By Michael Maccoby
As we debate the military takeover of the democratically elected Egyptian government, we should seriously consider the consequences of promoting budding democratic movements. Our well-meaning efforts are based on a profound confusion about our own history and the role of democracy. When did democracy become the end rather than a means toward creating a government that would protect individual liberty? The term democracy does not appear in the Declaration of Independence or in the US Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution, stated in the preamble, was “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The special importance of liberty was emphasized by the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Abraham Lincoln affirmed the principle of liberty in his debates with Stephen A. Douglas and the Civil War against the claims of Southerners that they had a democratic right to choose slavery and succession.
Democracy is an essential means to safeguard liberty. It provides the means for the people to elect their representatives and also dispose of them. But as James Madison warned in Federalist 10, democracy can threaten liberty. He writes that factions will form with conflicting ideologies and agendas, and if a majority party is not controlled, it may oppress minorities. This is what happened in Gaza and Egypt. To avoid this result, Madison proposed and the framers of the Constitution agreed that this government should be a republic, not a democracy, with checks on democracy.
The American republic is structured to further the purposes of the Constitution by establishing a balance of authority between executive, legislative, and judicial structures. The president and members of Congress are elected democratically, although it took many years to enfranchise all adult Americans. The Supreme Court, appointed by the president and confirmed by a majority of Senators, cannot be voted out of office unless they are proved to have made an egregious offense. Although their decisions are by majority, they are the least democratic of the federal decision making groups because they can’t be voted out of office by the people.
We seem to forget that this country is a republic formed to further specific purposes when we promote democracy for other countries without clarifying that it is a means, not an end. We fail to warn others that without checks and balances and protections for justice and liberty, democracy can produce autocratic dictators, as it has done time and again from Hitler to Hamas.
The idea of democracy as the end rather than a means was promoted by Woodrow Wilson in his address to Congress, April 12, 1917. He asked for a declaration of war against Germany, stating that “the world must be made safe for democracy”. The context was his belief that the autocratic and unelected Kaiser Wilhelm II was responsible for the war and attacks on US ships. He believed that “free and self-governed people” would maintain peaceful relations. Even if this is so, democracy by itself including elections does not guarantee a free people. That also requires protective laws, controls of authority, and an uncorrupted system that administers justice.
Why then do public officials and editorial writers advocate democracy as a goal rather than a means for developing a more just society? Is it because Libertarians wave the banner of liberty against an interpretation of the general welfare supporting government attempts to build a more equal society? Is it because the gun lobbyists have hijacked the concept of liberty? Or is it because unlike the founders of this country who were independent farmers, craftsmen and professionals, who had suffered under the yoke of Britain, most Americans now work for organizations and have already accepted limitations of their independence? Liberty has lost some of its original meaning for many Americans.
Even with our Constitution, liberty is sometimes constrained and threatened by decisions to favor national defense, the administration of justice, or the general welfare. And recently, extremes of NSA spying on citizens and threats to freedom of the press seem to awaken fears of losing our liberty. However, when the purpose set forth in the preamble of the Constitution conflict, our democratic processes should facilitate debate within the republican framework.
Michael Maccoby’s most recent book is Transforming Health Care Leadership, A Systems Guide to Improve Patient Care, Decrease Costs, and Improve Population Health with Clifford L. Norman, C. Jane Norman, and Richard Margolies.