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The term democracy originated in classical Athens and combines the ancient Greek words demos, meaning “the people,” and kratein, meaning “to rule.” From that time, anti-democratic arguments have taken a variety of forms, though some commentators (e.g., Dahl 1989) maintain that all of them are reducible to knowledge claims, or the “idea of guardianship,” according to which one person or group of people knows better than the rest how to maximize the interests of the community. This seems a rather simplistic way to characterize anti-democratic thought. A more subtle approach is to make use of the analytical categories developed by A. O. Hirschman in his study of “reactionary” thought (1991): perversity, futility, and jeopardy.
In classical Athens, where democracy originated, “the people” of necessity encompassed the poor and uneducated, and democracy was often identified with the rule of the mob or the rabble. Both Plato and Aristotle held it in contempt as a degenerate form of governance, subordinating reason to passion, polarizing rich and poor, and generating both instability and imprudence. Instead, Aristotle and other writers extolled the virtues of a “mixed constitution,” in which rule by the many is balanced in some formal way by the influence of the wealthy and literate minority. This was the model of government that emerged from the ancient world, one where popular power was restricted by mutual checks and the rule of law. The word democracy fell into disuse, except as a synonym for internal dissension and majority tyranny. Even the framers of the American constitution drew a distinction between a democracy, which they feared, and a republic, another name for the “mixed” or “balanced” regime they favored.
The present vogue for democracy really dates from the French Revolution (1789–1799), whose more radical protagonists appealed to “the people” as an undiluted source of power. Democracy soon lost its toxic connotations and came to be associated with the classical republican tradition that had long challenged the monarchical institutions of Europe. In its new incarnation, democracy could no longer be dismissed as mob rule. It was now seen to include representative parliaments, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and civil rights. Gradually, the idea of democracy became a dominant standard by which regimes were judged. But, despite the supposed taming of the democratic beast, the rehabilitation of democracy led to the revival of anti-democratic thought.
The perversity thesis holds that radical reformers likely will produce the exact opposite of what they intended. Society is seen as an infinitely complex system of causal chains, making the consequences of disruptive change entirely unpredictable. In the after math of the French Revolution, romantic conservatives such as Edmund Burke formulated a version of the perverse effect in their attacks on the revolution and its egalitarian pretensions. They saw society as an organic whole, more easily damaged than improved, and the divisive individualism, the incessant and ignorant questioning implicit in democracy, would—in their view—unleash chaos. But nature abhors a power vacuum. A demagogic elite, unrestrained by inherited customs, would seize power and rule with an iron fist. Democracy would transmute into tyranny, albeit one that might reflect the base and foolish preferences of the majority. The dream of liberation would become a nightmare of repression.
In the middle part of the nineteenth century, even liberals who were sympathetic to democracy fretted over its tyrannical potential. It was commonly believed that the multiple sources of authority in traditional society, which served to preserve a measure of pluralism and individual eccentricity, would eventually be swept aside by the growing power of the people, who would tolerate no activities that did not originate in popular mandate. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that this dissolution of the intermediate structure of authority could leave the individual isolated and vulnerable, unable to resist the ubiquitous and absolute power of the state.
By the end of the century, the fear of democratic tyranny had receded, and a new type of critic emerged. Motivated more by cynicism than anxiety, the classical elitists (Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels) argued that the oppressive effects of democracy had not come to pass because democracy itself was impossible. No matter what the constitution says, the inherent dynamics of human interaction always will prevent the masses from exercising power. This was the futility thesis. Pareto used psychological factors to explain this “law” of oligarchy, while Mosca and Michels stressed organizational factors, but they all agreed on the existence of an immanent hierarchical order of things, which meant that so-called democratic institutions were, at best, exercises in futility, and, at worst, expressions of rank hypocrisy.
The elitists seemed to understand democracy in a “pure” sense, where all government decisions are presumed to emanate from some clearly defined popular will. That democracy in this sense could never exist was, to some observers, merely a statement of the obvious. Nevertheless, the inexorable extension of the franchise in the early part of the twentieth century convinced many people that democracy, even in diluted form, was still a threat, if not to liberty then to other values held dear. This is the jeopardy thesis—the idea that progressive reform always will incur a cost. While democracy may bring some benefits to the common people, it extinguishes cultural creativity and belittles heroic and noble deeds. It destroys economic efficiency and elevates mass appetites and prejudices above mental rig our. Such arguments were quite common before World War II (1939–1945) turned democracy into a “hurrah” word, signifying nothing but approbation.
Traditional conservatives such as the poet T. S. Eliot insisted that “high” culture was threatened by the vulgar tastes of the masses, who would use democratic mechanisms to impose their debased values. Social coherence also would suffer, as equality of opportunity, an inevitable concomitant of democracy, would create a society of strangers, devoid of historical memory. Thinkers on the radical right, especially fascists, were inspired by Nietzsche’s diatribes against “slave-morality” and mass mediocrity. In their eyes, democracy was a complicated bundle of decadent values—individualism, pacifism, materialism, egalitarianism—which was eroding cultural vitality and the collective spirit.
The rising tide of democratization and democratic rhetoric that swept through the international community during the latter half of the twentieth century has left the remaining explicitly anti-democratic regimes marooned in global public disapproval. All of the reactionary criticisms that justify such regimes are rarely taken seriously by political scientists or indeed most educated people throughout the world. Nevertheless, some observers, in contemplating how the democratic ethos tends not toward excellence but rather toward the lowest common denominator, point out that the tradition of anti-democratic thought contains at least some grains of truth. After all, even the most beneficial changes entail loss. However, such is the power of the democratic idea that, nowadays, even neofascists feel obliged to claim affinity with it.
- Dahl, Robert A. Democracy and Its Critics, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Femia, Joseph. Against the Masses: Varieties of Anti-democratic Thought since the French Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Griffin, Roger. The Nature of Fascism. London: Pinter, 1991.
- Hirschman, Albert O. The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
- Holmes, Stephen. The Anatomy of Ant liberalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.
- Meisel, James Hans. The Myth of the Ruling Class. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1958.
- Saward, Michael. The Terms of Democracy. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1998.
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