Democracy Dies in Darkness

Outlook | Perspective

Five myths about democracy

No, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee liberty.

September 7, 2018 at 3:39 PM

Government by the people is not always well-understood. (John Minchillo/AP)

“Democracy” has taken different forms throughout history. In ancient Athens, it was a closed, self-governing community of citizens; in 1790s France, it involved an expansive assertion of popular sovereignty via armed uprisings. For many Americans, democracy suggests self-reliant individuals living under a limited government; for 19th-century European social democrats, it entailed a struggle for social and economic justice that expanded the role of government. After World War II, democracy emerged as a universal aspiration, memorialized in Article 21 of the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” Virtually every political regime today claims to embody some form of democracy — and its diverse proponents, and its critics, have propagated many myths about it. Here are five.

Myth No. 1

The United States revived
and perfected democracy.

In “Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy,” Robert H. Wiebe calls democracy America’s “most significant contribution to world history.” President Trump, in his first State of the Union address, described the country at its founding as “home to an incredible people with a revolutionary idea: that they could rule themselves. That they could chart their own destiny. And that, together, they could light up the world.”

Yet most of America’s founders abhorred democracy as a form of government. They hoped to create what John Adams called a “natural aristocracy,” comprising men of virtue and talent who would govern on behalf of all. In one letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams expressed his wariness of the “stupidity” of the “numerous multitude.” Alexander Hamilton, in a speech to New York’s constitutional ratifying convention, said that pure democracy “never possessed one feature of good government.” That’s why the Constitution set up American government with so many explicitly anti-democratic elements, such as the electoral college, an equal number of senators for each state and indirect election of senators by members of state legislatures, creating, in effect, an American House of Lords.

The democratic ideal in the United States emerged only gradually. The right to vote, for Americans of any “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” wasn’t recognized until the 15th Amendment’s ratification. Women gained the franchise after the 19th Amendment’s ratification. Populist President Andrew Jackson agitated, without success, for the abolition of the electoral college. Only after the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913 did each state’s two senators become “elected by the people thereof.” Disproportionate representation and the electoral college remain in place, though, resulting most recently in Trump’s 2016 election despite his losing the popular vote.

Myth No. 2

Democracy is about
electing representatives.

In 2004, Stanford political scientist Larry Diamond defined democracy in terms familiar to most Americans. Among other things, it is “a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections.” This view is echoed whenever an election rolls around. As one local paper’s editorial board wrote last year, “Democracy depends on citizens voting.” In Australia, voting is compulsory.

But this isn’t the only way to ensure the people’s input. Ancient Athens selected almost all significant officials not by voting but randomly, by drawing lots. This is how we select juries today, for the same reason: It nullifies the advantages of the wealthy and well-known, and it means a political order in which citizens engage in public life on equal terms, ratifying Aristotle’s conclusion that “from one point of view governors and governed are identical.” As Montesquieu wrote, “The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice is to aristocracy.”

Myth No. 3

Democracy is a
guarantor of liberty.

A section of the U.N. website titled “Democracy: Overview” says that democracy “provides an environment for the protection and effective realization of human rights.” In their recent best-selling study, “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt take for granted that democracy includes an assortment of what they call “guardrails” that protect minorities and check the rise of authoritarians. Democracy ensures “broad protection of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, and association,” as Levitsky and Lucan A. Way outline in “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War.”

Not necessarily. The first Protestant champions of popular sovereignty, an idea embraced by the French Huguenots and English Puritans that would become central to modern democratic thinking, summoned the power of the people for the purpose of dethroning rulers with whose religious views they disagreed. As historian Edmund S. Morgan writes, “It was not religious liberty they sought, but the elimination of wrong religions.”

And democratically elected governments can produce illiberal policies: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was democratically elected, but he has sought to stifle critics, including a senator who hasn’t left the nation’s Senate building after being threatened with arrest by Duterte over decade-old allegations of coup attempts. Last year, the Hungarian parliament revised a law reportedly to facilitate the shuttering of Central European University, whose founder, billionaire George Soros, and curriculum are political foils of the ruling party of authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Myth No. 4

Democracy is
inherently pluralistic.

In 2015, President Barack Obama used the phrase “That’s not who we are as Americans” to rebut then-candidate Donald Trump’s immigration proposals. It was a phrase he deployed routinely to push back on views he saw as exclusionary. His framing was consistent with Americans’ popular descriptions of their country as a “nation of immigrants” and a “melting pot.”

Still, history is rich with democracies that excluded minority groups or reduced them to second-class citizenship. In Athens, women, foreigners and enslaved people couldn’t become citizens. In the United States, of course, slavery was legal until the end of the Civil War; segregation was legal until the middle of the 20th century. The 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts placed discriminatory limits on who could become a citizen; the Constitution referred to American Indian nations in the same context as foreign countries.

To this day, some advocates of democracy argue that robust forms of self-rule require the exclusion of foreigners. In Italy, the recently elected deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, has said he plans to expel members of the country’s Roma minority who don’t have Italian citizenship, stereotyping Roma as people who “live in total lawlessness .” Former White House adviser Stephen Bannon has blamed immigration for undermining American living standards, calling it “the beating heart of the problem.”

Myth No. 5

Democracy
will triumph.

“A great democratic revolution is going on amongst us,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise of Jacksonian democracy in America. Tocqueville was one of the first in a long line of modern writers who have posited that democracy, in some sense, represents a logical culmination of human affairs. For Francis Fukuyama, writing in 1989, liberal democracy marked “the end of history.” Fukuyama predicted that the triumph of a liberal form of democracy would be so complete that a potential threat to its survival might be the “prospect of centuries of boredom,” which would then “serve to get history started once again.”

But history hasn’t quite evolved in the way these theorists expected. In many nations that flirted with or even embraced democracy, democratic norms have crumbled. Poland, after a backlash against an unusually progressive government in the 2000s, has drifted in an illiberal direction: Last year, President Andrzej Duda signed a law meant to pack the country’s judiciary with judges friendly to the party in power, a move that has contributed to strained relations between Poland and better-established democratic governments in the European Union. After decades of military rule in Egypt, Arab Spring protesters brought down Hosni Mubarak, and voters chose Mohamed Morsi to lead their country. But Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi and the military seized control again in 2013, and even democratic governments around the world, such as ours, have supported him.

Still, nearly every modern regime pays at least lip service to democracy. President Vladimir Putin and his supporters have long declared Russia a “sovereign democracy.” Even North Korea, one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world, if not the most, calls itself a “Democratic People’s Republic.”

Twitter: @docjmilleriii

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow our updates on Facebook and Twitter.


James Miller is a professor of politics at the New School for Social Research and author of “Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World.”

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