Democracy is not democratic – The American Conservative
American political disputes often revolve around a dichotomy between democracy and authoritarianism. In domestic disputes, the individual political parties use the rhetoric of this dichotomy against each other. Each party perceives the other as a party of authoritarianism and describes itself as a party of democracy. Democrats see Republicans as the party that staged a riot to undermine an election, the party that is moving to limit voting rights, etc. Republicans see Democrats as the party that stole an election, the party of the big government etc. From either side, it’s always a case of Democracy vs. Authoritarianism.
This dichotomy is not so simple in foreign policy, even if the rhetoric has long been present in a non-partisan consensus. The motivation for America’s many wars, invasions, and military operations abroad is “to make the world safe for democracy” against the threat that supposedly lies in the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and elsewhere. Political parties are united in their obligation to change these regimes – by military force if necessary – as if they stood in the way of history, the direction of which is none other than freedom (as President Bush so eloquently said put it).
The bipartisan consensus that military intervention must be at hand to ensure the globalization of democracy is an acknowledgment of this fact Democracy cannot stand alone. The ugly truth is that democracy must be created and defined by highly undemocratic and even authoritarian means, hence “regime change”. The violent US interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria – not to mention the rapid expansion of NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union repeated assurances on the contrary – demonstrate that even by the US’s own calculations, democracy cannot be created without the use of authoritarian measures, up to and including the use of military force or the threat of it.
Think of the words of Friedrich Engels in a brochure with the title On authority, written against a group of anarchist socialists: “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act of one section of the population imposing its will on another section with rifles, bayonets, and cannon—authoritarian means, if such exist at all; and if the victorious party does not want to have fought in vain, it must perpetuate that rule through the terror its arms instill in the reactionaries.” What is regime change but an act of revolution? And what is the defense of democracy by a vast military alliance but an authoritarian reign of terror?
On the one hand, America’s crusader-like commitment to the military propagation of democracy abroad may expose the American liberal democratic ideal itself as nothing more than a fraud and a sham. There have been many democratic societies throughout history, but not all have been so keen to impose their democratic regime by force on the rest of the world. From this perspective, one is rightly compelled to join some critics of the United States, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, who have denounced it as perhaps the worst violator of its own ideal of self-government for imperialist hypocrisy. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that US expansionist ambitions are large accuse for the paranoia and distrust of the world’s other great powers, Russia and China, towards American hegemony.
But here another conclusion must be drawn. Perhaps democratic and authoritarian forms of government are not mutually exclusive, as they are usually portrayed; on the contrary, they can condition and reinforce each other. Whether their codependency is good or bad is another question, the answer to which may depend on the particular circumstances of each democracy and regime. Regardless of such isolated cases, America is perhaps just one example of the eternal, inescapable truth that democracy – or, if you want to put it vaguely, “freedom” – always requires the support of something that is inherently quite undemocratic.
Consider the history of Athenian democracy as told by Herodotus and Aristotle. The regime that ruled before the establishment of Athenian democracy was heavily oligarchic and stratified by rigid class divisions. As both Herodotus and Aristotle tell the story, this was the basis for a popular revolution that would be led by the great statesman Cleisthenes, who was vying with the aristocrat Isagoras for the position of chief justice in Athens. Despite many significant setbacks, Cleisthenes rose to power because, in the words of Herodotus in Book 5 of the stories, he “took the community into a partnership”. In other words, he was what some would call a “populist” today.
With the support of the lower classes (sometimes even by force), he successfully orchestrated a revolution, toppled the aristocratic class from power and carried out a major regime change in Athens. As Aristotle in Athenian Constitutions, Cleisthenes dissolved the rigid system of class-based government that formerly constituted the regime, divided the body into ten tribes instead of the previous four, and decreed a more equitable distribution of land and property among them. These reforms, though enforced in a quasi-dictatorial manner, laid the groundwork for a more democratic system of government. “Democracy” was born of a populist tyrant. Herodotus notes that Cleisthenes emulated the example of his grandfather and namesake, Cleisthenes, the despot of Sicyon, who had similarly reorganized the tribes of Sicyon to consolidate his dictatorship.
The Athens case is one of many historical examples of Engels’ observation that every revolution is an act of authoritarian coercion. Democratic revolutions do not escape this assessment. Liberation from tyranny in Athens could not have been achieved without the quasi-dictatorial redistribution of power and property that Cleisthenes oversaw. Democracies are built in violent or quasi-violent ways, with the support and backing of authoritarian power. The same principle arguably continues in the wider history of any democracy after its establishment: they are enshrined in constitutional forms whose parameters must be, at some level and to some degree, non-negotiable for the democratic system itself to be sustainable.
None of this sheds any light on what is a good or bad use of such power. Any democracy can be founded by an act of authoritarian power, but no two regimes are alike in form or moral content. For example, in contrast to the democracy of Cleisthenes, democratic regime change in the United States in the Middle East and elsewhere does not serve the interests of the global poor, but of the global oligarchy, and the American oligarchy in particular.
It follows that the most important question is how to exercise undemocratic authority for the good of the people demo, these are the peopleor for the common good. All political issues must ultimately be resolved for the common good, which is fairly independent of specific regime-form issues. In terms of global governance, the question is how a great power with truly imperial reach can wield that power for the benefit of the smaller powers for which it bears much responsibility. Within such a framework there is more leeway for a wide variety of regimes than even a liberal democratic framework seems to allow – after all, liberal democracy, given its track record in international relations, will appear to tolerate no regime other than itself. In doing so, she proves to be just as authoritarian as the monsters she sends abroad to kill her.
The same conclusion can be reflected back to domestic policy issues, be they of economic or cultural importance. Since the January 6 riots, pro-democracy rhetoric has increasingly extended to the United States domestic and foreign enemies of democracy. (Of course, democracy’s internal enemies are just those other political party and its leaders.) But in light of the above, party disputes that have been framed in the false dichotomy of democracy and authoritarianism should be refocused on the problem of how to use authority well, ie, for the good of the demos In the absence of such a framework, there is a risk that measures to protect democracy at home will turn out to be merely thoughtless and even destructive exercises in power.
Democracy alone is not democratic enough – because it may only mask a more totalitarian form of authoritarianism. Whether international or national, politics is always a question of using undemocratic authority democratically, ie for the good of the people.
Jonathan Culbreath is a writer based in Southern California. His texts have appeared in publications such as The American Conservativethe daily caller, the brat, National Catholic Register, America Magazine, and other. He is Associate Editor at The Josias, a website dedicated to the revival of Catholic political doctrine.