Can Democracy Become Tyrannical?


We have flunked our own history. We have naively assumed that almost any nation can establish a viable democracy by simply setting up some ballot boxes out in the villages and having free elections. As a people, we know so little history that we have not perceived that the American experience is anomalous and could not be easily duplicated–that if country X, Y, or Z should drive out its present dictator, the people would have a worse tyrant by tomorrow morning.1

Does anyone ever read the Constitution? Does anyone really know what it says? You wouldn’t think so by listening to politicians and reading editorial writers. Fourth of July fictional musings bring out the intellectual interlopers in droves. The editorial board of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, representative of historical revisionists who apparently cannot read, extol America’s “more than 200 years . . . [of] democracy.” The Constitution never uses the word “democracy” or “democratic.” Article IV, Section 4, says: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of government.” “Democracy” was anathema.

The editorial writers lament that America’s “democratic” ideals are not flourishing around the world. “Democracy, it seems, isn’t a hardy weed that will take root in just any climate. It’s more of a hothouse orchid, beautiful and fragile but demanding a lot of care and just the right conditions.”2 Just like I said, “fictional musings.” America’s democratic ideals are flourishing around the world, and they are just as ruinous there as they are here in America. Those with the most votes–democracy–create a form of government that expresses their character. Socialists who vote, vote for socialists. Communists who vote, vote for Communists.

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Governmental forms are considered to be more important than moral principles, ideology, and the character of the people. Give people what they want, and they will vote for the right thing. Don’t count on it if the people don’t know what’s right. For example, “Bolivia had sixty revolts, ten constitutions, and six presidents assassinated between 1826 and 1898.” Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), who has been described as the “George Washington of South America,” died an “exhausted and disillusioned idealist” because of the character of the ungovernable people.3 Some months before his death Bolivar wrote:

There is no good faith in [Latin] America, nor among the nations of [Latin] America. Treaties are scraps of paper; constitutions, printed matter; elections, battles; freedom, anarchy; and life a torment.4

When attempts are made to send our constitutional model abroad, it is most often filled with the prevailing worldview of the people or of the leadership seeking to create a new society. A nation going “democratic” is no guarantee that it will be a success or that the word has anything to do with the democratic process that operates in our American system. Nor should we be thrilled when we hear of nations becoming “republics.”

The former Communist governments of East Germany (GDR: German Democratic Republic) and the Soviet Union (USSR: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) used the terminology of America’s governing principles, but in reality, they remained communistic and anti-freedom. Democratic elections can result in Communist regimes and tyrannies.

Carl F. H. Henry observed that the “nationalism of democracy” gave us “fascism and communism.”5 Democracy is often the first step toward fascism because it is used by tyrants to disestablish political freedom in the name of political freedom. According to J. Edgar Hoover

The Red Fascists have long followed the practice of making full use of democratic liberties: elections, lawful agitation, and propaganda, and free speech, press, assembly. Their basic premise: Reap every advantage possible.1

Opponents of freedom love the democratic process. Today’s America is a perfect example of the way democracy is being used to subvert the Constitution and turning this once great nation into a burgeoning socialist “paradise.”

Part of the problem lies in the fact that most people do not understand the meaning of democracy. “The definitions of democracy are so varied that J. L. Austin once dismissed the word as ‘notoriously useless.’”6

If, as most scholars agree, democracy has its origins in Greek thought, Christians ought to be a little suspicious of its philosophical roots. Athenian-inspired democracy, seemingly dead over long centuries, “became one of a long procession of political panaceas, eventually coming full circle in the idea of government-centered socialism.”7 France’s bloody revolution was democratically inspired, and tyranny followed. So, in one case, democracy led to a bloody revolution and dictatorship in France, and in other cases, democracy leads to “government-centered socialism.”

There are two striking historical facts. First, nearly everyone today says they are democrats no matter whether their views are on the left, centre or right. Political regimes of all kinds in, for instance, Western Europe, the Eastern bloc and Latin America claim to be democracies. Yet, what each of these regimes says and does is radically different. Democracy seems to bestow an ‘aura of legitimacy’ on modern political life: rules, laws, policies and decisions appear justified and appropriate when they are ‘democratic’.2

The word “democracy” is bandied about as an incantation. When “the people” express themselves in opposition to egregiously oppressive political regimes, this is claimed to be “democracy in action,” as if public expression is somehow a magical spell that will make forty or fifty years of socialistic and communistic oppression go away.

The majority of voters in numerous failing countries have repeatedly voted for socialism.

Is democracy a good thing if a majority of Communists decide to implement Communism through the democratic process or enough Muslims decide to implement Sharia law through the democratic process? “Imam Mundhir Abdallah, of the Masjid Al-Faruq mosque in Copenhagen, told his followers ‘the final solution to the problem of the Levant – after the establishment of the Caliphate and the elimination of the Jewish entity – will be through the conquest of Europe.’” (Breitbart) And how will this be accomplished? By the democratic process.

A majority of people voted for self-avowed socialist New York Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Does this mean that socialism is a good thing? How does anyone know without a fixed moral standard?

  1. Edward Coleson, “The American Revolution: Typical or Unique?,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 3:1, Symposium on Christianity and the American Revolution, ed. Gary North (Summer 1976), 172. []
  2. “U.S. democracy difficult to emulate,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (July 4, 2000), A8. []
  3. Coleson, “The American Revolution: Typical or Unique?,” 176-177. []
  4. Quoted in Edward Coleson, “The American Revolution: Typical or Unique?,” 177. []
  5. Carl F.H. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979), 4:8. []
  6. Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Theonomic Position on God and Politics,” in Gary Scott Smith, ed., God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989), 53, note 25. []
  7. Ferdinand Lundberg, Myth of Democracy (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1989), 7. []
  1. Carl F.H. Henry, Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 127. []
  2. David Held, Models of Democracy, 3rd. ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, [1987] 2006), 1. []
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