The Decay of American Democracy, Part 1

Shadia B. Drury

It is ironic that America has embarked on the monumental project of teaching the world about democracy at a time when its own democracy is in a state of decay and degeneration. It seems to me that the most important lesson that America can teach the world in the twenty-first century regards the conditions that signal the imminent demise of the democratic body politic. The elements of democratic health are not a mystery. Like all other forms of government, democracy requires virtue—especially among its ruling elites.

Democracy is not a panacea that brings with it all good things, as Amer­icans are inclined to believe. It is a challenging form of government that re­quires certain conditions to avoid de­scending into chaos, sectarianism, or the tyranny of the majority. The American Founding Fathers were particularly wary of the tyranny of the majority, so they created a republic of laws with a Bill of Rights to protect minorities and individuals from the power of the majority. A constitution that sets limits on the power of the majority is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy.

There are at least four virtues that are required to make a democracy successful. In this article, I will discuss two of them: courage and moderation. The erosion of these virtues in the American body politic, especially among elected officials, is a reason for concern. It is a clear indication that America is not fit to teach the world about democratic governance.

It has often been said that, more than any other form of government, democracy re­quires virtue. This was the view of Jean-Jacques Rous­seau, who was an advocate of small participatory democracies. Although he did not express it that way, he thought that it was possible for small participatory democracies to arrive at the common good (he called it the General Will) if individuals asked themselves the right questions when it came time to vote. Instead of asking, “What do I want?” they should ask: “What do we need?” If they proceeded in this way, then they were sure to arrive at the common good.

In truth, every form of government needs the kind of virtue that Rousseau espouses—at least among its ruling class. The men and women in Congress must have the virtuous attitude described by Rousseau when they vote on the issues if they hope to make decisions that serve the common good (not just private interests). Unfortunately, American politicians are more devoted to the interests of their corporate backers than they are to the public interest that they are sworn to serve. They are afraid to ask tough questions on committees investigating corporate fraud lest they find their campaign contributions decimated. They have made a valiant effort to conceal their corruption by claiming that the corporate oligarchs they serve are “the job creators” whose interests are identical to the interests of the nation. They have succeeded in duping the public with this sleight of hand, but there are signs that this ploy will not work indefinitely. In foreign policy, they defend the interests of Israel, right or wrong, at the expense of the United States. Again, they are motivated by fear—fear that they will find themselves facing a well-funded opponent when seeking reelection. The result of this widespread corruption is gargantuan profits for large corporations that ship jobs overseas, environmental degradation, impoverishment of the working classes, shrinking of the middle class, and useless wars in the Middle East that serve neither the interests of America nor her client state—they merely augment the financial coffers of security companies and the arms industry. It is time for Amer­icans to look for courage among their elected leaders. It is time to expose the cowards who have not the courage to stand up for the good of their nation.

The idea that democracy is rule of the people, by the people, in the interest of the people is a myth. In fact, the people do not rule directly in representative democracies; nor do they have a single interest or a single will. Democracy is a matter of entrusting a group of men and women with the power to rule—to make laws, dispense justice, and formulate foreign policy. Like any trust, it is conditional on the non-abuse of the power involved. If power is abused, then it can be en­trusted to someone else in the next election. The supreme advantage of democracy is to provide peaceful transitions of power, which are preferable to the ferocity of, for example, the Wars of the Roses (the civil wars between the House of York [white rose] and the House of Lancaster [red rose] over the throne of England from 1455–1485). However, the system requires the existence of decent and moderate elites competing for power, because no one would entrust something of importance to a madman. That’s what makes moderation another important virtue in a democracy.

Wherever fanatical religious or political ideologues compete for power, democracy cannot succeed in bringing either peace or freedom. Democracy should be akin to a friendly debate where the triumph of one point of view over another is not a matter of great consequence because the fundamental principles are settled and enshrined in law. But radicals threaten the established laws and traditions. Moreover, they cannot tolerate the slightest divergence from their point of view; as a result, they regard the success of their opponents as a catastrophe, against which they are willing to bear arms. For example, after Egypt’s first free election in history, the Muslim Brother­­hood vowed that there would be blod in the streets if their candidate did not win. Clearly, these people are not fit for democracy. But are America’s ruling elites any better?

In the March 2012 issue of the Consti­tutional Conservative, the newsletter of the Republican Party of Greene County, Virginia, Editor Ponch McPhee advocated “armed revolution” if Repub­licans fail to win the election in Novem­ber. “It’s Rom­ney or Revolution,” declared The Progres­sive with its usual irony when it quoted McPhee in its “No Comment” section. So, how can America teach the world about democracy when its ruling elites are hardly more sophisticated than the Muslim Brotherhood?

America’s political elites are plagued by a sharp rise in fanaticism and a corresponding decline in moderation. Once upon a time, Americans dismissed extremists such as Barry Goldwater with derision. Goldwater’s mantra was “Extrem­ism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” In the topsy-turvy world of fanatics, moderation is a vice. Realizing that moderation was anathema to Goldwater, the American electorate refused to entrust him with power. He lost the election of 1964 to Lyndon B. Johnson in a landslide.

Unhappily, things have changed. Wit­ness the radicals elected to Congress in 2010 in the wake of the Tea Party movement. They are as averse to moderation as they are to compromise. They regard compromise as selling their souls to the devil and moderation as diluting their inviolable principles. In the recent Repub­lican presidential primaries, a plethora of extremists competed for power. The eventual winner, Mitt Rom­ney, was chastised by his opponents for being moderate. Instead of accepting the charge as a compliment, Romney has done everything in his power—including repudiating the moderate policies that guided his governorship in Massa­chu­setts—to prove that he is no moderate.

The lack of moderation among America’s political elites is particularly apparent in the spike in acrimonious speech. The divide between Democrats and Republicans has reached religious proportions. Ironically, this is happening when the difference between the two political parties is less and less discernible. Both parties serve the corporate oligarchs; both parties are committed to America’s gun culture; both parties are committed to faith-based initiatives; both parties call on God to bless America. The only difference between them is that one party is more radical in its allegiance to God, guns, and oligarchs. It is no wonder that Cornel West has characterized the election of 2012 as a choice between disaster (Barack Obama) and catastrophe (Mitt Romney).

The trouble with emphasizing virtue as the foundation of a republic is that the American Founding Fathers were not inclined to do so. Instead, they hoped to create a system of government with checks and balances that would produce excellent results even if the government were staffed by devils. In my view, the Founding Fathers were wrong to undermine the importance of virtue for the republic. They were partly encouraged by the rise of capitalism and its faith in the invisible hand that magically ensures that people serve the commonweal just by pursuing their own interests. This vision of society was rightly satirized by Bernard Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees (1705). Writing at the height of enthusiasm for capitalism that has only been matched by the religious fervor with which it is preached in our time, Mandeville’s two-volume poem took sarcastic jabs at a society in which private vices such as greed, self-indulgence, and love of luxury yielded public benefits:

Though every part is full of Vice
Yet the whole mass a Paradise
Such were the blessings of that State
Their crimes conspired to make them Great.

Mandeville’s point was that it’s unreasonable to undermine the importance of virtue in the republic. It’s unreasonable to ask people to go shopping when the nation is in crisis and when they are desperate to do something selfless for their country.

It’s time to bring capitalism down from its pedestal and expose the fanatics who have turned it into a god. It’s time to acknowledge that we need the visible hand of government regulation, not just the invisible hand of the market. How­ever, since we know that we will never have all the virtue we need for good government, we had better not abandon the effort of the Founders to create a system in which devils would find it hard to operate. Unfortunately, we live in a time with neither respect for virtue nor respect for checks and balances. We live in an age that believes in greed, not virtue; in deregulation, not checks and balances.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


It is ironic that America has embarked on the monumental project of teaching the world about democracy at a time when its own democracy is in a state of decay and degeneration. It seems to me that the most important lesson that America can teach the world in the twenty-first century regards the conditions that …

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