All right, I admit it. Democratism is not a word in common use. Our spell-checks don’t recognize it, and if we do use it, we will likely be greeted with blank stares. Nevertheless, it well describes an ideology to which we in the western world are especially prone. But let’s back up and talk about democracy first.
Democracy is classically defined as the rule of the people. Today we think of democracy as a form of government in which the people elect the major office holders. The typical system consists of a parliamentary body made up of chosen representatives of the citizenry. There may be an elected head of state, but not necessarily, as in the case of Britain’s constitutional monarchy. The government, even if not directly elected, depends on the support of an elected parliament. In other words, the people’s participation is filtered through a series of procedures intended to keep officials in check and to focus their efforts on doing public justice within the context of a diverse societal fabric.
Yet the existence of free elections by no means guarantees that governments will rule justly. True, submitting their record to the voters on a regular basis is a powerful check on our governments, which might otherwise rule in their own rather than in the public interest. But democratic procedures are not enough to ensure justice. Of greater importance is the rule of law, which constrains not only our office holders but the people themselves. Without the rule of law, democracy could see the development of majority tyranny, a phenomenon that has majorities regularly neglecting the legitimate interests of minorities. For most countries the rule of law implies the existence of a constitution, a document providing for the basic arrangement of political institutions, how they relate to each other, the rights of citizens, and the amending procedures.
Of course, unlike most countries, the United Kingdom lacks such a document. In this country constitutional reform occurs through ordinary parliamentary means backed by a sitting government. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government undertook several such reforms, including the devolution of political authority to a Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies, reform of the House of Lords, and the establishment of a Supreme Court. The UK’s constitution is uniquely uncodified, yet such unwritten conventions as responsible government, ministerial responsibility, and the limited monarchy, which together make up the British constitution, have been more effective than the written constitutions of many countries around the world.
Our democracies, in other words, are complicated systems in which several institutions counterbalance each other, providing for multiple eyes vetting policy proposals for the sake of the public good.
Nevertheless, for some people this is not enough. They want to see as many offices as possible subject to election and a clear voice of the people unfiltered by mechanisms put in place to check it. Here is where democratism as an ideology enters the picture.
Nearly a century ago, Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York delivered a speech in which he clearly stated his own commitment to this ideology: “If there are any ills that democracy is suffering from today, they can only be cured by more democracy.” Americans in particular have taken Smith at his word, beginning in the early years of the twentieth century. This was the Progressive Era, when the Constitution was amended to provide for direct elections to the Senate, Congress’s upper chamber, and internal party primary elections were set up to measure the public saleability of prospective candidates for the presidency and other offices. In some places, even court judges are subject to election.
Democratism consists primarily of the belief that the will of the people is identical to justice, or what the voters desire is always right. This conviction has contributed to the rise of Napoleonic politics—in which a leader claims a mandate from the people for his rule and is willing to use this claim against other officials and institutions set up to check his power. The enduring problem with this type of politics is that “the people” is too nebulous an entity to be a responsible agent and is incapable of effectively constraining the ruler’s power. If a ruler can claim the support of the people against ordinary officials from elsewhere within the system, and if he has his way, he becomes less accountable and public justice suffers as a consequence.
Democracy is not a panacea; it cannot solve all the problems of a nation. Indeed, it was never meant to. A constitutional democracy exists, not primarily to channel the popular will, but to facilitate the doing of justice within a complex society. It properly consists of multiple institutions, not all of which are elected, relating to each other in regular and predictable ways under the watchful eyes of office holders with a realistic understanding of human nature. These officials should have an unwavering commitment to the rule of law and not to making a particular polity great again by some vague criteria or to achieving a perfect society.
Indeed, a just political system incorporates democratic elements, most notably in a parliamentary body, but recognizes the need for nondemocratic elements to keep them in check. For most of western history, political philosophers in the classical and Christian traditions have favoured the mixed constitution, which combines monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements in a single political system under the rule of law. Like all human enterprises, it’s not a perfect system. But because the quest for perfection has so often in the past led to injustice on a massive scale, it’s almost certainly the best we can hope for in the present age.
So democracy, yes. But democratism, no.