What is Democracy Anyway?

What is Democracy Anyway? By  – Lew Rockwell

In a TAC commentary last month, Robert Merry responded to a lament by Brookings Institution fellow William Galston in The New Republic about an “anti-democratic populist” wave sweeping across Europe. In light of the ascent of a Euroskeptic coalition in Italy and the recent impressive electoral win by conservative nationalist Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party in Hungary, Galston believes that democracy has suffered a fateful setback:

The global democratic tide which began in 1974 with the end of Portugal’s authoritarian regime crested in 2006, making way for anti-democratic populists. Many Western leaders have yet to come to terms with this new reality, hoping that anti-immigrant sentiment is just a passing phenomenon.

Merry addresses these complaints by pointing out that it’s not democracy but elites that have failed. There is after all no reason to assess the success of democratic government by how many Syrian migrants European countries take in or keep out. Democracy is about caring for one’s citizens, not turning over one’s cities to a mass of humanity from the Middle East. Nor is there anything intrinsically undemocratic about citizens in Hungary or Italy voting for officials who reflect their views on immigration. Why is it undemocratic to disagree with Galston, the Brookings Institution, or The New Republic? Are we supposed to be grading countries for democratic good conduct by how often their wishes coincide with the preferences of globalist elites?

That said, the matter under discussion may be more complicated than the above observations would suggest. There is no single operative concept of “democracy.” William Galston and those he attacks give dramatically different meanings to the same term; their conflicting understandings were already present when modern democracies took shape. As the franchise was extended and universalized in most Western countries in the early 20th century, the effect was not to limit government. It was rather to expand its reach in the form of public administration.

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Lew Rockwell

The daily news and opinion site LewRockwell.com was founded in 1999 by anarcho-capitalists Lew Rockwell and Burt Blumert to help carry on the anti-war, anti-state, pro-market work of Murray N. Rothbard. We published articles written by hundreds of authors six days a week.