Can Humans Rule Themselves?


Democracy Under Threat

Annabel Beerel
October 23, 2021

The question whether democracy is under threat is headline news. A brief sweep of the many troubled spots on the globe would seem to indicate that the tide toward democracy has indeed faltered. If anything, there is a greater move towards autocracy and fascism.

Political scientist, Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man, that celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall by claiming that liberal democracy has triumphed, was a perhaps little hasty. While democracy might suffer setbacks from time to time, he insists that it will prevail in the long term. Since we can only talk about now, as in the long term we won’t be here, it appears that now is one of those times of major setback.

After the contentious US election, several surveys reflect that the majority (56% according to CNN), of both republicans and democrats, believe that democracy is under threat, each group for their own reasons. In an already highly polarized country, what will this portend for its increasingly fragile democratic system?

Democracy emerged as a form of government in Athens during the 5th century where it existed for almost 100 years until, in 404 BC, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War to the Spartans. Thereafter, for a brief period, it was ruled by the Thirty Tyrants, who were soon driven out, and democracy was restored.

In 5th century Athens, citizenship was a privilege accorded solely to male born Athenians. Women and slaves – of which there were many – had no citizenship rights at all. In this selective democracy, everyone was expected to play some role in the political life of the polis. The election of officials was based on the random drawing of lots and no person could serve in an elected position more than twice. Citizens could exercise freedom of speech, however there was subtle (and not so subtle) pressure to support consensus and collective goals. The ordinary citizen had equal access to political power whether they were rich or poor, educated, or uneducated, and demagoguery flourished.

Despite this highly participatory process, it was not without its critics, of which Plato was one. He believed that democracy relegated governing to the foolhardiness of ordinary citizens who, he claimed, were readily swayed by public opinion rather than knowledge. He claimed that democracy made way for mendacious orators who, fired up with rhetoric, would tell the citizen what he or she wanted to hear, rather than what they needed to hear.

Democracy, he argued, invariably devolved into the tyranny of the majority comprised of the impoverished, ignorant, uneducated, and undisciplined. In effect democracy, he held, redounds to mob rule.

Within a few generations, after democracy was restored in Athens, and as predicted by Aristotle – another Greek philosopher who had much to say on governance under various regimes – it slowly morphed into an oligarchy; oligarchy being rule by the wealthy focused on their own self-interests.

The idea of democracy as a form of government did not surface in any active manner again until the eve of the French revolution symbolized by the fall of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789. Inspired by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the orator Maximilian Robespierre’s impassioned cry for liberté, fraternité et égalité, the constitutional monarchy was overthrown in a bloody coup 1792, and democracy was held up to be the collective goal. A one-party state was created as a transitional dictatorship as a precursor to the creation of a democratic constitution. This was not created without conflict as there was contention around whether there was sufficient protection of individual liberties, along with objections to the idea of a representative democracy. In 1804, Napoleon put an end to the French democratic experiment, when he declared himself emperor.

The 2010 revolutions known as the Arab Spring, were also driven by demands for democracy, free elections, economic freedom, and human rights. These uprisings brought minimal progress. Within a relative short period, autocracy, military rule, corruption, and divisive factions reasserted themselves. While many governments call themselves republics or representative democracies, in effect equality, transparency and citizen empowerment varies.

America lauds itself as the world’s premier model of democracy, yet even it does not meet some of democracy’s basic tenets. As the pandemic highlighted, the human rights of all citizens are in no way protected, and recent laws passed in some states are designed to deny certain citizen groups their electoral rights. Another reality is that the percentage of eligible voters is currently lower than it was in the mid-nineteenth century. And the men of virtue and talent who are tasked with governing on behalf of all with dispassionate regard for the common good, according to one of the Founding Fathers, John Adams, are the wealthy, self-interested oligarchs with close ties to Wall Street. As James Miller writes in Can Democracy Work? (2018), democracy in the US is a sham. It is a shared faith rather than an actuality.

Let us return to Plato’s critique: Can humans rule themselves? And is democracy the best form of government?

We might begin with the question as to whether Americans, or citizens of any country for that matter, have a unified understanding of what a (or their) democracy entails, and whether they can they agree on a unifying vision that transcends the demands for liberalism (protection of individual rights), protects minorities, has a legislative due process not subject to political pressures, and an open and fair electoral process which does not suppress certain votes or voters.

We might then query as to whether individuals are readily committed to become educated and informed of societal issues by a press that is not driven by the bottom line, but that can truly report the news with accuracy and transparency. Can the average citizen ignore the misinformation and disinformation propagated by the social media channels, and are they prepared to actively participate in government and not declare all politicians corrupt yet hope in vain they will fix the problems that they do not want to be bothered with? Will people change their priorities and reassign their harried, market-driven day, which always has time for Facebook posts, and become actively involved in governing – their schools, their states, and their nations?

Can, or rather will, the ordinary person in the street be personally mobilized to advance social justice? Or will the current idea that the poor and homeless should be supported, racism should be decried, the minimum wage is a disgrace, and hopefully someone will address all of this with the minimum inconvenience, prevail?

Was Plato perhaps, right? We cannot really be bothered to govern ourselves, as it takes work and personal accountability. Any effort at self-governance – note the financial and energy sectors and now technology, has failed abysmally.

Are we prepared to reconcile our competing claims and find that unifying vision for where we consent to compromise in the interests of overall harmony and wellbeing? Isn’t it perhaps easier to hand the whole matter to someone else, who we can support, or when our interests are not served, rail against? And once we overthrow this regime, the new demagogs will step in and we will cede our power to the next Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, or Trump…until that does not suit us anymore, and some disenfranchised group will rise again and cry for liberty, egality and fraternity.
As the great John Adams warned, “there never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Is that where our democracy is headed?