Shockingly, “democracy” was used with more incidence than any other word — even “unity” — in Joe Biden’s recent inauguration speech. “Democracy” has its roots in the Greek language. It combines two shorter words: “demos,” meaning the whole citizenry living within a particular city-state, and “kratos,” meaning power or rule. In a more colloquial idiom, democracy is summarized best by the political slogan “Power to the people.” Assuredly, then, President Biden does not hold democracy in high regard — despite his impassioned platitudes suggesting the contrary.
During only his first week in office, Capitol police have begun to organize the construction of a permanent security fence enclosing the Capitol building. Moreover, a superfluous 26,000 troops were mobilized to “protect” Biden’s inauguration. For all his reverential adulation for democracy, President Biden is in charge of a political cesspool that is increasingly cementing a divide between the masses and the political class, through physical barricades — but also rhetoric. President Biden tweets ritualistically from his official U.S. government Twitter account, “Science will always guide my Administration,” but what does this really mean?
To understand our current state of affairs, it would be helpful to backtrack to the founding of America. In my belief, a scarcity of civic literacy, voting, and public-spiritedness in America is not an accidental ill but an expected consequence of the system of government proposed deliberately by the Founding Fathers. The authors and apologists of the U.S. Constitution argued on its behalf by explicitly rejecting the notion that the Constitution would result in a democracy. They sought to found a republic, not a democracy. As James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 10, “hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.”
To contain the dangers of democracies — conceived in his mind as small-scale direct democracies with high levels of civic engagement — Madison argued for “extending the sphere,” that is, creating a large-scale political entity that would “make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens,” by introducing a diverse portrait of opinions that would discourage political trust and civic activity. If such a common motive exists, “it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other,” Madison wrote.
Further, Madison was perspicuous in his articulation that representatives should not be unduly bound to the will of the electorate: the desired effect of representation, he contended, is “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.” The best interest of the nation, according to James Madison in Federalist No. 10, was the defense of “the first object of government,” which was the protection of “diversity in the faculties of men.” In Madison’s view, government exists to protect individual pursuits and the particular outcomes of those pursuits — reified through the unequal and varied attainment of property. Put another way, government exists to protect the greatest possible sphere of individual liberty and does so through the active encouragement of self-interest. Madison hoped that this initiative would exacerbate levels of reciprocal distrust and make ordinary people less likely to communicate as to their shared political fate. And realizing their comparative powerlessness in the public realm, citizens would instead focus their efforts on private pursuits. Consequently, positions in public office would allure exclusively the ambitious and those who are naturally drawn to power. The corresponding enlargement of the central government, meanwhile, would be channeled to increase individual prospects for the private endeavors of the individual.
For all the differences between the Founders and today’s most ardent sympathizers of democracy — from James Madison to Joe Biden — there nevertheless exists this startling continuity. Liberal progressives advocate for mass enfranchisement while promoting systemic governmental mechanisms and features that will invariably minimize the role and influence of the people, represented perhaps most clearly by increasingly frequent calls for scientific study to play a larger role in policy and political affairs — calls for which amplified in quantity during the concurrent COVID-19 pandemic.
Democratic advocacy in the United States starting at the Progressive Era and beyond was always advancing together with a belief that through the study of human phenomenon — in this case, political phenomenon — we could create a body of objective knowledge from which determinative truths about human behavior could be gleaned — like natural scientists discover truths about the natural world. Antecedents in the discipline of political science were rather explicit that once they obtained this objective knowledge, America would no longer need to be a democracy of any kind. In his 1934 presidential address before the American Political Science Association, for example, Walter J. Shepard explained that once this precious reservoir of insight was acquired, an appeal to the unwashed and dimwitted masses would no longer be compelling or required. The idea that we should instinctively “refer to the experts” is shrouded in quite a checkered past, and one, ironically, that has been used solely to undermine democracy.