Democracy and Hierarchy


In an often-ignored quote, Benjamin Franklin characterized democracy as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.” John Adams agreed: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.”

The common wisdom of today’s America disagrees with Franklin. Democracy is held aloft like a conquering hero. It’s considered the raison d’etre for our country’s existence. Democracy is king of the conceptual hill.

How did we move from a society whose framers distrusted this concept to a society in which its purer manifestation is regarded as the next required step in a vision of progress?

Franklin’s quote had a punchline: “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” Adams again concurred: “A constitution of government, once changed from freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever.”

These enlightenment figures weighed democracy’s value against another value: liberty. But they didn’t settle for a simplistic dichotomy. The concepts of liberty and democracy joined a larger pantheon of “founding ideals”. A core group of beliefs was considered, including ideas like justice, freedom, rights, and equality …… among others.

While those early Americans valued a range of ideals, their sophistication didn’t stop there. Thinkers as diverse as Hamilton and Jefferson understood that those concepts featured inherent contradictions.

The founding ideals function like the members of a family. At times, they get along just fine with one another. Synergies develop. But they can also find themselves in long-running, unresolved conflict. Therefore, the founders discussed democracy with a depth and complexity that’s missing from today’s angry diatribes about Senate filibusters and electoral colleges. They accepted the complexity of human society, with its nuances and trade-offs.

For this reason, the future governing structure of the country was carefully debated. Compromises between a wide-ranging group of ideals were considered. An attempt was made to preserve the best qualities of each while limiting the dangers that can develop when any one of them is taken too far. Including democracy.

Today’s simplistic approach to public discourse has discarded such care. Instant solutions are asserted. Ideas that can be expressed in one sentence are held up as standards that everyone should conform to. Those who question these slogans are dismissed with a pejorative label.

This lack of cognitive care has impacted our collective assessment of the founding beliefs. Rather than consider the trade-offs required within a network of ideas, a simple hierarchy has been embraced. That hierarchy is dominated by the concept of democracy. “If we can just move the system closer to a pure democracy, justice, equality and [….. insert your favorite ideal here] will naturally follow.”

At the founding convention, Ben Franklin supported a political framework that enshrined certain democratic principles into law. But he declined to call that system a democracy, referring to it instead as “a republic.” Today’s Americans will need to reconsider the difficult trade-offs required to maintain Franklin’s republic. No single ideal stands apart. None can be crowned king.

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