Is Democracy Doomed?
More than 242 years after the United States was founded, only 37 percent of Americans are satisfied with the current state of the country, according to a recent Gallup poll. Of the 61 percent that are unsatisfied, many believe the social, economic, and cultural issues plaguing the country will lead to its downfall. This belief begs the question: How long can a democracy last?
According to Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler, only about 200 years:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.”
If this cycle of democracy only lasts 200 years, is the United States running on borrowed time?
From Bondage to Spiritual Faith
During the initial stage of the so-called “Tytler Cycle,” a people who are suffering from injustices develop a philosophy to break their bonds. In the early years of America, this occurred when King George III implemented restrictions upon the colonists, and the colonists began to recognize the injustices dealt upon them.
From Spiritual Faith to Great Courage
The second stage of the Tytler Cycle involves taking action to right the injustices identified in the first stage. In the 1770s, this occurred in multiple instances, most notably the Boston Tea Party, which led to the American War for Independence. During this time, colonists fought for the principles they developed under the height of King George III’s tyranny.
From Courage to Liberty
In the third stage of the Tytler Cycle, the battles fought to escape injustice have been successful, and liberty takes hold and evolves. After the Revolutionary War, the still-young American nation embraced its newfound liberty: The states ratified the U.S. Constitution and passed the Bill of Rights, the American government took shape, democracy spread across North America, and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery after the Civil War.
From Liberty to Abundance
The fourth stage of the Tytler Cycle occurs when liberty leads to prosperity. Through sacrifice, hard work, and other virtues, a civilization reaches its apex. The United States entered this stage in the late nineteenth century and lasted more than 100 years. During this pivotal period of American history, the United States became an industrial powerhouse, the world’s financial center, and the leading innovator of new technology, such as electricity, communications, transportation, information, and household goods. In the blink of an eye, America went from a fledgling country to the world’s economic superpower.
From Abundance to Selfishness
During the fifth stage of the Tytler Cycle, members of a civilization become more concerned with their own needs and desires than contributing to their civilization. In this stage, a democracy begins its precipitous decline. In the United States, this stage began in the 1960s, when young Americans launched the counterculture movement and engaged in rampant drug use, “free love,” and numerous illicit activities -- purely for their personal enjoyment. Few during this period wished to fight for the ideals their country was built upon. Not only that, but the family unit experienced a major breakdown.
From Selfishness to Apathy
Whereas the previous stage was the turning point in which selfishness took root, the apathy stage is where it spreads like a virus. In the United States, this occurred when the Baby Boomers came of age and began to fill leadership roles in the country, not only spreading their self-indulgence across the nation but also infecting the culture with a “me” mentality and the “greed is good” philosophy. As Bill Clinton entered the Oval Office and Americans lived well beyond their means, the values of the Founding Fathers -- liberty, selflessness, and discipline -- fell by the wayside.
From Apathy to Dependence
This stage of the Tytler Cycle occurs when the selfish tendencies of a society cause it to become reliant on government. In the United States, this stage truly took shape in the early twenty-first century, when a greater number of Americans began to rely on the government for food, shelter, and other necessities they felt entitled to, rather than working hard to earn them. In 2012, Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney said, “There are 47 percent… who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” As a result of this, Romney was ostracized (probably by the 47 percent) and lost the election.
From Dependence to Bondage
The final stage of the Tytler Cycle represents a reversion to bondage and powerlessness. Members of a civilization are fully dependent on the centralized government, and have little to no power, freedom, or liberty. In the United States, this is sadly represented by the explosion of the size and scope of the federal government in the past decade. During this ominous period, the national debt has reached more than $21 trillion. The federal government’s workforce is at an all-time high, not to mention the skyrocketing number of state and local public officials. Overregulation and complicated laws are forcing Americans into a state of perpetual compliance to the ever-growing creeds of government. The days of liberty have long passed us by: Now, the government can determine what foods we eat, what type of car we drive, and even what kind of lightbulb we use in our homes.
Bearing all of this in mind, there is still reason for hope. Although the United States is following the path of many powerful civilizations that eventually fell into decay, there is something fundamentally different about the United States: it is a constitutional federal republic. Power is shared between the states and the national government, and the Constitution guarantees that states remain sovereign, not beholden to the national government.
Although many argue that the national government has usurped states’ rights, the states have many mechanisms to restore their diminished power. For instance, the Supreme Court has recently made decisions in favor of a limited national government and increased state power. Following the Kavanaugh confirmation, this trend will likely continue into the foreseeable future. Additionally, Article V grants states the power to propose a constitutional amendment, such as the Balanced Budget Amendment, which is gaining momentum, or congressional term limits.
There are an infinite number of possibilities for what the United States will become, but hopefully the exceptional model of American democracy will survive well beyond the historic 200-year lifespan.
Chris Talgo and Emma Kaden are free-market editors and writers for The Henry Dearborn Institute for Liberty.