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What we know and what we ignore about democracy

As a society, we have not studied properly the knowledge available to us, available in any library on politics. We do not understand what is happening to democracy when it would be enough to read a few works to understand it, or at least get a little closer to it.

So, we have been spending oceans of ink for about a decade denouncing the decline of democracy. And the facts show that it has not been fruitful: not only has such a decline not been halted, but it is pronounced with increasing intensity. Instead of using ink to point the way out of the predicament, we have spilled over it into oceans without rhyme or reason, and now we are drowning in them. Let us limit this column to three pieces of knowledge at our fingertips that no one seems to be paying attention to.

First, the forms of government. The classics such as Plato, Aristotle, or Polybius classified the existing forms of government: Straight government of one (kingship), of a few (aristocracy), and of the majority (democracy); a deviant government of one (tyranny), of a few (oligarchy) and of the majority (oclocracy or demagogy).

“When we speak of ‘select minorities’, the usual belabored talk tends to distort the meaning of this expression…”, said Ortega y Gasset. In the same way, this belabored tendency actively forgets this classification of forms of government, as valid today as it was 2,500 years ago. It does so because it is uncomfortable: it includes a deviant, corrupt version of majority rule. And the reigning demagogy prevents even mentioning that majority rule can be deviant: if it is not straight, it is not majority rule. Democracy or dictatorship. Oclocracy or demagogy is inconceivable (or, strictly speaking, unpronounceable).

What is the problem? We end up reducing to autocracy everything that is not democracy. And we do it without even blushing. That is, we end up losing sight of the difference between Daniel Ortega and Jair Bolsonaro. And no, the difference is not that one claims to be on the left and the other on the right. The difference is that one outlaws the opposition and thus prevents his people from actually choosing at the ballot box. That is tyranny, autocracy. The other, in his turn, allows his people to express themselves through largely free and fair elections (apart from small-scale, and in any case unsuccessful, attempts to subvert the results). And it turns out that practically half of the citizenry votes for him again. The majority gives itself a government that erodes democracy. That is not autocracy, it is not tyranny. It is a government deviating from the majority. It is oclocracy, demagogy.

Secondly, mixed government. When we speak of democracy, the usual belaboring tends to distort this expression, pretending to believe that we live in a pure democracy. Polybius, 2,000 years ago, explained why the ideal form of government is mixed: a monarchical, an aristocratic, and a democratic component. In the republican Rome in which he lived, the consuls constituted the monarchical element; the senate, the aristocratic element; and the tribunes of the plebs, the democratic one. Whoever believes that these are antiquities, should know that barely two hundred years ago, when Hispanic America became independent, some constituent assemblies proposed a mixed government as the optimal political system: a president as the monarchical element, an upper house as the aristocratic component, and a lower house as the democratic element.

If we read with a minimum of intellectual honesty our current reality we will see something similar. The government, the legislature, the media, big business, and the citizenry, with its ability to vote and demonstrate, form a balance of powers. In other words, a mixed government. We are far from living in a pure democracy, and even farther from knowing how fortunate we are for it.

Thirdly, anacyclosis: the cyclical succession of political regimes. Polybius, once again, explained that political life is cyclical. A virtuous monarch (monarchy) bequeaths power to his sons, and these to their sons. Through the generations, princes born in pomp and plenty become corrupt, transforming themselves into despots (tyranny) until the last of the saga is deposed by a select few who rule strictly (aristocracy). Over time, their heirs become corrupt (oligarchy) until the people, fed up, eliminate them and take power into their own hands. Initially, it does it fairly (democracy), but little by little its administration becomes vitiated (oclocracy or demagogy) and becomes anarchic. To end the chaos, all power is placed in one strong hand, which re-establishes order (monarchy). And the cycle begins again.

If we were to take Polybius into account, we would know that democracy, pure or not, will eventually give way to something else. It is not, as the usual belabored discourse tends to misrepresent, an unnatural process. Quite the contrary: it is the most natural of processes. Natural does not mean desirable, nor does it imply that we should not try to stop it. Precisely on the contrary, in order to try to stop it, it is necessary to know that this degenerative tendency is in its nature.

If we were to take Polybius into account, we would also know that democracy is not necessarily displaced by autocracy as the usual belabored talk leads to thinking. Far from it, it is usually transformed into demagogy. And it is demagogy, which subjects societies to unbearable tension, that ends in social outbursts that result in the seizure of power by a strong, severe, or tyrannical hand.

*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Politologist and Doctor in Political Science from the University of Salamanca. He specializes in the succession of power and vice-presidency in Latin America.


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