How Democracies Die

Inspired by a particular speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention, I have gone back to read the founding documents of the United States, starting with the Constitution.

Well, let me step back and give some context to this.

I am scheduled to teach a course in political philosophy, this fall, an assignment made both more interesting and more fraught with peril by the current political scene here in the U.S.

I will be modifying a course design I used a few years ago in which I introduced the students to three whole books: Locke’s Second Treatise, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Iris Young’s Inclusion and Democracy.

The question is: How are democracies supposed to work? More precisely, the interest is in whether and under what conditions democratic forms of government both work well and provide a legitimate basis for political authority. The three whole books correspond to three broad models of democratic government: liberal democracy, republican democracy, and deliberative democracy.

I was briefly tempted, though, to build the class around the question of how democracies die, often by their own hands. I would have started with Plato’s account of the degeneration of a republic, in which the transition from (mob-rule) democracy to tyranny is the final step. (Plato’s description of the soul of the tyrant might seem eerily familiar.) Then comes Aristotle, with his account that follows similar lines but is – as is the way with Aristotle – more grounded in what we would call political science.

I thought better of that as a basis for the design of my course, but I still carry it as a side interest, something I’m going to be paying attention to and on which I’ll be collecting source material.

So, to resume the main thread, I’ve been reading founding documents. My attention has just now turned to The Federalist Papers, which I have not read in quite some time. I sat down this morning and, right there in Federalist 1, are the following words (penned by Alexander Hamilton under the pseudonym Publius):

On the other hand, it will equally be forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interest can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficacy of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants. [emphasis added]

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll post additional quotations from various sources on the same topic.

One thought on “How Democracies Die

  1. “For the average person, all problems date to World War II; for the more informed, to World War I; for the genuine historian, to the French Revolution.” Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn


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