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Stop Confusing Democracy and Liberty

Here’s an cartoon that, while clever, expresses a fundamental misunderstanding that is very common:



The problem is that this implies that democracy is somehow incompatible with autocracy and theocracy, but that simply isn’t true. Theocracy can be implemented as easily through democratic means as it can through dictatorial or monarchial means — perhaps more easily because the support of a majority of the people will give theocracy a legitimacy it would lack if imposed by a king or a dictator, if only in the minds of those who think democracy is synonymous with liberty (which seems to be far too many people).

That tyranny can be implemented democratically should be obvious, especially in this country. All of those laws that threw gay people in jail for centuries were passed by democratically elected legislatures. Same with laws against interracial marriage. And the same with all sorts of authoritarian laws passed by Congress all the time. Democracy provides very little protection against tyranny and sometimes even encourages it.

That’s the whole point of having a Bill of Rights that attempts to put individual liberty out of the reach of elected legislatures. And when democracy and liberty are in conflict, as they often are, it is liberty that should be the trump card.

Comments

  1. dingojack says

    Strange, I ‘read’ it as saying: ‘all those names for forms of government, and all that changes is the job title of the assholes at the top’.
    Could be just me looking at it through the ‘Occupy Wall St.’ glasses. :(
    Dingo

  2. dogmeat says

    Similar misunderstanding with the compatibility of socialism and democracy. Americans tend to think socialism = communism = Stalin!!!

    Like any system, democracy can be good, bad, indifferent, or downright ugly.

  3. donalbain says

    If someone is elected by the people, then it is not a theocracy. A theocracy is only the case if the people holding office do so as a result of their position as a religious leader. If they have to get voted into power, then they are not holding office as a result of their religious position and so it is not a theocracy.

  4. says

    I am glad that Ed continues to make this point. We (in the US) don’t live in a democracy, if democracy means a system where the majority rules. The Founders were mostly pretty terrified of this kind of democracy, considering that it would be basically mob rule. They instituted a complicated system of Federalism, checks and balances at multiple levels, and an inherently cumbersome system to ensure that thinqgs got done, but only very slowly. It has worked fairly well, by and large.

  5. anandine says

    “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it, good and hard.” H.L. Mencken

    He also said, “Democracy is the system by which the American people, having millions of white men to pick from, many of whom are handsome and some of whom are wise, pick Calvin Coolidge to be their president.”

  6. sivivolk says

    I’d also point out they’ve got a white dude pushing off the “Aut”, two white dudes (though at least with black hair) bringing in the “Dem”, and traditional-looking dudes bringing in the “Theo”.

    It might not be intended, but it comes off as more than a little racist, especially given the role the States played in keeping the “Aut” there.

  7. says

    @donalbain in #4:

    If they have to get voted into power, then they are not holding office as a result of their religious position and so it is not a theocracy.

    No, the presence of voting doesn’t necessarily make a society not a theocracy. If you only get to vote for candidates that are religious, and that vow to uphold the laws of their holy book, it’s still a theocracy. If you get to vote for your leaders, but your courts are run by religious laws, it’s still a theocracy.

  8. donalbain says

    theocracy(the|oc¦racy)

    Pronunciation:/θɪˈɒkrəsi/
    noun (plural theocracies)

    *
    a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god:

    It doesnt just mean “a society based on rules we dont like”.

  9. dingojack says

    Yes DonalBain but that definition neither includes nor excludes voting specifically, does it?
    Dingo

  10. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    It might not be intended, but it comes off as more than a little racist, especially given the role the States played in keeping the “Aut” there.

    I don’t know. The “theocracy” dudes don’t look any differently complected to me than the other folks, they just have long beards and traditional garb. Which seems fairly appropriate to a cartoon.

  11. says

    a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god:

    It doesnt just mean “a society based on rules we dont like”.

    Right, and it’s quite possible to achieve that through democracy. People could democratically elect politicians that defer power to priests. In general, even any non-democratic system can be ushered in if people vote for politicians who don’t respect democracy.

  12. lordshipmayhem says

    Dingojack @ #8:

    ‘Ergatocracy’ is worker-ruled.

    What would a sex-worker-ruled society be? An erotocracy?
    Ruled by gourmets and gourmands: an eatocracy?

    You can have a lot of fun with this!!

  13. donalbain says

    Yes, it does. It says “ruling in the name of God”. Not “in the name of people who elected them”. This is not fucking hard stuff people.

  14. Aquaria says

    The problem is that this implies that democracy is somehow incompatible with autocracy and theocracy, but that simply isn’t true.

    I agree with dingo that it’s not necessarily that democracy is better. I see that they can be interchangeable, depending on who’s in charge, and that’s what makes any government a little scary.

    Theocracy can be implemented as easily through democratic means as it can through dictatorial or monarchial means

    :::cough::: Iran :::cough:::

  15. unbound says

    @donalbain – Unfortunately, what you keep posting runs fully counter to what is pretty obvious to most people looking at the US today. There is an entire segment of the US that actually thinks the US was found on xtianity. That same segment will happily vote for someone to rule over them in the name of god. That same segment will be happy when their voting is restricted to choosing between 2 good xtian candidates to rule them in god’s name.

    As #15 pointed out, the Pope is voted on.

    Your last sentence in #17 actually applies to you.

  16. says

    @donalbain: indeed it isn’t hard stuff, which makes it so weird that you won’t understand this. If someone rules in the name of God it’s a theocracy, and it doesn’t matter whether that person got into that position because he was elected, by killing his predecessor, or because he won the scripture memorization contest.

  17. says

    Technically speaking, a theocracy is rule by the clergy, not simply the adoption of a state religion or the passage of religiously regressive laws. Unless the clergy was popularly elected, which rarely happens (the whole point being that the clergy is an elite and powerful institution), a theocracy is non-democratic.

    Ed:

    “And when democracy and liberty are in conflict, as they often are, it is liberty that should be the trump card.”

    But democracy has to precede liberty. It’s not like there’s some sort of cosmic force that will enforce liberty if the powers that be are not sufficiently behind it. We’ve deliberately put a lot of things beyond the reach of short-term democratic control, but the maintenance of those very institutions of checks and balances, judicial review, etc. requires democratic adherence.

  18. vmanis1 says

    There’s often an unspoken assumption that theocracy and autocracy are automatically bad. At least in theory, one could have a benign theocracy (or a benign dictatorship) in which the rules were precisely those a democratic society with a strong commitment to individual rights might impose. (One can imagine commandments such as `Thou shalt not impose any law that restricts the freedom of speech of My created people’.) People being people, no doubt the degree of benignity [Wiktionary claims this is a real word] would deteriorate, and the society would come to resemble hell, but it is at least possible in theory.

    (That’s sort of the reverse of Plato’s argument about how democracies deteriorate, and why benign despotism is better.)

    I took the cartoon as a witty comment on how just changing the surface features of a political system doesn’t really accomplish anything, and didn’t really see it as saying that democracy—in any form, mob rule or limited by charters of rights—was automatically `better’.

    It reminds me of the joke from Eastern Europe during the communist era, where a student in school was asked to define the difference between communism and capitalism. The student responded `Capitalism is a system where man exploits man. Under communism, it is exactly the reverse.’

  19. Sadie Morrison says

    Um, Donalbain, unless you think that by implementing a theocratic government god (which one?) personally governs, your point @17 is complete nonsense.

  20. donalbain says

    sadie: If only my post had something in there about PRIESTS governing in the name of their god..

  21. says

    My reiteration of an important point:

    Every time I get in an argument with a wingnut fundamentalist who tries to argue that they’re in the majority, I have to point out that we’re a constitutional democracy, not a mob. The majority rules, but only within limits set by the constitution.

    A lynch mob is very democratic: Deprive a minority member of life by popular vote. Without constitutional protections, there’s no due process stopping the majority from doing whatever the hell they want.

    Whether or not you want to get into the exact semantics, I certainly see state-supported religion as a generally corrupting force that can steadily push a government to becoming a de facto theocracy. I certainly can’t think of any benign theocracies, and my attempts to conceive of one would require me to adopt a very naive perception of humans.

  22. Sadie Morrison says

    Donalbain , your argument is now even more confused than it was before. Do you think that a theocracy fails to be a theocracy if priests (or pastors, rabbis, imams, etc.) are democratically elected?

  23. says

    Do you think that a theocracy fails to be a theocracy if priests (or pastors, rabbis, imams, etc.) are democratically elected?

    Or if priests put up a figurehead elected parliament and president to take care of all the tedious details of actually running a country, while keeping the right to veto any laws that contradict the laws from their holy scripture?

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