Democracy and Hierarchy


(Updated 10/02/22)

In an often-ignored quote, Benjamin Franklin once characterized democracy as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner.”

John Adams seemed to agree with Franklin when he asserted: “Democracy never lasts long.” Then he left no doubt about his view of the institution: “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.”

The political pundits of today’s America stand in deep disagreement with Franklin and Adams. They hold democracy aloft like a conquering hero. It’s considered the raison d’être for our country’s existence. Somewhere along the way, democracy has been crowned king of the conceptual hill.

How did we morph from a society whose framers distrusted the concept to a society that regards it as the prime pillar of political stability?

Franklin’s quote ended with 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.”

Those enlightenment figures weighed democracy’s value against another value: liberty. They asked, “Which is more important?” “If you had to choose one over the other, which would you choose?”

Both seemed to favor liberty over democracy.

But Adams, Franklin, and other key figures of the American revolution didn’t settle for a simple dichotomy. The concepts of liberty and democracy joined a larger pantheon of “founding ideals” that were often placed front-and-center in that era’s public discourse. A core group of beliefs was considered. It included ideas like justice, freedom, rights, free speech, and equality, among others. Each was weighed against the others.

While those early Americans valued an entire spectrum of ideals, the sophistication of their thinking went beyond the initial insight. They also understood that the cadre of core concepts, when taken as a whole, features inherent contradictions.

In other words, the founding ideals often function like the individual members of a family. At times, they get along just fine. Synergies develop. Each is a source of support for the others. When viewed by an outside observer, they appear to be a stable, unified tribe.

But a closer view reveals tension and competition within their relationships. Those same members can find themselves in long-running, unresolved conflict, which often simmers below the surface of a deceptively placid exterior.

These conflicts come to the fore whenever any new decision is faced in America. “Should a democratic vote be allowed to infringe on some minority group’s liberties?” When does one person’s freedom violate another person’s rights?” “Should your quest for justice limit my right to free speech?”

This profound insight – the recognition that fault lines exist between seemingly “pure” concepts – caused the founders to discuss democracy with a depth and complexity that’s missing from today’s partisan soundbites. The framers understood that congenital contradictions are hardwired into human societies. They embraced the political landscape’s mandate for uncomfortable trade-offs.

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

Today’s simplistic approach to public discourse has discarded such care. Ideas that can be expressed in one viral phrase are held up as standards to which everyone should conform.

This has caused the proliferation of fear-inducing catchphrases with minimal meaning, such as “democracy dies in darkness”, or “…… is a threat to democracy”, or “the future of our democracy is at stake in this ……”

Such lack of substance has diminished modern culture’s capacity to assess the reasoning behind the nation’s founding framework. Rather than consider the trade-offs required within a network of vibrant ideas, a simple, static hierarchy has now been asserted. At the top of that hierarchy has been placed the concept of democracy. “If we can just move the system closer to a pure democracy, then justice, equality and [….. insert your favorite ideal here] will naturally follow.”

At the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin joined others in constructing a political framework that did depend on certain democratic processes. Those processes form an important part of the system, but crucial constraints were carefully placed on them. For example, the electoral college was not an oversight by enfeebled old men, who couldn’t recognize the merits of the popular vote. Instead, it was an intentional limit they placed on powerful processes that could easily turn tyrannical. Likewise, state legislatures were directed to choose US senators, as another firewall to control a potential runaway process.

So, Ben Franklin may have supported the use of certain democratic elements, but he, John Adams, and others were intent on preserving the strength of the other founding ideals as well. Franklin declined to call the carefully constructed system “a democracy”, referring to it instead as “a republic.”

Today’s Americans will need to reconsider the subtle and difficult trade-offs required to maintain Franklin’s republic. No single ideal can stand apart or above. None can be crowned king.

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