Opinion

Democracy vs. the mob

On the dark side of democracy

What's the difference between democracy and rule by mob?

This is a pressing question. A man who has aptly been described as "the most successful demagogue-charlatan in the history of U.S. politics" managed to accumulate enough votes to become the Republican nominee for president. Then he enjoyed a substantial bounce in the polls following a chaotic convention filled with blatant fear-mongering and an acceptance speech that set himself up as the strong-man savior of the nation.

Meanwhile, a man who became a Democrat only when he declared his candidacy for president (and has now resolved to leave the party again when he returns to the Senate) came within striking distance of winning a presidential nomination. And like petulant children, his supporters continually disrupted the Democratic convention.

Is this democracy or rule by mob?

As the British historian of political thought John Dunn has shown in a useful primer on the subject, the idea of democracy has a history — and that history can help us to gain much-needed perspective on some of the most troubling tendencies of the present political moment. While what the word "democracy" denotes has changed very little over the centuries and millennia — a form of government in which the people or "the many" rule — the way philosophers and intellectuals have evaluated it has shifted radically. What was once considered one of the worst forms of government is presumed by most today to be the only legitimate form of government.

But have we taken our reverence for the concept of democracy too far? Have we forgotten the perennial defects and dangers that political thinkers prior to the last two centuries consistently detected in democracy?

For Greeks writing in the ancient Athenian city state, democracy was simply mob rule. It was the politics of the crowd. It was devoid of reason. It was fickle, impetuous, ignorant, irresponsible, and easily manipulable by the rhetoric of sophists and demagogues who used rank flattery of base passions and fears to move public opinion whichever way they wished. This is why (as Andrew Sullivan recently explained in an important essay for New York magazine) Plato held that a pure democracy is always one step away from devolving into tyranny, the worst form of government of all: Because a sufficiently accomplished manipulator of the crowd can ride to power on waves of popular adulation and then turn himself into a tyrant.

Aristotle shared Plato's dark view of democratic government, but he nonetheless proposed that a modified form of democracy that mixed elements of oligarchical rule of the wealthy few could produce a relatively decent form of politics. In such a mixed regime, the worst aspects of each defective form of government would restrain the worst aspects of the other.

Over the next 2,000 years, Aristotle's idea of moderating the excesses of democracy in a mixed regime resurfaced from time to time — in the writings of select political philosophers in ancient Rome and the European Middle Ages; in the goals of the conciliar movement within the medieval Catholic Church. But it wasn't until the 17th and 18th centuries that a wide range of authors actively revived Aristotle's suggestions.

Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, the American constitutional framers, and several other participants in the transnational reform movement known as the Enlightenment aimed to adapt classical insights to the changed circumstances of modernity. They argued that institutions could be devised to mix elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, preserving the best and neutralizing the worst aspects of each pure form. This new version of a mixed regime (combining democratic election with representative institutions and various anti-democratic checks) would be uniquely well-suited to govern modern, commercially based political communities of national scope.

Or so these authors claimed.

Starting around the time of the French Revolution, the reservations about democracy that had led the leading figures of the Enlightenment to insist on checking the excesses of democracy began to give way to expressions of outright enthusiasm for the direct democratic rule of the people. Now democracy was not just an acceptable form of government with distinctive strengths and weaknesses but simply the best form of government — the form toward which all peoples ultimately aspired and that all political leaders (whether democratically elected or not) claimed to respect and champion.

In the U.S., the rapidly rising reputation of democracy translated into a series of reforms that dismantled numerous constitutional and customary restraints on direct democratic rule. And then those reforms were followed up by more recent moves to make Congress more transparent to the people and responsive to public opinion (which was now constantly monitored and publicized through polling).

Today democracy is considered the only legitimate form of government — and increasing the democratic character of any existing government an unalloyed good. But is it?

One reason why early modern political philosophers looked somewhat more kindly on democracy than their ancient counterparts is that they presumed that in the much larger political communities of modernity the demagogic manipulation of the crowd would be considerably more difficult to achieve than it had been in the comparatively tiny city states of antiquity. But by the early 20th century, technology (electronic speakers to amplify voices at massive public rallies, radio, film, television) had enabled the old defects of democracy to resurface on a vastly larger scale. In our own time, 24/7 partisan news and social media (especially Twitter) take the capacity for mass public manipulation to levels unthinkable in past ages.

Now we know that a virtual mob can even be mobilized to deliver control of a major political party into the hands of a man any political philosopher in Western history would instantly recognize as a demagogue and potential tyrant.

That raises the question of whether we may have gone too far in our one-sided adoration of democracy — and whether there are any democratically acceptable means of dispersing a mob of millions once it has formed. The difficulty of finding any principle by which to temper a democracy's excesses is one reason why Plato looked upon the form of government so skeptically and warned so ominously about its tendency to degrade into something much worse.

Was Plato too pessimistic?

We may receive a tentative answer a little more than three months from now.

More From...

Picture of Damon LinkerDamon Linker
Read All
Democracy and its destabilizing discontents
The Capitol.
Talking Points

Democracy and its destabilizing discontents

The government is shockingly bad at counting stuff
Counting.
Talking Points

The government is shockingly bad at counting stuff

The best possible abortion compromise
The Supreme Court.
Opinion

The best possible abortion compromise

The nagging mystery of Trump's BS
Donald Trump.
Opinion

The nagging mystery of Trump's BS

Recommended

How chaos makes liberal policy impossible
Hands.
Samuel Goldman

How chaos makes liberal policy impossible

Democracy and its destabilizing discontents
The Capitol.
Picture of Damon LinkerDamon Linker

Democracy and its destabilizing discontents

Germany's parliament elects Olaf Scholz as new chancellor
Olaf Scholz
Peaceful transfer of power

Germany's parliament elects Olaf Scholz as new chancellor

After Senate leaders reach a deal, House passes debt ceiling plan
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
bipartisanship

After Senate leaders reach a deal, House passes debt ceiling plan

Most Popular

Kathy Griffin slams CNN for firing her but not Jeffrey Toobin
Kathy Griffin
'I loved that gig'

Kathy Griffin slams CNN for firing her but not Jeffrey Toobin

Mace vs. Greene is the fight for the future of the GOP
Mace and Greene.
Picture of W. James Antle IIIW. James Antle III

Mace vs. Greene is the fight for the future of the GOP

Legally rigging elections?
Protesters.
Feature

Legally rigging elections?