Writes Mark W. Hendrickson:
Aristotle considered the adjective “degenerate” redundant when coupled with “democracy,” and America’s founding fathers shared Aristotle’s disapprobation.
With characteristic bluntness, John Adams asserted, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” James Madison expressed a similar viewpoint in his famous Federalist Paper #10: “… democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
Such sentiments startle Americans today. For generations, we have been taught that democracy, however imperfect, is the best form of government known to man. The gulf between the founders and contemporary Americans stems from very different usages of the word “democracy.”
Benign “democracy” connotes the empowerment of individuals and a corresponding freedom from tyranny and oppression. The 19th-century poet Walt Whitman articulated the essence of America’s democratic ideal thusly: “… government can do little positive good to the people, [but] it may do an immense deal of harm. And here is where the beauty of the Democratic principle comes in. Democracy would prevent all this harm. It would have no man’s benefit achieved at the expense of his neighbors … this one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men.” [Emphases in original.]
The founding fathers would concur heartily with Whitman’s sentiment. Whitman described exactly the kind of polity that the founders desired to establish — one in which every American, rich or poor, would be equally secure in the enjoyment of his God-given rights and safe from any power that would trespass on them.
To protect individual rights, the founders established a constitutional republic, not a democracy. What is the difference?
Continue reading Degenerate democracy