Winston Churchill’s backhanded praise of democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried” is usually cited as the last word on the subject.  It is a good way of closing off a dangerous topic of discussion, and it works quite well with that vast majority of people who are ignorant of the history of democratic states, both ancient and modern.

Ancient democracies, like Athens, Syracuse, and Argos, present an instructive albeit terrifying spectacle of tyrannical and violent mob rule at home and imperial aggression abroad.  In the latter phase of the Peloponnesian War, Athens acted more like a band of robbers than like a legitimate city-state, killing and enslaving the inhabitants of Melos simply because the Melians would not abandon their traditional alliance with Sparta, executing victorious generals who failed to rescue shipwrecked Athenian sailors.  Only Socrates tried to stop the illegal and unjust proceeding, and his reward came seven years later when a restored democracy sentenced him to death.

The antics of ancient democrats were repeated in the French Revolution, whose leaders, in the name of the people’s rights, stole property, demolished the institutions of Christianity, and murdered a vast number of men, women, and children.  The U.S. Founding Fathers viewed the whole idea of democracy with horror.  As Madison put it in Federalist 10, “A pure democracy” cannot cure “the mischiefs of faction” or curb the majority’s passion to domineer over the losing side or an obnoxious individual.  “Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Madison derided those “theoretic politicians” who thought the mischiefs attendant on democracy could be remedied by a system of equal rights.  The American system was, as Madison and the others insisted, not a democracy in any sense of the term.  It was a confederation of 13 sovereign republics, each with its own tiny and very limited government.  Thomas Jefferson’s coalition is usually called the Democratic-Republican Party, but Jefferson and his friends consistently called it only the Republican Party.

The aim of Jefferson and his fellow aristocrats was to keep the power of the federal government within the constitutional box circumscribed by the Bill of Rights they had demanded.  They wanted the smallest possible government and always preferred local government to state government, and state government to the federal.  Jefferson’s conception of democracy was almost entirely negative in being a popular check on government: It is not the power of a real or nominal majority to dictate to the entire population but the capacity of the people, acting within their communities, to resist the power of government that is more accurately described as the tyranny of the majority.

Since the 1850’s, Americans have gradually come to adopt the view that our government is a democracy defined by such features as the absence of aristocratic (though not plutocratic) privileges, by a broad extension of the franchise, and, after the New Deal, by policies that systematically transfer wealth from taxpayers to tax-consumers.

We can thus speak loosely of our democratic system as one in which the rich and powerful pander to the lower socioeconomic classes in order to gain, maintain, and increase their own power.  The effect is to rob the people of any power they might have of defending themselves against politicians.  If politicians mistreat us, we are not supposed to complain, because we have only ourselves to blame.  That is what is meant when a president elected by 30 percent of the eligible voters claims a mandate from the people.

The problem does not arise because evil or corrupt politicians abuse democracy.  The problem lies in the very concept of democracy we were all taught in school: In a democracy, the people rule.  In principle, this means that a 51-percent majority of voters in an election can do just about anything it likes, and if some fuddy-duddy law gets in the way, then it can be struck down, ignored, or turned on its head by five appointed judges on the Supreme Court.  We have grown so used to the idea of government as a perpetual revolution against tradition that we may not even be aware that the graduated income tax; withholding tax; federal regulation of election procedures, criminal law, and highway speed; protection of gay rights—the list is virtually endless—would all have been viewed as constitutionally impossible and indeed tyrannical a generation before such measures were put in place.

This perpetual revolution against law and tradition is the product of a democratic theory that is diametrically opposite to Jeffersonian republicanism.  Because democracy expresses the national will of 300 million random individuals, the government has the duty to eliminate all those irritating peculiarities of religion, class, wealth, region, and sex that encourage inequality.  This new democratic agglomeration of undifferentiated individuals is replacing the traditional social order in which such different creatures as men and women formed families in which children obeyed parents, attended church, and maintained a strong and affectionate loyalty to the traditions of Northern Wisconsin or Southern Alabama.

There are two glaring errors in this theory of democracy.  First, in a modern country, there is so great a diversity of ethnicity, religion, and ideology that there can be no consensus—in fact, no nation.  Here in the United States, Catholics quarrel with Protestants and join Protestants in opposing atheists, but also Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists.  Where is the general will on religion?

The first error leads to the second: the failure to realize that calls for democracy and equality often disguise a deeper and more passionate desire to promote one group over another.  In Iran a benevolent dictator (the shah) was replaced by a more democratic regime that imposed Shi’ite Islam on Sunnis and instituted a systematic persecution of Christians that has eliminated most of them from the country.  When the United States toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein and overthrew that malevolent dictator, exactly the same thing happened: Sunni Muslims were oppressed, and Christians—whom Saddam had protected—were persecuted, murdered, dispossessed, and expelled.  The same democratic revolution is taking place in Egypt and Libya with the same predictable results.

Islamic democrats are obviously in violation of a key provision of modern democratic theory that opposes any regime or political movement that deprives people of their religious freedom.  The modern democratist detests Shi’ite Iran because it persecutes women and discriminates against non-Shi’ite Muslims, while he loved the so-called Bosniaks who broke away from Yugoslavia, because, as Christopher Hitchens said at the time, Bosnia was a multicultural state that did not distinguish between Christians and Muslims, or Croats and Serbs.

This is, indeed, a deeper and more inclusive philosophy of democracy, but it is no less tyrannical than Shi’ite democracy.  Imagine a Bosnian town made up exclusively of Christian Serbs attached to the Orthodox Church and to their historical culture.  They do not want strangers coming in to build a mosque or an Islamic school; they do not wish to see women compelled to wear headscarves or sold four at a time to the highest bidder; and they don’t want their children to be taught how much better things were under Ottoman rule, when Christians could not own a gun, ride a horse, or testify in court against a Muslim.

But to limit the freedom of Muslims in a Christian community would be undemocratic, says the “international community.”  Back home in Indiana, you are living in a strongly conservative Christian town, and someone moves in to open up a bookstore-plus-cabaret promoting the gay life.  Can the locals protect their identity and traditions?  Absolutely not: That would be bigotry.  For the democratists, equality is not equality under the law: It is the destruction of all the human differences on which the social order rests.

So the argument is not between liberal democratists who promote freedom and equality and us bigots who cling to our traditional point of view.  The philosophers and democrats are as bigoted as we are: They want to impose a particular social order in which our American and European traditions will not be privileged in any way over alien traditions; in which a 12-year-old boy has the right to decide whether he wants to have sexual relations with his civics teacher; in which conservative Christian churches will not be able to oppose abortions or “gay marriage.”

In principle, democracy is a denial of any value higher than the will of the majority.  If the majority (or the rulers that speak for the majority) want “gay marriage” or no-fault divorce, no constitution or higher law can be permitted to frustrate the will of “the people.”  In principle, then, democracy is amoral and subversive of value; in reality, however, the theory of democracy is a tool by which a ruling elite seizes and maintains power.

For the most part, the United States of America is a democracy now only in the modern sense of a country whose government has assumed extraordinary powers in order to facilitate everyone in his search for happiness and fulfillment, as defined by the ruling parties.  In this system, national and state politicians and bureaucrats acquire more and more power at the expense of families, churches, and local governments.

Marx once correctly defined ideology as the set of ideas that justifies the power of the ruling class.  Since Lincoln’s time, the rhetoric of democracy has been used to buttress the authority of the powers that be over any person or community that attempts to defend its own interests.  Politicians and their spokespersons in the media who continue to invoke the glorious principle of democracy are, whether they know it or not, merely lackeys of the current regime.