America is Scared of Democracy

Key Takeaways:

  1. Liberty and authority are abused wherever they exist. The abuses of liberty and authority can be withstood only by moderate societies and will encourage political revolutions in all others. 
  2. It is impossible to eliminate all abuse of liberty or authority. Mankind will either balance, or it will alternate between, the risks arising from the abuse of authority with those arising from the abuse of liberty.
  3. Retaining no memory of the dangers of tyranny, and harboring great fears arising from many diverse sources, the American people now fear the abuses of liberty more than the abuses of authority. 

This dilemma haunts every democratic society: Is it more dangerous to tolerate the abuse of authority or the abuse of liberty?

The American people are presently acting like they’re more afraid of the risks arising from the abuse of liberty than those arising from the abuse of authority.  

Both liberty and authority are abused wherever they exist. The abuse of either can provide the catalyst for political revolution. The ability of regimes to weather these inevitable abuses arises not from a well-structured political constitution but through a moderate social disposition.

Cohesive societies are sustained only through the moderation of their people—both rulers and ruled. While kingships and aristocracies (in the classical sense) grant their people only modest liberty, their moderate disposition in turn prevents their abuse of authority. Moderate democracies likewise severely restrict the authority of their elites, but the people in turn, by their industry and respect for laws and customs, do not arouse the fears of elites. In both cases, a balance is achieved as one part of society tempers its authority and the other moderates its liberty.

Revolutionary societies lose their ability to tolerate either liberty or authority through long and persistent abuse of one or the other or both. Revolutions against tyrants and oligarchs are often sparked by the abuse of authority. In a polarized democracy, however, a more complex dynamic may arise. As the middle class dissolves and the fear of scarcity and precarity returns to the population at large, the people become divided in their assignment of blame and the methods to address the growing crises. Some grow intolerant of the increasing wealth and power of elites and respond by abusing their liberty and defying the laws. Others, fearing economic precariousness, the perceived licentiousness of others, or a variety of other threats, seek intervention and safety from an increasingly powerful government.

The successive waves of abuse and intolerance overlays the sequence of Anacyclosis. Political society begins with kingship. The abuse of this authority creates tyranny. The elites’ intolerance of these abuses engenders aristocracy. The abuse of authority by aristocracy in turn gives rise to oligarchy. The people’s intolerance of these abuses encourages democracy. The abuse of liberty results in ochlocracy. At the beginning of Anacyclosis, it is the abuses of authority committed by elites which are intolerable. But at the end of Anacyclosis, it is the abuses of liberty by the people which cannot be tolerated.

A people becomes more fearful as it becomes more affluent and further removed from the dangers and triumphs experienced by its founding generation. Because liberty prevails during democracy, it is not only the risks from authority, but also the risks arising from the abuse of liberty, which become intolerable in democracy’s old age. After long periods of democracy, when no living memory of the perils of tyranny remains, the people lose their suspicions of authority and become more receptive to the authority of strong leaders for their salvation. Ibn Khaldun described the breakdown of social cohesion well in these excerpts from the Muqaddimah:

The first generation retains the desert qualities, desert toughness, and desert savagery. (Its members are used to) privation and to sharing their glory (with each other); they are brave and rapacious. Therefore, the strength of group feeling continues to be preserved among them.

Under the influence of royal authority and a life of ease, the second generation changes from the desert attitude to sedentary culture, from privation to luxury and plenty, from a state in which everybody shared in the glory to one in which one man claims all the glory for himself while the others are too lazy to strive for (glory), and from proud superiority to humble subservience. Thus, the vigor of group feeling is broken to some extent.

The third generation, then, has (completely) forgotten the period of desert life and toughness, as if it had never existed. They have lost (the taste for) the sweetness of fame and (for) group feeling, because they are dominated by force. Luxury reaches its peak among them, because they are so much given to a life of prosperity and ease. They become dependent on the dynasty and are like women and children who need to be defended. Group feeling disappears completely.

Setting aside certain peculiar anachronisms, do not Khaldun’s words offer a striking echo of the condition of the United States today? We can summon no better words to describe America today than divided, dependent, and scared

The Left is terrified of guns, climate change, and pandemics. The Right is terrified of immigration, crime, and terrorists. (Refer to the Pew Research Center for the latest data on priorities.) Yet while both sides are scared, neither side is generally scared of the same threats. Nevertheless, these threats share one thing in common: the solutions to them do not depend upon the opinions, judgment, or preferences of the American people. They all depend upon the opinions and judgment of unelected subject-matter experts. How much have we heard lately that we need to do whatever the experts say? Therefore, America’s fears presage a diminishing trust in the value of collective decision-making.

In other words, democracy has no role to play in resolving the risks that Americans most fear. The correct solution having been identified, the necessary path forward having been determined, all that is required of the people is for them to get out of the way. Indeed, democracy is increasingly seen as an obstacle to the resolution of crisis. When the stakes are so high, who does not believe that the most adherent disciples of either faction would gladly deprive their political opponents of political agency in order to guarantee the resolution of their greatest fears?

The world may very well end one day for mankind like it did for the dinosaurs. But at the rate we’re going, democracy will meet its fate much sooner. America’s first president George Washington anticipated the democracy-ending power of fear and faction. From his Farewell Address: 

The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

America is teetering near the final stage of Anacyclosis. It is at the stage of the sequence where it is losing its ability to tolerate its own liberty. America is losing its ability to trust the voice of its people. America is giving into fear and looking to the authority of government and the wisdom of experts to conduct it to safety. America is being frightened away from democracy.

But as bad as things may seem today, all those who would trust more to government than their fellow citizens seem to forget what history does not permit us the luxury to forget. Authority is as frequently abused as liberty. Within the last century, well over one hundred million people were killed by their own governments. Visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum or the Victims of Communism Memorial for a couple examples.

In the final analysis, government cannot eliminate danger. Government cannot guarantee absolute safety. The risks arising from the abuse of liberty can only be replaced by the risks arising from the abuse of authority. Democratic peoples who wish to remain democratic must remember this. Those who don’t will lose their democracies very soon.

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