Schools have long taught that the American government was the model of that perfect democracy. That, however, has not stopped existing democracies from falling into tight-handed dictatorships. What has gone wrong? What is different from the American model? …
A year ago, Western commentators trumpeted the “triumph of Democracy” in the Arab countries. And a few years before that, Western commentators championed the “liberal rising” in Iran of those who opposed the newly-elected Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The few countries still adhering to non-democratic rule (North Korea, China, Cuba, etc.) are branded as backward countries which violate civil rights and liberties (which many do).
It has become generally-accepted truth that Democratic government is the best (optimus) form of government, and Democracy the best socio-political structure. Schools have long taught that the American government was the model of that perfect democracy. That, however, has not stopped existing democracies from falling into tight-handed dictatorships. What has gone wrong? What is different from the American model?
This article seeks to prove that the democratic structure is adherently flawed, as it causes imbalance between the classes, and vests the civilian office of the President with the potential powers of a democratic king. It will also seek to prove that America serves as an exception because it never had a king throughout its history.
Democracy in General
Democracy, in its most general of definitions, is the rule of the people. This is a broad meaning, and is usually expressed in freedoms: “freedoms from…” and “freedoms to…”.
Democratic governments adhere to a liberal constitution, which define the structure of their government, and the rights given to a citizen. Later, the Republican model was adopted by democratic governments; power was diffused into three equal branches of government—the executor of laws, the judge of laws, and the maker of laws. The executor of laws administers the land, but is limited to the terms of the law. The judge makes rulings between parties based on the written law. The lawmaker, of course, makes the law.
Democracy is primarily a Western concept. Many attribute it to the Greeks, though the Greeks themselves were ruled by autocrats. (Athens is often the popular example of the Greek democracy). The ancient world, however, finds democratic government as foreign to them. It is not present in the discussions of government in Chinese texts. The Persians ruled in a feudal system of kings and lords. African mythologies and texts speak of the power of the king, and Mayans have empires and kings. Democracy evolved over time, first as subject of intellectual discourse, then as political theory and finally as a revolutionary movement.
The Roman model
Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty.
John Adams, Letters to John Taylor, XVIII, p. 484.
The first practical exercise of democratic government—at least ideally—in the ancient world was in ancient Rome. Once ruled by the Etruscan kings, they overthrew their rulers and established a “Republic” where a governing body called the Senate administered over the city-state. The Roman Republic, in paper, was a model government. It allowed voting by classes, the plebeians (non-nobility; lower class) were given the Plebeian Assembly, and plebeian tribunes can interpose veto on laws promulgated on the generally patrician Senate (senators were either those of noble birth, or adopted into nobility).
The Roman Republic, however, was an oligopoly. The Senate was populated by members of the Founding Roman Families: the Julii, the Brutii, the Aemilii, etc. Few Romans ever make it as a senator without having relation to any of the landowning founding families. The plebeians often found themselves at loggerheads with the patricians, who imposed laws that exacted high taxation and allocated land for themselves. A class war erupted in Rome, one that would plague it until the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire, when an ersatz kingship was created.
Ersatz kingship, however, was already in existence at the time. In times of emergencies, the Senate appointed an individual, the Dictator, who was vested with absolute powers to prosecute a war or restore order. The Dictator is partnered by a Master of the Horse, and this system of diarchy existed to prevent one man having absolute control at one time.
That, however, did not stop several generals from assuming kingship under the guise of dictatorships. They generally took the side of the plebeians in the class war and led soldiers loyal to them to march on Rome, expel or control the Senate and impose laws of their own that continued their rule.
Roman democracy, then, was trapped between these two opposing states: the aristocracy ruling in the name of Rome or militarily-imposed kings.
Later democratic experiments would fall under this problem: the French Revolution, for example, was initially ruled by the middle-class Directorate of the Girondists and Jacobins, who terrorized the rest of the populace, until they were supplanted by Napoleon, the French Caesar. Latin American countries which supposedly practiced democratic government elevated dictators as rulers. African governments were filled with strongmen, and one Asian government—Indonesia—termed the phrase “demokrasi terpinpin” (guided democracy).
Often the dictators were a product of popular vote, as the previous presidencies proved unpopular. Other times dictators are supported by military coups. But the office of the dictator itself was taken from the Roman model of democracy, that in times of emergency an individual would be vested with emergency absolute powers. And the office of dictator was used often as a welcome alternative to a corrupt parliament or legislative body, which is seen as rule only by the few privileged.
The American Model
The American democracy had a dictator: Abraham Lincoln was once given emergency powers in the midst of the Civil War. There was also a President, the American consul, who ruled as President for four terms, or sixteen years. The American democracy, however, never fell to long rule by a dictatorship. Presidents willingly vacate their Presidency at the end of their term. Dictators terminate their dictatorships and returned to civilian office. Armies never marched on the capital and imposed their own laws and ruler. It would seem that America emerges as an exception to the “democratic rule”—that all power devolves to rule of the few or rule of the king.
The American model did not directly derive from the Roman model. They modelled themselves after the British government. The English began as a monarchy, with a king ruling over lords, and lords over serfs. This was the feudal system which was practiced throughout Medieval Europe. Over time, however, with the constant fighting between the lords and the king, a balance emerged: the king remained king, but a lawmaking body called the Parliament was created, populated by the nobility and later included representatives from the commoners (the Commons).
America therefore took its idea of government from a constitutional monarchy. They divided their branch of government to the present democratic form: a Legislative body, a Judicial body, and an Executive Body. The Executive body was the former office of the king, but now was vested in the civilian office of the President. The President had limited powers, but they had implied monarchic powers. The Americans also retained the office of the Dictator, which gave the President potential absolute powers should such exigency arise (or made). And the American President throughout history expanded their war powers.
So why did other countries who followed the American model fall under dictatorships? What made the Americans different? We may attribute this to the American culture. The early Americans were pioneers, colonists who nominally had fealty to the English king. The early American Congress represented the thirteen independent colonies founded by the British in the continent. They had no history of kingship, no blueprint to take from. The French model would evolve two decades later. The Roman model was imbalanced. America took its constitution and government from a political theory that evolved over time.
It is also important to note that power was—and is—diffused in American government. Apart from the three branches of government, the states that comprise the United States are semi-independent, although under a national government. It has occurred before—during the Civil War—that states cut themselves from the national government and the union of America. This is the keyword: union. It is a unity, that at any point can fracture. It is less the centralization but fracturing that is the problem of America today.
I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either.
John Adams, Letters to John Taylor, XVIII, p. 483.
Democracy, in practice, is represented only by the vote. The flaw of this is that the Parliamentary body or Senate could be populated by the wealthy or privileged, which it generally is. Only the wealthy and privileged can afford the machinery to win any political campaign, and the aristocracy or the founding Families are favored to win over commoners, who are seen in a negative light. Plato describes this in his work The Republic: rulers should be chosen from among an upper, ruling class who are trained for leadership.
The alternative, however, is more grim: Presidents, going through loopholes in the law, could expand their limited kingship, assume the emergency powers of a Dictator, or centralize all power to themselves until the office of Dictator is no longer necessary. Witness the ersatz czar of Russia today, Vladimir Putin. This is one primary flaw of democracies: an ambitious political genius can make himself king under the precepts of a democracy.
There is another flaw of democracies: it makes the class imbalance all the more on the forefront. The upside, though, of this is that the lower class can emerge as rulers by virtue of the vote. Nobility no longer have a monopoly on the Parliament, as public champions can emerge as officials. And Presidents can be elected from the lower class.
This is the first part of a Series, “Searching for Democracy”. In the next installment, I analyse the Marxist version of Democracy: Socialism/Communism, and its equally defective character.