Mob-Rule Isn’t the ‘Democracy’ You Want

The mob is as dangerous as any individual tyrant, and for the same reason.

By Clint Roberts Published on February 19, 2024

“Democracy” has always been a popular word, at least in the free world. But its usage rate seems to have skyrocketed lately. Everywhere you turn, people talk about its importance, how we must protect it, how it is threatened in so many ways. It’s an old word, and a good word. And right now it’s red-hot.

But I wonder what most people understand the word to mean today. Based on context and people’s usage, it appears “democracy” has too often come to be a stand-in either for “things I like” or simple mob rule. And people who should know better are reading this distorted definition back into the reasoning of the American founders.

A “Democracy,” If You Can Keep It?

Remember that line in the Pledge of Allegiance that says “and to the Democracy, for which it stands”? Neither do I. Guess how many times the word “democracy” appears in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution? The answer is ZERO.

I saw an opinion column somewhere not too long ago with the title “A Democracy, If You Can Keep It.” It’s a telling misquote of Ben Franklin, who is famously reported to have said something similar. The actual story has it that as the 81 year old emerged from the Constitutional Convention, Elizabeth Powel asked him, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” And Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Why did Franklin, and the other founders, avoid calling their new form of government a “democracy,” even though it has so many democratic mechanisms? It wasn’t by accident. It might surprise a lot of people today to read the opinions of the framers on a pure democracy. Hint: It’s not positive.

Why Not a Democracy?

A democracy, in the full sense of the word, whether it be a small village or a large nation-state, would leave every decision to “the people.” Without any other parameters, this makes anything possible so long as it is majority-endorsed. There are a few problems with this.

First, it lacks guardrails. There need to be some limiting principles to what people who rule over others can do. In the age of monarchs, the people wanted limits to what the king could do to or with his subjects. The same would be true for an oligarchy. And of course the same is true of a mass or mob of people. The minority needs protection from potential abuses at the hands of the majority.

Second, sheer democracy is as naïve about human nature as absolute monarchy. There were once civilizations with monarchs who claimed divine right. They could do no wrong, by definition. But people are people, not gods. A king or queen is a mere mortal, a fallen creature just like all the rest. Sometimes they do good, but plenty of times they do evil.

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The same mistake is made if we assume that the majority can do no wrong, that the mass of people will be pure in their moral motivations. History has offered empirical evidence repeatedly that the majority has the potential to endorse full-scale atrocities. A mob if often just the force-multiplied sum total of the sin natures of its members.

Related to this point is a third reason to distrust a system of sheer democracy, which is that masses of people are prone to manipulative forces and perverse incentives. Rather than decisions being made on the basis of careful deliberation in light of the relevant facts, a mob of un-named, non-specific people might be ill-informed, induced by propaganda, activated by a surge of emotion, manipulated by corrupt interests, etc.

Remember that line in the Pledge of Allegiance that says “and to the Democracy, for which it stands”? Neither do I.

We’re not the first to notice this. According to Plato’s Republic, Socrates didn’t rank democracy as the best form of government, for reasons similar to these. He believed that a group of carefully selected leaders should be chosen on the basis of their wisdom and moral virtue, separated from other tempting incentives (like the state’s finances). Wisdom and moral virtue don’t exactly spring to mind when we think of what John Zmirak recently called our current “oligarchy of dimwits.”

The 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was one of the earliest critics of mass media, which was only print media at the time. One of his classic works is entitled “The Crowd is Untruth.” He realized what most of us have come to see in the many decades since, which is that there is a tremendous pressure for group conformity. Educated, well-meaning people can find themselves in support of terrible things when they are swept up by the powerful currents of group-think. Social media has compounded that force ten-fold.

Long Live the Republic!

“But where, say some, is the King of America?” So wrote Thomas Paine in 1776 in Common Sense. He answered, first, that “He reigns above,” but added that in practice, we are ruled by laws. “For as in absolute governments, the King is law,” he wrote, “so in free countries the law ought to be king, and there ought to be no other.”

People are too flawed to be trusted with much power over others, the founders believed. If this were not so, we wouldn’t need to debate political forms, since any government would work fine, or even none at all. James Madison made this point perfectly in Federalist 51:

Human beings are imperfect and ambitious, so we need a government structure that guards against abuses of power. … If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

Just as a morally perfect king or queen would never abuse his or her throne, so a morally perfect populace would never fall prey to a tyranny of a majority group over a minority. Christians know this, since we belong to a higher kingdom ruled by a monarch, but He is the Perfect King, so his kingdom is a paradise and can never be a tyranny.

We love to declare our rights, but what if those with the power just decided to trample over them?

But down here among the sinners we need protection against inevitable abuses of power. And that is found in a written body of law to which everyone is bound, regardless of position. That is the cornerstone of this republic. If the rules are spelled out, and we all must obey them, then all that matters is that the rulebook is fair. And that was why the framers spent so much time and effort to craft the rulebook of their new nation.

Even monarchs can be held in check by a body of law. Ancient Israel had kings, but they were not absolute monarchs. They were subject to a higher authority. When even the greatest of their kings, David, abused his authority, he was confronted and rebuked by Nathan, a messenger acting as emissary sent by the true King to pronounce judgment on him. And David, the most powerful individual in the land, immediately confessed his guilt and repented.

Israel was essentially a constitutional monarchy. God had directed the drafting of the body of laws that guided the nation, and nobody was above it. An absolute monarch would have felt the divine right to take a man’s wife as his own and to order the man’s death. He would never have written words like “I have done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proven right and justified when you judge me” (Psalm 51) or I am a worm, not a man; a reproach” (Psalm 22).

And so it is with the republic for which the flag stands. The wise writers of the constitution poured over every word, debated it vigorously. Each state deliberated as to whether or not to agree to place themselves under that contract. That is the heart of our protection, the only true guarantee of continued liberty. We love to declare our rights, but what if those with the power just decided to trample over them? What if a majority made the democratic decision to take away the rights of your particular group? To what would you appeal? What is your recourse? Fortunately you have one in our system. It was written long ago and continues to protect you.

This republic has all kinds of democratic elements by which everyone gets to vote on their representatives and certain specific ballot measures. Every citizen can freely believe and speak his or her views, worship where and how he or she wants, etc. Democracy, in this general sense, means each person has a voice.

But as governments go, a mere democracy is as untenable as moral relativism itself. There must be a standard, and it must be objective. We’ve seen the kinds of things that a majority can be moved to endorse. If a majority is the sole arbiter of truth and policy, there is nothing to stop its possible excesses. Sooner or later a majority will dictate terrors upon people. If the thousands of heads lopped of by the guillotines during the French Revolution could speak, they would remind us that it all started with righteous shouts for “Democracy!”

Clint Roberts is an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and Southern Nazarene University.


Copyright 2024 Fallacy Fight Club. Republished with permission.

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