Today, there is no word in political discourse that is held in higher esteem than democracy. To describe an institution as democratic is to, in effect, call it good. The terms are so synonymous that numerous Republican talking heads insist on calling the Democratic Party the “Democrat Party”. Many political observers have placed the pure democratic society at the apogee of modern civilization. But is democracy superior to every other form of government?
Any tyrant of the past would envy the power of modern states to tax, regulate, inspect, and control their populations, which are now more submissive than at any point in Western history. Individuals often assume the ever-increasing intervention of the state to be a function of the complexity of modern life, or they believe that our present situation is a step in the culmination of inevitable historical events on the road to Progress. The mechanism animating this evolution of the state’s role in society, however, seems unduly neglected.
Certain beliefs have a determining influence on the type and capacity of the state that exists in a democratic regime. Foundational among these are that, by forming a social contract managed through a legislature, the people check and authorize the power of the state. Assuming that sovereignty is derived consensually from “the people” has the implication of fusing the state and the nation into one entity, making the “will of the people” the will of the state.
Unfortunately, rather than checking the power of the State, this theory is used to justify whatever the state wishes to do. Institutions such as constitutions, supreme courts and parliamentary bodies were initially designed to curb state power, but over time have come to act as stamps of legitimacy for the state’s decrees. Wrapped in the people’s will, the state perverts the original intention of deriving sovereignty from the people, and as the actuator of the collective, it now exercises powers it otherwise could not.
Tyranny is laid bare under monarchy: “I rule and you are ruled.” Subjects took note of the violent nature of their monarch’s rule and were far less tolerant of his shenanigans. This is at odds with the standard narrative supporting democracy, but the old kings of Europe could not fathom the power of modern states. Taxation was very limited and not accepted on a permanent basis until the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries. The American colonies rebelled and fought the British monarchy over relatively minuscule taxation.
However, within two decades, Americans were enduring far greater taxation, as well as the Alien and Sedition Acts, with little to no resistance. Conscription was not a viable option to the state before the democratizing force of the French Revolution rattled Europe to the core. The rabble would have taken the king’s head long before he got close to siphoning off 50% of their incomes.
Since the people supposedly rule themselves in a democracy, any type of tyranny would be a tyranny of the people, by the people. It is considerably easier to enact government policies if your subjects believe they are in control rather than a tyrant handing down arbitrary edicts.
Democracy, for the modern state apparatus, was a necessary evolution in its conquest of society, as older theories of legitimacy would not allow for the degree of domination that government sought. The populous was thus elevated from subjects to citizens and sold the illusion that they were the state and ruled themselves.
Some may raise objections against this characterization of democracy as simply an aspersion, citing the fact that people can vote for the candidate of their choice. However, when choosing a candidate, many people become frustrated with the lack of diverse options. For instance, if you oppose war and abortion, for whom should you vote?
Additionally, voting is not sufficient to establish consent; the state will still exist whether you vote or not. Simply granting someone the chance to choose their ruler (that is, if their candidate wins) does not justify another ruling over them in the first place.
Moreover, elected officials in democracies do not possess the incentives to create responsible or even sane policies. If someone handed you the keys to a house and said “Here, use this house for the next 2 years, with no responsibility for its condition when you leave,” it would be safe to assume that you may not treat that house as if you own it.
Democracy dominates modern politics. It informs policy decisions, legitimates the state and is the backdrop to all political discussion. Nations fight wars on its behalf and schools instruct children to revere it.
Yet, for such a sacred province, society sanctions democracy with disturbingly little examination. An assumption of the superiority of democracy creates intellectual complacency and results in a nearly religious belief in democracy. It is troubling that our entire political superstructure rests exclusively on childhood socialization and that the rigor of justifications for democracy’s preeminence can be fairly described as lacking.
If democracy is to be the focus and end goal of politics, it seems prudent enough to have a discourse in support of such a determination. If armies fight, revolutions upturn society and reforms are to be pursued in democracy’s name, emotional appeals and unsupported conflations of freedom and ballot casting should not be considered sufficient argumentation. The deification of majority rule requires less faith in democratic mysticism and more reason.