Degenerate Democracy

Aristotle considered the adjective "degenerate" redundant when coupled with "democracy," and America's founding fathers shared Aristotle's disapprobation. 

With characteristic bluntness, John Adams asserted, "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide." James Madison expressed a similar viewpoint in his famous Federalist Paper #10: "... democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths."

Such sentiments startle Americans today. For generations, we have been taught that democracy, however imperfect, is the best form of government known to man. The gulf between the founders and contemporary Americans stems from very different usages of the word "democracy."

Benign "democracy" connotes the empowerment of individuals and a corresponding freedom from tyranny and oppression. The 19th-century poet Walt Whitman articulated the essence of America's democratic ideal thusly: "... government can do little positive good to the people, [but] it may do an immense deal of harm. And here is where the beauty of the Democratic principle comes in. Democracy would prevent all this harm. It would have no man's benefit achieved at the expense of his neighbors ... this one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men." [Emphases in original.]

The founding fathers would concur heartily with Whitman's sentiment. Whitman described exactly the kind of polity that the founders desired to establish -- one in which every American, rich or poor, would be equally secure in the enjoyment of his God-given rights and safe from any power that would trespass on them.

To protect individual rights, the founders established a constitutional republic, not a democracy. What is the difference? 

The Constitution crafted by the founders was premised on the primacy of individual rights. It sought to restrain governmental power in order to protect those rights.

Democracy, by contrast, is a theory of power: What the majority wants, the majority gets. The founders -- great students of history and human nature -- understood that individual rights could be trampled by democratic majorities as readily as by individual tyrants. (Think of noble Socrates and innocent Jesus, both deprived of their right to life by democratic votes.) 

The founders knew that if America's constitutional republic ever degenerated into a formal democracy, then Americans' rights and Whitman's democratic ideal would be lost. Democracy would descend into mobocracy. In Benjamin Franklin's pithy prose: "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch."

Marx and Lenin shared Franklin's stark assessment of democracy. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that the way to attain socialism was to "win the battle of democracy." The cold-blooded Lenin taught, "A democracy is a state which recognizes the subjection of the minority to the majority."

The democracy that the founders loathed and that the communists coveted is a political system in which government ceases to protect individual rights and instead annihilates them. 

The founders viewed such a system as an ethical abomination, an affront to Judeo-Christian principles. As Thomas Jefferson put it, "To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father's has acquired too much, in order to spare others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association -- the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it."

Merciless democracy, besides being ethically debased, is also suicidal. In the words of British archeologist and historian Sir Flinders Petrie, "When democracy has attained full power, the majority without capital necessarily eat up the capital of the minority and civilization steadily decays."

Over the decades, Uncle Sam has slipped by the Constitution's explicit limitations on government power. The manner in which this has been accomplished epitomizes our political degeneration. In his farewell address (still read in Congress once per year, but evidently not heeded) George Washington implored, "If in the opinion of the People, the distribution or modification of the Constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed."

Subsequent generations of politicians and jurists have ignored Washington's wise counsel and undermined liberty by ignoring or defying (thus, usurping) the clear language of the constitution in pursuit of their ambitions.  The rule of law lies in tatters. Our political degeneration has progressed to the point where Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid write major legislation behind closed doors and order their partisan minions to approve their proposals before they even read them. In the name of democracy, the national government has become blatantly undemocratic. 

The founders' misgivings about democracy were spot-on. The republic they gave us has been corrupted and possibly lost forever.

Mark Hendrickson teaches economics at Grove City College and is a Fellow for Economic & Social Policy with the College's Center for Vision & Values.
If you experience technical problems, please write to