Sense and Nonsense: On Democracy

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Richard Kraut argued that Aristotle’s best form of rule is a “polity” or democracy in which virtuous citizens alternately participate in rule that does not discriminate against the best or the ordinary. Aristotle also thought democracy, technically, was the “best of the worst” forms of rule. It usually meant the rule of “liberty.” Here, liberty indicated the undisciplined activities of citizens without internal control of their desires. The word “democracy” has become something of a minefield, with many nuanced meanings.

The Holy Father has spoken of the dangers of “totalitarian democracy.” Democracy is often seen as a system that can dissolve any traditional religion or way of life. The Church’s modern documents, however, largely favor democracy as the ordinary form of political rule, once extreme claims of liberty are limited by truth or reason.

In another sense, today almost everyone is for democracy. It has become a euphemism for the best regime. Few governments in the past century have not wanted to call themselves “democracies” or “republics.” “People’s republics” are not uncommon. Most tyrants claimed the banner of democracy.

Islamicists, however, often see democracy as the enemy that they must fight, as it represents all that is immoral in the West. The “crusaders,” as Westerners are called, are bent on establishing this form of rule to undermine the power of Allah. In fact, bringing democracy to the Middle East is often presented in the West as a way to undermine the terrorists.


President Bush recently spoke of democracy as “the philosophical argument of the age.” The form of rule that was established in the United States at its founding was not for itself alone, but was a political system intended for all nations. This is why the Declaration of Independence was addressed to mankind. Thus, a missionary element promotes the democratization of those remaining countries in which it does not yet exist. The fall of communism and the subsequent record of former Soviet states, notably Ukraine, lend credence to this view. All governments should be “democratic,” granted that there may be varieties within the system, some with monarchs.

China, one of the last absolutist regimes, is being tamed, it is claimed, by economic prosperity. Three principles—democracy, rights, and a free market—combine to provide an alternative to autocratic or failed states. The fact is that the number of democracies in the world today has never been higher. The last remaining problems, besides China and North Korea, can be found in military regimes in African states or in the Islamic states, whose poor economic performance reflects their lack of democracy and rights protection. On the whole, the democratic prospect is rather good.

Aristotle warned about going too fast in political things, passing from the worst regime to the best overnight. It was better to go slowly. Too often, the zeal to change a regime, with the best intentions, ended up making things worse. A change of regime is not a change of habits whereby the regime can work. Still, if we have faulty regimes, it cannot be wrong to envision their change to something better.

The major problem of world governments, including our own, is not whether they should be republican or democratic, but what sort of democracy we choose. In the end, many regimes are better than tyrannical or non-virtuous democracies. To describe the actual regime we live in remains a most delicate issue. No one, including the tyrants, wants to know that his or her regime is not “democratic.” The irony, no doubt, is that the best regime will call itself democratic, so likewise will the worst. To know the difference is what politics is about.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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