Nobody can define democracy, and if any honest man succeeded in doing so, the liars (always in the vast majority of mankind) would stone hime to death for his pains. Democracy means, literally, rule by the people; or rather, as Roger Scruton puts it (in his very useful Dictionary of Political Thought), “by the people as a whole rather than by any section, class or interest within it.” The trouble lies, as Scruton points out, with defining “who the people are, and which acts of government are truly ‘theirs’ . . .”

Most political theorists distinguish between direct and representative democracy, but that is like the difference between traditional Christianity and liberal Christianity—the one is real, the other a fake. Athenian direct democracy meant that the people ruled through popular institutions: the Assembly of citizens, the vast citizen juries that tried cases, and the ostracism of ambitious politicians. There was little bureaucracy and hardly any police to speak of. The wealth and influence would always play a decisive role in them, and they were highly skeptical of professionals who would presume to speak in their name. So far from creating a centralized establishment, the tiny Athenian polis was as decentralized as Switzerland, and most social regulation lay in the hands of the household, kin groups, and local neighborhoods. This has little to do with the centralized bureaucracy that runs the entire nation as if it were occupied territory.

In America, democracy referred originally to the mass of ordinary people and, secondly, to the political forms that expressed the popular will. Jefferson, who was in many respects an authentic classical republican, trusted neither the mob nor the Northeastern plutocracy with the power to direct other people’s lives. His own vision, in his plans for public education and ward government, carries the principle of states’ rights to its logical conclusion, bringing power back to the people who have to live under it. Jefferson undoubtedly thought he was wiser than his neighbors in matters of religion or on the South’s peculiar institution, but he did not think that it was up to him to force them, much less the outlandish people living in Connecticut, to bow to his wishes. 

Although most ordinary people cannot help being busybodies, the true principle of democracy can be summed up in a line by Hank Williams, Jr.: “If you’d mind your own business, then you won’t be minding mine.” This is the opposite of what is meant by democracy when it is discussed by practitioners of a purely academic philosophy. They hate Jefferson and prefer democracy in the style of Rousseau and Lenin, where, in the name of the people, the tiniest oligarchies monopolize the resources and power of 270 million people who surrender their liberties in every election with the eagerness of a chump handing in a lottery ticket with the wrong number.