- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 27, 2011


There was a time when everyone understood that there were good democracies and bad democracies. Not all that long ago, every schoolchild knew that our democratic revolution, which culminated in national independence and a popular, democratic Constitution, was good - and the highly democratic French Revolution, which culminated in the Terror and the guillotine, was bad. But today, there are those who cheer every movement abroad toward popular rule and democratization without giving a thought to whether the “democracy” being created is salutary or not.

Sadly, more often than, not it’s my fellow conservatives who sing in the choir of democracy and see in each democratic movement patriots and heroes, liberals and reformers. Despite the tribulations of Christians in Egypt and polls showing widespread support for the imposition of Shariah law, despite the problematic character of the Libyan rebels, despite the horrors subsequent to the democratic victory of Hamas in Gaza, we still seem to hope for democratic change against our national interest and, sometimes, against our friends.

Unlike so many of our contemporaries, our Founders were more careful. It was because of their care and the infinite pains they took in 1787 that the democracy they bequeathed to us has lasted for well over 200 years and given the world the prime example of the combination of freedom with democratic rule.

But perhaps they were too successful. Maybe because of them, we now think democratic government doesn’t have to be crafted, merely willed into being. Perhaps we think, because of their success, that democratic government is easy, when the truth is that nothing in politics is harder to create than a just and stable democracy. Perhaps, because of them, our compatriots think democracy is simply natural. But the truth is that nothing takes more art, more human effort and more intelligence to design than a good democracy. Autocracy is natural; rule by tyrants and despots is natural; mob rule is natural. But a good and just democracy is hard to make and harder even to maintain.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the Founders never thought of democracy as an end in itself. Rather, the real ends of political life are justice, peace, security, prosperity and freedom. It was exactly because these are the goals of political life that the Founders were so careful with democracy.

Consider the Federalist papers. Alexander Hamilton tells us that one can only read the histories of the republics of antiquity - those “wretched nurseries of unceasing discord and the miserable objects of universal pity or contempt” - with “horror and disgust.” Less vociferously, James Madison reminds us that the evils of “instability, injustice, and confusion” have been “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” Our Founders were hardly men to be fooled by words. Just because something was called a republic, a democracy or a popular government didn’t make it good.

Democracies, Hamilton knew, could be just as warlike and expansionist as the most imperial monarchies. Without the right safeguards, democracies easily fall prey to demagogues, who ultimately tyrannize their people as they threaten their neighbors.

On the domestic front, democracies, Madison understood, were often the worst offenders against property, against religious and ethnic rights, against, indeed, all freedoms. Without the proper controls and institutions and without a compatible culture and appropriate sensibilities on the part of its citizens, there often was little difference between “democracy” and “mob rule.” The one mistake the Founders never made and one that the modern lovers of democracy make all the time is to confuse democracy with freedom.

The Founders did, in the end, give us a constitutional democracy. But to overcome the evils of instability, injustice, violence against minorities and subversion of individual rights, it had to be a democracy of a particular kind. It was, of course, a democracy modified by all the institutions and formalities once familiar to every schoolchild - separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, calendared elections, limited government, federalism, staggered terms of office, varied terms of office and varied modes of election. The safeguards against democratic tyranny as well as the aids to stability, deliberation and moderation, are many.

But today, we often think that all we need to begin down the path to justice and freedom is popular rule and frequent elections. Even there, we betray the Founders’ understanding. Perhaps the most significant thing the Founders did to moderate and restrain the exploitative and tyrannical tendencies of democracies was to establish a model of electing representatives that would moderate the impulses and tame the interests of those various groups that might seek their good at the expense of others. Now we export a quasi-affirmative-action State Department model that solidifies interests and reinforces divisions rather than the one Madison gave us that tried to mitigate factionalism and moderate ethnic and sectarian differences. This mistake of ours and more than anything, may well remain our sad political gift to Iraq.

So, yes, let us be cautiously thankful that there are many who are willing to sacrifice, as Thomas Jefferson would say, to break the chains of tyranny and try to govern themselves. Let us never be apologists in any way for the vicious tyrants who rule in all parts of the world. But let us also not be blind to the dangers that simple and unmoderated democracies pose to us, to national minorities, to domestic and international stability and to world peace. The word “democracy” is not a magic word.

John Agresto is author of “Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions” (Encounter, 2007).

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