The Death of Democracy?

by Peter Saint-Andre


Is democracy in peril? Apparently many pundits think so. Yet 'democracy' is notoriously difficult to define. Although I strive to stay away from political topics in this journal, perhaps by applying some philosophical elbow grease we can lessen our worries about yet another emergency disaster crisis.

The ancient Greeks understood δημοκρατία to mean that power was held and exercised by the people. The Athenian democracy, which is the ancient one we know best, included all sorts of clever hacks to ensure that the people (well, propertied male citizens) would be involved in ruling; these included a massive assembly and random selection of citizens to higher office. The Athenians distinguished these democratic principles from oligarchy (rule by the few - typically the rich) and monarchy (rule by one person - either a hereditary king or a non-hereditary "tyrant").

The Athenians would not agree with us that elections are the hallmark of democracy. Indeed, they suspected that choosing government officers through elections instead of random selection would lead to an oligarchy because only the rich would end up serving. We have living proof of their fears today, since with a few exceptions our current system of government is oligarchic, not democratic.

Aside from jury service, one of those exceptions is small-town government, especially in New England. As I mentioned over twenty years ago in this journal, no less a political philosopher than Thomas Jefferson held that we should "divide the counties into wards" (i.e., townships) so that the people could govern themselves. In his letter to Samuel Kerchival of July 12, 1816, Jefferson called for "making every citizen an acting member of the government" through the following means:

Divide the counties into wards of such size as that every citizen can attend when called on, and act in person. Ascribe to them the government of their wards in all things relating to themselves exclusively.... These wards, called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government, and for its preservation.

Unfortunately, even in New England the tradition of the town meeting has atrophied somewhat, as Frank Bryan describes in his book Real Democracy. Part of the challenge can be attributed to our old friend, Dunbar's numbers. Robin Dunbar has shown that most people are truly acquainted with only 500 people, know only 1,500 people by name, and know only 5,000 people by sight. The town I grew up in (Readfield, Maine) had about 2,000 people when I lived there, and the town meeting seemed to function fairly well if I recall correctly. But if a town grows to 5,000 or 10,000 people, it's unlikely that self-governance can be sustained. To handle population growth (America had 4 million people in 1790 but has 330+ million today), perhaps Jefferson would have said "divide the towns into neighborhoods!"

In any case, it strikes me that if democracy in America is dying, it has been a slow, steady process as the population has grown, as power has been increasingly centralized in the managerial state at the national level, as fewer people have direct experience of self-government in their own town or neighborhood, and so on. Paradoxically, perhaps, I am less concerned about a sudden collapse of representative "democracy" and more concerned about the seemingly inexorable decline of self-government.

(Cross-posted at


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