A Critique of the Democratic Form of Governance

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In today's world, it is virtually taken for granted that democracy is the ideal form of governance for a nation: if any questions are raised, then they usually have to do with pragmatic questions of how to make democracy work, and not philosophical questions about whether democracy is a good thing in the first place. The present sample essay provided by Ultius, however, will develop a critique of the Democratic form of governance. The essay will begin with an overview of attacks on democracy in ancient and classical political thought. Then, it will turn to a consideration of how the Founding Fathers of the United States were themselves opposed to democracy. After this, the essay will turn to two case studies of what at least some commentators have called the failure of democracy in contemporary politics: the first consists of Brexit (the exit of Great Britain from the European Union), and the second consists of the rise of Donald Trump. Finally, the essay will critically reflect on the implications of this discussion for the future of modern politics. 

Ancient and Classical Thought

The oldest philosophical repudiation of democracy can probably be found in the thought of none other than Plato. This is how Korab-Karpowicz has summarized Plato's critique of democracy: "Firstly, although freedom for Plato is a true value, democracy involves the danger of excessive freedom, of doing as one likes, which leads to anarchy. Secondly, equality, related to the belief that everyone has the right and equal capacity to rule, brings to politics all kinds of power-seeking individuals, motivated by personal gain rather than public good" (section 5). From a modern perspective, Plato would surely be accused of elitism. His perspective, however, though, was that governance was a specialized skill that had wisdom as a prerequisite, and that the vast majority of people within his society were quite self-evidently not qualified to rule. Given this premise, it naturally follows that democracy would not be an ideal form of governance. Rather, the ideal would be a kind of enlightened aristocracy, in which the people who were truly qualified to look after the best interests of society would be the ones who were responsible for governing that society. From this perspective, the modern insistence on the equality of the people—when considered not as a kind of metaphysical equality before God, but rather equality in terms of actual wisdom or skill at governance—would be a false dogma pure and simple. 

The political philosopher Hobbes (who infamously said that life is nasty, brutish, and short) also opposed democracy, albeit on somewhat different grounds. As Christiano has written: "Hobbes argued that democracy is inferior to monarchy because democracy fosters destabilising dissension among subjects. . . . On his view, individual citizens and even politicians are apt not to have a sense of responsibility for the quality of legislation because no one makes a significant difference to the outcomes of decision making" (section 2.1.2). In other words, Hobbes's critique of democracy is what could be called instrumental in nature: he suggested that democracy simply would not work because this system of governance divorced responsibility from action, such that no one would be left who maintained a big picture of what society as a whole actually needed. When one looks at the deadlocks and apparent sheer incompetency of the people who have been elected to the American Congress today, it would perhaps be difficult to not sympathize at least in principle with the suggestion made by Hobbes here. Indeed, President Obama has been moved to make extraordinary uses of executive power for the sake of sheer efficiency in governance—just as Hobbes would have predicted long ago. 

The Founding Fathers

What may be surprising to many Americans today is that the Founding Fathers themselves were not in fact in favor of a democratic system of governance. They called instead for a republic; and in those times, the meaning of a republic was very different from the meaning of a democracy. As Adams has suggested, the Founding Fathers feared democracy, and "the fear had good basis. Our Founders were all knowledegable people, and all knew and discussed how all prior democracies ended in disastrous failures—one of the most well-known being that of Athens, Greece" (paragraph 2). On the basis of their historical awareness, then, the Founding Fathers had reason to believe that democracy would produce likewise catastrophic results for their own nation, for reasons similar to the ones written about by Plato and Hobbes long ago. In their call for a republic and not a democracy, the Founding Fathers were clearly advocating for a kind of filtering process in the system of governance. 

Likewise, as Dexter has stated: "True democracy is the tyranny of the majority. True democracy is mob rule. . . . The Founding Fathers worried about the tyranny of the majority and safeguarded against it," and "the Constitution works well by not allowing it to happen" (paragraphs 4 and 6). This is why the Founding Fathers established such an elaborate scheme of representation, as well as a system of checks and balances among the branches of the federal government itself. Properly speaking, none of these elements are democratic per se; rather, they could be understood as aristocratic checks on the menace presented by pure democracy. The Founding Fathers themselves were sophisticated and educated people. And as such, they had a natural suspicion for what would happen if people who were not like themselves were able to take direct control of the government. The Constitution was at least partially shaped by their conscious desire to not let this happen. 

Case Study 1: Brexit

One very recent example of the perils of democracy can be seen in the issue of Brexit—that is, in the popular referendum in Great Britain that produced a vote in favor of Great Britain leaving the European Union. This was a major policy decision that would have huge repercussions for Great Britain, Europe, and the whole world; and it was left in the direct hands of the people, through the mechanism of the referendum. Many commentators, like Roche, have suggested that "the recent Brexit vote exposed the extraordinary failure and danger of pure democracy. . . . Referendums such as the Brexit are a glaring example of how dangerous and flawed the idea of a pure democracy can be" (paragraph 1). The main idea here is that the people who were given the responsibility of determining the future of Great Britain in this way could not have possibly known the complexities of policy underlying the choice at hand, or the great array of serious consequences that would follow from the decision. 

The referendum mechanism eliminated any kind of filtering in governance whatsoever and made the Brexit decision a purely democratic one; but from a political and economic angle, this was probably a very bad and regressive idea. In particular, it would seem that many voters may have been motivated by a desire to simply take revenge on the powers that be and to reverse what they perceived to be the course of history, without any further serious reflection on the moral or political implications of the decision that they were making (see Beinhocker). Of course, proponents of democracy would suggest that the people were able to truly speak, and that this is what actually mattered. However, the deeper question that is left unasked here is whether the people are always wise, or whether the people always do what would be most likely to produce long-range morally optimal outcomes. The critique of democracy is premised on negative answers to both of these questions. 

Case Study 2: Trump

A second contemporary case of the perils of democracy can be seen in the rise of Trump within the United States. However one may or may not personally feel about Trump, it would seem to be a matter of objective fact that he has made the United States, and its form of governance, a laughingstock in the eyes of many other nations. China would be a good case in point of this. As Phillips has reported: Trump, "for China's authoritarian rulers, has become the latest example of how allowing the masses a say in choosing their leaders is a bad idea. 'The rise of a racist in the US political arena worries the whole world,' the party-controlled Global Times crowed" (paragraphs 3-4). Comparisons have also been made to how dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler also came to power with widespread popular electoral support. In short, to any enemy of Trump, his rise within the United States would seem to be almost emblematic of why democracy is a problematic form of governance. 

Moreover, this phenomenon would seem to confirm the worst fears of Plato, Hobbes, and the Founding Fathers that democracy would produce a form of governance in which wisdom becomes completely dissociated from power. It has become a commonplace by now to suggest that Trump has little regard for objective facts, or for the political expertise that would be needed in order to actually govern the United States in an effective way. Rather, it would seem that a large number of Americans are simply very angry with the powers that be, and that they are using Trump as a vehicle through which they can express their resentment. While this may be justifiable in and of itself as a strictly psychological level, it says nothing about whether this is how a nation as powerful as the United States really ought to be run. In fact, the idea that the political process here could become this divorced from the value of wisdom could from a certain angle only be called frightening. 

Critical Reflection 

In summary, the present essay has consisted of a critique of the democratic form of governance, beginning with philosophical critiques over time and then turning to actual contemporary case studies that would seem to justify these old fears. In this context, one of two main conclusions could be drawn. The first is that contemporary times have seen a breakdown of democracy, and that this is a problem that must be fixed if democracy is to thrive in the future. The second, more disconcerting one, though, is that these are the problems that are inherent in the very nature of democracy itself, and that the problem consists not so much of the breakdown of democracy as such but rather of the failure of aristocratic checks on democratic governance. The latter conclusion, while the more impolite one, would seem to the one that is justified on the basis of the philosophical concerns that many political thinkers over time, including the Founding Fathers, have had regarding the nature of democracy. 

It would seem that democracy today, far from empowering and ennobling the people, has simply become a vehicle through which people are able to express their basest instincts and resentments (see Brennan). It is difficult to say what could be done about this; but at the very least, the suggestion can be made that widespread improvements in public education is a must. Although it is a perhaps a cliche by now, it is worth stating again that the democratic form of governance has always been premised on a citizenry that can take moral responsibility for its decisions and engage in decision-making in a way that is congruent with the principle of reason and the value of wisdom. Insofar as this premise does not hold, it would seem that Plato was correct in believing that most people do not have the specialized skills that are needed for the effective practice of governance, and that democracy must thus be substantially checked if it is to be prevented from destroying itself.

Works Cited

Adams, O. R., Jr. "Why Our Founding Fathers Feared Democracy." Author, 2008. Web. 1 Jul. 2016. <http://www.americantraditions.org/Articles/Why%20Our%20Founders%20Feared%20a%20Democracy.htm>. 

Beinhocker, Eric. "The Psychology of Voting to Leave the EU." The Atlantic 29 Jun. 2016. Web. 1 Jul. 2016. <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/06/brexit-voters-self- interest/489350/>. 

Brennan, Jason. Against Democracy. Princeton: Princeton U P, 2016. Print. 

Christiano, Tom. "Democracy." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Web. 1 Jul. 2016. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/>. 

Dexter, Carol. "Our Founding Fathers Wanted a Republic, Not a Democracy." The Union. 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 1 Jul. 2016. <http://www.theunion.com/opinion/7699648-113/democracy-majority-fathers-founding>. 

Korab-Karpowicz, W. J. "Plato: Political Philosophy." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d. Web. 1 Jul. 2016. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/platopol/>. 

Phillips, Tom. "Democracy Is a Joke, Says China—Just Look at Trump." Guardian. 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 1 Jul. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/us- news/2016/mar/17/democracy-is-a-joke-says-china-just-look-at-donald-trump>. 

Roche, Cullen. "Brexit and the Failure of Democracy." Pragmatic Capitalism. n.d. Web. 1 Jul. 2016. <http://www.pragcap.com/brexit-and-the-failure-of-democracy/>.