Of course it is ludicrous for anyone to consider the government in Washington, D.C., a democracy, no matter how often it is declared to be one.  The reason is perfectly obvious: With a population of nearly 330 million people, no nation could have a government with anything resembling a true democracy.

Let us consider.  With 535 people in a Congress for a population that size (in which each Representative has an average of 759,000 constituents), we no longer have a representative democracy, in the sense of having people who represent our views or feelings or even interests or lifestyles.  Nor do we have the elemental qualities of citizenship that are essential in a democracy—after all, fewer than half the people vote in any election, and only in some presidential election years do more than half the eligible people vote.

Whatever its patrons may find to say in favor of our present system of government, there should be no pretense, except perhaps in some unrevised sixth-grade civics text, that it is designed to evince the popular will, or allow even a majority of the people to establish national policies, or let the public en masse behave as truly sovereign.  It might be better to call our system—a system in which some of the people select between two candidates who are already beholden to other interests and are in no way bound to listen to these voters—an oligarchy of the elite, which we have had the good fortune to experience as essentially benign during most of its duration.

But it is not a democracy.

I do not especially wish to debate the merits of democracy, since that is a matter that has been amply proved by innumerable political philosophers over the last several thousand years and, one would think, should be axiomatic by now.  Suffice it to say that, whatever else its problems, in its uncorrupted forms—and where the majority is kept severely in check—democracy provides more benevolence, stability, participation, responsibility, productivity, efficiency, diversity, justice, fairness, freedom, and happiness than any other known system of government.

Nor is there much point debating what democracy is.  Democracy means the direct one-person-one-vote popular assembly of every citizen.  It does not mean the bill-of-rights freedoms; it does not mean republican government; it does not mean federalism or pluralism.  Above all, it does not mean representation: Representative government may be a desirable expedient in a government of great size, but it has nothing to do with citizen participation, popular decisionmaking, or democracy.  Rousseau may have been a great waffler on many questions, but about this he was Alpine clear:

Sovereignty . . . consists essentially in the general will, and the will cannot be represented.  Either it is itself or it is something else; there is no middle ground.  The deputies of the people, therefore, are not nor can they be its representatives; they are merely its agents.  They cannot conclude anything definitively.  Any law that the people in person has not ratified is null; it is not a law. . . .

The instant a people chooses representatives, it is no longer free; it no longer exists.

The only true democracy, therefore, is direct democracy.

Many disparate types of theorists have analyzed the nature of democratic government, but virtually all are agreed on one point: A true democracy requires a small society.  The human mind is limited, the human voice finite; the number of people who can be gathered together in one place is restricted, the time and attention they are capable of giving is bounded.  From simply a human regard, there is a limit to the number of people who can be expected to know all of the civic issues, all of the contending opinions, all of the candidates for office.

The Greeks in general, whether partisans of democracy or not, agreed with Aristotle that the well-run polis had to be small:

If citizens of a state are to judge and to distribute offices according to merit, then they must know each other’s characters; where they do not possess this knowledge, both the election to offices and the decisions of lawsuits will go wrong.

European thinkers, likewise, though not all of them democrats, assumed with Rousseau and Montesquieu that populations and territories had to be kept circumscribed.  “A fundamental rule for every well-constituted and legitimately governed society,” Rousseau said, “would be that all the members could be easily assembled every time this would be necessary,” and therefore “it follows that the State ought to be limited to one town at the most.”  And though he is never specific as to the size of its population—indeed, he argues sensibly that it depends on the geography and fertility of a region—he refers at one point to maximum freedom in a state of 10,000.

Subsequent democratic theory has proceeded from like assumptions.  The triumph of the American and French revolutions recast much of this theory into national molds, and some there were who tried to argue that large-scale representative or republican systems retained “the essence” of democracy; but Madison himself acknowledged that a “pure democracy” was “a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.”  Even John Stuart Mill, who was dealing with an England of millions, agreed that “the only government which can fully satisfy all the exigencies of the social state is one in which the whole people participate,” and that, he said, cannot take place “in a community exceeding a single small town.”

The 20th century—and with undoubted good reason—has had occasion to reiterate that view in the face of mass parties, mass politics, and mass governments claiming to be democratic.  John Dewey may have spoken for his generation (“Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community”) as Lewis Mumford did for his (“Democracy, in any active sense, begins and ends in communities small enough for their members to meet face to face”).  More recently, the political scientist Robert Dahl:

Any argument that no political system is legitimate unless all the basic laws and decisions are made by the assembled people leads inexorably to the conclusion that the citizen body must be quite small in number.

And Leopold Kohr puts it in this delightful perspective:

A citizen of the Principality of Liechtenstein, whose population numbers less than fourteen thousand, desirous to see His Serene Highness the Prince and Sovereign, Bearer of many exalted orders and Defender of many exalted things, can do so by ringing the bell at his castle gate.  However serene His Highness may be, he is never an inaccessible stranger.  A citizen of the massive American republic, on the other hand, encounters untold obstacles in a similar enterprise.  Trying to see his fellow citizen President, whose function is to be his servant, not his master, he may be sent to an insane asylum for observation or, if found sane, to a court on charges of disorderly conduct.  Both happened in 1950. . . . You will say that in a large power such as the United States informal relationships such as exist between government and citizen in small countries are technically unfeasible.  This is quite true.  But this is exactly it.  Democracy in its full meaning is impossible in a large state which, as Aristotle already observed, is “almost incapable of constitutional government.”

That is exactly it.

How the United States could transform itself into a series of small-scale democracies, beginning with the secession of states into manageable sizes, is a question unanswerable at this moment, and I don’t suggest that we would see this, or anything like it, in the very near future.  But until some such arrangement is considered and somehow enacted, no one—including the blowhards in Washington—should ever again refer to the present government of this country as a democracy.