Generations of Americans have grown up hearing that America always has championed democracy and opposed illiberal ideologies such as fascism, socialism, and communism. But if you go to the website of the Communist Party USA, their opening slogan (scroll to the bottom of the page) is, “For democracy.” Hmm … are communists the good guys—possibly the true Americans? No, they aren’t, as long as we’re clear about what we mean by the word “democracy.”
Over the years, I’ve encountered many statements by patriotic Americans pointing out that the United States of America isn’t a democracy, but a republic. While technically true, this isn’t particularly enlightening. True, neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution of the United States ever mentions “democracy,” but the term “republic” is too vague and generic. Derived from the Latin words “public” and “matters,” the generic word “republic” could refer to virtually any government.
My preferred terminology to describe the American polity is that the United States is an “essentially democratic, individual rights-based constitutional republic.” The key concept is individual rights. (My apologies to those of you who recognize the phrase “individual rights” as redundant, but in an age so saturated by collectivist doctrines, many people view rights as collective rather than individual, and so mutilate justice.)
Thomas Jefferson’s immortal Declaration put forth the most inspired and humane principle of human governance ever articulated: The very raison d’être of a government and its sole legitimate purpose is to defend and uphold the God-given rights of individuals.
Understanding that the great enemy of individual rights always has been government power, the Founders sought to prevent government encroachments against rights by limiting the federal government’s power through the strictures of a constitution of limited, enumerated powers that was underscored by a Bill of Rights whose dual capstone—the Ninth and 10th Amendments—made plain that where there was doubt, a person’s rights took precedence over government powers.
The American republic provided additional defenses to protect rights by instituting a system of federalism that divided power between a federal government and the various state, county, and local governments, and also by devising various checks and balances such as dividing the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government.
This American system wasn’t a democracy in the sense of “whatever the majority wants, the majority gets.” Rather, it embodied a democratic spirit, best expressed by the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman thusly: “The Democratic principle … would have no man’s benefit achieved at the expense of his neighbors. … This one single rule, rationally construed and applied, is enough to form the starting point of all that is necessary in government; to make no more laws than those useful for preventing a man or body of men from infringing on the rights of other men.”
Notice the key word: “rights.” The American ideal of a democratic system always has been one in which each individual, whether part of a political majority or minority, would be secure in his or her rights to life, liberty, protection of property, speech, religion, etc.
It might be worth mentioning here that the great philosopher Aristotle had a low opinion of democracy. The great philosopher understood that government could exist in one of three basic forms: the rule of one, the rule of few, or the rule of many. Any of those three forms can be considered “good government” if the people are free from oppression and are happy and prosperous. Likewise, those three forms each have a corrupt version, i.e., “bad government,” resulting in the people’s lives being oppressed, unsafe, and miserable.
Aristotle’s benign forms of government were monarchy (rule of one), aristocracy (rule of few), and polity (rule of many). The corresponding degenerate, dysfunctional versions of those three forms were tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively.
In Aristotelian terms, the founders desired a polity. Communists, on the other hand, crave democracy in the sense of crude majoritarianism. Far from respecting the rights of individuals, communists (see Marx and Lenin) praise democracy as a tool to trample the rights of capitalists, the bourgeoisie, the rich, et al. and to centralize power in the hands of government.
In “The Communist Manifesto,” for example, Marx set forth his esoteric theory of inevitable historical evolution: from democracy to socialism to communism. Today’s Communist Party USA echoes Marx: “For democracy. For equality. For socialism.” (We’ll skip a critique of communist “equality” in this article, except to note that the attempt to make everyone equal is a war against nature that can only be waged by treating people unequally. Read Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s classic short story “Harrison Bergeron” to get the flavor of government-enforced equality.)
The communists/socialists/progressives view democracy not as a protection for individual rights, but as an essential step on the road to serfdom. They want to use a democratic majority to seize control over the means of production (or at least, like Lenin, the commanding heights if not all secondary enterprises) and thus impose socialism.
This is where it’s helpful to remember the wise saying: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.” Having exploited democracy to achieve socialism, the theoretical socialist vision of a just society and workers’ paradise never comes to fruition. On the contrary, instead of a blissful arrangement in which everybody owns everything, and wealth is evenly shared, socialism quickly degenerates into an oligarchy, which in many cases develops into a tyranny (see Chapter Ten, “Why the worst get on top” in F.A. Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”).
In practice, somebody still has to make decisions about how and how much to produce for what purposes. A smallish number of government bureaucrats (generally lacking in the specific knowledge that guides successful entrepreneurs) end up making those decisions, with the major decisions being made by those with the most political clout.
Having suppressed private markets and the prices that coordinate production, socialist production becomes progressively chaotic and increasingly divorced from the wants of individual citizens. Instead, production is channeled to the ruling party’s goals (e.g., electric vehicles and the Green New Deal). What socialists have a hard time recognizing is that the most brilliant economic planners in the world can never know what Joe Lunchbucket wants from day to day as well as Mr. Lunchbucket himself. No socialist has figured out how to surmount the “economic calculation” blind spot that Ludwig von Mises articulated a century ago.
As for the transition from socialism to communism, Marx himself never explained how this would happen. He simply asserted (hardly a “scientific” approach) that once socialism achieved a utopian society, government would simply wither away and be succeeded by a communist paradise. In the first place, since socialism impoverishes, you can’t rationally expect the result to be some sort of paradise. But more to the point: Human nature being what it is, do you for one second really believe that people who wield the immense power of socialist control are just going to walk away and relinquish that control? My goodness, who can believe such fairy tales?
Sadly, there are many Americans who naively (and in a minority of cases maliciously) support the goal of achieving socialism via democracy. Indeed, democracy—in the sense of wielding the fearsome power of majorities, not in the sense of protecting the rights of individuals—is the communists’ Trojan horse, designed to deceive unaware Americans.
Progressive democracy already has corroded many of the constitutional and institutional safeguards of the Founders’ rights-based constitutional republic. We may be approaching a tipping point—a point of no return where democracy obliterates rights and the ruinous, suffocating central economic planning of socialism becomes inescapable. The next few years will be crucial.
Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.