Is democracy bad for the country?
The story goes that as Benjamin Franklin was leaving the final session of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a monarchy or a republic?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied: “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.”
A republic is clearly what the framers of the Constitution intended for the United States. That new Constitution contained a series of checks and balances on the three branches of government, and the Bill of Rights attached to that Constitution spelled out the various liberties of the citizens and the states. The republic that came into being in 1789 was designed by its authors to resist both government encroachments and pure democracy, which these same authors regarded as “mobocracy.”
In The People Have Spoken (and they are wrong): The Case Against Democracy (Regnery Publishing, 2014, $27.99, 230 pages), David Harsanyi offers a controversial thesis: our republic is dying, populism is its murderer, and the democracy replacing the republic will prove itself a dangerous dictator. He makes the case that our worst enemies are not the usual scapegoats — commentators, politicians, bureaucrats — though these are dangerous and have given rise to the populist radical politics of both left and right. Yet none of these people would have any power over us had we not handed it over to them. According to Harsanyi, the worst enemy of the republic is the American voter.
Americans, as Harsanyi points out, have higher IQs than their ancestors. We truly are brighter, and we have much greater access to information, yet we are correspondingly more ignorant about our political system than our grandparents. Michael X. Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded a study revealing that “slightly under 1 percent” of American voters are fully prepared to exercise their franchise.
In the first third of The People Have Spoken, Harsanyi demonstrates how out of touch most Americans are with government initiatives and programs. In addition to showing us some general beliefs of Americans (29 percent believe in astrology, 28 percent believe a secret elite is conspiring to establish a global government, and so on), Harsanyi demonstrates that few of us know what is meant by the “debt ceiling,” that a recent Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans have never heard of Common Core, and that only a few Americans really understand the Affordable Health Care Act, known popularly as Obamacare. (Disclosure: I have a college degree, two years of graduate school, keep up with the daily news, and teach American history, among other subjects. I confess I have no idea how Obamacare works. I do know my insurance rates skyrocketed and that my carrier informed me that part of the increase in my rates was to help pay for pregnancies. I am 63, widowed, and male, and though I tried to assure the insurance agents that I would resist pregnancy in the foreseeable future, they wouldn’t budge).
Harsanyi addresses other problems as well. In the chapter titled “Democracy of the Dead,” for example, in which he discusses the dangers of failing to pay homage to traditional beliefs, Harsanyi addresses the weakness of democracy when “extended over a large territory.” Though James Madison addressed this concern in The Federalist Number 10, believing that a republic could function in what he then knew as the United States, Harsanyi points out that “democracy on the scale that it has reached in the United States may be untenable.” Those who have ever had to deal with Social Security or the Internal Revenue Service, whatever their political persuasion, may well be inclined to agree.
Readers will find other observations well worth their time. After reading Harsanyi, I finally understood why the Founding Fathers advocated the electoral college, I fully saw the advantages of gridlocked government, and I read a reasonable argument for not voting. Though I voted nonetheless, his reasons for not voting gave me pause about voting for “the lesser evil.”
The People Have Spoken is not a long book, but it has taken me several months to read. I argued — and will continue to argue — with some of its premises, and I disliked the way the book ended, with no real solution, but Harsanyi’s critique did cause me to reconsider the idea of democracy, which we have so eagerly tried to export into places like Iraq and Afghanistan. What do we mean by democracy? And if we live in a “democracy,” how do we protect the rights of the minorities in our midst, ranging from those who don’t want to pay for contraception as a part of their health plan to those who wish to protest in the public square? What qualifications do others and I need to bring into a voting booth? If 51 percent of the population decide they deserve certain entitlements, which I am either to pay or receive, what about the 49 percent who don’t go along with the idea? If I decide on any grounds not to vote, do I then have no right to complain about the government?
And how do I confront the situation that all of us, on one issue or another, face on the last page of The People have Spoken? “Despite what we so often hear about it (democracy) being a tool for self-rule, it is more often a mechanism to impose a way of life on others.”
Harsanyi raises these and other troubling questions.
The People Have Spoken (and they are wrong): The Case Against Democracy by David Harsanyi. Regnery, 2014. 230 pages.