Romanticizing Democracy

Shadia B. Drury

The American Founders did not romanticize democracy. They were liberal democrats, which means they were liberals first and democrats second. They thought that liberal principles such as the rights to life and liberty and the freedom of thought and speech were more fundamental than democratic principles such as elections and majority rule. In our time, the specter of Donald Trump—a demagogue mesmerizing the mob with lies, stoking its resentment, and inciting violence—should lead us to admire the Founders for trying to avoid autocracy on one hand and mob rule on the other.

This is a balancing act, because democracy is necessary to prevent autocratic rulers from taking away the rights and liberties of the people. Nevertheless, the Founders were suspicious that democracy could lead to the tyranny of the majority, which robs eccentric individuals and minorities of their rights. Their solution was to create a democratic polity in which the power of the majority is constrained. For example, the Bill of Rights set limits on the legislative branch; the Electoral College prevented the presidency from being a popularity contest; Senators were not directly elected by the people until 1914; and all judges were appointed—and at the federal level and the Supreme Court, they still are.

Nevertheless, in the history of the United States, democracy has not always been regarded with suspicion. Another tradition was brewing. While the liberal democratic tradition is rooted in John Locke and John Stuart Mill, the republican democratic tradition has its foundations in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract and Machiavelli’s Discourses. In that tradition, democracy requires the active participation of individuals in making laws and shaping their society. The republican tradition defines liberty as the submission to laws that one has created in partnership with others. Republican government is government of the people and by the people. This public engagement accounts for republican freedom. The republican tradition makes political engagement constitutive of liberty—not simply a means to that end. So, it is no wonder that in his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln associated government of the people and by the people with liberty.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.