Democracy Essay Titles On Pride

The political men of Greece, who lived under popular government, did not know any other force capable of preserving it than virtue. Those of our own day speak to us of nothing but manufacturing, commerce, finance, wealth, and even luxury.

—Montesquieu, On the Spirit of the Laws, Bk. III, chap. iii.

The most authoritative voices in our tradition inform us that our political system does not rely upon virtue, that our Framers eschewed a reliance on it, and this because no community can long last that places its faith in the goodness of its members. In the Federalist Papers we find the famous counsel, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. . . . It may be a reflection on human nature that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary” (Hamilton, et al. 1788, 51:290); such is the argument of a work commended by the University of Virginia and with Thomas Jefferson’s blessing as the best epitome of the thought behind the ratification of the Constitution (Jefferson 1984, 479). While Montesquieu named virtue as the principle of republican government, the spring that permitted it to flourish rather than decay into despotism, virtue was not required in the government of England, and it was his description of that constitution that the Federalist relied upon in saying that checks and balances could take the place of virtue (Montesquieu 1757, bk. 3, chap. 3; bk. 11, chap. 5–6; see also Hamilton, et al. 1788, Nos. 9, 47).

We find assertions to the contrary, of course. These do not speak of the virtue of statesmen but instead of the people. Benjamin Franklin noted, for example, that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters” (Franklin 1906, 569). John Adams asked rhetorically, “Have you ever found in history one single example of a Nation thoroughly Corrupted, that was afterwards restored to Virtue, and without Virtue, there can be no political Liberty” (Jefferson, et al. 1959, 550).

Such statements do not, however, tell us what this virtue is. To say that the meaning of “virtue” was assumed, a part of a shared discourse, conceals rather than resolves the problem. If true, it would be just another way of saying that the meaning of virtue was unexamined; Franklin’s independent inquiries into virtue would remove him from any shared discourse.

But there wasn’t this shared discourse. Machiavelli, for example, split the virtue of great men from that of the people, saying that the latter merely had to be law-abiding and patriotic (cf. Machiavelli 1531, I 17.3; II 2.1; III 1.2–3). Montesquieu said that virtue was a love of the homeland and its equality, distinguishing it from any sort of moral or Christian virtue (Montesquieu 1757, foreword, bk. 5, chap. 2–3). James Winthrop associated virtue with the Christian religion, good morals, manliness in war, and industriousness in peace and averred that it has been preserved in New England (Rhode Island excepted) because of its refusal to naturalize immigrants (Bailyn 1993, 1:628 [Agrippa No. 9]). Noah Webster equated virtue with simple patriotism, distinguishing his definition from Montesquieu’s (Bailyn 1993, 1:158). “Brutus” claimed in a single breath that the highest purpose of government is “the attainment of virtue” and “the proper direction of its internal police, and economy,” as though there were no tension between these (Bailyn 1993, 1:693 [Brutus No. 7]). Jefferson claimed that “the essence of virtue is in doing good to others” (Jefferson, et al. 1959, 492). Franklin listed thirteen virtues in his Autobiography, none of which involve patriotism, courage, or compassion (Franklin 1987, 644–45).

In any event, the rhetoric of virtue declined. One might wonder how a constitution that relied upon virtue could neglect explicitly to provide for how it was to be fostered. A perceptive observer a generation after the Founding could assert that the American moral dogma was self-interest well-understood (Tocqueville 1835–40, esp. vol. 2, part 2, chap. 8–9). That is, the Americans he encountered spoke as though in unwitting agreement Kant—a political system that respected the rights of each could be fashioned for a nation of devils, if only they had intelligence (Kant 1795, first supplement). And while Tocqueville did not for a moment believe that the Americans were such a nation of devils (Tocqueville 1835–40, 502), our forebears had come to speak of themselves as though they were.

We, like Tocqueville, are inclined to judge the works of the early Americans more favorably than what they said about themselves, for we too conclude that our nation succeeded because of the virtues of its statesmen and citizen body and that its continued flourishing will require that these virtues be maintained or regenerated. Our dissatisfaction with a purely mechanistic, calculative understanding of politics has stimulated a rediscovery of forgotten traditions from our Founding, e.g., civic republicanism. If the Federalist Papers cannot be brought into alignment with these new traditions, other voices certainly can—witness the resurgence of interest in James Wilson, the disparate group known as the Anti-Federalists, and a host of now-forgotten pamphleteers, sermonizers, and the like (see Bailyn 1992, Storing 1981, Wood 1991; but cf. Pangle 1988, esp. 28–39). We more and more remember Benjamin Franklin’s judgment on the Constitution, namely, that it “is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other” (Franklin 1987, 400)—and that this was not high praise.

Again, however, we are faced with the problem of what this virtue is. For as it stands it is merely a placeholder for a line of inquiry, not an answer to what is required. We sense that the relevant political question for a nation of devils—how to identify the despot that will govern them best, their being unable to govern themselves except as a myriad insecure despots—Hobbes’s question—is somehow deficient, but this does not clarify the sort of virtue or virtues that true freedom actually does demand.

The question of civic virtue is more limited than the question of virtue, simply. Our tradition regarding the latter question descends from Aristotle, and his was primarily an inquiry into human happiness. There was no guarantee that the virtues he described would contribute to good citizenship, and indeed the conflict between the good man and the excellent citizen held an important place in his political thought (Aristotle 1984, bk. 3, chap. 4). Yet when we speak of “civic virtue” we mean precisely what it takes to be a good citizen.

Our civic virtues should be related to our civic vices; if virtue is to be the one thing most needful in politics, it should counteract or replace the vices from which we may expect the greatest danger. Tocqueville was right to worry that democracies seem destined for either rule by a tyrannical majority or administration by a new, soft form of despotism (Tocqueville 1835–40). For liberal democracies to remain strong, the two most important virtues (because most easily lost) are pride and good judgment. Yet, while governments may impede their development, no liberal democracy can actively encourage them. This is because the content of what is prudent politically, of what one should be proud, are contested, partisan questions. To answer them authoritatively would be to abandon liberal democracy’s claim to toleration; state and party would become one. Yet what can be done to promote them without utilizing the laws is quite limited. Free government depends upon a society which the liberal state cannot bring about. The institutions of liberal education are best positioned to contribute to such a society.

The Character of Modern Liberty

Franklin’s claim that a nation is capable of freedom only so long as it is virtuous must evoke more than the willingness to water the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants that Jefferson pointed to (Jefferson 1984, 911). These things, after all, evince only a resistance to being ruled, not a capacity for rule. Franklin, by contrast, is clear that a people can “become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other;” some nations “have more need of masters.” Franklin therefore relies upon the distinction between liberty and license that is foreign to the liberal doctrine, even if honored with lip service.[1] A people, governing itself under the Constitution, may nonetheless stand in need of masters. The virtues of a free people must extend beyond spirited opposition to tyranny of the sort so well embodied by Hitler and Stalin that some have forgotten that despotism can have a gentler bearing, that the cult of personality relies upon a mass movement and so need not be opposed to all the forms of republicanism (cf. Tocqueville 1835–40, vol 2, part 4, chap. 6, where it is a matter of some indifference whether democratic despotism retains republican forms). A rational creature might nevertheless lack the virtue of a citizen.

In order to understand the character a free people must have, we must confront squarely how the institutions classically associated with liberty are insufficient to guarantee it. We must state with greater specificity what it is that makes a society “free” and why it was thought that bare self-interest would suffice. This requires an examination into modern liberty.

It is an ancient truism that democracy more than oligarchy is amenable to tyrants. This was echoed by Machiavelli when he advised ambitious men to side with the people rather than with the great. This affinity between democracy and tyranny is also manifest in the paradox of Thomas Hobbes, that advocate for the absolute authority of kings who nevertheless began from principles so liberal in character that it is not a stretch to call him the father of liberalism. To dismiss Tocqueville’s forebodings of democratic despotism as an aristocrat’s conflation of non-democratic governments with democracy is a mere semantic quibble over what forms of social organization to call democracy, not a substantive confrontation with what results when it is the people who set the tone for the entire society (cf. the treatment of Tocqueville in Losurdo 2004).

This is to say nothing more than that there is not a necessary connection between democracy and freedom, though we may well wonder how free a society can be without some significant aspects of republicanism. A majority that elects a party with absolute power in exchange for wealth or revenge against a hated minority, be it racial or simply “the rich,” has sold its freedom, even if traditional forms are observed. We need recall only that the office of emperor was formalized long after Rome had ceased to be a republic, that Augustus did not hold the title at all, that he drew power from traditional sources, and that the senate continued to meet for several centuries, all because, as Edward Gibbon astutely observed, Augustus “wished to deceive the people by an image of civil liberty” and was not “deceived in his expectation, that the senate and people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom” (Gibbon 1776–88, 1:63–64). It would take more than the satisfaction of international election observers to establish that Venezuela is free, or any place where politics is merely civil war pursued by other means or the humiliation of a defeated enemy.

This is to say, using Constant’s language, that we demand both the liberty of the ancients and that of the moderns (Constant 1819). To understand why, it is good to begin with Thomas Hobbes, for the liberty prized by liberalism is to a significant degree defined in opposition to Hobbes’s argument that there can be no liberty in civil society except that to obey the laws, whatever they are. This conclusion required that one accept that one is still free when one submits to coercion; one chooses to give one’s wallet over to a robber as the lesser of two evils no less than when one chooses freely to hunt or forage for food. Both are responses to necessity and, moreover, there is no other kind of choice. Only the assertion that considerations involving human beings differ in kind from those involving other natural phenomena could justify treating these as different sorts of choices, but this assertion arises from a willingness to bow before anything so long as it is not another human being. This is pride, and for Hobbes there is no greater sin (Hobbes 1651, chap. 21; on the status of pride in Hobbes’s thought, see Strauss 1936).

This does not dispose of the question but instead focuses it, for our continued disagreement with Hobbes reveals that freedom must include more than the bare presence of choice but instead an opinion we have of why we choose: did we bow down to a human being, someone with whom we compare ourselves? Did we act out of a feeling of strength or weakness when we chose? One need only reject Hobbes’s opposition to pride in order to transform this analysis into a positive doctrine of liberty. John Locke defined natural freedom as the ability to do what the law of nature permits without being hindered by any other man (Locke 1689, sec. 4). Montesquieu took this a step further when, after surveying the various definitions of liberty put forward by others, he reduced it to the tranquility of spirit that comes from not fearing another individual (Montesquieu 1757, bk. 11, chap. 6; this must be taken to revise the definition provided in chap. 3–4). This tranquility of spirit might be had under a benevolent despotism, but the pride that stands against Hobbes’s mechanical understanding of liberty forbids us to tolerate a recognized despotism. We demand at least the shadow of self-government.

It is this understanding of liberty that underlies liberalism. Crucially, a regard for this liberty has gone hand in hand with the recognition that there is no reason to respect that of others. One might reasonably desire not to be afraid, but this provides at best a prudential reason to avoid inspiring fear in others—and a contingent one, at that. In reality people are not equal and the threat of retaliation from those too weak to prevent the injury rightly seems negligible to those powerful enough to inflict it. Human beings may not be wise, but we are clever enough that one can safely conclude that injustice does pay under certain circumstances, given how much of it there is.

The potential benefits of injustice, together with the possibility of avoiding retaliation, have not been lost on those in government. It was in vain that Locke sought to persuade rulers that the “prince, who shall be so wise and godlike, as by established laws of liberty to secure protection and encouragement to the honest industry of mankind, against the oppression of power and narrowness of party, will quickly be too hard for his neighbours” (Locke 1689, sec. 42). To say that the problem is a lack of enlightened despots seems like wishful thinking:[2] most despots are enlightened enough to know that they have more to fear from their subjects than from foreign rivals. For this reason, liberalism sided with the people rather than with princes.

This same argument against the sovereign power of the prince was also applied against the acceptance of sovereign majorities. Locke never calls the government “sovereign,” for example, only supreme within its sphere, a sphere the limits of which are not for it to decide authoritatively (Scott 2000). In order to prevent one segment of society from oppressing another, Montesquieu abandoned Locke’s language of legislative supremacy and instead reinterpreted the English constitution as a system of checks and balances. Our Constitution attempts to achieve the same result by substituting different modes of election for the different (and antagonistic) social classes that underlay the English system and ensured that each body had an incentive to oppose the predominance of the others. No one must be in a position so great that exploitation is a good bargain; everyone must be weak enough to fear another’s rise to such a position. The contingent prudential considerations regarding injustice must be made to apply universally.

While Montesquieu complained that the political men of his day no longer spoke of virtue, he did not seriously attempt to remedy it. The freedom of the ancients seemed to him analogous to that of monks loving an order precisely because it did not set them free (Montesquieu 1757, bk. 5, chap. 2), and so he sided with the Modern attempt to preserve a new kind of freedom without having to rely on virtue. This new freedom aims at satisfying one’s tranquility of spirit more than flattering one’s pride; the question is how well it can succeed. It is the problems with such a system that reveal the need for virtue, or rather establish just what sort of virtue is needed.


The question of virtue presumes that it is possible to lack it. Even if we affirm that this virtue is simply good, nothing more than self-interest well-understood, it would still have to be different from the bookkeeper’s balance-sheet mentality. Everyone can think solely in terms of material profit. To see that one’s self-interest includes more than wealth, on the other hand—or that one’s self-interest actually has a negative impact on one’s wealth—that is a greater hurdle. More than the sort of pride that underlies modern liberty is required. One cannot simply opt for the freedom of the moderns, as though it could be had without something of that of the ancients, and one cannot have the latter if it is valued merely in an instrumental sense.

The functioning of a system that seeks to render exploitation irrational requires this more elevated sense of one’s good. A system of checks and balances works so long as the powers available to each branch are weighted properly; such weightings change. The president has benefited greatly from the rise of parties and television, for example. Those with an interest in restoring an upset balance are by that very fact too weak to do so. Checks and balances can be preserved only if great statesmen choose not to press the advantage they have. Indeed, in this case, such statesmen would have to care more for the process than for achieving the policies they think most just.

It may be unlikely, then, that a constitution could ever operate according to the dreams of liberal political technologists, i.e., as a mechanism not requiring virtue. It may even require a greater virtue than can be expected from most people, given the sort of civic education that can be made universal. The influence of such statesmen in a popular government relies on their having the support of the electorate, however, and the electorate cares more about the systems that politics maintains than about political procedures. What sort of virtue must they possess, then, if they are not to reward politicians willing to press every political advantage for their supporters’ particular interests?

The paradigm of such a non-exploitative system is often taken to be the market, but experience shows that a market economy cannot be supported solely by the profit motive. It is profitable to gain an unfair regulatory advantage, increase the consumer’s information costs, or externalize production costs. Those who take pluralism seriously as a moral doctrine have no stake in maintaining a level playing field. With the death of communism, threats to the market will not come from statists but from those who treat politics as business by other means.

Such people will always exist, and the only liberal means of dealing with their influence is to stymie them. Those who do so, without simply being another vulture battling over the carcass, would have to hold those who in their souls are mere bookkeepers in contempt such that, if not actually excluded from politics, at least their policies would not gain traction. In order for this struggle to be rewarding, it would have to be deeply satisfying to their pride. They must hold that pride, which elevates them over the avaricious, to be of higher value than what the avaricious seek.

This more elevated conception of self-interest is not egalitarian. It holds certain types of pursuits to be worthy of contempt. It is not, therefore, a devotion to “fairness” or to a Rawlsian conception of justice. It is not enamored with toleration because it is opposed to inequality. Indeed, in celebrating a kind of higher good it is very intolerant. But such a conception is not nakedly partisan. Legitimate policy differences may occur between those who see more than their investment portfolio when examining politics; I use the market merely as the paradigm of a case in which the participants in a fair system have no necessary attachment to that system. A contempt for narrow cupidity, an aristocratic taste, is a necessary precondition for devotion to a higher calling. A liberal democracy that does not wish to be torn apart by faction, or ruled by one faction or another, must cultivate this taste more broadly than the term “aristocracy” might suggest but cannot do so by opposing all notions of a rank ordering of human goals. Pride and contempt go hand in hand. The most important aspect of pride for liberal democracy includes a healthy contempt for materialism.[3]

Adams put the question to Jefferson, “Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry? Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from producing effeminacy intoxication extravagance Vice and folly?” (Jefferson, et al. 1959, 551). Any nation that does not encourage industry cannot withstand one that does, so modern societies cannot meet Adams’s challenge in the ancient way, that is, by keeping the people poor (cf. Machiavelli 1531, I 37.1; II 7, 19.1; III 16.2, 25; Montesquieu 1757, bk. 5, chap. 3–6); the causal chain must instead be broken at the effect this wealth has on the people’s souls. Here, only a detachment from the wealth they possess can insulate them from the effects of that wealth.

Limited government, however, encourages materialism. The laws, limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property and touching only these with their sanctions, teach that these are the important things. Everything else is private, not shared, and as social creatures we are keyed in to what is shared; what is private, left to our personal arbitrary choice, is unconsciously devalued regardless of its true value. “For whatever the authoritative element conceives to be honorable will necessarily be followed by the opinion of the other citizens” (Aristotle 1984, bk. 2, chap. 11, sec. 11). Something other than the laws must counter this education.

What precisely is higher than commodious living, the vantage from which bare satisfaction with well-being is contemptible, is the most important question for a human being. To answer it authoritatively, however, is to abandon any pretense of individual liberty; it is certainly incompatible with modern liberty. From the narrow perspective of civic virtue, however, the content of the higher life is irrelevant: it can be any species of anti-materialism whatsoever. If this neutrality cannot be maintained, then liberalism will always remain a mere promise, one never to be fulfilled. However much civic virtue may be in tension with the inquiries associated with virtue, simply, a healthy politics requires that its citizens take virtue seriously. Their pride must be engaged against more than mere subordination, though such would at least militate against despotism, democratic or otherwise; it must ripen into an opinion that it is base to be overly concerned with one’s material welfare. It must be more akin to the pride or high-mindedness that liberalism has historically overlooked (cf. Pangle 1988, 89–111).

Good Judgment

James Madison pointed to “the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity” from government as the great innovation of modern constitutionalism (Hamilton, et al. 1788, 63:355). The people would not have to be able to judge the wisdom of every policy, but instead how they had fared in general over the course of their representatives’ terms. In short, the people could be inferior in judgment to their governors; Madison advocated their exclusion from politics because the reality was that they were. Yet this is not an arrangement for the long-term health and security of a liberal polity (see Mansfield 1991, esp. 177–92). The exclusion of the people was favored for the sake of good governance, a great contributor to Montesquieu’s tranquility of spirit, but the people cannot be excluded if this good governance is to be free governance, as well. Consequently, the people cannot be of a sort that their exclusion is necessary for good governance.

Liberal democracies have fallen. They have fallen because liberal democracy is lauded as the best means to the preservation of private goods, what we refer to as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the citizens’ hearts can stray if these things are not supplied to their liking. It is now fashionable to say that liberal democracy has a difficult time dealing with “crises,” and we note how civil liberties and democratic legitimacy have often been sacrificed in the name of combating foreign enemies, domestic revolutionaries, and even (as in Weimar Germany) economic crises (see Ackerman 2006; Agamben 2005; Feldman 2008; Lazar 2006; Posner 2006; Rehnquist 1998; Schmitt 1985; Schmitt 2004; Yoo 2005).

This is not the place to discuss what actions are necessary in the face of what threats. These are policy questions. The deeper constitutional question, however, involves the fact that there can be manufactured threats, a possibility heightened by how elastic the definition of crisis is (for the elasticity of the concept “crisis,” see Agamben 2005; Schmitt 2004, 67–83; Schmitt 2005, esp. 5–15). Whether there can be an economic crisis, calling for extraordinary action in the same way that war does, for example, depends on what the regime stands for; it is not a question that can be asked by inquiring into the nature of a “crisis.” It depends, therefore, on how upset the people are about a given state of affairs. As a consequence, there is always a path to power available even in well-structured constitutions, for these cannot prevent the perceptive demagogue from asserting that now is the time to take extraordinary action, that those who object are short-sighted or self-interested. Everyone concerned to protect their rights or political influence is a special interest.

The opportunities for such demagogic claims arise from the very structure of liberal democracy. John Locke famously insisted that the executive power may do nothing but what the laws explicitly permit; he was consequently compelled to permit the prince to do just about anything under the rubric of “prerogative,” checked only by the threat of popular revolution (Corbett 2006). The American Constitution, following Montesquieu more than Locke here, permits the executive a greater degree of latitude under the law so that fewer things need be done extralegally, but this is simply to say that the rhetoric of crisis and emergency has been brought within the constitutional structures, not that it has been banished (Mansfield 1989).

In a system where governors are seen as deputies of those with the actual right to rule, it is sensible that all extraordinary action be liable to judgment by those in whose name rule is exercised. In democracies this is the majority. The majority must then be capable of this judgment. This requires that the people, normally obedient subjects more concerned with their livelihoods than with politics, not only be willing to challenge or defend their governors’ actions, to tip the partisan scales in whichever way is most efficacious, but also that they be able to form the correct judgment of these things.

This good judgment requires more than an education in one’s rights, the necessity of government, and the balance between the two—the education George Washington said should be promoted by Congress (Washington 1997, 750). Legalism and a concern with obligation are not useful dispositions in the actual practice of politics. What one may or may not do is of little help in determining what should be done. We have been witness to the fruitless debates that result from this perspective. The president claimed that Congress could not require that he obtain warrants in the conduct of foreign intelligence surveillance because national security required that he conduct warrantless wiretaps. Opponents said that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force did not authorize the invasion of Iraq because the latter did not actually advance the war against al-Qaeda. The proper question in both cases, however, should have been whether the action was necessary, something not best determined by utilizing the lawyer’s mental toolset.

What is needed is more than the bare formation of judgments, but of informed judgments. It is relatively easy for the people to judge whether they are richer or poorer now than they were before, but to distinguish among the claims put forward by various political leaders requires a basis for judgment beyond what “opinion leaders” tell them to think. This is doubly important as political spin and grandstanding have greater entertainment value than analysis and so will invariably dominate mass media.

The reliance on opinion leaders is not a problem of citizens’ refusing to exercise a faculty which they possess, having been awed by assertions of expertise, for opinion leaders do not exercise a different mental faculty (contrast Beiner 1983). On the contrary, it seems that the major problem that liberal democracy faces, in practice if not to theorists, has less to do with technocrats than with demagogues and inconstant, ill-advised policies. The reason individuals take their cue from whomever speaks from a privileged position is essentially that provided by Tocqueville for the omnipotence of majority opinion in a democracy: given that our attentions are directed elsewhere, we are correct to doubt ourselves (cf. Tocqueville 1835–40, vol. 2, part 1, chap. 1–2).

Our political system stands against the formation of this capacity for judgment. Citizens who are subject to the law in many aspects of their lives naturally think in terms of what is permitted and what is not, which is to say that being administered inculcates legalistic habits of mind even if one is administered well.[4] Moreover, the fact that citizens are excluded from the executive side of government means that they are isolated from the consequences of their decisions or favored policies. They can support a war without fighting it and favor a law without enforcing it. The shear size of many states means that oftentimes they do not even see the effects of propositions they approve. So once again they are thrown back upon reliance on media personalities chosen by the size of the audience they can attract and who usually have an axe to grind. Once again, the ability to campaign and to organize replace the ability to govern as the prerequisite for rule.

Reading Tocqueville’s description of New England township democracy is like reading the fabulous tales of a traveler returned from abroad. Not only is execution of the law and public works now undertaken without any participation whatsoever by the average citizen—what Tocqueville called administrative centralization—but many municipalities have handed over most of the powers formerly exercised by a mayor or town council to a city manager, for what we desire is technocratic expertise, not partisan bickering. This is to say that, in many parts of the country, the people do not even elect and therefore supervise their governors—they instead elect those who supervise their governors.

Citizens are as engaged in politics as shareholders are in running a corporation. That is precisely what we have desired. It is probable that the public is more competently administered as a result. Yet this exclusion of the people from politics means that the people lack the sort of political experience that contributes greatly to making good judgments. Yet the need for them to make good judgments is not eliminated by their usually being administered well. Liberal democracy requires citizens with an elevated sense of self and the capacity for good judgment; our political institutions foster neither.

Cultivating Virtue

One cannot expect civil society to counter the education provided by the laws. The laws have inducements that just about everyone can appreciate and speak with authority; civil society cannot coerce and is a part of what the laws treat as one’s private life. Even where successful, however, a civil society at odds with the vision of the good life implicit in the laws would make those most affected by it out of place, strangers in their own country. There is an additional difficulty peculiar to democracy in seeking to have a civil society that counteracts the vices of a political system: there, the character of civil society at large cannot be opposed to that of the political institutions, for they both have the same source. So the question must be the role of civil society in promoting civic virtue in a political system not so fully hostile to it as ours. Could such a civil society sustain the system? Then we might ask whether some aspect of civil society might be used in the meantime to push our system in a more noble direction.

To repeat, the total exclusion of citizens from the practice of politics, except as voters, reduces the likelihood that they will acquire the good judgment necessary for them to function as voters; such judgment now develops in spite of the laws rather than because of them. A system less hostile to the development of this virtue would be more participatory; it would have less of what Tocqueville calls administrative centralization. The professionalization of the law, the military, the police, public works, and the like is another way of expressing the centralization of administration. What is needed is not so much more opportunities for deliberation—what certain academic theorists call for—as greater involvement in the execution of policy.

Such a society would of course be more democratic. It would resemble more the New England townships creatively recounted by Tocqueville. We would have more in common with the ancient democracies than we do now. One result of this is obvious: the dangers to be expected from democracy would increase, dangers which we should not discount. If we must be on guard against democratic despotism, it is notable that Tocqueville thought that 19th-century Americans had more to fear from the tyranny of the majority. In Athens, Pericles was followed by Cleon; Rome lost its liberty to the party of Marius. Modern politics, the exclusion of the people from governance, was intended to banish these vices. As democracies of the past have shown, the bare involvement of the people in government does not render them less venal, superstitious, or imprudent.

The chief role of civil society under more favorable conditions than our own would be to educate against these vices. We might wish that the laws provided greater support for such an education, condemning with the moral weight of the whole society certain cupidinous views, but that would be a wish that society no longer be liberal. What we are examining is a liberal solution to liberal dilemmas. The most important institutions of education belong, therefore, to civil society. The most important part of that education is liberal education.

That part of education controlled by the state could be less hostile to liberal education—it could be less obviously devoted to technical training, valuing primarily the ability to do well on standardized tests and consequently encouraging attention only to easily answered questions—but it cannot mandate a more capacious understanding of life. What is needed is an education to gentility and refinement, an education that was formerly reserved to gentlemen but which, owing to our mastery of nature, can now be opened to significantly more people. This is the sort of education in which Jefferson saw the “natural aristocracy” ripened and upon the altar of which he dedicated the University of Virginia (Jefferson 1984, 1304–10).

Such education is more than an expedient against the vices of democracy, vices whose potential impact cannot be squashed if the people are to receive the kind of prudential education that comes only from actual participation in politics. For a base, materialistic conception of self-interest argues against such participation in politics. The rewards of public service are intangible; the burdens real and easily appreciable. The laws can make public service obligatory, but service cannot be approached with the same enthusiasm as paying one’s taxes, at least if it is to be done well. Ancient philosophers criticized the attractions of political life, but their analysis presumed some experience of them; a liberal education that reacquaints students with the attractions of political life can point beyond itself while still serving the public need for public spirited citizens, willing to contribute more to the functioning of government than just their taxes (which are, after all, extracted by the threat of force). Liberal education does not simply makes its beneficiaries proud; it introduces them to the right kind of pride.

Such an education is never neutral regarding the greatest questions, but it is also not didactic. In engaging seriously with great books, treating physics as more than just as-yet-unapplied technology, and debating the history of humanity, it is the importance of certain questions that comes across most clearly, even as the professor’s answers can be discerned. Liberal education opens students to plausible contenders for the good life without diminishing the question’s importance by the professor’s refusal to reveal his or her own thoughts. It therefore elevates one above quotidian concerns as the only concerns in a manner that need not offend liberalism.

Given the importance of education in the functioning of democratic institutions, it would be foolish to move the laws in a more democratic direction when that education is absent. A better society than our own would make greater demands of its citizens with regard to participation in politics than we do; making these greater demands is relatively easy, and so might seem like a good first step in the right direction; yet such action would merely rearm all of the vices which the Framers of the Constitution sought to defang by excluding the people from the business of government. If Franklin and countless others are correct that free institutions can be maintained only if the people is already free in their spirit, then a change in the laws cannot precede a successful popular education to liberty. Yet other kinds of laws hinder this education.

An education that attempts to combat the vices of a society must make its students—precisely its best students, those it has the most success in reaching—strangers in their own society. Strangers, then, there must be. In a democracy civil society at large must invariably mirror the people, but elements within it can attempt to sail against the current.

An education that seeks only to prepare students to earn an income can succeed, but such is a limited education. It might better be referred to as technical training. This training will always be supported by the laws, which is to say that a public education system will always tend toward training. Every parent wants their children to do well financially, and the parents having been illiberally educated it is improbable that they will demand that the school do more; doing more means higher taxes and less technical training. Liberal education also requires that the class keep up with its fastest members, which means that more students must perform inadequately, which means that more parents’ children be singled out as less capable than their peers—this does not bode well for such children’s financial prospects.

By chance, however, higher education in this country is largely in private hands; this has set expectations of self-governance for state universities, as well, even if these are frequently disappointed. The universities, having had their birth in another era, have at their core the liberal arts. Fortune, therefore, has smiled on us. There is an element already existing within society that has the potential to mold good citizens, i.e., people who are a bit out of place in our society, even if this potential is usually unmet.

Liberal democracy requires and presupposes liberal education. When this education is lacking, democracy becomes hostile to it. Legislators attempt to impose curricula upon those universities they fund; even when this imposition is done in a spirit friendly to liberal education, it damages the university’s independence and hence its ability to combat other, more malignant meddling. More and more state universities, especially below the flagship level, are pressured to provide technical training. It is difficult to attract students to major in the liberal arts and sciences rather than in the schools of business, no matter how poorly the latter actually prepare students for the workplace. And when students must mortgage their future, as well as their parents’ homes, in order to cover tuition, their choices become comprehensible if not entirely defensible. The sort of education that liberal society needs is at present available only to a few.

The dangers to the American university as it currently exists have been pointed out by countless others. Political correctness is opposed to the very spirit of liberal education, which presupposes and seeks to further encourage free inquiry and serious engagement with uncomfortable and discomforting thoughts. An emphasis on a specific canon and a curriculum that seeks to ensure that particular lessons be didactically extorted from that canon shares the same spirit as political correctness, even if it issues from a different partisan orientation. Conceptualizing students as “consumers” of a “product” who must be “satisfied” is a sure route to ensuring that students are not challenged. When primary and secondary schools fail adequately to impart even the technical competence around which their curricula increasing revolve, there is little that a university can do to undo the damage, once again restricting access to the kind of education that our conquest of nature should be broadening.

It is not my purpose to repeat the observations of those concerned with the deteriorating state of our universities (for example, Bloom 1987; Bloom 1990, 348–87; Pangle 1992). Instead, my purpose is to highlight the contribution that the American university system can make to our civic health.

Nor do I wish to discount the various other ways in which some segments of civil society can and sometimes do contribute to the formation of good citizens. Patriotic organizations serve to indicate to children that politics and public service are things to be taken seriously, which can make them more attentive when it comes time to learn how to do these things well, for example. I do wish to suggest, however, that the greatest contribution that the other aspects of civil society can make toward the cultivation of civic virtue is to render a generation receptive to a liberal education, should any of its members be fortunate enough to come across an opportunity for one.

I am loathe to multiply examples or point out every way in which I think that trends in our current educational system contribute to the cultivation of a generation fit to be “well administered.” They will not merely seem petty. They are. If one were to survey proposals to reverse these trends with a critical eye, the distance between the degree to which they might impact civic education and the desired goal might—does—seem so great that to suggest them appears an act of desperation or impotent fulmination. This applies also to what can be hoped for from a genuinely liberal education. The amount we can change, the degree to which we can push society in the right direction, is pitifully small. Yet the urgency of a problem does not render a solution undertaken with a sense of urgency more likely to succeed.

The likelihood of success is so small that there can be no duty to make real sacrifices to bring it about. Love of country demands that one sacrifice for it, but sacrifices made in vain are not sacrifices for anything. Still, this is not a justification for failing to put one’s effort into the attempt. There is every indication that it will be insufficient, but that does not mean that it cannot be done. And a liberal education, unlike many other things that patriotism might call for, is pleasant and choiceworthy for its own sake. The provision of such an education to others requires that one engage again in the subject as a student. What is called for is no sacrifice. Bringing about the conditions that conduce to a kind of modern civic virtue requires the exercise of virtue in the old sense: Aristotle’s ethics was largely an inquiry into the nature of human happiness. In the tug of war over the souls of the next generation, this is the one advantage that liberal education possesses: it is also a part of the good life.

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Democracy is a form of government in which power ultimately comes from the people who are governed, either through direct voting or through elected representatives. A democracy can range from a liberal direct democracy to an illiberal totalitarian democracy.

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  • The manifest, the avowed difficulty is that democracy, no less than monarchy or aristocracy, sacrifices everything to maintain itself, and strives, with an energy and a plausibility that kings and nobles cannot attain, to override representation, to annul all the forces of resistance and deviation, and to secure, by Plebiscite, Referendum, or Caucus, free play for the will of the majority. The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man‘s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing. Religious toleration, judicial independence, dread of centralisation, jealousy of State interference, become obstacles to freedom instead of safeguards, when the centralised force of the State is wielded by the hands of the people. Democracy claims to be not only supreme, without authority above, but absolute, without independence below; to be its own master, not a trustee. The old sovereigns of the world are exchanged for a new one, who may be flattered and deceived, but whom it is impossible to corrupt or to resist, and to whom must be rendered the things that are Caesar's and also the things that are God’s. The enemy to be overcome is no longer the absolutism of the State, but the liberty of the subject.
    • Lord Acton, in his review of "Sir Erskine May's Democracy in Europe" in The Quarterly Review (January 1878), p. 73
  • As surely as the long reign of the rich has been employed in promoting the accumulation of wealth, the advent of the poor to power will be followed by schemes for diffusing it. Seeing how little was done by the wisdom of former times for education and public health, for insurance, association, and savings, for the protection of labour against the law of self-interest, and how much has been accomplished in this generation, there is reason in the fixed belief that a great change was needed, and that democracy has not striven in vain. Liberty, for the mass, is not happiness; and institutions are not an end but a means. The thing they seek is a force sufficient to sweep away scruples and the obstacle of rival interests, and, in some degree, to better their condition. They mean that the strong hand that heretofore has formed great States, protected religions, and defended the independence of nations, shall help them by preserving life, and endowing it for them with some, at least, of the things men live for. That is the notorious danger of modern democracy. That is also its purpose and its strength. And against this threatening power the weapons that struck down other despots do not avail. The greatest happiness principle positively confirms it. The principle of equality, besides being as easily applied to property as to power, opposes the existence of persons or groups of persons exempt from the common law, and independent of the common will; and the principle, that authority is a matter of contract, may hold good against kings, but not against the sovereign people, because a contract implies two parties.
    • Lord Acton, in his review of "Sir Erskine May's Democracy in Europe" in The Quarterly Review (January 1878), p. 74
  • The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections. To break off that point is to avert the danger. The common system of representation perpetuates the danger. Unequal electorates afford no security to majorities. Equal electorates give none to minorities. Thirty-five years ago it was pointed out that the remedy is proportional representation. It is profoundly democratic, for it increases the influence of thousands who would otherwise have no voice in the government; and it brings men more near an equality by so contriving that no vote shall be wasted, and that every voter shall contribute to bring into Parliament a member of his own opinions.
    • Lord Acton, in his review of "Sir Erskine May's Democracy in Europe" in The Quarterly Review (January 1878), p. 75
  • "It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see...."
    "You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"
    "No," said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."
    "Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."
    "I did," said Ford. "It is."
    "So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"
    "It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."
    "You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"
    "Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."
    "But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"
    "Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in."
    • Douglas Adams, in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (1984) Ch. 36
  • 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. … 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. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.
  • The basis of a democratic state is liberty.
  • If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.
  • I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.
    We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like "America's right to know" and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.
  • Tyrannies, when they are strong, and democracies, when they are weak, can not tolerate criticism.


  • True democracy consists not in lowering the standard but in giving everybody, so far as possible, a chance of measuring up to the standard.
    • Irving Babbitt, "English and the Discipline of Ideas" (1920), Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (1981), p. 65
  • Democracy is the menopause of Western society, the Grand Climacteric of the body social. Fascism is its middle-aged lust.
  • I believe in democracy, but in real democracy, not a phony democracy in which just powerful people can speak. For me, in a democracy everyone speaks.
    • Augusto Boal, as quoted in "To Dynamize the Audience: Interview with Augusto Boal" by Robert Enight, in Canadian Theatre Review 47 (Summer 1986), pp. 41-49
  • Democracy allows people to have different views, and democracy makes it also -- makes us also responsible for negotiating an answer for those views. [...] So we would like to -- it’s not just a matter of debating the case in parliament and winning Brownie points or Boy Scout points, or whatever they’re called. But it’s just a case of standing up for what we think our country needs. And we would like to talk to those who disagree with us. That, again, is what democracy is about. You talk to those who disagree with you; you don’t beat them down. You exchange views. And you come to a compromise, a settlement that would be best for the country. I’ve always said that dialogues and debates are not aimed at achieving victory for one particular party or the other, but victory for our people as a whole. We want to build up a strong foundation for national reconciliation, which means reconciliation not just between the different ethnic groups and between different religious groups, but between different ideas -- for example, between the idea of military supremacy and the idea of civilian authority over the military, which is the foundation of democracy.
  • Democracy needs support and the best support for democracy comes from other democracies. Democratic nations should... come together in an association designed to help each other and promote what is a universal value — democracy.
  • Sycophancy toward those who hold power is a fact in every regime, and especially in a democracy, where, unlike tyranny, there is an accepted principle of legitimacy that breaks the inner will to resist. … Flattery of the people and incapacity to resist public opinion are the democratic vices, particularly among writers, artists, journalists and anyone else who is dependent on an audience.
    • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), p. 249
  • We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.
    • Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice ~ quoted by Raymond Lonergan in, Mr. Justice Brandeis, Great American (1941), p. 42
  • When I examined my political faith I found that my strongest belief was in democracy according to my own definition. Democracy—the essential thing as distinguished from this or that democratic government—was primarily an attitude of mind, a spiritual testament, and not an economic structure or a political machine. The testament involved certain basic beliefs—that the personality was sacrosanct, which was the meaning of liberty; that policy should be settled by free discussion; that normally a minority should be ready to yield to a majority, which in turn should respect a minority's sacred things. It seemed to me that democracy had been in the past too narrowly defined and had been identified illogically with some particular economic or political system such as laissez-faire or British parliamentarism. I could imagine a democracy which economically was largely socialist and which had not our constitutional pattern.
    • John Buchan, Pilgrim's Way (1940, reprinted 1979), p. 222
  • A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world.
    • Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
  • And wrinkles, the d—d democrats, won't flatter.


  • The 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance. The growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda against democracy.
    • Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy, 1997, University of Illinois Press, ch. 2 p. 18.
  • The 20th century has been characterized by four developments of great importance: the growth of political democracy, the growth of Online Democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.
    • Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia, University of NSW Press, as quoted in Letter from Noam Chomsky to Covert Action Quarterly.
  • Democracy will prevail when men believe the vote of Judas as good as that of Jesus Christ.
    • Attributed to Thomas Carlyle "The Scholar in a Republic", centennial anniversary address to Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts (June 30, 1881). Reported in Carlos Martyn and Wendell Phillips, The Agitator (1890), p. 581. Reported as unverified in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989).
  • Democracy, which means despair of finding any Heroes to govern you, and contented putting up with the want of them,—alas, thou too, mein Lieber, seest well how close it is of kin to Atheism, and other sad Isms: he who discovers no God whatever, how shall he discover Heroes, the visible Temples of God?
  • Unlike what neo-liberals say, market and democracy clash at a fundamental level. Democracy runs on the principle of ‘one man (one person), one vote’. The market runs on the principle of ‘one dollar, one vote’. Naturally, the former gives equal weight to each person, regardless of the money she/he has. The latter give greater weight to richer people. Therefore, democratic decisions usually subvert the logic of market.
    • Ha-Joon Chang, in Bad Samaritans (2008), Ch. 8: Zaire vs Indonesia, Should we turn our backs on corrupt and undemocratic countries?, Democracy and the free market, p. 157-158.
  • Democracy is the power of equal votes for unequal minds.
  • Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
  • You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.
    • G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1955), Chapter 12 Wind and the trees, p. 63.
  • On n'exporte pas la démocratie dans un fourgon blindé.
    • One does not export democracy in an armored vehicle.
    • Jacques Chirac, as attributed by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, when Jacques Chirac addressed Silvio Berlusconi over the invasion of Iraq, 20 O'clock News, TF1, (11 March 2007).
  • Under capitalism we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control. Thus, a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level -- there's a little bargaining, a little give and take, but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward. Just as I'm opposed to political fascism, I'm opposed to economic fascism. I think that until major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it's pointless to talk about democracy.
  • According to the common sense meaning, a society is democratic to the extent that people can participate in a meaningful way in managing their affairs. But the doctrinal meaning of democracy is different – it refers to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites. The public are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants,’ as leading democratic theorists (in this case, Walter Lippmann) have explained. They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with matters – like public policy – that are none of their business.
    If segments of the public depart from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena, that’s not democracy. Rather, it’s a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage, a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by death squads – at home, by more subtle and indirect means.
    • Noam Chomsky, "War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength" in What Uncle San Really Wants (1992)
  • A study of the inter-American system published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London concluded that, while the US pays lip service to democracy, the real commitment is to "private, capitalist enterprise." When the rights of investors are threatened, democracy has to go; if these rights are safeguarded, killers and torturers will do just fine.
  • Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
    • Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (November 11, 1947); in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963 (1974), vol. 7, p. 7566.
  • The ship of Democracy, which has weathered all storms, may sink through the mutiny of those aboard.
  • Democracy is not a panacea. It cannot organize everything and it is unaware of its own limits. These facts must be faced squarely. Sacrilegious though this may sound, democracy is no longer well suited for the tasks ahead. The complexity and the technical nature of many of today's problems do not always allow elected representatives to make competent decisions at the right time.
  • As during the time of kings it would have been naive to think that the king’s firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our time it is naive to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest. The rule of succession is not a formula for identifying the best ruler, it is a formula for conferring legitimacy on someone or other and thus forestalling civil conflict.
  • A democracy unsatisfied [by support of the people] cannot long survive. We live in probably the most turbulent and tormented times in the history of this nation. Criticize... disagree, yes, but also we have as leaders an obligation to be fair and keep in perspective what we are and what we hope to be.
    • John Connally, remarks at American Society of Newspaper Editors luncheon, Washington, D.C. (April 19, 1972), as reported by The Washington Post (April 20, 1972), p. C3.


  • I had this sense that ideas about democracy, theories of democracy which I had learned about of course from graduate school on, from Aristotle and Plato onward, that they were inadequate. I don’t want to diminish them; I have always retained a great respect for classical and medieval and eighteenth-century theory, but meanwhile a whole new kind of political system emerged to which the term democracy became attached, and for which democracy remained an ideal, even though classical democracy as an ideal was so far removed from reality. The gap between that ideal and the actual political institutions that had developed, particularly from about the sixteenth, seventeenth century on, was just enormous. And what we didn’t have enough of, had very little of, was an adequate description of what the actual institutions of so-called democracy, modern democracy, representative democracy, were.
    • Robert A. Dahl, in "A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl" by Margaret Levi, Annual Review of Political Science (2009)
  • Le Césarisme, c'est la démocratie sans la liberté.
    • Cæsarism is democracy without liberty.
    • Taxile Delord, L'Histoire du Second Empire, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
  • The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.
  • Democracy is on trial in the world, on a more colossal scale than ever before.
    • Charles Fletcher Dole, The Spirit of Democracy, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
  • The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it. ~ Edward Dowling, Editor and Priest, Chicago Daily News (28 July 1941).
  • Drawn to the dregs of a democracy.
    • John Dryden, Absalom and Achitopel (1681), Part I, line 227
  • But we owe ourselves, and the United States that we will pass off to our children, to re-learn the tools of reason, logic, clarity, dissent, civility, and debate. And those things are the non-partisan basis of democracy, and without them you can kiss this thing goodbye.
  • All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank and place.
    • Will Durant in his book The Lessons of History, chapter "Governement and History" p. 78


  • Ich bin zwar im täglichen Leben ein typischer Einspänner, aber das Bewusstsein, der unsichtbaren Gemeinschaft derjenigen anzugehören, die nach Wahrheit, Schönheit und Gerechtigkeit streben, hat das Gefühl der Vereinsamung nicht aufkommen lassen.
    • I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I well know the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Social equality and economic protection of the individual appeared to me always as the important communal aims of the state. Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has preserved me from feeling isolated.
    • Albert Einstein, in "My Credo", a speech to the German League of Human Rights, Berlin (Autumn 1932), as published in Einstein: A Life in Science (1994) by Michael White and John Gribbin, p. 262
  • People think they have taken quite an extraordinarily bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.
    • Friedrich Engels, Introduction to 1891 edition of Karl Marx's, The Civil War in France
  • Do nine tenants in a residential building have the right to place the dumpsters in front of the tenth tenant's door? Seemingly, they enjoy a clear majority. But the role of democracy is not only to assure the governance of the majority, but to protect the rights of the minority.
  • Democracies that are under threat of destruction face the impossible dilemma of either yielding to that threat by insisting on preserving the democratic niceties, or violating their own principles by curtailing democratic rights.


  • Democracy is not a beloved Republic really, and never will be. But it is less hateful than other contemporary forms of government, and to that extent it deserves our support. It does start from the assumption that the individual is important, and that all types are needed to make a civilization. It does not divide its citizens into the bossers and the bossed — as an efficiency-regime tends to do. The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than elsewhere. They found religions, great or small, or they produce literature and art, or they do disinterested scientific research, or they may be what is called "ordinary people", who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours. All these people need to express themselves; they cannot do so unless society allows them liberty to do so, and the society which allows them most liberty is a democracy.
  • Whether Parliament is either a representative body or an efficient one is questionable, but I value it because it criticizes and talks, and because its chatter gets widely reported. So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.
  • "Democratic" decision making is a means for finding and implementing the will of the majority; it has no other function. It serves, not to encourage diversity, but to prevent it.


  • When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It's a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.
  • Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.


  • We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.
    • Alexander Hamilton, in debates of the Federal Convention (26 June 1787), as published in The Works of Alexander Hamilton (1904) edited by Henry Cabot Lodge, Vol. I: Speeches in the Federal Convention
  • It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. 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, speech in New York, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution (21 June 1788)
  • Well, I would say that, as long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism. My personal impression — and this is valid for South America — is that in Chile, for example, we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government. And during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers, not as something permanent, but as a temporary arrangement.
  • A limited democracy might indeed be the best protector of individual liberty and be better than any other form of limited government, but an unlimited democracy is probably worse than any other form of unlimited government, because its government loses the power even to do what it thinks right if any group on which its majority depends thinks otherwise. If Mrs. Thatcher said that free choice is to be exercised more in the market place than in the ballot box, she has merely uttered the truism that the first is indispensable for individual freedom, while the second is not: free choice can at least exist under a dictatorship that can limit itself but not under the government of an unlimited democracy which cannot.
  • The conception that government should be guided by majority opinion makes sense only if that opinion is independent of government. The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed.
  • It is no accident that on the whole there was more beauty and decency to be found in the life of the small peoples, and that among the large ones there was more happiness and content in proportion as they had avoided the deadly blight of centralization.
    Least of all shall we preserve democracy or foster its growth if all the power and most of the important decisions rest with an organization far too big for the common man to survey or comprehend.
    Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government, providing a school of political training for the people at large as much as for their future leaders.
  • It is when it is contended that "in a democracy right is what the majority makes it to be" that democracy degenerates into demagoguery.
  • Liberalism is a doctrine about what the law ought to be, democracy a doctrine about the manner of determining the law. Liberalism regards it as desirable that only what the majority accepts should in fact be law, but it does not believe that this is therefore necessarily good law. Its aim, indeed, is to persuade the majority to observe certain principles. It accepts majority rule as a method of deciding, but not as an authority for what the decision ought to be. To the doctrinaire democrat the fact that the majority wants something is sufficient ground for regarding it as good; for him the will of the majority determines not only what is law but what is good law.
  • If democracy is a means rather than an end, its limits must be determined in the light of the purpose we want it to serve.
  • Once wide coercive powers are given to governmental agencies for particular purposes, such powers cannot be effectively controlled by democratic assemblies.
  • It is not democracy but unlimited government that is objectionable, and I do not see why the people should not learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government. At any rate, the advantages of democracy as a method of peaceful change and of political education seem to be so great compared with those of any other system that I can have no sympathy with the antidemocratic strain of conservatism. It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.
  • Our democracy, as Snowden I think has revealed, has become a fiction. The state, through elaborate forms of political theater, seeks to maintain this fiction to keep us passive. And if we wake up, the state will not shy away from draconian measures. The goal is complete subjugation, the iron rule of our corporations and our power elite.
  • Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is — so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group.
    "But a democratic form of government is okay, as long as it doesn't work. Any social organization does well enough if it isn't rigid. The framework doesn't matter as long as there is enough looseness to permit that one man in a multitude to display his genius. Most so-called social scientists seem to think that organization is everything. It is almost nothing — except when it is a straitjacket. It is the incidence of heroes that counts, not the pattern of zeros.
  • Democracy is a poor system of government at best; the only thing that can honestly be said in its favor is that it is about eight times as good as any other method the human race has ever tried. Democracy's worst fault is that its leaders are likely to reflect the faults and virtues of their constituents — a depressingly low level, but what else can you expect?
  • When its existence is threatened and it has to unify its people and generate in them a spirit of utmost self-sacrifice, the democratic nation must transform itself into something akin to a militant church or a revolutionary party. ...The mastery of the art of religiofication is an essential requirement in the leader of a democratic nation... Only a goal which lends itself to continued perfection can keep a nation potentially virile even though its desires are continually fulfilled. The goal need not be sublime. The gross ideal of an ever-rising standard of living has kept this nation fairly virile.
    • Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951) Ch.18 : Good and Bad Mass Movements, §124
  • You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.
    • Abbie Hoffman, Tikkun (July-August 1989); also quoted in The Best Liberal Quotes Ever : Why the Left is Right (2004) by William P. Martin, p. 51
  • The basic ideals and concepts of rationalist metaphysics were rooted in the concept of the universally human, of mankind, and their formalization implies that they have been severed from their human content. How this dehumanization of thinking affects the very foundations of our civilization can be illustrated by analysis of the principle of the majority, which is inseparable from the principle of democracy. In the eyes of the average man, the principle of the majority is often not only a substitute for but an improvement upon objective reason: since men are after all the best judges of their own interests, the resolutions of a majority, it is thought, are certainly as valuable to a community as the intuitions of a so-called superior reason. … What does it mean to say that “a man knows his own interests best”—how does he gain this knowledge, what evidences that his knowledge is correct? In the proposition, “A man knows [his own interests] best,” there is an implicit reference to an agency that is not totally arbitrary … to some sort of reason underlying not only means but ends as well. If that agency should turn out to be again merely the majority, the whole argument would constitute a tautology. The great philosophical tradition that contributed to the founding of modern democracy was not guilty of this tautology, for it based the principles of government upon … the assumption that the same spiritual substance or moral consciousness is present in each human being. In other words, respect for the majority was based on a conviction that did not itself depend on the resolutions of the majority.
  • Democracy has nothing to do with freedom. Democracy is a soft variant of communism, and rarely in the history of ideas has it been taken for anything else.
  • The only way to practice democracy, is to practice democracy.
    • Hu Shih, Science and Democracy Defined (1921), quoted in: Wen-shun Chi (1986). Ideological Conflicts in Modern China: Democracy and Authoritarianism. Transaction Publishers. pp. pp 99-134. ISBN 1 5600 0608 0. 


  • An electoral choice of ten different fascists is like choosing which way one wishes to die. The holder of so-called high public office is always merely an extension of the hated ruling corporate class.
  • The fascist arrangement tolerates the existence of no valid revolutionary activity. It has programmed into its very nature a massive, complex and automatic defense mechanism for all our old methods for raising the consciousness of a potentially revolutionary class of people. The essence of a U.S.A. totalitarian socio-political capitalism is concealed behind the illusion of a mass participatory society. We must rip away its mask. Then the debate can end, and we can enter a new phase of struggle based on the development of an armed revolutionary culture that will triumph.
  • Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally—and it really is accidentally—get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies, whether they were based in eighteenth-century Anglo-American aristocratic individualism or nineteenth-century European forms of a type of developed postfeudal legal state. Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it’s not accidental that everyone is now a democrat. The Chinese are for democracy. George Bush was for democracy. The Burmese believe in it; they just call it something slightly different. South African whites believed in democracy; they just thought it should be arranged differently for blacks. Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high.
    • Tony Judt, quoted in "Talking With Tony Judt", The Nation (April 29, 2010) by Christine Smallwood


  • Democracy is necessarily despotism, as it establishes an executive power contrary to the general will; all being able to decide against one whose opinion may differ, the will of all is therefore not that of all: which is contradictory and opposite to liberty.
  • The respondents in this case insist that a difficult question of public policy must be taken from the reach of the voters, and thus removed from the realm of public discussion, dialogue, and debate in an election campaign. Quite in addition to the serious First Amendment implications of that position with respect to any particular election, it is inconsistent with the underlying premises of a responsible, functioning democracy. One of those premises is that a democracy has the capacity—and the duty—to learn from its past mistakes; to discover and confront persisting biases; and by respectful, rationale deliberation to rise above those flaws and injustices. That process is impeded, not advanced, by court decrees based on the proposition that the public cannot have the requisite repose to discuss certain issues. It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds. The process of public discourse and political debate should not be foreclosed even if there is a risk that during a public campaign there will be those, on both sides, who seek to use racial division and discord to their own political advantage. An informed public can, and must, rise above this. The idea of democracy is that it can, and must, mature. Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people.
  • The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people - faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but will also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment - faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right.
  • For in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, 'hold office'; everyone of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.
  • A democracy is peace-loving. It does not like to go to war. It is slow to rise to provocation. When it has once been provoked to the point where it must grasp the sword, it does not easily forgive its adversary for having produced this situation. The fact of the provocation then becomes itself the issue. Democracy fights in anger — it fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it — to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again. Such a war must be carried to the bitter end.


  • The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy and, while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest attribute of man. It is the only dictator that freemen acknowledge and the only security that freemen desire.
    • Mirabeau B. Lamar, 2nd President of the Republic of Texas, as quoted in Hargrave Military Academy: Catalog and Announcements for session 1944-1945 (1944), the yearbook of Hargrave Military Academy
  • The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.
  • Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the "petty" – supposedly petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for "paupers"!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., – we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.
  • Here is Democracy's opportunity. Here is the opportunity to be of service to the people. Here is the chance for this party to have been of service to the people of the United States. Here is our chance to have been of help to the poor man. Here is our chance to have relieved him of the burdens and to have given him the benefits of a government that could have promoted the enterprises and furnished the conveniences and the facilities needed by every man, woman, and child in this country.
    • Huey Long, remarks in the Senate (17 May 1932), reported in Congressional Record, vol. 75, p. 10394
  • Puritanism, believing itself quick with the seed of religious liberty, laid, without knowing it, the egg of democracy.
    • James Russell Lowell, Among My Books, New England Two Centuries Ago, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
  • Democ'acy gives every man
    A right to be his own oppressor.
    • James Russell Lowell, Biglow Papers, Series 2, No. 7, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
  • To one that advised him to set up a democracy in Sparta, "Pray," said Lycurgus, "do you first set up a democracy in your own house."
    • Lycurgus in Plutarch's Apophthegms of Kings and Great Commanders, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188


Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried. ~ Winston Churchill
The great ability of those who are in control in the modern world lies in making the people believe that they are governing themselves; and the people are the more inclined to believe this as they are flattered by it. ~ René Guénon
Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination, ... but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy. ~ Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page
The essence of a U.S.A. totalitarian socio-political capitalism is concealed behind the illusion of a mass participatory society. We must rip away its mask. ~ George L. Jackson
While the US pays lip service to democracy, the real commitment is to "private, capitalist enterprise." When the rights of investors are threatened, democracy has to go; if these rights are safeguarded, killers and torturers will do just fine. ~ Noam Chomsky
When citizens are relatively equal, politics has tended to be fairly democratic. When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers. The reason for this pattern is simple. Through campaign contributions, lobbying, influence over public discourse, and other means, wealth can be translated into political power. When wealth is highly concentrated—that is, when a few individuals have enormous amounts of money—political power tends to be highly concentrated, too. The wealthy few tend to rule. Average citizens lose political power. Democracy declines. ~ Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens
An electoral choice of ten different fascists is like choosing which way one wishes to die. The holder of so-called high public office is always merely an extension of the hated ruling corporate class. ~ George L. Jackson
Democracy is the power of equal votes for unequal minds. ~ Charles I
The public, therefore, among a democratic people, has a singular power, which aristocratic nations cannot conceive; for it does not persuade others to its beliefs, but it imposes them and makes them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence. ~ Alexis de Tocqueville
We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both. ~ Louis Brandeis
The basis of a democratic state is liberty. ~ Aristotle
If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost. ~ Aristotle
Democracy allows people to have different views, and democracy … makes us also responsible for negotiating an answer for those views. ~ Aung San Suu Kyi
All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. ~ Will Durant
People think they have taken quite an extraordinarily bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy. ~ Friedrich Engels
The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed. ~ Friedrich Hayek
It is when it is contended that "in a democracy right is what the majority makes it to be" that democracy degenerates into demagoguery. ~ Friedrich Hayek
Democracy can't work. … a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. … A democratic form of government is okay, as long as it doesn't work. Any socialorganization does well enough if it isn't rigid. The framework doesn't matter as long as there is enough looseness to permit that one man in a multitude to display his genius. ~ Robert A. Heinlein
Democracy is a poor system of government at best; the only thing that can honestly be said in its favor is that it is about eight times as good as any other method the human race has ever tried. ~ Robert A. Heinlein
A democracy has the capacity—and the duty—to learn from its past mistakes; to discover and confront persisting biases; and by respectful, rationale deliberation to rise above those flaws and injustices. [...] It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds. [...] An informed public can, and must, rise above this. The idea of democracy is that it can, and must, mature. Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people. ~ Anthony Kennedy
The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people - faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but will also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment - faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right. ~ John F. Kennedy
In a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, 'hold office'; everyone of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve. ~ John F. Kennedy
Democracy fights in anger — it fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it — to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again. ~ George F. Kennan
If we are to be a great democracy, we must all take an active role in our democracy. We must do democracy. That goes far beyond simply casting your vote. We must all actively champion the causes that ensure the common good. ~ Martin Luther King III
Progress of human civilization in the area of defining human freedom is not made from the top down. No king, no parliament, no government ever extended to the people more rights than the people insisted upon. ~ Terence McKenna

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