Any review of the argument for democracy as the best form of governance as a matter of tradition starts with Churchill’s citation in the House of Commons of the quote that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I oblige. Its popularity shows how wary many people have become of democracy. Gone is the faith of…
I was looking for a quote that I mis-placed on democracy and mediocrity, so I was Googling around, but I couldn’t find it! I did, however, find this excellent post on how democracy’s strength is its mediocrity, in that it produces stable outcomes, and isn’t likely to be overthrown in one fell swoop by a poorr autocrat– similar to the Book of Mormon’s argument: “For behold, how much iniquity doth one wicked king cause to be committed, yea, and what great destruction!”
Democracy as an incantation
In addition to the lost reference to democracy and mediocrity, I wanted to share two additional warnings about democracy that I was thinking about. The first comes from C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Proposes a Toast. Here, a devil in Hell, Screwtape, explains how democracy has been used to do a bit of mischief among mankind, one reason of which is a misunderstanding of equality:
You are to use the word [democracy] purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political idea that men should be equally treated. Yet then make a stealthy transition in their minds rom this political idea to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practice not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided.
The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.
It’s a short read, if you want to read the whole text elsewhere. Here’s the link on Goodreads.
The second risk in democracy is the rise of the demagogue, the speaker who rouses public opinion and gets a mass following through pretty-sounding promises and short one-liners. Instead of well thought-out arguments that bore the public, you get terrible ideas that make terrible policy. I was thinking of the amazing portrayal of a demagogue in The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough. In it, one elected leader of the people, Saturninus, works the crowd up into a fury over a grain shortage. Without grain, the poorest of the Roman people, the Head Count, were starving. This Saturninus takes advantage of this national emergecy to pose as a savior of his people:
Every one of the thousands of faces in the Forum turned to him as heliotropes in the sun; working himself into a passion through the force of his oratory, he began to believe every single face his eyes encountered in the crowd, he began to believe in a new way to govern Rome. What did the consulship really matter? What did the Senate really matter, when crowds like these made it shove its tail between its legs and slink home? When the bets were on the table and the moment to throw the dice arrived, they were all that mattered, these faces in the enormous crowd. They held the real power; those who thought they held it did so only as long as the faces in the crowd permitted it.
Demogogues and mob rule can result when public opinion becomes the sole measure of truth. As another character in the book explained, the crowd is “a gigantic yet very good-natured bull. When he comes to meet you because you have a bucket in your hand, all he’s interested in is the food he knows you’ve got in the bucket. But when he discovers the bucket is empty, he doesn’t turn in terrible rage to gore you. He just assumes you’ve hidden his food somewhere on your person, and crushes you to death looking for it without even noticing he’s turned you into pulp beneath his feet.”
Our politics are a little cleaner than in Rome’s day, but it has become just as driven by public opinion engineers pandering poorly thought-out politics.