The original Greek democracies notoriously suffered from poor impulse control, choosing all sorts of famously destructive policies by show of hands in public assemblies of whatever eligible voters chose to show up.
Athens deciding to invade Sicily in the heat of the moment is the classic example. (The campaign was both largely pointless and a badly-led overextended cluster-foxtrot disaster, of course.)
Republics, governments run by representatives rather than directly by the citizens, designed to filter, delay, and damp down popular enthusiasms were of course the answer arrived at by subsequent generations (not least of these the post-kingdom pre-empire Romans.)
And democratic republics, like the one our Founders designed in 1787, of course choose those representatives by popular vote — though it’s often overlooked that ours did this at first via an electorate sharply limited in one interesting way (I’ll get back to this.) They also voted indirectly, in the case of the President via state-selected electors, and for Senators via their state legislatures. Our original republic further used an innovative system of internal checks and balances to prevent abuses and excess concentrations of power. It all worked quite well too, for as long as we resisted the impatient power-hungry tinkerers.
A vastly oversimplified description, of course, but I think that’s the gist of the difference you were alluding to?
I believe there are some interesting additional points to be made in the modern context, however, relevant both to fixing our disastrous foreign policies of recent decades, and to fixing what’s happening to our original republic now.
Early Greek democracy’s problem was not only a structure that allowed impulsive decisions. This was, I think, compounded by narrow and easily manipulable information channels. It was far too easy for demagogues to feed those electorates a slanted picture of some given situation, with little or no option for timely reality checks. (This is not something I’ve seen discussed much — though perhaps, hence our Founders’ emphasis on a free press?)
The Roman Republic did quite well for a while, but by the time of Marius it had gotten into a bind — a combination of expansion of military commitments, and shrinkage in the militarily-eligible portion of the population (military and political eligibility were determined by a minimum-property qualification) was causing a shortage of soldiers.
Marius solved this by opening up recruitment to landless wage-workers, while at the same time setting things up so that the troops’ hopes of land grants at the end of a military campaign depended directly on their field commander. This combination, as you’ve pointed out, led in fairly short order to the end of the Roman Republic. Rome itself survived and even prospered for some centuries after, but the Roman Empire had a chronic problem with soldiers selecting governments rather than vice-versa.
That grave policy error aside, I suspect that the Roman Republic’s failure to foster its essential middle-classes, “those with the goods of fortune in moderation”, was also a major element of that Republic’s fall. I’ll get back to this.
Meanwhile, though, fast-forward two millennia.
“Liberty” was a standard trope in US political rhetoric from the start.
“Freedom” seems to have largely replaced it sometime in the last century, but without so far doing excessive harm to clarity of public policy discussion.
“Democracy”, on the other hand, has progressed from the Founders’ clear understanding that “there never was a democracy that did not commit suicide”, to currently in US public rhetoric being up there with motherhood and apple pie. Enough of the voting public no longer have a clue about the distinction between “democracy” and the democratic republic this country was for much of its first two centuries that public figures who even hint that pure one-man-one-vote “democracy” might not be an unalloyed good might as well also admit they molest children.
I suspect this change happened during the 20th century, and I suspect it was pushed deliberately by various “progressives” — Woodrow Wilson’s and FDR’s rhetoric comes to mind — as one way to legitimize direct central progressive bypass of old republican institutions via the new means of centralized mass communications propaganda. (See previous remarks about democracy’s vulnerability to narrow and easily manipulable information channels.) But, that’s an educated guess. Proving it would be a matter for more research than I have time for now (paging Jonah Goldberg!) More on these suspicions also in a bit.
Unfortunately, our current policy makers apparently also no longer understand the distinction between pure democracy and a competent-electorate representative republic. This has led to mindless US support for undiluted majority-rule democracy in recent years, with various disastrous results. Egypt, for instance, would have become a classic case of “one man, one vote, once” with the Muslim Brotherhood (think Hamas in business suits) in charge, except the Brotherhood was too impatient and failed to neutralize the Egyptian Army first.
Turkey, on the other hand, seems now effectively run by a Muslim Brotherhood branch that was patient enough to spend the last decade completing the neutralization of the Turkish Army (with ongoing Western approval and even help.) This is the same Turkish Army which since Ataturk had a central political role in ensuring secular middle-class (minority) rule in Turkey. This point needs emphasizing: All those decades when Turkey was gaining its (rapidly-fading) reputation as the exemplar of a modern efficient westernized Moslem nation, it was being ruled by its secular middle-class minority via its Kemalist (IE, aggressively atheist) Army.
Post “leading from behind” Libya meanwhile can’t even muster the social coherence for a new one-man-one-vote-once dictatorship and has descended into violent anarchy.
It is becoming glaringly obvious that the guide star to steer policy decisions in such cases is not “democracy”. Nor, less obviously, is it necessarily “democratic republic” — any number of nations over the years have gotten terrible results despite modeling their government structures on ours — much of South America, among others.
I submit that the correct guiding goal for our policymakers is, rule by the middle class.
The middle class, “those with the goods of fortune in moderation”, almost by definition consists of those with the habit and discipline of looking at the long-term in making important decisions. (Without that, they won’t long remain middle class.) On the evidence, this extends to making sound long-term political decisions.
Consider: The US was founded with voting largely restricted to property-owners — effectively, to the middle-class and up. (Yes, yes, yes, largely to white male middle-class and up. No, no, no, I’m not here supporting those other early-days franchise restrictions.) By the time property qualifications were largely dropped, the majority of the US population had reached the middle class. (The early-to-mid-period US also had a thriving and very decentralized free press, by the way.)
Germany and Japan, post-WW2, meanwhile, were both relatively easy to reform into stable majority-rule representative democracies, both because their recent examples to the contrary were so horrible and because both countries already had or were very near middle-class majorities.
South Korea provides a usefully different example. Post WW2, South Korea was largely a peasant economy; its middle and upper classes a small minority. Democratic forms were imposed by the US occupiers, but South Korea was fortunate (or more likely some involved were wise enough) that the series of effective autocracies that resulted tended to focus on fostering and expanding South Korea’s middle class, to the point where South Korea eventually had a middle-class majority and was actually ready to transition to competent majority rule.
In Egypt, Turkey, and Libya, on the other hand, the middle classes are to varying degrees minorities, and the results of one-man-one-vote bad.
Tunisia was the exception to the “Arab Spring” turning out so badly, and that is very likely related to its middle class having apparently crossed over to majority status in recent decades.
I submit that in places where the middle class is a small minority, imposing doctrinaire democracy is a recipe for disastrous one-man-one-vote-once. If the locals are lucky they’ll merely get kleptocracy, if not, rule by murderous fanatics.
A realistic US policy in such cases would be exerting influence to foster some flavor of autocracy that will adopt a policy of growing the local middle class to the point where it’s ready to rule as a majority.
It occurs to me that the US actually did pursue something like that policy from the end of WW2 through the mid-seventies, although generally not defended as such. A case in point: The Shah’s Iran. The Shah was explicitly a secular pro-middle-class modernizer, but also explicitly anti one-man-one-vote. Iran’s majority was ill-educated peasants, like all such highly susceptible to demagoguery, and the Shah was no doubt aware what majority rule in Iran would lead to. After a prolonged western campaign successfully delegitimized the Shah as anti-democratic, well, we all know what it did in fact lead to.
A more recent example of what not to do is the 2010 US acquiescence in Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s refusal to hand over power despite losing his majority in Iraq’s parliament. Maliki’s by-then obvious Shia-uber-alles divisiveness aside, the US broke Iraq’s old government, and it was up to us to use our influence to keep the Iraqis from then immediately breaking their new one — to lead them (by the nose if necessary) through a practice exercise in peaceful transfer of power.
The current Islamic State is a direct consequence of that US policy failure (along with our simultaneous over-hasty troop withdrawal.)
Iraq, for what it’s worth, looks to me already fairly close to being majority middle-class, and could probably get there with less than a generation of competent economic and political management. It won’t, alas, get the needed guidance from us, on the evidence. We seem to have neither the political-class competence nor the patience for that sort of thing anymore.
Closer to home, I would say that the relationship between US education and economic policies that have been undermining our middle classes for decades (more and more are massively mal-educated and easily demagogued, while many are falling out of the middle classes entirely) and the current extreme shakiness of what’s left of our original republic hardly needs detailed exposition.
As for the “why” of this, the proper question is “cui bono” — who benefits — and the obvious answer is, the progressives that have been working to remove small-r republican restrictions on their power for a century now. Their obvious goal is to form a permanent voting majority either bribed (by them) from the public treasury or ignorant enough to be swayed (by them) via mass propaganda. Once they succeed, prudent middle-class rule is at an end. We’re just about there now.
The keys I see for saving our future as a free self-governing people are: To expand and decentralize information channels so centralized manipulation and mass-control becomes harder (if not impossible), and to expand rather than contract the size of the genuine middle class (IE those with middle-class virtues: Prudence and forethoughtfulness along with sufficient knowledge to apply these effectively) via sensible economic and education policies.
In other words, the progressives’ centralization and seizure of modern media and education systems would be cause for despair, save for the internet. We have hope, for as long as the internet too has not been centralized and seized.
In that regard, I find it more than a little worrying that our government and our internet moguls are in hot competition to create the tools to do exactly that. For just one example, data security and strict privacy ought to be the default in a basic smart phone, not an extra that costs thousands. Consider that if AT&T had data-mined landline calls the way Google and Apple data-mine smart phones and emails, AT&T’s management would have vacationed at Club Fed, not Fiji or Burning Man.
To sum up, the wisdom of nation-building abroad may be debatable, but when we do attempt it (or less debatable, when we encourage the locals to attempt it) we should not guarantee failure by ignoring the essential makeup of a competent electorate.
And we most especially should not attempt the very-much-needed nation-rebuilding here at home in a manner guaranteed to fail, no matter what progressive dogma we outrage in the process…