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The Trouble with Democracy


Democracy is no longer what many people believe it to be. Radical evolution ocurring within the framework of liberal democracy threatens cherished ideals of freedom and morality. The word "democracy" is now used to promote and defend all sorts of contradictory policies and points of view, which are exposed and explored in The Trouble with Democracy.

This essay is the Introduction to the book The Trouble with Democracy, published by Stoddart Publishing. Reproduced with the permission of the author and the publisher.


William D. Gairdner

 Author Notes

Author and columnist, founding president of the Canadian conservative society Civitas, chairman of the world-leading medical research foundation The Gairdner Foundation, doctor of literature, former Olympic athlete. Author or editor of The Trouble With Canada, Canada's Founding Debates, After Liberalism, The Trouble with Democracy (2001) and other works. Dr. Gairdner has a web site offering more information about his work.

Books by William D. Gairdner
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After Liberalism: Essays in Search of Freedom, Virtue, and Order (1998)
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Canada's Founding Debates: A Conversation With The Founders (1999)
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On Higher Ground: Reclaiming a Civil Society (1996)
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The Trouble with Democracy
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Trouble with Canada, The: A Citizen Speaks Out (1990)

War Against the Family: A Parent Speaks Out (1993)
 Essay - 4/1/2001

In the very long run the political condition of a people is a mirror of its collective soul. This book is one manís attempt to look deep into the mirror. To examine the fascinating paradoxes, contradictions and assumptions on which our way life has been built in the modest hope that we will be somewhat wiser and better informed when the realization hits that what we call "democracy" badly needs rethinking. It is not a history book, nor a book about practical politics, but rather a very personal book of reflections on human nature from a political, philosophical, and moral perspective. Itís a book I had to write because I personally think society is in trouble and that democracy, which has become a sloppy cover-term for what is now a largely unexamined way of life, is very much part of the problem. Indeed, I now believe the language and concepts derived from a very new kind of democratic thinking are corroding our most cherished ideals.

And I donít think Iím alone. A lot of people seem deeply worried about the current state of society. To some extent that has always been so. Human affairs have always been messy. But this is a mess with a difference. It has a bit of the dread that comes from turning unexpectedly into a spooky dead-end, and having to ask - Where do we go now? The general sense is that for creating the good society, religion, after centuries of trying, just couldnít do the job, and anyway, the nineteenth-century finished off religion as a serious player. Then big government and the welfare State were supposed to fix everything once and for all. A couple of terrible wars intervened in a bloody scrap over the basic question of which political system is best. Since then, there have been enough Great Societies, and Just Societies on the political drawing board to make us very dizzy. Lots of government happy talk. By the end of the century, democracy was being promoted everywhere as the best standard for every civilization on earth. There is now more money, more taxes, more government, and more of what looks something like democracy everywhere we look, but still ... we feel a vague but growing sense of disappointment and a deepening cynicism, if not a visceral fear for the kind of world this has produced. There is a diffuse sense of failure that I admit seems unwarranted on a nice sunny day, but it persists. We seem more than ever surrounded by intractable social, economic, and tax problems, by really weird sexual, gender, and substance-abuse problems, and by a lot of irresolvable moral contradictions that are bewildering enough to drive life-long atheists to religion, if just for a breather. All these things are dividing us from each other, and they chill the heart. And it doesnít help to say itís the same old story, because too many of these things are brand new, and getting worse.

All this must be kept in perspective, of course, because we do happen to live in one of the most fortunate, well-off, and beautiful countries every created. But that is not something we deserve by nature, and to preserve what is good in it we must be willing to recognize that sometimes the bad lurks within the beautiful, and then be willing to correct it. A beauty spot on someoneís cheek, for example, is a much admired thing until the day we learn it has become cancerous. Then we see it very differently. In the same way, there are many things - social, moral, political, economic - on the surface of daily life that we donít worry about until we learn to see them as a sign of something bad underneath, or perhaps a trend pointing to some future difficulty. At any rate, when I look around me and think deeply about the big picture, I am persuaded there is cause to worry about the future and the country we are leaving to our children.

Just a few of the reasons for alarm are listed here. Each is symptomatic of a major breakdown in, or assault against, some specific aspect of public life. In no particular order, they are the increasingly numerous random home invasions, many of which include the beating and raping of very old people; an astronomical growth in theft and fraud of all kinds; students in class tuned in to vulgar music on private headsets and telling their teachers to f--- off with impunity; schools forced to use police to patrol hallways, and metal detectors to discourage knives and guns; tragic school murders; widespread youth drug use and drug-dealing; the news that North Americans have more STDs, teen pregnancies, abortions, and suicides than ever in history; higher divorce rates and more common-law unions and single mothers than at any time in history; millions of people locking themselves away from society in nice gated communities with twenty-four hour private security; the fact that by 1990 - also for the first time in history - North America had more private than public police; the explosion of unregulated violence, vulgarity, and sexual explicitness in media, for purchase, and on the Internet; and finally, the looming realization that for the past three decades, most of the western democracies have not been replacing their own dying populations through childbirth. Considered together, these things indicate a profoundly demoralized civilization.

And I also sense that for the first time almost everyone who shares these worries is close to thinking the unthinkable: that maybe this thing we call "democracy" has let us down. Maybe more than let us down. Some are actually beginning to say very quietly, and only to close friends, that democracy as we now think of it might be part of the problem. Now this is very serious because democracy has been our last great faith and the only remaining civil religion of North America. But if democracy is actually failing us, what will be next? What can be next? How do we get out of the dead-end? Will there be, can there be, a post-democratic world? That is a question about political philosophy, which, as James Madison put it, is "the greatest of all reflections on human nature." But it seems our fabulous material comfort has made it all too easy to abandon the first duty of free citizens: a sincere and lifelong moral and intellectual interest in this greatest of all reflections. We seem more subject than ever to mass unconcern driven by a kind of active apathy, and hence to gross ideological manipulation.

That is how a lot of people it was meant to serve have been taken under the label of democracy to places most of them never wanted to go. History cannot tell us how to live, of course, but if we are alert it may warn us of mistakes to avoid. Regrettably, however, the momentous shifts and changes in the ground of human society are usually very slow and seldom felt at the time. The ordinary citizens of ancient Athens or Rome had little inkling their civilizations were already in deep decline as the people lived their daily lives, raised their children, worked their slaves, went to a play, or the baths, or the bloody gladiatorial matches, or marched off to one quixotic battle after another. For it is a fact and a seeming paradox that the moral and social decay of any civilization may occur in the midst of a general material well-being that serves to mask the decline. Indeed, can be relied upon to do so.

For me there is no question that whether on the way up or down, the history of civilizations, has little to do with grand accidents or any fixed laws or forces of nature or history. It has more to do with the unfolding of certain ideals, values, principles, and beliefs that through a variety of unique circumstances fall to the service of human will, or lack thereof. Everything else is a consequence of this, of what is sometimes called the "worldview," or Zeitgeist. In short, all of human civilization unfolds from ideals, to will, to action, to consequences, to newer ideals, and so on. And the most important civilizational ideals are ultimately weighed according to some accepted notion of virtue or vice

By virtue I mean the willingness of the people to devote themselves to and sacrifice their own private interests, if necessary even their lives, for the noble and difficult and very public ideals that energize their civilization. When all is said and done, it is only the presence of such shared transcendent ideals hovering over everyone, that is the surest, maybe the only mark a true civilization is present. And this leads early in the book to a conclusion that will shock any modern liberal, but one that I believe is the core conundrum of modernity. Namely, that there can be no moral framework and therefore no true community without a judicious public intolerance. That is, there can be no public sense of virtue without a public sense of vice. In the end, what marks any civilization is a conscious and clear set of widely accepted shalls and shall-nots that constitute an ideal way of life held in common. A folk vision of the good. Without this, a civilization soon deforms and despiritualizes, it ceases being a home and becomes a motel because the people check out of any deep concern for the whole. I think our civilization has at least one leg out the door.

This means that in order to sustain their civilization, the people must never rest in the one task that matters: to ceaselessly and publicly discuss, debate, defend and articulate their ideals, while attempting to encourage them by precept and example in all citizens, in the hope that some will become noble and great, all the better to carry on those ideals. But there can be no greatness or nobility of character without a clear path to be followed. Accordingly, they must react with a suitable fury when their high ideals are threatened or diminished, whether from without, or from within by the greatest of enemies ... their own weakened people and leaders. Only in this way, can they become and remain, a self-conscious people. Only in this way can they have a self-conscious democracy.

This book seeks to make us more aware of the role played within our civilization by democracy. I say the role, because it is clear to me now that the democracy so many patriots gave their lives for in the last War was something very different from what is trotted about under the same label today. We are not at all conscious of this alteration. And yet a civilization that is no longer self-conscious, that takes things for granted, that becomes ignorant, forgetful, or dismissive of its own heritage, and worst of all, that has no public sense of its own willed destiny, soon becomes vulnerable to whatever political wind is blowing. Worst of all, perhaps, vulnerable to its own torpor and unconcern. At this point we usually end up with yet another oligarchy - rule by the few. Some would argue this is what all governments eventually become, regardless of their outward names. So if a political book such as this has a purpose, it is to act as a gadfly and a goad to a sharper, fuller, broader insight, to help us become politically and morally self-conscious in the best and deepest sense.

A singular message I wish to convey is that the half-blind belief-system we call democracy has a kind of internal logic of its own that has evolved over time. This is a mere logic, and not necessarily a reasoned higher purpose. A pinball machine, for example, has a certain logic. There are many set places the ball can go, depending how you hit it, but the routes are predetermined. A computer program has a kind of algorithm, a set of multipliable possibilities that may unfold from the initial program, but no others. All political ideologies, or belief-systems are algorithmic in the sense that they unfold in certain ways, and not others, according to their underlying assumptions. Most often they fall into disturbing self-contradiction and soon the founding assumptions are skewed to meet changing realities. Eventually the whole patchwork of ideas drifts off into its own vertiginous world of Doublethink and Newspeak, a belief system with no believers and a deeply cynical populace as the price paid. So when I refer to the logic of democracy, I mean its unfolding as a system of skewed ideas over time. Part of the job here is to track the skewing.

This constrained evolution of political reality was surely the sort of thing an ancient thinker such as Polybius meant when, in his theory of cycles he argued that political systems would always unfold from monarchy (rule of one), to aristocracy (rule of nobles who had dumped the monarch), to oligarchy (rule of the powerful few who had dumped the nobles), to democracy (rule of those who dumped the powerful few for the powerful many), to tyranny (dictatorship of one man who was elected by acclamation and given absolute power - perhaps even made divine - first to obtain the booty desired by the masses, then to sort out the social chaos), and round again. This particular political algorithm has been doubted by very few until recent times, and most prior systems of government were designed to anticipate, at best to forestall those inevitable cycles of decay and corruption. It was not until the twentieth-century that we witnessed euphoric and enormously wealthy governments blindly devoted to the assumption of "progress" and the use of violent political power to ensure it, as if by the exercise of human will we could outsmart human nature.

I do not wish to argue that we should dump whatever democratic element we think we enjoy. On the contrary, I am worried that in our blind and uncritical affection for democracy and in a kind of automatic fulfillment of its own internal logic, it has already dumped us. Rather, what I hope is that this book will make all admirers of democracy, real and imaginary, very uncomfortable, so that in the coming reconstruction we will have a better chance of being whole again as a people. If we want to keep and refurbish what we call democracy, we will first have to make it, or rather ourselves, self-conscious. The task is not to offer a pat solution to the trouble with democracy, but to prod the people to think more deeply about the nature, complexity, and subtlety of the trouble. For we cannot fix a problem we do not understand.

And I want to defend myself as well. In my early books such as The Trouble With Canada (1990) I promoted instruments of direct democracy and a Swiss-style solution to many of our political problems. I would still do that - although with some caveats now. My reaching for these instruments as a solution to our problems arose from my deep sense that Canada has been ripped from its traditional moorings and in the last half of the century just past, got stood on its head. Not by the people, but by radical utopian visionaries of an egalitarian bent (these can be found by degrees in a variety of political parties) citing ... democratic progress and rights. And there I was promoting democratic instruments to get the country back on its feet! Some political parties have resorted to the same solution as a matter of policy. The result is that we have witnessed the unusual spectacle of very distressed and conservative-minded people driven to propose radical egalitarian-democratic ideas to take back their country. But I argue now - I did not see it so clearly then - that these are the very ideas and ideals (transformed from their original sense) that took the country from them in the first place. After all, every two-bit, left-leaning academic or journalist cites democracy as the justification for radical change. That is why I have come to conclude that the problem runs much deeper than democracy: an entire people voting in unison for something wrong will never make it right. Furthermore, in the long run, the attempt to reclaim society by plebiscitary democracy puts conservative-minded people at odds with the very sort of constitutional democracy they instinctively favour. Direct democracy, for such people - I mean the notion that an uninhibited majority should govern the nation, that impulse is sovereign over discipline, reason, and self-control - must be considered only a short term weapon of expediency, almost an act of despair, a guerrilla attack on the leviathan state; but in the end it rests on a theory of human nature they cannot support, and do not live by in their daily lives.

The deepest problem, rather, has less to do with democracy than with our deepest sense of purpose as a people, and with our understandings and misunderstandings as to the proper nature of a free and civil society, and the moral nature of the good. So I concluded there was another book to be written. Democracy cannot be a pat answer to our troubles because in itself it is just an instrument of power for implementing policies. If the policies or the morality underlying them is bad, the democracy will be bad, and it cannot be saved by the force of numbers. History shows that democracy can be used to further almost any ideal, as we shall see.

Soon after I got started I worried a lot that the entire subject was simply beyond my powers. After all, there are whole libraries devoted to single aspects of the many subjects that need to be addressed, whole lives spent interpreting single issues. But I now think the subject is beyond anyoneís powers. Evidence is that most of the "experts" disagree with each other intensely, and their professional careers largely run their course in academic dispute. So-called "political science" is the only intellectual pursuit I know for which there is hardly any agreement on any of the key terms. Even worse, it is pretty clear that for most theorists the act of writing about democracy is itself a deeply political act - they are usually advocates. This means there is no one who has a stranglehold on historical or political interpretations of democracy, nor on moral truth, nor on what constitutes a good political system or society. This depends solely on the persuasiveness, power, and appeal of the arguments made. And that realization freed me up to write this book. What is before the reader is the work of one citizen making his best arguments before the court of the people.

The Trouble with Democracy is published by Stoddart Publishing, and is available through the bookseller links appearing here on conservativeforum.org or from other quality booksellers.

Table of Contents

1) Unpacking The Myth of Democracy

2) Freedom, Democracy, Slavery

3) Democracy, the Gnostic Impulse, & The State of Nature

4) Democracy And The Politics of Perfection

5) Power, Freedom, Romanticism: The Secular Roots of Modern Democracy

6) The Longing For Total Democracy

7) Democracy & The Slaughterhouse of History: Attacking Society From Above

8) The Road To Hyperdemocracy

9) Democracy Against Community: Attacking Society From Below

10) Hyperdemocracy and the Politics of Sex

11) Some Problems and Paradoxes of Democracy, and Some Conclusions

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