“Democracy,” according to the masses at Wikipedia, “is a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy allows eligible citizens to participate equally — either directly or through elected representatives — in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. It encompasses social, economic and cultural conditions that enable the free and equal practice of political self-determination.” This is more or less the standard portrayal of democracy, one that most Americans (at least those who spend much time pondering these sorts of issues) would accept as true. Half of this definition is unqualified gibberish and the other half, while true, is a decidedly dangerous truth. For starters, “democracy,” as embedded in our national consciousness, functions under an array of fictions.
No, “democracy” is not interchangeable or synonymous with the ideas of “freedom” or “liberalism.”
No, majoritarian rule is not inherently more moral, or more useful, or more virtuous than the decisions of one person or of a minority.
No, democracy does not give us equal say in the decisions that affect our lives, as Wikipedia would have it. The more democracy grows, the less say we have, actually.
No, the opposite of democracy is not tyranny; in fact, as America’s Founders knew, democracy itself can be tyrannical, which is why the Constitution has safeguards against it at every turn.
No, democracy doesn’t always temper extremism (it can fan it) or create transparency.
Democracy doesn’t preserve or expand cultural or intellectual diversity, as its very purpose is to run the state with widespread conformity.
Democracy isn’t a counterweight to the concentrated powers of the elites. As the Greeks knew, democracies often fall prey to demagogues. Elites routinely manipulate democracies, because it’s not hard to manipulate a crowd.
No, democracy doesn’t create economic and cultural freedom; it’s more often the other way around.
Actually, democracy is, by any reasonable standard, the most overrated, overused, overvalued, and misunderstood idea in political life. We have way too much of it. We think way too much of it. These days, an honest observer of Washington politics must concede that democracy has made our government irrational, invasive, and irresponsible. It has offered the American people two methods of governance: majoritarian domination or complete dysfunction (though many in Washington confuse healthy gridlock and unhealthy dysfunction).
It deals in corrupt incentives, encourages a mob mentality, and in the process undermines the virtues that sustain a healthy republic. It has left a large traditionalist minority — those most wedded to America’s founding, constitutional ideals — dispirited, as they see their country apparently hijacked by a new revolutionary majority. It has put all fifty states, once marginally independent, at the mercy of an ever-growing centralized government in Washington, resting on national majority rule that dictates everything from healthcare policy to education policy. And when a national majority, through the power of the federal government, can overrule majorities in the several states or in localities, it is no wonder that many people feel powerless, because national majoritarian decisions cannot take into account endlessly varied local conditions, contexts, and information.
National democracy encourages us to be lazy, to do less thinking, to accept bumper sticker slogans as policy, to be less individualistic and less educated about the world around us, and it encourages others to take advantage of our lethargy; it allows the most powerful to abuse that power. Yet in America today it is considered a truism that democracy is the supreme form of government. Questioning democracy’s pristine moral standing will get you labeled an imperialist, monarchist, fascist, or worse (if you can imagine such a thing). Though oddly enough there is increasing suspicion, against our own democratic instincts and prejudices, that maybe democracy is not the best export, after all, to the Arab or Islamic worlds. Maybe it is not a universal panacea.
Today, we are moving away from a diffused representative republic. When liberals crusade to dismantle the electoral college or scoff at states’ rights or prohibit Senate filibusters, they are fighting for a more centralized democracy in which liberty becomes susceptible to the fleeting whims of the majority, who can determine what your healthcare looks like, what your children should be taught, and what marriage should be. Is that really any of their business?
Excerpted from The People Have Spoken (And They Are Wrong) by David Harsanyi.