How Democracies Die

Spirited Reasoners know that the United States was not the world’s first democracy. We know that ancient Greece experimented with various forms of direct and indirect democracy beginning roughly with Solon’s ecclesia in 594 BCE and ending with the conquest of Athens by the Macedonians in 338 BCE, an overall period of less than 300 years.

We know that ancient Rome had a form of representative government that even boasted a degree of separation of powers. Two consuls controlled the government and military, respectively. The legislative branch included a senate, centuriate assembly, and tribal assembly. The judicial branch consisted of eight praetors chosen by the centuriate assembly. One can argue that various forms of democratic and/or republican government lasted in Rome from around 509 BCE, when the Romans overthrew the Etruscans, to the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE—an overall period of less than 500 years.

If we date our own democracy from the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 (one could make an argument for other dates, including the date of ratification of the Constitution by the tenth colony), then we’ve been at it for almost as long as the Greeks.

So far, the United States has not been conquered by a foreign power, as was the case with Athens, nor have we suffered the sort of coup that brought down the Roman republic. We are, however, experiencing symptoms that, if not addressed, could lead to the death of our democratic republic.

Democracies fail for two reasons: (1) they are unwilling or unable to protect themselves militarily, as was the case with the ancient Athenians; or (2) disagreements among parties and factions become so implacable that citizens are easily seduced by the promises of a budding dictator, one who offers quick solutions. (Kerensky’s provisional government in post-Czarist Russia suffered elements of both.)

It would be hard to argue that we are witnessing a decline in the effectiveness of the United States military. For any foreign nation to conquer, and hold, any of the 50 states and territories currently under U.S. control would require an unthinkable degree of collaboration—i. e., treason—at the highest levels of our government.

More troubling than the first reason, however, is the series of nonstop internal frustrations we have witnessed since the Watergate scandal. Gridlock, failed attempts to approve budgets, presidential appointments held hostage by filibusters, and other signs of governmental dysfunction have plagued us since the 1970s.

Now, during the Trump Administration, we are witnessing an exacerbation of symptoms. Millions of Americans appear willing to silence our free press, calling proven allegation “fake news” whenever the facts run counter to the desires of their chosen leader. Meanwhile, in our social media, those who disagree with Trump’s policies are called “un-American” merely by reason of having an opinion different from that of the chief executive. And, when evidence of criminal activity by the President is alleged, the President’s attorneys put forward the notion that our nation’s chief executive cannot be charged with a crime. He is above the law.

Hopefully, these new symptoms do not indicate that we are witnessing the development of a third form of democratic death—one in which voters allow their elected leader to dismantle each legislative check and judicial balance until only the chief executive remains in control. Long live the king.