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Does democracy need saving?

It’s something else, freedom, that is under threat


Does democracy need saving?
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We often hear from elites in the country that our democracy is in mortal danger and requires saving. In a much-debated speech, President Biden stood in front of Independence Hall last week to tell the American people that “equality and democracy are under assault. We do ourselves no favor to pretend otherwise.”

Does American democracy need saving? Those who have read Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America may find the question particularly important, but not for the same reasons as those who have not read it. In contemporary times, we regard democracy as the height of human political achievement. Based on the principle of natural equality, democratic government is predicated upon the sovereignty of the people, not a king or an aristocracy. And to be sure, democratic government based upon the sovereignty of the people is a singular achievement.

Our Constitution, which lays out the procedures for how our federal system is to work as a constitutional republic, represents a signal contribution to the flourishing of individual citizens and the securing of the common good in the United States. Thus, for most people, democracy and freedom are closely related terms. Democracy is, by definition, a government that ensures freedom, not tyranny. When we are told that our democracy is under threat, we immediately intuit that freedom is also being threatened by tyrannical forces—“semi-fascism,” if we use President Biden’s moniker (applied exclusively to his political opponents).

But Tocqueville argued that democracy, based as it was on what he called “equality of conditions,” often tends toward tyranny, not freedom. In democratic societies, people were prone to live for themselves and could easily neglect the well-being of their fellow citizens. When people’s immediate needs and wants could be satisfied with creature comforts, citizens no longer conducted themselves out of concern for the common good. At that point, Tocqueville wrote, “an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate.”

Such a despotic power would rule over citizens like children, caring for their whims as long as they ceased thinking for themselves, acting on their free will, or taking responsibility for their own well-being. Political power would become supreme in the hands of such a democratic tyrant, one that relieved citizens “entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living.” Equality of conditions prepared people for such a fate because equality fostered movement up the socio-economic ladder. Thus, Tocqueville argued that democratic people would more readily give up freedom than equality. In a democracy, Tocqueville wrote, people “will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.” Equality’s promise was quick and cheap. Freedom’s benefits require patience and sacrifice.

When we ask, “Does democracy need saving,” we are asking the wrong question. The real question we should ask is, “does freedom need saving?” To that, we should answer in resounding terms, “Yes.”

Tocqueville had enormous confidence in Americans and in their ability to prevent democracy from degenerating into tyranny.

Lance Morrow of the Wall Street Journal argued that the message we get from Biden’s Sept. 1 address is that the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party is beyond scrutiny and honest dissent. Morrow maintained that the Democratic Party line has “hardened into absolute faith that any party or political belief system except their own is illegitimate—impermissible, inhuman, monstrous and (a nice touch) a threat to democracy.”

When the federal government operates by executive order, when it states and enforces one-size-fits-all policies in the name of security, public health, or education, and when officeholders in one federal branch demonize officeholders in another branch over policy disagreements, the makings of what Tocqueville called “democratic despotism” are in place.

But Tocqueville had enormous confidence in Americans and in their ability to prevent democracy from degenerating into tyranny. While he was wary of equality and democracy, he welcomed them, because in them he saw great potential for the expansion of human freedom. Seventeen years after visiting America, Tocqueville reflected on American’s ability to steer equality and democracy in the direction of freedom. He said to the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, “Democracy and socialism intersect in but a single word: equality. But note the difference: democracy wants equality in liberty, and socialism wants equality in bondage and servitude.”

For Tocqueville, the all important point was to preserve liberty in a democracy, not to secure democracy at the expense of liberty. Furthermore, Tocqueville argued that religion was necessary for the preservation of liberty. Religion informed the culture through the mores of the people, the voluntary associating of citizens, a free press, and a healthy public spirit in which citizens balanced their communities’ public interests with individual private ones. By combating selfishness, religion served as a means for citizens to get their attention off their material pleasures and centering their minds on their fellow citizen’s flourishing and their own eternal destiny.

Does democracy need saving? As long as sovereignty rests with the people in America as the Constitution affirms, democracy does not need saving. But freedom is threatened by majoritarian tyranny and an overbearing welfare state. Freedom, with responsibility, is an inheritance we receive from our forefathers and mothers, and we must vigilantly guard it. To do so, we must heed the wisdom declared to us through the wisdom of God.

John D. Wilsey

John D. Wilsey is associate professor of church history and philosophy at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a research fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute.

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