From Kevin Williamson at National Review, The Uses and Abuses of Democracy:

Democracy, meaning “rule by the people,” is a word that entered English in the late 16th century to describe a contrast with the other main forms of government in the Western world, monarchy and aristocracy. Monarchy and aristocracy, along with the example of the republics of Renaissance Italy and that of the Roman dictatorship, were very much on the minds of the American founders. Democracy did not have an especially inspiring track record at the time of our nation’s Founding, and the word democracy had not taken on its current moral hue. Democracy was a low thing, in their judgment, a near cousin to anarchy.

The most democratic forms of government in Western political history had been (in theory) democracies pure and simple, in which all political power was (in theory) held by the people themselves, who met in assemblies that were open to all citizens and voted on the great questions of the day. Hence, democracy has at times been construed to mean “majority rule.” Even though these democracies were hemmed in in various ways (for example, by religious tradition) that kind of democracy was unstable, often just a short step away from the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, and it often was indistinguishable from its cousins, ochlocracy (“mob rule”) and demagoguery (the exploitation of democratic passions by power-seekers). The Founders did not think much of democracy thus understood, and you can read quite pointed rejection of “democracy” in the works of John Adams, among many others. The word kept its ugly and anarchic connotations for years, such that when Abraham Lincoln wrote contemptuously of the “corrupt Democracy,” everybody knew what he meant — he meant the traitors and the slavers in the political party that still had and has the effrontery to call itself “Democratic.”

Those colonial legislatures were not exactly democratically elected, either — beyond the exclusion of women, African Americans, and the unpropertied, the idea was that such assemblies would be chosen from among the leading men by the leading men. The U.S. Senate, whose members were appointed by the various state legislatures rather than popularly elected, was once meant to be roughly the same thing. Adams sought a “balanced” government, meaning one that incorporated the best aspects of monarchy in the presidency, the best aspects of aristocracy in the Senate and other undemocratic institutions, and the best aspects of democracy in the House of Representatives. Democracy, in that respect, is merely useful, not a moral necessity in its own right. I believe that is still the right way to think about it.

When it is working well, our political order is indeed “balanced,” though not in exactly the way Adams preferred. Democracy is one constituent, one ingredient in the recipe. The other big one is liberalism, the idea that the rights and liberties of the people should be the central concern of government. The American Revolution was to a large degree a liberal revolution, one oriented toward reclaiming and fortifying what the Founding Fathers understood to be their rights as Englishmen — and, while it leads to some semantic confusion, American conservatism is fundamentally liberal: What American conservatives seek to conserve is a political and social order founded in Anglo-Protestant liberalism. This imagines a social order in which the private sphere accounts for the most important parts of life — piety, family, community, economy — and the public sector, particularly the national government, exists mainly to protect the liberty and the property of the people.

This is in contradistinction to the paternalistic model of government, which is still very much with us among the authoritarians and which demands that the state be a father and a teacher, a moral tutor and a moral disciplinarian, rather than a disinterested enforcer of laws and contracts. Democracy often acts as a sort of camouflage for paternalistic government, investing some political figure (in our case, almost invariably the president) with quasi-mystical powers as the personification of “We the People.” Strongman democracy is in practice very much like ordinary monarchy or dictatorship, and the strongman usually outlasts the democracy. It is democracy without liberalism.


I realize that I spend an annoying amount of time parsing political definitions, but if we do not agree what words mean it is impossible to have a rational conversation and we just keep talking past each other. The definition of democracy should not change based on the outcome you desire. Democracy is only one leg of the stool, and it will not long stand without liberalism and a virtuous electorate.

Liberal and paternalistic may be more useful descriptions.  The people’s will is a deceptive term that assumes unity is a virtuous objective.  The presumption of a unified will obscures the larger objective of managing our inherent differences.  This was the central message of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.  The presumption of a unified will is the basic political tool of the most oppressive governments of the twentieth century.

The acceptance of human flaws has led to far less oppressive rule than those who sought to correct them.  The is the genius of the constitution as expressed in Federalist #51:

“It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices [checks and balances] 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. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

From Huey Long:

“There is no dictatorship in Louisiana. There is a perfect democracy there, and when you have a perfect democracy, it is pretty hard to tell it from a dictatorship.”

-Huey Long from Arthur Schlesinger The Politics of Upheaval: The Age of Roosevelt, 1935–1936 (p. 67). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Francois Furet describes the tyranny of the general will or the people’s will better than any passage I have yet found:

“Living in serfdom under the king in 1789, in freedom under the law in 1791, the people became master in 1793.  Now that it governed itself, it did away with the public liberties that had only served to protect it against those who had ruled.  If the right to vote was suspended it was because the people ruled; the right to legal defense because it did the judging; freedom of the press because it did the writing; freedom of speech because it did the speaking; the doctrine is perfectly clear; the proclamations and laws of the Terror are but an extended commentary on it.”

Francois Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution,  quoting from La Revolution et la libre pense by Augustin Cochin