This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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Democracy Leads to Tyranny
On TV and social media, people often refer to the United States as a democracy. When this occurs, one will be corrected with “no, the USA is a Constitutional Republic.” The response gets a roll of the eyes and thoughts of “yeah, whatever, know-it-all.” Real democracy means that every legal United States citizen that is registered to vote gets to vote on every single issue at hand. Initiatives or referendums placed on the ballot in some states allow everyone to vote on a specific topic. If we were a real democracy, everyone would vote on everything instead of having Representatives vote for us.
Philosophy and Politics
Plato considered democracy second to last in his ideal forms of government, just above tyranny. Plato and many other philosophers like Martin Luther did not trust the masses. James Madison intentionally used the word republic rather than democracy in the Constitution for that particular reason. The word “republic” was also a nod to one of Plato’s books titled “The Republic.” Fortunately, the Founding Fathers thought a bit more highly of democracy, so they made American democracy a blend of the best political philosophies that historically functioned successfully.
Plato considered democracy second to last in his ideal forms of government, just above tyranny.
Many philosophers have postulated about why humans need government. A common reason given is the inability of the intellect to overcome natural desires. Most concepts deal with individuals not being able to control themselves when faced with temptation. The same reason that you cannot pass up chocolate cake after dinner is the same reason that we have a government. Both ancient and classical political theorists influenced the Constitutional Republic that was created by our Founding Fathers. Neither the old nor classical political theorists thought highly of democracies.
The Brain and Modern Science
Modern science discovered that the hypothalamus regulates emotion, which causes people to act on impulse. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is where impulse control occurs. Long before those regions of the brain were identified, philosophers understood that intellect does not always override that temptation. The human struggle between emotion and impulse control is why we need the government to protect, at a minimum, your life, and property.
Plato believed that only those who have a perfect understanding of justice are worthy of political power. Washington, DC, is a perfect example of why this is not true. Direct democracies in which the people vote on every issue might be impetuous because the general public does not have the education to make decisions for the greater good of society.
Plato also believed that democracy was only slightly better than tyranny due to fear of mob rule.
Martin Luther – Monarch Ideals
Martin Luther concluded that individuals might be virtuous, but virtue will never be found in a “mob” because everything will be taken to excess. As a monarchist, Luther thought that even a corrupt monarch could not be as bad as mob rule.
Thomas Hobbes – Another Monarchist
Thomas Hobbes also advocated for a monarchy because he did not believe that individuals can separate themselves from their self-interests and make moral decisions for their community. Similarly, Plato considered democracies unstable because the majority will pursue their self-interests, which might suppress minority factions. The Framers contemplated the destructive possibilities of factions when they wrote the Constitution.
James Madison on Self Interest
James Madison addressed concerns about citizens working in their self-interest by creating factions in the Federalist No. 10. He explained why the Framers created a system within the government to prevent small factions from taking over. The hierarchy they created from local, state, and federal governments prevent these factions from overtaking the majority. The Founders learned from the ineffectual Articles of Confederation, which was the loose system of government for the states before the Constitution. They saw the potential for minority breakaway groups to overpower a resentful majority, which creates the risk that the majority might try to overthrow the establishment. Madison elucidated that the Constitution prevented this from happening by setting up the Constitutional Republic in which a “small number of citizens selected by the rest,” will quell the mischief of a faction seeking to climb up the rungs of political power.
Founding Fathers and Plato
Though the Founding Fathers, greatly influenced by Plato, created a representative democracy who rejected the idea of popular elections. The House of Representatives as the only body that was elected by the public, our bicameral legislature.
State Senators and the Process
The purpose of the House was to represent the people, which allowed the Senate to use temperance against the whims of public opinion. Despite concerns about malapportionment at the time, two Senators came from each state. Initially, Senators got appointed by their state legislatures, thus not elected through the popular vote as they are today. This reflected Plato’s views that the general public will only consider their self-interests. Because senators were not concerned about being reelected, they remained free of the demands of the people and focused on the practicalities of what was in the best interest of the nation. The public did not elect senators until the 17th Amendment got ratified in 1913.
Similar to Aristotle’s compromise that a mixed constitution might be a more practical form of government, many ancient and classical theorists like John Calvin and Marcus Tullius Cicero advocated for a mixed system that prevented tyranny by having a system of checks and balances. The Founders became influenced by the mixed structure that Cicero proposed for the Roman Empire. It gave regional power to consuls, aristocratic power to the Senate, and provided for a popular assembly. American democracy is a blend of all these theories. The three branches of government in the United States have specific functions that remain separate from each other but provide oversight of one another. The Framers also created a division of power between state and national government to alleviate the concerns of the Anti-Federalists by incorporating a version of Aristotle’s philosophy of mixed constitutions.
A Mixed U.S. Constitution
Though Aristotle preferred an aristocratic governing body, he proposed that a mixed constitution might encourage stability and even conceded that aristocracy will not possess the same virtues as a mixed constitution. His concession was based on the understanding that some government is better than none and maintaining society by instituting vast changes is secondary to obeying the law. Aristotle also admitted that there might be some virtue found in the assemblage of ordinary men. Later, Martin Luther and John Calvin incorporated Aristotle’s ideas into their philosophy that some government is better than none and obedience is necessary for stability.
John Locke – The Second Treatise
Stability was an issue during the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution. The Founders, influenced by John Locke’s Second Treatise, incorporated the ideas that even in the pre-governmental state, men have inalienable natural rights and must give their consent to be governed. The constitutional foundation for American democracy is based on Locke’s idea that the community may act only by the will and determination of the majority and must submit to that determination.
Loyalty to the Constitution
It is only through a better understanding of the Framers’ influences that we can maintain the gift that was handed down to us as citizens of the United States. It is our duty to give the next generation a country that remains loyal to the original intent of the Constitution. We cannot allow it to be watered down by the whims of those who are ruled by emotion.