A note or two about democracy

clive_palmer_guardian_of_democracy_1600FROM SEQUENCE 2013
March 2013

Notes first drafted after a rancorous committee meeting

There may be—there are—those few who are committed to democracy as a goal in and of itself, as an excellent way, among other things, of encouraging people to think for themselves and to see themselves, properly, as worthy of the same respect and opportunities as any other human beings. But most people and groups make calls for democracy or for greater democracy—for voting and majority rule—when they think that they and their allies can thereby, and perhaps only thereby, come out on top. This could be because their group has the most supporters (e.g., the most people who will take the trouble or have the time to vote) or because, in any case, there is a way that invoking democratic goals and principles can help advance their interests.

It is interesting that it only took a decade to get from the Declaration of Independence’s self-evidence that all men are created equal to The Federalist No. 10‘s “diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate,” and to making the protection of these faculties “the first object of government.” The article’s author, Thomas Jefferson’s protege James Madison, goes on: “From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and . . . ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.” I.e., human beings are not created equal, and government’s first job is to protect both the acquisitiveness and acquisitions of the haves, and the ineptitude and penury of the have-nots?

One might find plenty of other examples in the struggles between the oligarchs and democrats in ancient Athens, as well as in the histories of other “popular” revolutions. In the American case, for example, after independence was achieved, not only Madison but the propertied classes as a whole came out in favor of, and indeed imposed, a limited form of democracy, while the vastly more numerous members of the working classes were unable to achieve what they fought for: more thoroughgoing and direct democracy. (Along the way toward winning this latter war the creditors agreed to pay fellow creditors—e.g., the bankers and generals of the revolutionary army—extremely well for their services, and most of the foot soldiers ended up with nothing or less.)

The larger point here is that calls for democracy—in general or of one kind or another, and be this at the level of nations or in committee meetings—most always involve disingenuous, self-interested scheming. In No. 10 Madison writes of the connection between “reason”—people’s opinions, principles and arguments [their Federalist papers included]—and “self-love.”

Democracy—and no less or more than arguments for the divine right of kings—is a politics steeped in bad faith. This does not make less wonderful the ideas that all men and women [and animals? and other species and inorganic beings?] are created equal, and that each person deserves to be treated as an end in herself. Wonders are also, however, the products of magicians, and thus at times, when one is seeking something besides entertainment, a certain skepticism may be enlightening.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” Jefferson is [incorrectly] said to have proclaimed. Among the things not said along the way are that eternal vigilance is not possible and that among the things of which a citizen would need to be vigilant is the very concept of democracy itself. E.g.: Who has founded or is promoting this democracy (and who is putting a price on liberty?), and to advance what, perhaps quite undemocratic interests?

The image is a cartoon of Australian mining magnate Clive Palmer. In September 2012 Palmer accused Queensland Premier Campbell Newman of destroying that state (by proposing that the coal industry pay higher royalties). Palmer, whose plans for a massive coal mine in central Queensland were threatened by the royalty increase, said the public would not put up with “the rape of this state”. “I won’t put up with it, either,” he said. “I remain the last sentry at the gate to protect democracy.”


  • Madison’s The Federalist No. 10 on “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection (continued),” was addressed to the People of the State of New York and published in the Daily Advertiser on November 22, 1787.

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