Is Democracy Committing Suicide?

Here’s a tiny question. Is the age of democracy drawing to a close? Now, before you accuse me of exaggerating, or baiting you, let me assure you — it’s a question I mean to ask, and I think we should all be asking.
We tend to think of democracy as something like a grand, permanent turning point in history. Before, there was not democracy, and then — bang! — our forefathers and mothers discovered, or created, this wonderful and noble thing, and, like the internet or antibiotics, it was here to stay forever.
Is it? The truth is subtler. Feudalism lasted millennia. Tribalism, millennia before that. Empire, another millennia. And so maybe democracy is not something like a permanent turning point. Perhaps it was just an experiment — which has failed. Just as it has so many times before in history. Athens. Rome. The French Revolution — Napoleon’s coronation just 15 years later. Has democracy ever lasted, when you think about it? In fact, every single time in history democracy has been tried — people seem incapable of it (and discussing why is the point of this essay), hence soon enough, within a few centuries, if that long, it collapses right back into tyranny, war, and strife.
Are we being arrogant when we suppose that pattern won’t repeat itself in our time? Why should we think we are above it? Perhaps what we are learning today, all over again, is that enough people are simply incapable of the demands of democracy — no matter how hard the rest of us, who are usually a minority, try to educate, civilize, or liberate them, as equals, citizens, and peers. Perhaps enough of us will always reject those principles, which are altogether too noble and idealistic, for those of supremacy, superiority, violence, and power. Perhaps enough of us can only ever see others as rivals, subjects, and possessions to be had — and themselves as victims and martyrs, who deserve to be chieftains and rulers. Perhaps no good goes unpunished — and of all these, democracy is the greatest of all.
(First, a caveat. I’m not saying “democracy’s going to die!!” Not at all. What I am suggesting is that we should consider the idea, at this point, that democracy isn’t something like a permanent phase change — solid turning to liquid, forevermore — but maybe something more like a verdict upon ourselves — on which the jury’s out.)
Let’s unearth that for a second. When did this age of democracy really begin? Was it in 1776 — when America became the world’s first constitutional democracy — or was it in 1971, when America finally ended segregation? Was it in 1789, with the French Revolution, which culminated in a dictatorship — or in the 1940s, when colonialism was dismantled? Perhaps you see my point. Democracy is a thing which has always struggled to grow and evolve and become a truer version of itself. We have never really had anything resembling a “real” democracy, to any reasoning person, until very, very recently in history — so recently, in fact, that it’s scarcely the blink of an eye.
So democracy is a living, breathing thing. Does that mean it can “die”? In fact, it means something much more striking. For that reason, democracy has a strange and unique power. The power to destroy itself.
How many other things have the power to destroy themselves? Not many. A hammer, axe, mountain can’t. Even many living things can’t, like trees and microbes. There are very, very few things in existence with the power to destroy themselves. Only, if we think about, things with intent can commit suicide. And unfortunately for us, democracy is just such a thing.
And that brings me to why I think the age of democracy might be drawing to a close. It seems to me — and it should seem to you, if you reflect upon it — that more and more people today appear incapable of democracy. They are using democracy only to destroy itself. Democracy isn’t “dying”, as the headlines go — it is committing suicide.
Let me give you a statistic that might surprise you (or not, depending). Trump is still neck and neck with Biden in the polls. Even after being indicted. Despite the obvious harm to themselves and their own, the job losses, the kleptocracy, the corruption, the fascism, and so on. But that is hardly the only example. In Sweden, a party with Nazi “roots” (LOL) came to power — and then immediately dissolved the Environment Ministry. The far right is in power in Italy, where lesbian parents are being stripped of their parental status on birth certificates. Then there’s Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India, China, and so on. I could go on.
Do you see what I mean? Many people — more and more people, in fact, every day — are incapable of democracy. Not mentally incapable, as in they can’t “handle it.” But incapable in another, truer way. To be capable of democracy is first of all to understand why one should want it. But today people do not. They prefer authoritarians and tyrants and demagogues, for the sake of self-preservation, over the preservation of democracy.
Now, at this juncture, the kind of person I am describing will object, and cry: “but what you are talking about is democracy in action! You fool, you are talking about the exercise of democracy! It is the voice of the people! The vox populi has spoken!” Ah, but that’s not what democracy is at all. That’s mere majoritarianism. A democracy is something much more powerful than that. What is it, really? It is first and foremost a set of rights. That give us powers, and therefore liberate us. Those rights are inalienable for a reason — because when they are excised, removed, shattered, and destroyed, a democracy is undone. And yet a democracy can do just that, if it is foolish enough, and in that way, destroy itself. And that is precisely what the world is doing now. It is taking rights and powers away from people. Which ones? All kinds. I already mentioned Italy’s targeting of gay parents. In America, women have been stripped of bodily autonomy. Again, the examples are endless.
What is really being destroyed today are the fundamentals of democracy itself. They consist of three things. Equality, personhood, and freedom. Not just for you, or the chosen few. For everyone, or no one at all. Those are the qualities which rights really grant us. And yet those are the three things which more and more people wish to deny others, to take apart, to destroy. But when those things are destroyed, a democracy is no longer a democracy at all. It is something else entirely. What, precisely?
We see democracies around the globe degenerating in a now familiar, almost funny, pattern, because it is so predictable. First comes plutocracy. Then oligarchy. Then kleptocracy. And finally authoritarianism and fascism and theocracy, various flavors of tyranny and ruin. That is the pattern, the sequence, of how a democracy implodes and collapses. It doesn’t die — it commits suicide, one slash of the razor blade at a time. Who is the world’s finest exemplar of that precise pattern today? Sadly, America. It has raced through these five stages in the space of a few decades. And now it is hovering around the bottom. Yet more and more nations seem hell-bent on following America down into the abyss, where democracy goes to commit suicide.
Why is that? Well, it is primarily because people have lost faith in democracy’s promise — to ever improve their lives. That is the social contract offered by a democracy — and the truth is it is a fragile one. It is the same one Athens and Rome promised, too. But because it is a very, very difficult thing to deliver — perpetual prosperity, abundance, and plenty — democracy is also a vulnerable thing, historically scarce, easily broken, tending not to last. Rome couldn’t deliver it — bang! Emperors rose, as living standards fell for the enraged plebes. Athens couldn’t deliver it — wham! Citizens turned to tyrants.
And here we are again, we are in just such a juncture of history. In America, incomes have been flat for half a century. Hence, today, living standards are cratering — everything from longevity to mortality to happiness to suicide is going in the wrong direction, ruinously fast. In Europe, incomes have been flat for the last two decades or so — hence, it’s not as badly in decline as America, but it’s not that far behind, either: people are using democracy to destroy itself, there, too. And so on.
(Then there’s technology, too. It seems as if we’re replacing democracy with algorithms now. And who needs democracy when you have algorithms managing every aspect of your life for easy, simple pleasure, always a tap away — even if it’s the cheap thrill of hate, spite, and ruin? But that is what algorithms do now: they manage all of us. They manage our information — Twitter, Google. They manage our sociality — Facebook, WhatsApp. They manage our feelings, our self-worth, our esteem — Instagram and Tinder. They manage our entertainment — Netflix. They manage our consumption and finances and jobs — Amazon, Uber, credit ratings.
But algorithms are not the idols we have made them out to be. They are just sets of preferences aggregated by someone else’s preference. And yet they are a cheap, easy substitute for democracy, precisely because they give us the feeling of self-governance and self-directedness, without the work and trouble necessary to really accomplish it. They replace selfless virtue with egoistic self-absorption, thinking with immediate gratification, reflection with reaction, contemplation with resentment, and, perhaps worst of all, ideas with numbers. But I digress. The point is simple. Algorithms are replacing the structures, institutions, and norms of genuinely democratic societies, with something more like a kind of soft, hidden authoritarianism.)
Yet that is precisely what people seem to want today. When more and more people use democracy to destroy itself, what are they really doing? They are not “acting democratically”, but precisely the opposite. They are saying that democracy is too much of a struggle and a challenge, too much work and effort, too dangerous and threatening. It’s not that they can’t be bothered with it — it is that they genuinely do not want it. Let me put that more sharply, so you understand what I really mean. In today’s extremist movements, people are revoking their consent to the foundational principles of democracy — equality, personhood, and freedom, as shared, universal goods, which are inalienable and inherent in all people. In that way, today, we differ from Rome and Athens — because they never developed those principles, or consent to them, nearly so far as we have today. What a shame, then, to regress, yet again.
What is to be done about all this, then — democracy committing suicide, as it has so many times before? Perhaps history, as ever, is our guide. Perhaps democracy is a failed experiment, every time in history that it has been tried, for a very good reason. People are simply not capable of it — enough of them, at any rate. People simply do not have the courage, wisdom, or strength necessary to really make this noble experiment last — they turn on it savagely the moment that it’s promise seems to waver for even a moment.
Perhaps, then, if the world goes on as it is, for much longer, the best you and I can hope for is protection and safety from such people. People who want to remove and excise away our personhood and equality and freedom — with genuine harm and viciousness and violence. And maybe that can only be found in systems where such foolish people do not have the power to corrupt and corrode the principles inside democracy in the first place — for those of us who desire equality, freedom, and personhood.
Perhaps the best we can hope for — ever — is a kind of rule of the wise and courageous and just over the foolish and ignorant and violent — which is to say, a benevolent sort of aristocracy, of a Platonic or Socratic kind. I should hope otherwise. But there is something inside me which says that one of the great lessons of this age might just be that whenever human beings attempt democracy, we are learning all over again — history and the devil hold hands and laugh.
September 2023

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