THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.
Democracy is a form of government in which power ultimately comes from the people who are governed, either through direct voting or through elected representatives. A democracy can range from a liberal direct democracy to an illiberal totalitarian democracy.
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- The manifest, the avowed difficulty is that democracy, no less than monarchy or aristocracy, sacrifices everything to maintain itself, and strives, with an energy and a plausibility that kings and nobles cannot attain, to override representation, to annul all the forces of resistance and deviation, and to secure, by Plebiscite, Referendum, or Caucus, free play for the will of the majority. The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man‘s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing. Religious toleration, judicial independence, dread of centralisation, jealousy of State interference, become obstacles to freedom instead of safeguards, when the centralised force of the State is wielded by the hands of the people. Democracy claims to be not only supreme, without authority above, but absolute, without independence below; to be its own master, not a trustee. The old sovereigns of the world are exchanged for a new one, who may be flattered and deceived, but whom it is impossible to corrupt or to resist, and to whom must be rendered the things that are Caesar's and also the things that are God’s. The enemy to be overcome is no longer the absolutism of the State, but the liberty of the subject.
- Lord Acton, in his review of "Sir Erskine May's Democracy in Europe" in The Quarterly Review (January 1878), p. 73
- As surely as the long reign of the rich has been employed in promoting the accumulation of wealth, the advent of the poor to power will be followed by schemes for diffusing it. Seeing how little was done by the wisdom of former times for education and public health, for insurance, association, and savings, for the protection of labour against the law of self-interest, and how much has been accomplished in this generation, there is reason in the fixed belief that a great change was needed, and that democracy has not striven in vain. Liberty, for the mass, is not happiness; and institutions are not an end but a means. The thing they seek is a force sufficient to sweep away scruples and the obstacle of rival interests, and, in some degree, to better their condition. They mean that the strong hand that heretofore has formed great States, protected religions, and defended the independence of nations, shall help them by preserving life, and endowing it for them with some, at least, of the things men live for. That is the notorious danger of modern democracy. That is also its purpose and its strength. And against this threatening power the weapons that struck down other despots do not avail. The greatest happiness principle positively confirms it. The principle of equality, besides being as easily applied to property as to power, opposes the existence of persons or groups of persons exempt from the common law, and independent of the common will; and the principle, that authority is a matter of contract, may hold good against kings, but not against the sovereign people, because a contract implies two parties.
- Lord Acton, in his review of "Sir Erskine May's Democracy in Europe" in The Quarterly Review (January 1878), p. 74
- The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections. To break off that point is to avert the danger. The common system of representation perpetuates the danger. Unequal electorates afford no security to majorities. Equal electorates give none to minorities. Thirty-five years ago it was pointed out that the remedy is proportional representation. It is profoundly democratic, for it increases the influence of thousands who would otherwise have no voice in the government; and it brings men more near an equality by so contriving that no vote shall be wasted, and that every voter shall contribute to bring into Parliament a member of his own opinions.
- Lord Acton, in his review of "Sir Erskine May's Democracy in Europe" in The Quarterly Review (January 1878), p. 75
- "It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see...."
"You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?"
"No," said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, "nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people."
"Odd," said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."
"I did," said Ford. "It is."
"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't the people get rid of the lizards?"
"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."
"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"
"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."
"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"
"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in."
- Douglas Adams, in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (1984) Ch. 36
- I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.
- The basis of a democratic state is liberty.
- If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.
- I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.
We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like "America's right to know" and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.
- Tyrannies, when they are strong, and democracies, when they are weak, can not tolerate criticism.
- True democracy consists not in lowering the standard but in giving everybody, so far as possible, a chance of measuring up to the standard.
- Irving Babbitt, "English and the Discipline of Ideas" (1920), Irving Babbitt: Representative Writings (1981), p. 65
- Democracy is the menopause of Western society, the Grand Climacteric of the body social. Fascism is its middle-aged lust.
- I believe in democracy, but in real democracy, not a phony democracy in which just powerful people can speak. For me, in a democracy everyone speaks.
- Augusto Boal, as quoted in "To Dynamize the Audience: Interview with Augusto Boal" by Robert Enight, in Canadian Theatre Review 47 (Summer 1986), pp. 41-49
- Democracy allows people to have different views, and democracy makes it also -- makes us also responsible for negotiating an answer for those views. [...] So we would like to -- it’s not just a matter of debating the case in parliament and winning Brownie points or Boy Scout points, or whatever they’re called. But it’s just a case of standing up for what we think our country needs. And we would like to talk to those who disagree with us. That, again, is what democracy is about. You talk to those who disagree with you; you don’t beat them down. You exchange views. And you come to a compromise, a settlement that would be best for the country. I’ve always said that dialogues and debates are not aimed at achieving victory for one particular party or the other, but victory for our people as a whole. We want to build up a strong foundation for national reconciliation, which means reconciliation not just between the different ethnic groups and between different religious groups, but between different ideas -- for example, between the idea of military supremacy and the idea of civilian authority over the military, which is the foundation of democracy.
- Democracy needs support and the best support for democracy comes from other democracies. Democratic nations should... come together in an association designed to help each other and promote what is a universal value — democracy.
- Sycophancy toward those who hold power is a fact in every regime, and especially in a democracy, where, unlike tyranny, there is an accepted principle of legitimacy that breaks the inner will to resist. … Flattery of the people and incapacity to resist public opinion are the democratic vices, particularly among writers, artists, journalists and anyone else who is dependent on an audience.
- Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), p. 249
- We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.
- Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice ~ quoted by Raymond Lonergan in, Mr. Justice Brandeis, Great American (1941), p. 42
- When I examined my political faith I found that my strongest belief was in democracy according to my own definition. Democracy—the essential thing as distinguished from this or that democratic government—was primarily an attitude of mind, a spiritual testament, and not an economic structure or a political machine. The testament involved certain basic beliefs—that the personality was sacrosanct, which was the meaning of liberty; that policy should be settled by free discussion; that normally a minority should be ready to yield to a majority, which in turn should respect a minority's sacred things. It seemed to me that democracy had been in the past too narrowly defined and had been identified illogically with some particular economic or political system such as laissez-faire or British parliamentarism. I could imagine a democracy which economically was largely socialist and which had not our constitutional pattern.
- John Buchan, Pilgrim's Way (1940, reprinted 1979), p. 222
- A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world.
- Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
- And wrinkles, the d—d democrats, won't flatter.
- The 20th century has been characterised by three developments of great political importance. The growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda against democracy.
- Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy, 1997, University of Illinois Press, ch. 2 p. 18.
- The 20th century has been characterized by four developments of great importance: the growth of political democracy, the growth of Online Democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.
- Alex Carey, Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Propaganda in the US and Australia, University of NSW Press, as quoted in Letter from Noam Chomsky to Covert Action Quarterly.
- Democracy will prevail when men believe the vote of Judas as good as that of Jesus Christ.
- Attributed to Thomas Carlyle "The Scholar in a Republic", centennial anniversary address to Phi Beta Kappa of Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts (June 30, 1881). Reported in Carlos Martyn and Wendell Phillips, The Agitator (1890), p. 581. Reported as unverified in Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations (1989).
- Democracy, which means despair of finding any Heroes to govern you, and contented putting up with the want of them,—alas, thou too, mein Lieber, seest well how close it is of kin to Atheism, and other sad Isms: he who discovers no God whatever, how shall he discover Heroes, the visible Temples of God?
- Unlike what neo-liberals say, market and democracy clash at a fundamental level. Democracy runs on the principle of ‘one man (one person), one vote’. The market runs on the principle of ‘one dollar, one vote’. Naturally, the former gives equal weight to each person, regardless of the money she/he has. The latter give greater weight to richer people. Therefore, democratic decisions usually subvert the logic of market.
- Ha-Joon Chang, in Bad Samaritans (2008), Ch. 8: Zaire vs Indonesia, Should we turn our backs on corrupt and undemocratic countries?, Democracy and the free market, p. 157-158.
- Democracy is the power of equal votes for unequal minds.
- Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
- You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.
- G. K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1955), Chapter 12 Wind and the trees, p. 63.
- On n'exporte pas la démocratie dans un fourgon blindé.
- One does not export democracy in an armored vehicle.
- Jacques Chirac, as attributed by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, when Jacques Chirac addressed Silvio Berlusconi over the invasion of Iraq, 20 O'clock News, TF1, (11 March 2007).
- Under capitalism we can't have democracy by definition. Capitalism is a system in which the central institutions of society are in principle under autocratic control. Thus, a corporation or an industry is, if we were to think of it in political terms, fascist; that is, it has tight control at the top and strict obedience has to be established at every level -- there's a little bargaining, a little give and take, but the line of authority is perfectly straightforward. Just as I'm opposed to political fascism, I'm opposed to economic fascism. I think that until major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it's pointless to talk about democracy.
- According to the common sense meaning, a society is democratic to the extent that people can participate in a meaningful way in managing their affairs. But the doctrinal meaning of democracy is different – it refers to a system in which decisions are made by sectors of the business community and related elites. The public are to be only ‘spectators of action,’ not ‘participants,’ as leading democratic theorists (in this case, Walter Lippmann) have explained. They are permitted to ratify the decisions of their betters and to lend their support to one or another of them, but not to interfere with matters – like public policy – that are none of their business.
If segments of the public depart from their apathy and begin to organize and enter the public arena, that’s not democracy. Rather, it’s a crisis of democracy in proper technical usage, a threat that has to be overcome in one or another way: in El Salvador, by death squads – at home, by more subtle and indirect means.
- Noam Chomsky, "War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength" in What Uncle San Really Wants (1992)
- A study of the inter-American system published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London concluded that, while the US pays lip service to democracy, the real commitment is to "private, capitalist enterprise." When the rights of investors are threatened, democracy has to go; if these rights are safeguarded, killers and torturers will do just fine.
- Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
- Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (November 11, 1947); in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897–1963 (1974), vol. 7, p. 7566.
- The ship of Democracy, which has weathered all storms, may sink through the mutiny of those aboard.
- Democracy is not a panacea. It cannot organize everything and it is unaware of its own limits. These facts must be faced squarely. Sacrilegious though this may sound, democracy is no longer well suited for the tasks ahead. The complexity and the technical nature of many of today's problems do not always allow elected representatives to make competent decisions at the right time.
- As during the time of kings it would have been naive to think that the king’s firstborn son would be the fittest to rule, so in our time it is naive to think that the democratically elected ruler will be the fittest. The rule of succession is not a formula for identifying the best ruler, it is a formula for conferring legitimacy on someone or other and thus forestalling civil conflict.
- A democracy unsatisfied [by support of the people] cannot long survive. We live in probably the most turbulent and tormented times in the history of this nation. Criticize... disagree, yes, but also we have as leaders an obligation to be fair and keep in perspective what we are and what we hope to be.
- John Connally, remarks at American Society of Newspaper Editors luncheon, Washington, D.C. (April 19, 1972), as reported by The Washington Post (April 20, 1972), p. C3.
- I had this sense that ideas about democracy, theories of democracy which I had learned about of course from graduate school on, from Aristotle and Plato onward, that they were inadequate. I don’t want to diminish them; I have always retained a great respect for classical and medieval and eighteenth-century theory, but meanwhile a whole new kind of political system emerged to which the term democracy became attached, and for which democracy remained an ideal, even though classical democracy as an ideal was so far removed from reality. The gap between that ideal and the actual political institutions that had developed, particularly from about the sixteenth, seventeenth century on, was just enormous. And what we didn’t have enough of, had very little of, was an adequate description of what the actual institutions of so-called democracy, modern democracy, representative democracy, were.
- Robert A. Dahl, in "A Conversation with Robert A. Dahl" by Margaret Levi, Annual Review of Political Science (2009)
- Le Césarisme, c'est la démocratie sans la liberté.
- Cæsarism is democracy without liberty.
- Taxile Delord, L'Histoire du Second Empire, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
- The world is weary of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.
- Democracy is on trial in the world, on a more colossal scale than ever before.
- Charles Fletcher Dole, The Spirit of Democracy, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
- The two greatest obstacles to democracy in the United States are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it. ~ Edward Dowling, Editor and Priest, Chicago Daily News (28 July 1941).
- Drawn to the dregs of a democracy.
- John Dryden, Absalom and Achitopel (1681), Part I, line 227
- But we owe ourselves, and the United States that we will pass off to our children, to re-learn the tools of reason, logic, clarity, dissent, civility, and debate. And those things are the non-partisan basis of democracy, and without them you can kiss this thing goodbye.
- All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank and place.
- Will Durant in his book The Lessons of History, chapter "Governement and History" p. 78
- Ich bin zwar im täglichen Leben ein typischer Einspänner, aber das Bewusstsein, der unsichtbaren Gemeinschaft derjenigen anzugehören, die nach Wahrheit, Schönheit und Gerechtigkeit streben, hat das Gefühl der Vereinsamung nicht aufkommen lassen.
- I am an adherent of the ideal of democracy, although I well know the weaknesses of the democratic form of government. Social equality and economic protection of the individual appeared to me always as the important communal aims of the state. Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has preserved me from feeling isolated.
- Albert Einstein, in "My Credo", a speech to the German League of Human Rights, Berlin (Autumn 1932), as published in Einstein: A Life in Science (1994) by Michael White and John Gribbin, p. 262
- People think they have taken quite an extraordinarily bold step forward when they have rid themselves of belief in hereditary monarchy and swear by the democratic republic. In reality, however, the state is nothing but a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and indeed in the democratic republic no less than in the monarchy.
- Friedrich Engels, Introduction to 1891 edition of Karl Marx's, The Civil War in France
- Do nine tenants in a residential building have the right to place the dumpsters in front of the tenth tenant's door? Seemingly, they enjoy a clear majority. But the role of democracy is not only to assure the governance of the majority, but to protect the rights of the minority.
- Democracies that are under threat of destruction face the impossible dilemma of either yielding to that threat by insisting on preserving the democratic niceties, or violating their own principles by curtailing democratic rights.
- Democracy is not a beloved Republic really, and never will be. But it is less hateful than other contemporary forms of government, and to that extent it deserves our support. It does start from the assumption that the individual is important, and that all types are needed to make a civilization. It does not divide its citizens into the bossers and the bossed — as an efficiency-regime tends to do. The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than elsewhere. They found religions, great or small, or they produce literature and art, or they do disinterested scientific research, or they may be what is called "ordinary people", who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours. All these people need to express themselves; they cannot do so unless society allows them liberty to do so, and the society which allows them most liberty is a democracy.
- Whether Parliament is either a representative body or an efficient one is questionable, but I value it because it criticizes and talks, and because its chatter gets widely reported. So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.
- "Democratic" decision making is a means for finding and implementing the will of the majority; it has no other function. It serves, not to encourage diversity, but to prevent it.
- When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It's a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.
- Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.
- We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.
- Alexander Hamilton, in debates of the Federal Convention (26 June 1787), as published in The Works of Alexander Hamilton (1904) edited by Henry Cabot Lodge, Vol. I: Speeches in the Federal Convention
- It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.
- Alexander Hamilton, speech in New York, urging ratification of the U.S. Constitution (21 June 1788)
- Well, I would say that, as long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism. My personal impression — and this is valid for South America — is that in Chile, for example, we will witness a transition from a dictatorial government to a liberal government. And during this transition it may be necessary to maintain certain dictatorial powers, not as something permanent, but as a temporary arrangement.
- A limited democracy might indeed be the best protector of individual liberty and be better than any other form of limited government, but an unlimited democracy is probably worse than any other form of unlimited government, because its government loses the power even to do what it thinks right if any group on which its majority depends thinks otherwise. If Mrs. Thatcher said that free choice is to be exercised more in the market place than in the ballot box, she has merely uttered the truism that the first is indispensable for individual freedom, while the second is not: free choice can at least exist under a dictatorship that can limit itself but not under the government of an unlimited democracy which cannot.
- The conception that government should be guided by majority opinion makes sense only if that opinion is independent of government. The ideal of democracy rests on the belief that the view which will direct government emerges from an independent and spontaneous process. It requires, therefore, the existence of a large sphere independent of majority control in which the opinions of the individuals are formed.
- It is no accident that on the whole there was more beauty and decency to be found in the life of the small peoples, and that among the large ones there was more happiness and content in proportion as they had avoided the deadly blight of centralization.
Least of all shall we preserve democracy or foster its growth if all the power and most of the important decisions rest with an organization far too big for the common man to survey or comprehend.
Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government, providing a school of political training for the people at large as much as for their future leaders.
- It is when it is contended that "in a democracy right is what the majority makes it to be" that democracy degenerates into demagoguery.
- Liberalism is a doctrine about what the law ought to be, democracy a doctrine about the manner of determining the law. Liberalism regards it as desirable that only what the majority accepts should in fact be law, but it does not believe that this is therefore necessarily good law. Its aim, indeed, is to persuade the majority to observe certain principles. It accepts majority rule as a method of deciding, but not as an authority for what the decision ought to be. To the doctrinaire democrat the fact that the majority wants something is sufficient ground for regarding it as good; for him the will of the majority determines not only what is law but what is good law.
- If democracy is a means rather than an end, its limits must be determined in the light of the purpose we want it to serve.
- Once wide coercive powers are given to governmental agencies for particular purposes, such powers cannot be effectively controlled by democratic assemblies.
- It is not democracy but unlimited government that is objectionable, and I do not see why the people should not learn to limit the scope of majority rule as well as that of any other form of government. At any rate, the advantages of democracy as a method of peaceful change and of political education seem to be so great compared with those of any other system that I can have no sympathy with the antidemocratic strain of conservatism. It is not who governs but what government is entitled to do that seems to me the essential problem.
- Our democracy, as Snowden I think has revealed, has become a fiction. The state, through elaborate forms of political theater, seeks to maintain this fiction to keep us passive. And if we wake up, the state will not shy away from draconian measures. The goal is complete subjugation, the iron rule of our corporations and our power elite.
- Democracy can't work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that's all there is — so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group.
"But a democratic form of government is okay, as long as it doesn't work. Any social organization does well enough if it isn't rigid. The framework doesn't matter as long as there is enough looseness to permit that one man in a multitude to display his genius. Most so-called social scientists seem to think that organization is everything. It is almost nothing — except when it is a straitjacket. It is the incidence of heroes that counts, not the pattern of zeros.
- Democracy is a poor system of government at best; the only thing that can honestly be said in its favor is that it is about eight times as good as any other method the human race has ever tried. Democracy's worst fault is that its leaders are likely to reflect the faults and virtues of their constituents — a depressingly low level, but what else can you expect?
- When its existence is threatened and it has to unify its people and generate in them a spirit of utmost self-sacrifice, the democratic nation must transform itself into something akin to a militant church or a revolutionary party. ...The mastery of the art of religiofication is an essential requirement in the leader of a democratic nation... Only a goal which lends itself to continued perfection can keep a nation potentially virile even though its desires are continually fulfilled. The goal need not be sublime. The gross ideal of an ever-rising standard of living has kept this nation fairly virile.
- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951) Ch.18 : Good and Bad Mass Movements, §124
- You measure democracy by the freedom it gives its dissidents, not the freedom it gives its assimilated conformists.
- Abbie Hoffman, Tikkun (July-August 1989); also quoted in The Best Liberal Quotes Ever : Why the Left is Right (2004) by William P. Martin, p. 51
- The basic ideals and concepts of rationalist metaphysics were rooted in the concept of the universally human, of mankind, and their formalization implies that they have been severed from their human content. How this dehumanization of thinking affects the very foundations of our civilization can be illustrated by analysis of the principle of the majority, which is inseparable from the principle of democracy. In the eyes of the average man, the principle of the majority is often not only a substitute for but an improvement upon objective reason: since men are after all the best judges of their own interests, the resolutions of a majority, it is thought, are certainly as valuable to a community as the intuitions of a so-called superior reason. … What does it mean to say that “a man knows his own interests best”—how does he gain this knowledge, what evidences that his knowledge is correct? In the proposition, “A man knows [his own interests] best,” there is an implicit reference to an agency that is not totally arbitrary … to some sort of reason underlying not only means but ends as well. If that agency should turn out to be again merely the majority, the whole argument would constitute a tautology. The great philosophical tradition that contributed to the founding of modern democracy was not guilty of this tautology, for it based the principles of government upon … the assumption that the same spiritual substance or moral consciousness is present in each human being. In other words, respect for the majority was based on a conviction that did not itself depend on the resolutions of the majority.
- Democracy has nothing to do with freedom. Democracy is a soft variant of communism, and rarely in the history of ideas has it been taken for anything else.
- The only way to practice democracy, is to practice democracy.
- Hu Shih, Science and Democracy Defined (1921), quoted in: Wen-shun Chi (1986). Ideological Conflicts in Modern China: Democracy and Authoritarianism. Transaction Publishers. pp. pp 99-134. ISBN 1 5600 0608 0.
- An electoral choice of ten different fascists is like choosing which way one wishes to die. The holder of so-called high public office is always merely an extension of the hated ruling corporate class.
- The fascist arrangement tolerates the existence of no valid revolutionary activity. It has programmed into its very nature a massive, complex and automatic defense mechanism for all our old methods for raising the consciousness of a potentially revolutionary class of people. The essence of a U.S.A. totalitarian socio-political capitalism is concealed behind the illusion of a mass participatory society. We must rip away its mask. Then the debate can end, and we can enter a new phase of struggle based on the development of an armed revolutionary culture that will triumph.
- Democracy has always been a problem. The truly attractive features of the Western tradition that we accidentally—and it really is accidentally—get the benefit of are the rule of law, liberalism and tolerance, all of which are virtues inherited from predemocratic societies, whether they were based in eighteenth-century Anglo-American aristocratic individualism or nineteenth-century European forms of a type of developed postfeudal legal state. Democracy comes last. Democracy is simply a system of selection of people to rule over you. And it’s not accidental that everyone is now a democrat. The Chinese are for democracy. George Bush was for democracy. The Burmese believe in it; they just call it something slightly different. South African whites believed in democracy; they just thought it should be arranged differently for blacks. Democracy is a dangerously empty term, and to the extent that it has substance, and the substance consists of allowing people to select freely how they live, the chance that they will choose to live badly is very high.
- Tony Judt, quoted in "Talking With Tony Judt", The Nation (April 29, 2010) by Christine Smallwood
- Democracy is necessarily despotism, as it establishes an executive power contrary to the general will; all being able to decide against one whose opinion may differ, the will of all is therefore not that of all: which is contradictory and opposite to liberty.
- The respondents in this case insist that a difficult question of public policy must be taken from the reach of the voters, and thus removed from the realm of public discussion, dialogue, and debate in an election campaign. Quite in addition to the serious First Amendment implications of that position with respect to any particular election, it is inconsistent with the underlying premises of a responsible, functioning democracy. One of those premises is that a democracy has the capacity—and the duty—to learn from its past mistakes; to discover and confront persisting biases; and by respectful, rationale deliberation to rise above those flaws and injustices. That process is impeded, not advanced, by court decrees based on the proposition that the public cannot have the requisite repose to discuss certain issues. It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds. The process of public discourse and political debate should not be foreclosed even if there is a risk that during a public campaign there will be those, on both sides, who seek to use racial division and discord to their own political advantage. An informed public can, and must, rise above this. The idea of democracy is that it can, and must, mature. Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people.
- The true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people - faith that the people will not simply elect men who will represent their views ably and faithfully, but will also elect men who will exercise their conscientious judgment - faith that the people will not condemn those whose devotion to principle leads them to unpopular courses, but will reward courage, respect honor, and ultimately recognize right.
- For in a democracy, every citizen, regardless of his interest in politics, 'hold office'; everyone of us is in a position of responsibility; and, in the final analysis, the kind of government we get depends upon how we fulfill those responsibilities. We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve.
- A democracy is peace-loving. It does not like to go to war. It is slow to rise to provocation. When it has once been provoked to the point where it must grasp the sword, it does not easily forgive its adversary for having produced this situation. The fact of the provocation then becomes itself the issue. Democracy fights in anger — it fights for the very reason that it was forced to go to war. It fights to punish the power that was rash enough and hostile enough to provoke it — to teach that power a lesson it will not forget, to prevent the thing from happening again. Such a war must be carried to the bitter end.
- The cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy and, while guided and controlled by virtue, the noblest attribute of man. It is the only dictator that freemen acknowledge and the only security that freemen desire.
- Mirabeau B. Lamar, 2nd President of the Republic of Texas, as quoted in Hargrave Military Academy: Catalog and Announcements for session 1944-1945 (1944), the yearbook of Hargrave Military Academy
- The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.
- Democracy for an insignificant minority, democracy for the rich – that is the democracy of capitalist society. If we look more closely into the machinery of capitalist democracy, we see everywhere, in the "petty" – supposedly petty – details of the suffrage (residential qualifications, exclusion of women, etc.), in the technique of the representative institutions, in the actual obstacles to the right of assembly (public buildings are not for "paupers"!), in the purely capitalist organization of the daily press, etc., etc., – we see restriction after restriction upon democracy. These restrictions, exceptions, exclusions, obstacles for the poor seem slight, especially in the eyes of one who has never known want himself and has never been in close contact with the oppressed classes in their mass life (and nine out of 10, if not 99 out of 100, bourgeois publicists and politicians come under this category); but in their sum total these restrictions exclude and squeeze out the poor from politics, from active participation in democracy.
- Here is Democracy's opportunity. Here is the opportunity to be of service to the people. Here is the chance for this party to have been of service to the people of the United States. Here is our chance to have been of help to the poor man. Here is our chance to have relieved him of the burdens and to have given him the benefits of a government that could have promoted the enterprises and furnished the conveniences and the facilities needed by every man, woman, and child in this country.
- Huey Long, remarks in the Senate (17 May 1932), reported in Congressional Record, vol. 75, p. 10394
- Puritanism, believing itself quick with the seed of religious liberty, laid, without knowing it, the egg of democracy.
- James Russell Lowell, Among My Books, New England Two Centuries Ago, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
- Democ'acy gives every man
A right to be his own oppressor.
- James Russell Lowell, Biglow Papers, Series 2, No. 7, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188
- To one that advised him to set up a democracy in Sparta, "Pray," said Lycurgus, "do you first set up a democracy in your own house."
- Lycurgus in Plutarch's Apophthegms of Kings and Great Commanders, as reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 188