When did Democracy become a dirty word?

There has been quite a lot of interest recently in the re-writing of American history in Texas by the Christian Conservatives who have come to dominate the education board. Christian Conservatives, claim to be against the power of the state and taxation. In practice, though, they seem to have no problem in using the power of the state and taxpayers money to indoctrinate children with their ideology by rewriting history and science text books in a way that would have made Stalin blush. They see it as their chance to make “corrections” to a history that has been written by the Liberal Left. As Cynthia Dunbar (chair of the Board of Education) puts it:

“We wanted to make sure … there was a patriotic position promoted, because America, after all, is still the greatest nation on Earth.”

Much has been made of their overturning of what Dunbar calls “the myth of the separation of church and state” which may have been supposed to be fundamental to the American constitution but does seem to be a rather obvious target for Christian Conservatives? No big surprise there? What did surprise me though was one of the changes that has not had nearly as much media attention:

“use of the term ‘constitutional republic’ rather than ‘democratic’ or ‘representative democracy’ in reference to the U.S. form of government”

Eh? Did I miss something? When did the description of the USA as a Democracy become a dangerous left wing distortion of history that needs to be “corrected”? When did democracy become a dirty word? What’s that all about?

In Scotland, 1820 a flurry of disorderly events known as the Radical War culminated in a small group marching towards an ironworks in order to arm themselves. So confident were they that they were going to overthrow the existing state that they stopped at a tavern for lunch and asked for a receipt in order to reclaim their expenses from the new government! In the event they were attacked by a company of the Kings Hussars and their leaders were hung.

These “radicals” were not the usual mob of the time, they were artisans (weavers, smiths and wrights – an aspiring middle class) they were small business men, self employed and working to commission they had found time to read and educate themselves and discuss the issues of the day. The radical ideas of Thomas Paine and the French and American Revolutions. They found that their aspirations, and the hopes of the age, were being thwarted and held back by the basically feudal state that still governed society. In Scotland at the time, although the UK was already claiming to be a democracy, only 1 in 250 had the right to vote. The slogan of the radicals was – “No Kings, No Lords, No taxes”.

How things change? 200 years later the UK still has an unelected head of state, till recently the First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Lord President of the Council (all one person) was Lord Mandelson, an unelected “Socialist” Lord who has said that he is “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and taxes are still very much with us, indeed they have become far higher than the Radicals could ever have imagined.

There’s one bit of good news though? Pretty much every adult now has a say in how the state is run. This is surely one thing that nobody would dispute represents progress in the last 200 years? Well it would seem not.

A quick search on the internet reveals that there is quite a body of people who believe that Democracy is little better than Dictatorship. A fairly typical example of the Anti-Democratic argument is one made by Alexander Marriott in Capitalism Magazine

“If 70% of voters vote to ban gay marriage, does that make it right? If 51% of voters vote to ban smoking, does that make it right? If 99.99% vote to redistribute property, does that make it right? The answer to all of these is “NO!” absolutely not. Truth isn’t determined by how many adherents one can get to go along with you. This is why democracy should be fought off wherever it shows its ugly face”

Marriott argues that in America the founding fathers sought to protect the Nation from the “ugly face” of Democracy by limiting the power of the state (whatever the people might want) by charter (a constitutional republic).

If you accept that there are indeed “right” answers to Marriott’s examples then of course he is correct in stating that “truth” is not determined by what the majority want. So if the majority doesn’t decide the truth then who does decide. This question seems to be answered in four ways by Anti-Democrats

  1. By a strong leader
  2. By God
  3. By Clever chaps
  4. The state has no business deciding the truth in “private interactions”.

1. The Strong Leader
This answer, in various forms, was responsible for most of the misery of the last century and nobody is that impressed by that version of Anti-Democracy these days. The other answers are more of a threat to Democracy these days and are being taken very seriously by a growing number of people.

2. By God
It seems pretty clear from a short perusal of Dunbar’s “One Nation under God: How the Left Is Trying to Erase What Made Us Great” that it is God, not man, that decides what is true and that was, in her opinion, the original intention of the founding fathers. The Texas curriculum now gives emphasis to the Mayflower Compact to instill the idea of America being founded as a Christian fundamentalist nation. The constitution should have placed God at the heart of Law, Government and Human Rights but was rewritten by dangerous liberal lefties like Thomas Jefferson. First you “correct” history then you “correct” the constitution. The resulting “correction” might look somewhat less “liberal” than “The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran” which although it vests sovereignty with God in articles 1 and 2 also mandates popular elections for the Presidency and Parliament in article 6.

The trouble with letting god decide what is the “truth” is which of God’s many representatives on Earth do you put your faith in?

3. By Clever Chaps
This version of Anti-Democracy is currently being touted by a surprising group of people – Environmentalists. Prof James Lovelock a stalwart of the Environmental movement who developed the theory of Gaia makes the case in a recent article in the Guardian that the actions that need to be taken to reverse Global Warming are so extreme that it is not possible for them to take place in a Democracy. Nobody is going to voluntarily give up their cars, flights and non-seasonal fruit and veg they are going to have to be forced. As Lovelock puts it:

“Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

The trouble though with letting clever chaps decide what the “truth” is – which clever chap do you put your faith in? As they don’t all agree with each other. Global Warming being a good example as the recent leak of e-mails in the UAE demonstrates.

4. The state has no business deciding the truth in “private interactions”.
This version of Anti-Democracy is also becoming more popular of late although the libertarians who espouse it often climb into bed with the Christian Conservatives, for some reason, their argument is more sophisticated and seems at first to be the opposite of the authoritarianism of the Christian Conservatives. A good example of this argument is the Position of Rand Paul the Tea Party activist and Republican nominee for Kentucky. He has argued that Civil Rights should not apply to private interactions. In other words if the owner of a private business wants to refuse service to blacks or gays or anyone else that’s up to them.

The trouble with Paul’s argument is that the state cannot realistically stay out of such “private interactions”? Say a very drunk person enters a bar, the owner thinks he has had enough and refuses to serve them. The drunk person refuses to leave and demands to be served, what happens? The state recognises the right of the bar owner to refuse service, in this case, so he can call the police and the drunk person can be removed, by force if necessary.

Say a black person enters a bar and is refused service but refuses to leave and demands a drink, what happens? Before the Civil Rights Act the State recognised the right of the bar owner to refuse service to the black person he could call the police and the black person could be removed, by force if necessary. If you follow Paul’s logic that the state has no business interfering in this “private interaction”, then the owner of the bar and the black person have to sort this out themselves! Oh and the owner of the bar would not be able to call the police to have the drunk person removed either?

So it turns out that libertarians do not actually think the State should stay out of private interactions, they think that in cases like this property rights should take precedence over an individuals rights. In other words it is the business of the state to defend the rights of the owner of property to do what he likes with his own property, by force if necessary, even if in so doing you are are denying an individual his rights. It’s an interesting position for people that claim to believe in individualism and to be against the power of the State to take.

The other problem with libertarian arguments against democracy is that when they are combined with the argument that taxation is robbery with violence (which they usually are) it is possible to portray the democratic state as a tyrannical dictatorship and legitimise it’s violent overthrow if you don’t like what the majority have voted for.

When Timothy McVeigh bombed a Federal building in Oklahoma killing 168 people including 19 children under the age of 6 he thought that his action would inspire a revolt against what he saw as a tyrannical regime which had used deadly force to collect taxes, incurred under the National Firearms Act, in Waco.

Timothy McVeigh’s actions may have been more extreme than the actions of most libertarians but his anti-democratic ideology is not.

So where does that leave us? Well for me I have to agree with Winston Churchill that Democracy is still the very worst form of government, apart from all the others!

This entry was posted in Democracy, Libertarianism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When did Democracy become a dirty word?

  1. Erich Kofmel says:

    On this, check out my blog, the “Anti-Democracy Agenda”:



  2. Fascinating stuff. I still suspect that in a good system of government the leader has to be a good person and respect the legitimate rights of the population. Jimmy Reid died very recently and his speaches are now available on line. I knew about the Upper Clyde but not his speach when he became Rector of Glasgow University.

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