that voters are rationally ignorant. They take in only limited information by which to form democratic decisions, and even then such information is from limited and likely biased sources. Even for the highly informed, heuristics and other cognitive shortcuts abound. The idea that individual citizens are sitting around for extended periods of time engaging in an intense study of the relevant issues and then making rationally informed democratic choices is just not true. Democracy is dangerous because it substitutes the illusion of legitimacy for the choices of the rationally ignorant.
Myth #2: The myth of the desirability of majority follows: “The best policies are the ones supported by the majority of the people. If more people support an idea, it must be the superior idea.” A simple hypothetical is enough to dismiss this disturbing notion. Imagine that you live in a neighborhood with ten other households. Imagine that you and your neighbors get together for a neighborhood meeting and it is decided that henceforth all local decisions will be enacted through a majority vote. Whatever the majority wants, the majority gets. The next week the group gets together and votes 9-1 to kick you and your family out of the neighborhood and confiscate all of your property to be redistributed out to the other households. You could protest, but what recourse would you have? The people have decided. Democracy is dangerous because it promulgates the unconstitutional idea that individual rights should be subject to a majority vote.
Myth #3: This might be the most pernicious democratic myth of all: “Those seeking public office are selfless individuals who just want to make a difference in their communities.” But think about the type of person who aspires to public office, whether it be to the presidency of the United States or the local school board. These individuals want to play the game. They want power over their neighbors. They aren’t content to persuade. They want to rule. From the very top to the very bottom, one thing unites them: The desire for power. As any political science undergrad can tell us, power is the basic means by which politics is expressed. So whether it be the formal predictions of Public Choice Theory, or common sense observations, politicians, even those who are democratically elected, are not angels. Democracy is dangerous because it allows wolves in sheep’s clothing to rule us without our even being aware of it.
The founders of the United States knew that democracy, at least in its purest form, was perhaps the most dangerous system of government ever known to mankind. The writings of the era are replete with warnings of the dangers of too much democracy. “Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments,” quipped Alexander Hamilton. “If we incline too much to democracy we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of a dictatorship.” Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Democratic Party, lamented that “a democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” argued that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Rather than the many on the Left would have us believe, the checks and balances and other limitations of our electoral and governmental systems are not flaws to be overcome in pursuit of democratic rule. They were specifically designed to thwart the possible negative effects of too much democracy.