Democracy or Tyranny

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Why did it take so long to achieve democracy?

One thing I like to try to do is remember my original reaction, as a child in the ’70s and ’80s, to the present history of the world as revealed to me then by educational sources of unquestionable, or at least unquestioned, reliability.

Of course, I could be just making this up. It is hard to tell. But I distinctly recall wondering: why did it take so long for human progress to achieve democracy? After all, you have many centuries of extremely sophisticated European Renaissance and post-Renaissance thought. Yet the victory of democracy on the European continent was not complete and assured until the lives of those now living. In England, it was not complete and assured until the 20th century. Only in America was it old, and even then not that old. And then there was the Roman Empire… and so on.

Moreover, I learned, in the real world today, there were only two real alternatives. Democracy, or Hitler. Or Stalin. Democracy or tyranny. Yet when I read the history of Europe before the 20th century, ie, the century of democracy, I did not see anyone or anything like Hitler or Stalin.

What, exactly, is the difference — as a matter of political organization — between the regime of Queen Elizabeth, and that of Hitler? Democracy puts both in the same category: nondemocracy. Absolute personal despotism, to be exact. But… there is a difference, isn’t there?

All these objections are neatly summed up in Churchill’s famous aphorism, if it is really Churchill’s. Democracy, whose flaws are not in any way secret, appears to you as the worst of all systems of government, except for all the others. And what do you know of all the others? Nothing at all, of course. (Or at least, nothing nonmagical.) Hence the statement sounds true, because it is true. So far as you know. That migraine spot again!

There’s a hypothesis forming here. We notice that all our blind spots seem to be in the general area of political democracy. Where they lead to misimpressions, those impressions tend to cast democracy in a falsely positive light. What if democracy was like communism? What if, for everything and anything in the world today that is broken, we could say accurately: it is broken because it is democratic. To fix it, get rid of democracy.

This appears unthinkable, of course, to you. You were raised as a true democrat. Note that if you’d been raised a true Communist, you would have perceived Communism in just the same way. And, of course, Catholicism, and Islam, and so on. But Communism (which is in fact best seen as a splinter branch of the global democratic movement) is the best analogy, because it is so recent.

No, comrades, Communism is not the problem! Communism? The problem? On the contrary, comrades — Communism is the cure! We suffer, not because we have been true to Communism, but because we have been untrue to Communism! To get back on the right track, comrades, we must redouble our efforts to achieve Communism… and so on.

I think of this when I hear anyone acting under the delusion that they can restore the American political system, presumably to some imagined youthful vitality. The American political system! The true nature of that system, gentlemen, is now quite apparent. Long has it battened on the rest of the planet; its final dessert is now apparent. As any epidemiologist would expect, America was that country most resistant to American democracy. Resistance is not immunity. In the end, every elm must meet its beetle.

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