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  • Victor C. Bolles

Democracy is not a Verb

Last week I was watching a YouTube video of the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge hosted by Peter Robinson as he posed five questions for historian Stephen Kotkin. Mr. Kotkin was Professor in History and International Affairs for many years at Princeton and has recently become a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Professor Kotkin is super smart and his analysis of the war on Ukraine is insightful and illuminating. I highly recommend that you watch the video.

But I am not writing this commentary about the Uncommon Knowledge interview. I often read the comments section of articles and interviews as they provide insight, not only on the topic, but also about the type of people reading the article or watching the video. One commenter stated that a discussion about Ukraine between Professor Kotkin and Timothy Snyder would be brilliant, and the IQ of the dialogue would be “breathtaking.” I said to myself, “I need to know more about this Timothy Snyder. If he is as smart and insightful as Stephen Kotkin, then I want to hear what he has to say.”

Mr. Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale University and an expert on Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Professor Snyder recently recorded a Ted Talk with the title, Is Democracy Doomed? The Global Fight for Our Future. This is an important topic and democratic governments are clearly being threatened around the world. Professor Snyder began by declaring that he felt that democracy was not a thing that exists outside of us but exists inside of us. He states, “Democracy has to begin with a desire for the people to rule, which of course, is what democracy is all about.” He says that democracy should not be a noun but should be considered a verb. Democracy is something that you do.

This assertion made me wonder. I don’t consider democracy a desire within me. I do not have some deep emotional need to give other people the ability to vote on matters that affect me, which is, in essence, ceding my freedoms to the will of the majority. Adam Smith wrote in his book, The Wealth of Nations, that people were driven by their self-interest but added that people working in their self-interest can serve the common good. But working in your own self-interest means that you must have agency in your life, the ability to take actions that serve your interest and those of your family. People cede a portion of that agency to government so that they can form larger societies. But ceding such agency does not come easily for humans and often force is required which has been the case for most of our history. The best government is one that allows citizens to retain as much agency as possible while maintaining the trust among citizens so that they can live together in peace.

Humans do not have an innate desire for the other people to rule them but rather the opposite. Professor Snyder admits this in his Ted Talk, “I think the moment that we say democracy …. is somehow natural, democracy is the default state of affairs, we’re not just making a mistake, we’re making ourselves into the kinds of people who aren't going to have a democracy.” Snyder cites Frederick Douglass as saying that democracy is a struggle. But Douglass’s struggle was for freedom and justice. Douglass had a low opinion of white man’s democracy as he made clear in his 1852 speech, What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July? As Frederick Douglass knew (but apparently Professor Snyder doesn’t) democracy can be used for good or ill.

I consider democracy a tool. The Founders did not set out to create a democracy. They sought to create a government that would “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Democracy wasn’t the goal, but rather a tool or mechanism that would allow them to achieve their goal, which was liberty. The Founders feared concentrations of power, so they created checks and balances to diffuse the power of government. But they also feared the power of the majority, so they also put checks on the power of democracy into the Constitution. Some of those checks have been eliminated such as the indirect election of senators. But others remain such as the Electoral College, giving each state only two senators, the staggered election of representatives, senators and presidents, and the lifetime appointment of Supreme Court justices (you may note that eliminating these limitations on democracy are among the changes that progressives want to make if they get control). The Founders of America did not structure our constitutional republic as a democracy because they thought democracy was so wonderful but because they thought every other conceivable form of government was worse and more inimical to our liberty. And although democracy has the potential to create a greater scope for political and economic liberty, that does not mean that a democracy cannot severely restrict liberty through a dictatorship of the majority.

But because democracy is a tool and not a goal, its functions are limited by the abilities and experience of the wielder of the tool. A chain saw is a tool and in the hands of an experienced arborist it can be a very effective tool. In my hands it is more of a dangerous weapon. Keep in mind that the first tools of our primitive ancestors were stone axes and flint knives that were also very effective weapons at that time. If people around the world are unhappy with democracy, it is because they do not understand what democracy is and how to use it effectively. Giving me a more powerful chainsaw would not make me a better arborist, it would just make me more dangerous.


Professor Snyder seems to identify the spirit of democracy with progressivism. He accepts that capitalism is consistent with democracy but goes on to state, “There are plenty of capitalist democracies, but there are also plenty of states that are capitalist and are quite tyrannical. So capitalism is consistent with democracy, but it doesn't bring us democracy.” Of course capitalism doesn’t deliver democracy on a plate, but I think he misunderstands capitalism as much as democracy.

When he says capitalism is consistent with democracy he is trying to imply that democracy would also be consistent with other economic systems. In other words, that democracy is independent of economic systems. But it was Enlightenment philosopher John Locke who asserted that the right to own property (i.e., capital) is essential for liberty because if you cannot own what you have labored to obtain you have no freedom. In other words, if you can’t work in your own interest, you are not free.

Can you have a democratic government that is not free? Frederick Douglass certainly thought so. It is not that you internalize the feeling of democracy, as Professor Snyder asserts, that makes good government, but it is the ethical and moral substance of the democratic people that makes a democratic government work. As President John Adams insisted, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Otherwise your democracy devolves into a dictatorship of the majority. You must recall that democracy was the tool used by Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, Chavez and Ortega, to gain power. Recall also that Putin was democratically elected president of Russia and remains popular enough to be reelected even now despite the tragedy of his invasion of Ukraine. When unconstrained democracy is used by a skillful autocrat to gain power, the concentration of power allows the autocrat to easily dispose of democracy and all its trappings.

Professor Snyder goes on to recite a litany of progressive issues (such as global warming and income inequality) that he believes need to be resolved in order to save the future of democracy as he defines it. But the democracy he defines is one that gives government unconstrained power to force people to comply with his progressive goals. Anything that stands in the way of achieving his progressive goals he believes to be undemocratic. He states, “Finally, democracy, at least in my country…has to be understood as a spirit. That is, the way that the laws should be interpreted, the way that the future should arrive, rather than as a matter of legalism. In the Supreme Court of the United States, ….taking the procedures as being more important than the democracy, … is a way of leading the country away from democracy. And in my country, it could lead us all the way away from democracy as soon as the next couple of years.” The democracy he fears we are being led away from is the collectivist government envisioned by the progressive left, not the one the Founders created in 1787 that relies on constitutional procedures (Professor Snyder’s legalisms) to protect our liberty.

What Professor Snyder proposes is a democracy unmoored from principle, unconstrained by constitutional checks and balances, and conducted by people manipulated by left-wing ideologues. This is not a government that will produce the blessings of liberty. This is a recipe for tyranny.

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