Are We Safe from Democracy?

wilson congressOn April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson spoke before a joint session of Congress seeking a Declaration of War against Germany and the Central Powers. In doing so, he declared that the world “must be made safe for democracy.”

Wilson’s statement has served as a foundation for American foreign policy in the nearly 100 years since the United States’ entry into World War I. Almost every armed conflict that the United States has involved itself in has been justified by our leaders largely in part because “we are fighting for democracy and freedom.” With common sense and insight, it is not hard to see that every Cold War conflict was dominated by this theme (democracy vs. communism).

Even more recently, the United States government has used this to justify conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It even seems that victory in these conflicts is defined by how well our soldiers enforce democratic elections.  The modern principle for this intervention was reiterated by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address. He stated, “So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

The founders of American libertarianism were among the first to openly question democracy as a common ideal for American society. In the midst of the socialistic dominations of the 1930’s, brave thinkers such as Rose Wilder Lane fundamentally changed the intellectual understanding of democracy’s place in the political spectrum. What if democracy was useless in the fight against fascism? What if the only way to slow the descent of public opinion into fascism was to declare the said public to be free under a society of liberty?

Can the United States even be considered a democracy? At least in the traditional sense, the answer is no. The form of government that is traditionally considered a democracy first emerged in the city-states of Ancient Greece. Ideally, a democracy is a government in which every citizen has an equal say in every decision and action that the government might partake in. In the city-states of Ancient Greece, this was actually quite feasible (“citizens” were only considered to be land-owning males). When this “pure” form of democracy was not possible, the Greeks resorted to representation via random selection, similar to the way in which we choose juries.

The United States, while using the democratic process, cannot be considered a democracy. Indeed, the United States Senate is one of the most unrepresentative legislative bodies in the world. The United States’ government takes the form of a federal republic. The difference between this and a democracy can probably be best explained by considering the motivating philosophies of both forms of government. A democracy is motivated by a desire for the will of the community to be completely represented. A federal republic, however, is motivated by the rule of law and by not only the representation of it’s citizens, but also by the protection of their rights.

In a democracy, nothing can restrain the will of the majority. With the blessing of a mere 51 percent of its citizens, the government is able to justify anything. Maybe those who shape United States foreign policy should take that into account. Even in the view of an interventionist, the prospect of democratic rule in certain parts of the world hold many unfavorable possibilities. These possibilities have became realities in countries such as Iran and Venezuela, countries that go through great efforts to make their political process appear “democratic”. In truth however, these countries have completely suppressed the rights of their citizens. To make things worse, they have learned to do so in the “democratic” manner in which the United States has so shamelessly promoted. When we say that our mission is to “make the world safe for democracy,” do we really know what we are saying?

I doubt that even the framers of the Constitution had the wisdom to foresee a dilemma as particular as this. Thankfully though, we do know which form of government we were given, and we would do well to respect it. The framers of the Constitution were very much men of the Revolution. Above anything else, they sought to establish a government which would be restrained. The Constitution was written through the perspective of law that states what the federal government cannot do. Any form of government will give way to tyranny except the form which defends the rights of its citizens through the rule of law. This principle should be just as obvious to us today as it was to those who signed our Constitution over 220 years ago.

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