Democracy and the Left

April 1st, 2010

By Brianna Aubin

Has anyone else noticed the liberal left’s longstanding love affair with democracy?

The common name for the more moderate European lefties (as opposed to the open communists and socialists) is “Social Democrats,” and their preferred form of government is referred to as the “social democratic” welfare state.

Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez is on record as promoting “participatory democracy,” even as he also promotes things like the “Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television,” which is basically Orwellian double-speak designed to ram through the government’s right to censor news media critical of the state.

Britain’s Fabian Society, an openly socialist organization which believes in attaining socialist policy through gradual rather than revolutionary change, participated in the founding of Britain’s Labour Party, whose leader is Britain’s current prime minister.

Castro was and is a vehement defender of democracy, even as he helped to turn Cuba into a country where “being able to leave your homeland utterly penniless and with the clothes on your back for an uncertain future in a foreign country was (and is today) considered the equivalent of winning the lottery (Humberto Fontova, Exposing the Real Che Guevara.)”

Even the hard-core Communists could often be found supporting some form of “democracy;” Mao advocated something called “New Democracy” as a stepping stone to a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and the USSR’s workers’ councils were supposed to represent the “democratic will of the working class.”

Contrast these views with the Founding Fathers’ opinion of democracy:

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” — Benjamin Franklin

“When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” — Benjamin Franklin

“Real liberty is never found in despotism or in the extremes of democracy…. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” — Alexander Hamilton

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49%.” — Thomas Jefferson

“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their death.” — James Madison

“The experience of all former ages had shown that of all human governments, democracy was the most unstable, fluctuating and short-lived.” — John Quincy Adams

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” — Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy is the right of the people to choose their own tyrant.” — James Madison

“Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state–it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.” — John Witherspoon

“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” — John Adams

The change in direction is a complete 180 degrees for a simple reason: the Founders did not need to read the details of the Communist Manifesto to realize that unlimited democracy was, as Marx so baldly put it, “the road to socialism,” and thus to tyranny.  The modern left, on the other hand, despite the 100 million dead and the warnings of numerous dissidents and defectors, still seem unable to recognize that the only reason so many prominent communists and socialists throughout history have promoted liberalism and democracy is because it makes a handy cloak for their utterly illiberal, completely undemocratic policies.

In his book On Democracy,* Robert Dahl attacked the idea that there was any difference between a democracy and a republic, arguing that “the words democracy and republic did not designate differences in types of popular government.  What they reflected was a difference between Greek and Latin, the languages from which they came.”   He also claimed that “the correct answer was obfuscated by James Madison in 1787 in an influential paper he wrote to win support for the newly proposed American constitution.  One of the principal architects of that constitution and a statesman exceptionally well informed in the political science of his time, Madison distinguished between ‘a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person,” and a “republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place.'”

Personally, I would argue that Dahl is half-correct: while the Romans may indeed have come to describe their government as a “republic” through corruption of language rather than a distinction of process, the fact remains that whatever one chooses to call it, the Roman Senate did indeed work through a different process than the Athenian democracy.  Madison may well have perpetuated and solidified that corruption (I would argue a change) of language when he emphasized this difference in the Federalist Papers, but the fact remains that  he was still correct to point out that distinction to the People of the State of New York — just as defenders of the republic today are right to point it out to the modern left.

*Thanks to Jane Thomas for pointing me toward this source.


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10 Responses to “Democracy and the Left”



  1. larry |

    Democracy is at best a poor form of government but when compared to all the others it is so much better.
    I don’t as a rule entertain any open mindedness when comparing our form of govenment to any other . It’s true that ours is oft times abused and distorted but that doesn’t change the basic concept spelled out in the Constitution and Bill Of Rights. To allow any deviation from the concept is opening the door to tyranny.


  2. Tom |

    Brianna, I couldn’t help but read with a smile. It’s not that I don’t take the topic seriously — I do. But after years and years of academic work and a couple of degrees in politics, government, and history, plus far more personal reading in those areas, it all just sounds so familiar. I couldn’t count the number of discussions I’ve listened to about the “democracy vs. republic” question, in settings from academic seminars to local bars.

    In the first place, a lot depends on what one thinks the terms mean, way back then and now. It’s also interesting that the people talking about this are often using different definitions and understandings of the terms, and they don’t seem to realize it. But more importantly, at the end of these discussions, I’m always left saying (or thinking), “And … so?”

    Let’s think it through to a logical end. Let’s say we have a national referendum (there’s no such thing in the U.S., but never mind) that puts the question to the people: Is the U.S. a republic or a democracy? If 50+ percent say it’s a republic, what’s the next step? Or, if 50+ percent say it’s a democracy, what’s the next step? There isn’t one — it leads nowhere.

    We’ve all seen them — signs and billboards that say things like, “This is a republic, not a democracy. Let’s keep it that way.” Two things are certain about those signs. First, they’re put up by conservative or far-right groups. Second, if you sat them down and had a serious discussion, you’d end up going around and around and getting nowhere. Then, after calling you a socialist, they’d stomp off in a huff.


  3. Brianna |

    I realize that the terms “constitutional republic”, “representative democracy,” and plain old “democracy” are often used interchangeably. In the normal run of things, I don’t think that’s a very big deal. But I think that it’s an important point to make that not only do we NOT live in a straight-out majority-rule society, but we SHOULDN’T live in one. A system of inalienable rights is fundamentally incompatible with a system that allows people to vote away those rights, which makes the distinction between a democracy and a republic an important one to keep in mind when discussing the nature of our government.


  4. Jane Thomas |

    Brianna,

    I love this discussion. I just have two questions: (1) you said “the Roman Senate did indeed work through a different process than the Athenian democracy”. How did they differ? (2) if a right is “inalienable” how can it be voted away?

    Jane


  5. Brianna |

    1) As far as I’m aware, the actual procedures of the Senate weren’t that different from those of the Athenian democracy. The difference was rather that Rome was goverened by elected officials, whereas Athens was a direct democracy where all the citizens (or at least, all of the citizens who qualified as such) had a direct voice in their government.

    2) Just because a right is considered to be inalienable (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) doesn’t mean that you can’t be deprived of it through the actions of others. Prisoners, for example, are deprived of their rights by government as punishment for the fact that the prisoner in some way deprived one or more of their fellow citizens of their rights. But as it pertains to government taking away the rights of the people, let’s say that we didn’t have the Bill of Rights, and the government decided to introduce a referendum banning “hate speech.” Uncontrolled speech is considered an inalienable right because it’s one of the strongest bulwarks against tyranny, but if >50% of the population voted in favor of the referendum, there would go your inalienable right as it became subject to government persecution. Or say that a country without a Bill of Rights, like… oh, I don’t know, Canada, decided to set up something like a “Human Rights Commission” to investigate complaints of “offensive speech” which protected groups such as Muslims used to get at people who did things they didn’t like, such as print cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed. Just to list a completely random, imaginary, could-never-ever-happen example.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzVJTHIvqw8

    One of the reasons our government is different from a complete democracy is because we have a list of things that we agreed would never, ever be subject to a vote (such as the Bill of Rights), because just as scientific truth is not determined by consensus, neither is a person’s fundamental rights. Congress isn’t able to restrict those, because they don’t come from Congress or government. Just as gravity was not invented by Newton, but rather defined by him, the Bill of Rights does not grant us our rights per se, but rather defines and enumerates some of the most important as a sort of “line in the sand,” a “thou shalt not.” That’s the reason for the 9th amendment, to remind government that just because a right’s not on the list, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.


  6. larry |

    Brianna,Jane,Tom
    Brianna wrote[That’s the reason for the 9th amendment, to remind government that just because a right’s not on the list, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.]

    Is this then proof that the health care can be argued to be a right even though it was not named in the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights.

    The Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.


  7. Tom |

    Brianna, I think your last comment pretty much made the point that the system of government in the U.S., whatever word you wish to use to describe it, is the most effective guardian of inalienable (or natural) rights that’s ever been devised. The fact is, those rights can be taken away, and they routinely are all over the world. In the U.S. a simple majority couldn’t eliminate or unreasonably restrict natural rights. It would take a long process involving supermajorities to amend the Constitution — it couldn’t happen any other way and is highly unlikely to ever be done. In fact, in the normal course of events we bend over backwards to closely examine anything that might even resemble a denial of those rights. That’s what almost all the landmark Supreme Court cases are about.

    So, what we have is a democratic republic, or a republican democracy, or a constitutional republic operating under democratic principles, or whatever. No matter how you parse the terms, our government is what it is, thankfully.


  8. Blogarilla |

    Nice Blog, I Digg it. A bit pedantic for my taste but I really do like it nevertheless. Nice job.
    Permit me an observation of a more practical nature – those who wrote the constitution owned slaves, used terrorism, overthrew their government, had lice, practiced blood letting, and (most important of all) have all been dead for 200 years.
    Sorry, I just felt a need to move the needle back to “human” just a bit.
    Exactly how relevant are the words democracy, republic, socialism, etc, since what they mean changes with each generation.
    Don’t get me wrong, I love my country, I revere the constitution. I just don’t read it as “holy writ”. I read it as law.
    And I don’t worship the founding fathers. I admire thier work. Period.
    Today is today, the past is the past.
    The future, now there’s an interesting and relevant subject.
    Ugh,
    The Gorilla
    .


  9. Brianna |

    “Is this then proof that the health care can be argued to be a right even though it was not named in the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights.”

    A right is something you are born with, or something you acquire (right to your property). You do not have an intrinsic right to a good or service, because to give a person such a “right” is to deprive the provider of that good or service of their own rights. Theft, however well-intended, is not a right.


  10. Brianna |

    Also, the 10th amendment reserves any powers not expressly given to the Federal government by the Constitution to be reserved for the States and the people. Since the constitution doesn’t mention health care, it is impossible to argue that the Federal government has a duty to provide it (without resorting to incredibly convoluted and idiotic reasoning as “commerce clause” anyway), since it would then fall under the list of powers “reserved to the states and the people.”

    As a side note, while this means that states like Massachusetts do have the right to set up some sort of state system, the fact that Massachusetts premiums are more costly than any other state in the Union, the program was forced to cut benefits (aka rationing) and raise taxes, and the basic solvency of the program is in serious doubt should perhaps have given our elected representatives pause before setting up a national system so similar to the Massachusetts plan.

    http://dailycaller.com/2010/01/10/massachusetts-health-program-a-model-for-obamas-national-reform-strains-state-budget/


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