Human Rule Weighed in the Balances
Part 4—“We the People”
Democracy: Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.
“WE THE PEOPLE of the United States . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution.” These opening words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution are appropriate, since the founding fathers intended the United States to be a democracy. A word of Greek origin, “democracy” means “rule of the people,” or as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, defined it: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Ancient Greece, often called the cradle of democracy, boasts that democracy was practiced in its city-states, notably in Athens, as far back as the fifth century B.C.E. But democracy then was not what it is today. For one thing, Greek citizens were more directly involved in the ruling process. Every male citizen belonged to an assembly that met throughout the year to discuss current problems. By a simple majority vote, the assembly determined the politics of the city-state, or polis.
Women, slaves, and resident aliens, however, were excluded from enjoying political rights. Thus, Athenian democracy was an aristocratic form of democracy for only the privileged few. One half to four fifths of the population probably had no voice at all in political matters.
Nevertheless, this arrangement did promote freedom of speech, since voting citizens were granted the right to express their opinions before decisions were made. Political office was open to every male citizen, not restricted to an elite few. A system of controls was designed to prevent misuse of political power on the part of individuals or groups.
“The Athenians themselves were proud of their democracy,” says historian D. B. Heater. “They believed it was a step nearer than the alternative monarchy or aristocracy to the full and perfect life.” Democracy was evidently off to a fine start.
Democracy Has Outgrown Its Cradle
Except for what is practiced on a small scale in New England, U.S.A., town meetings and to a limited extent in some of the cantons of Switzerland, direct, or pure, democracy no longer exists. Considering the sheer size of modern states and their millions of citizens, governing in this way would be technically impossible. Besides, how many citizens in the busy world of today would have the necessary time to devote themselves to hours of political debate?
Democracy has grown into a rather controversial adult—one with several faces. As Time magazine explains: “It is impossible to divide the world into clear-cut democratic and nondemocratic blocs. Within the so-called democracies, there are gradations of individual freedom, pluralism and human rights, just as there are varying degrees of repression within dictatorships.” Yet, most people expect to find certain basic things under democratic governments, things like personal liberty, equality, respect for human rights, and justice by law.
The direct democracy of yesterday has become the representative democracy of today. Legislative bodies, either unicameral, that is, having one chamber, or bicameral, having two, are composed of individuals elected by the people—or otherwise designated—to represent them and to make laws, supposedly for their benefit.
This trend toward representative democracy began in the Middle Ages. By the 17th and 18th centuries, 13th-century institutions, such as the Magna Charta and the Parliament in England, along with political theories about the equality of men, natural rights, and sovereignty of the people, were taking on greater meaning.
By the second half of the 18th century, the term “democracy” had come into general use, though viewed with some skepticism. The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “Even the authors of the United States Constitution in 1787 were uneasy about involving the people at large in the political process. One of them, Elbridge Gerry, called democracy ‘the worst of all political evils.’” Notwithstanding, men like Englishman John Locke continued to argue that government rests on the consent of the people, whose natural rights are sacrosanct.
Many democracies are republics, that is to say governments having a chief of state other than a monarch, now usually a president. One of the world’s first republics was ancient Rome, although its democracy was admittedly limited. Nevertheless, the partially democratic republic lasted for over 400 years before giving way to a monarchy and the Roman Empire.
Republics are presently the most common kind of government. Of the 219 governments and international organizations listed in a 1989 reference work, 127 are listed as republics, although not all are representative democracies. In fact, the range of governmental forms of republics is wide.
Some republics are unitary systems, that is to say, controlled by a strong central government. Others are federal systems, meaning that there exists a division of control between two levels of government. As the name indicates, the United States of America has this latter type of system known as federalism. The national government cares for interests of the nation as a whole, while state governments deal with local needs. Within these broad terms, of course, there are many variations.
Some republics hold free elections. Their citizens may also be offered a plurality of political parties and candidates from which to choose. Other republics consider free elections unnecessary, arguing that the democratic will of the people can be carried out by other means, such as by promoting the collective ownership of the means of production. Ancient Greece serves as a precedent, since free elections were unknown there also. Administrators were chosen by lot and generally permitted to serve for only one or two one-year terms. Aristotle was against elections, saying that they introduced the aristocratic element of selecting the “best people.” A democracy, however, was supposed to be a government of all the people, not just “the best.”
Best Only by Comparison?
Even in ancient Athens, democratic rule was controversial. Plato was skeptical. Democratic rule was considered weak because it lay in the hands of ignorant individuals easily swayed by the emotional words of possible demagogues. Socrates implied that democracy was nothing more than mob rule. And Aristotle, the third of this prominent trio of ancient Greek philosophers, argued, says the book A History of Political Theory, that “the more democratic a democracy becomes, the more it tends to be governed by a mob, . . . degenerat[ing] into tyranny.”
Other voices have expressed similar misgivings. Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India, called democracy good, but then added the qualifying words: “I say this because other systems are worse.” And William Ralph Inge, English prelate and writer, once wrote: “Democracy is a form of government which may be rationally defended, not as being good, but as being less bad than any other.”
Democracy has several weaknesses. First, for it to succeed, individuals must be willing to place the welfare of the majority ahead of their own interests. This might mean supporting tax measures or other laws that may be personally disagreeable but necessary for the good of the nation as a whole. Such unselfish interest is hard to find, even in democratic “Christian” nations.
Another weakness was detected by Plato. According to A History of Political Theory, he attacked “the ignorance and incompetence of politicians, which is the special curse of democracies.” Many professional politicians regret the difficulty in finding qualified and talented persons to serve in government. Even elected officials may be little more than political amateurs. And in the era of television, a candidate’s good looks or charisma can win him votes that his administrative abilities never would.
Another obvious disadvantage of democracies is that they are slow-moving. A dictator speaks, and things get done! Progress in a democracy may be slowed down by endless debates. Of course, thoroughly discussing controversial issues can have definite advantages. Yet, as Clement Attlee, former prime minister of Britain, once observed: “Democracy means government by discussion but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.”
Even after the talking has stopped, to what extent the decisions made are truly representative of what “the people” want is debatable. Do representatives vote the convictions of the majority of their constituents or, more often, their own? Or do they simply rubber-stamp the official policy of their party?
The democratic principle of having a system of checks and controls to prevent corruption is considered to be a good idea but is scarcely effective. In 1989 Time magazine spoke of “governmental decay at all levels,” calling a leading democratic government “a bloated, inefficient, helpless giant.” The chairman of a task force set up in the mid-1980’s to investigate waste in another government was moved to deplore: “The Government is run horribly.”
For these and numerous other reasons, democracies can hardly be called ideal governments. The obvious truth, as pointed out by John Dryden, 17th-century English poet, is that “the most may err as grossly as the few.” Henry Miller, American writer, was blunt, but nonetheless accurate, when he quipped: “The blind lead the blind. It’s the democratic way.”
To Its Grave?
Democratic rule has achieved greater acceptance in this century than ever before. Recent political upheavals in Eastern Europe bear this out. Nevertheless, “liberal democracy is now in serious trouble in the world,” wrote journalist James Reston some years ago. Daniel Moynihan warned that “liberal democracy is not an ascendant ideology” and that “democracies seem to disappear.” British historian Alexander Tyler said that a democratic government cannot last indefinitely because it “always collapses over loose fiscal policy.” Of course, his view is controversial.
At any rate, democracy is an obvious continuation of the trend started in Eden, when humans decided to do things their way, not God’s way. It is the ultimate in human rule, since it reaches out to embrace everyone, at least theoretically, in the governing process. But the Latin saying Vox populi, vox Dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” is untrue. Thus, those backing democratic human rule must be willing to share responsibility for its deeds.—Compare 1 Timothy 5:22.
This fact has taken on increased seriousness since 1914. In that fateful year, divine rule became operative in a unique way. God’s Messianic Kingdom now stands poised to take complete control of world affairs. All types of human rule—including democratic forms—are being weighed in the balances. To the extent that we individually advocate them, we are being weighed along with them.—Daniel 2:44; Revelation 19:11-21.
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“It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step.”—Jeremiah 10:23
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“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”—Proverbs 14:12, “New International Version”
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Those backing democratic human rule must be willing to share responsibility for its deeds
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U.S. National Archives photo