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Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. - David Hume

Demystifying Democracy: A Critical Look at Democracy and Ideology

Posted by Damien on October 7, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Throughout history the many have always been ruled by the elite few. David Hume, in The First Principles of Government, highlights this fact as one of the great philosophical mysteries since “Force is always on the side of the governed,” and finds that it is “on opinion only that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and popular.” (Hume, 19) The opinion that Hume refers to relies on ideology and it certainly applies to today’s most popular form of governance, democracy. Democracy has become the means for the elite to maintain power over the masses after the individualistic and natural rights philosophies delegitimized other previously common forms of governance such as monarchy; further, democracy has transcended its original role as a possible means to individual liberty and has become an ideological end and has been made sacred to the point that it is beyond debate in the minds of many. However, democracy must be objectively judged against the goals of promoting and securing individual liberty in order to make the most informed decisions in regards to foreign policy, such as the benefit of “spreading democracy,” as well as domestic policy where individual rights are most affected.

A clear definition of ideology, as it is used here, must be established in order to effectively communicate the nature of its relationship to democracy and power in general. The common usage of the term, a system of beliefs and values, is too vague and simple to fit this purpose. Robert Higgs, in Crisis and Leviathan, defines ideology this way: “ideology…[is] a somewhat coherent, rather comprehensive belief system about social relations…it is somewhat coherent…though not necessarily in a way that would satisfy a logician…it is rather comprehensive [since] it subsumes a wide variety of social categories and their interrelations…[However,] it tends to revolve about only a few central values—for instance, individual freedom, social equality, or national glory.” (Higgs, 37) This definition does describe ideology but is lacking a component necessary to explain why its variants, such as ideological (which usually implies fanaticism), usually carry a negative connotation or to fully explain why “ideologies are the crucial lever at the disposal of elites for obtaining political mobilization and for maximizing the possibilities of mass manipulation,” (Higgs, 47) that Higgs alludes to later in his book. In order to complete Higgs definition it is necessary to require individuals to subordinate themselves to their chosen ideology. This subordination of the individual is what can lead to fanaticism, which is why fanatics do not appear to be acting in their “own best interests,” and it complements Hume’s answer as to how the elite few rule the masses: the masses have subordinated their own interests to an ideology that legitimizes the current form of power held by the elite. In Western Political Though: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology, Brian Nelson writes, “ Ideologies…tend to replace the idea of personal autonomy with a higher principle of moral progress beyond the individual, a principle to which the individual is to subordinate him- or herself…ideologies tend to subordinate the individual’s moral agency rather than actualize it. (Nelson, 360) In sum, ideology is a coherent, comprehensive belief system that subordinates personal moral autonomy to some higher principle(s) that the belief system revolves around. Another implication of this definition of ideology is that the source of the belief system is external to the individual adherents and the evolution of ideologies ensures that only a limited number that attracts large numbers of adherents tend to survive or have influence. Higgs explained that “opinion leaders are the producers and distributors of (a limited number of) ideologies; the masses are mainly consumers.” (Higgs, 45) The potential for mass manipulation by the opinion leaders should be apparent and if those opinion leaders are also the ruling class with a monopoly over coercive force then their potential threat to individual liberty is exponentially greater.

Why do individuals tend to subordinate their personal moral autonomy to a “higher” belief system produced and distributed by elite opinion leaders? Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, notes that the catalyst for “group-mindedness” was “when our ancestors developed shared intentionality…the ability to share mental representations of tasks that two or more [individuals] were pursuing together.” (Haidt, 205) While we may take this concept for granted today it was one of the early developments that separated us from primates and most of the animal kingdom and started our evolution toward our current social nature, the development of the division of labor, and language. “A word is not a relationship between a sound and an object. It is an agreement among people who share a joint representation of the things in their world, and who share a set of conventions for communicating with each other about those things.” (Haidt, 206) Initially, shared intentionality helped to foster coordination between small groups with a common objective. However, this shifted competition from the individual level to competition between groups and natural selection would favor larger groups or groups who were able to most effectively pursue their ends while defending against or conquering other weaker/smaller groups. Haidt writes that this created “a new set of selection pressures within groups” that led to nonconformists being punished or marginalized. (Haidt, 206) In other words, it is beneficial to the individual to belong to a group since they can accomplish many more of their goals this way, but the cost is the suppression of some personal autonomy in order to conform to group conventions. Further suppression of personal autonomy may also seem necessary to strengthen your own group so that it may compete or have an advantage against external groups. These conventions will be most effective if they can be reasonably defended as beneficial to the members of the group or if the members can be made to believe they are sacred and this process of making group conventions into a coherent, comprehensive belief system that individuals subordinate their personal moral autonomy to, for the sake of strengthening their group, that makes ideology.

Also, similar to how the division of labor and specialization allows more economical use out of scarce resources; ideology, if done correctly, can prove useful in the economic utilization of knowledge, which is also scarce. Higgs believes that “people conduct their affairs in a more or less dense fog of ignorance and uncertainty.” (Higgs, 35) If this is the case, then having a common collection of knowledge base on specialized input from the members of the group based on their diverse experiences would be beneficial in the same way as specialized labor. Ideology could then be used by all members to inform their actions in a reality too complex to be comprehended. On the other hand, if individuals become too dependent on ideology and too complacent in their “dense fog of ignorance” then they will be much more likely to outsource their thinking to individuals who could easily take advantage of them as opposed to being participants in a common pool of knowledge.

The group-mindedness and its accompanying natural selection pressures would be enough to lead to the formation of small primitive clans or groups. However, as the pressure for stronger and larger groups due to competition continued there would be incentive for cooperation amongst groups as well. Bertrand de Jouvenel, in On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, observes that “all that political authority need do, therefore, to superimpose itself on these primitive groups, is to establish cohesion and order between them.” (Jouvenel, 178) However, according to Jouvenel, after the political authority has established itself as mediator and accomplished the initial goal of cohesion between the clans then it will seek to “substitute…mediatory authority [for] an immediate one” and try to “claim direct obedience from the members of the clan.” The political authority overcomes resistance from the former power holders by claiming to be an ally to all those “who seek to escape the harsh rule” of their former masters. (Jouvenel, 179) This process not only took place with early political authority over primitive clans but is evident in the vying for power by monarchs over feudal lords and in modern times in the centralization of power in federal (US), continental (EU), and international political authorities. Each political authority attempts to “free” its population from any authority that is lower on the group hierarchy than itself, to include the family, religion, and other social authorities that are may not be inherently political but are seen as competitors for loyalty with the political authority nonetheless. The result, according to Jouvenel, should the political authority succeed is “the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone—that of the state. In each man’s absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state…it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie linking man and man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was their predestined course.” (Jouvenel, 187) Democracy, contrary to popular belief, was not a means to combat the outcome predicted by Jouvenel but, in fact, was the next stage in evolution, following the era of monarchy, towards the eventual realization of it.

Democracy, here, is used to describe popular governance of nation states, to include: direct democracy, representative democracy, and constitutional republics. The foundational example of democracy, in this sense, is the constitutional republic of the United States whose revolution signaled the doom for the era of monarchy and ushered in the era of Democracy in the world. However, the result of America’s revolution would not match the intentions of the revolutionaries since “the predestined and providential end of every such cataclysm [is] the liquidation of a weak Power, [and] the erection of a strong one,” that will eventually, if not immediately, lead to a worse despotism then the one discarded by the revolution. (Jouvenel, 239) In other words, revolutions are the evolutionary process of Power, leaving behind only those powers most effective in subjugating its people through force and/or ideology. Monarchy, as a source of power, had become weak during the period of Western Enlightenment because the individual moved above the crown in the hierarchy of power (Creator Individual Government) thus eroding the legitimacy of the divine rights of Kings and their lineage. Further, “when you put individuals first…then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned.” (Haidt, 17) Without public opinion, or ideology, to provide legitimacy to the elite, in this case royalty, they could no longer hold on to power. A revolution would be necessary to establish a new system of governance that would have legitimacy under the current ideologies of the Enlightenment period. Following the American Revolution the founding fathers attempted to establish a government of the people, through their consent, and based on the idea of the sovereignty of “natural” law and “unalienable rights.”

Popular government, or democracy, seemed best suited for the first goal of transferring power from royalty to the masses. Also, in order to ensure the sovereignty of natural law and to protect against the abuse of the majority or the current “custodians” of power they sought to enumerate the limited powers of government in a constitution and prohibit it from exceeding them. In reality they created the framework for a new ideology of popular national sovereignty that would lead to expansive arbitrary power that would be the envy of most any king.

Jouvenel gives a compelling reason that democracy is destined to degenerate towards despotism that despite the intentions of the founders and the philosophers that inspired them who “conceived [democracy] at first as sovereignty of the law, it triumphed only when it had come to be regarded as sovereignty of the people.” (Jouvenel, 282) Jouvenel also explained how the anonymity of popular government provides the “smoke-screen” for power who can now claim it acts in accordance with the amorphous “general will.” (Jouvenel, 12-13) This will have the opposite effect intended by the founding fathers, who hoped to form governance based on universal and firm laws, and will instead create a legislature who can dictate every manner of life based on “popular will” that is ever malleable and always changing. Further, the very practice of legislating promotes the idea that laws or law may not only be formal restatements of pre-existing natural law but may, in fact, be created at will by the custodians of power in the form of positive laws. This exchanges sovereignty of law for arbitrary power, which is only limited by current public opinion, or ideology.

Also, democracy creates the illusion that power now rests with the people, when in fact the masses are still ruled by an elite few, and this creates a mentality that is against limiting power since every man hopes to eventually be in a position to use the power to his advantage. Whereas under monarchy “privileges, discrimination, and protectionism” were “restricted to princes and nobles;” under democracy “privileges, discrimination, and protectionism can be exercised by and accorded to everyone.” (Hoppe, 83) This illusion creates a scenario that should be well known to any gambler: the odds are against the player, in this case the citizens, but they are still willing to pay “to dearly for a chance, which is too small, of the arbitrary ruler playing their game,” or in this case the custodians of power creating positive law that benefits them. (Jouvenel, 144) This “gamble” makes the citizenry less rigid in their beliefs so that they can continue to play a game they are almost certain to lose, but has great rewards, at the expense of all other players, if they win.

After the transformation from sovereignty of law to sovereignty of the people leads to the triumph of democracy as the new “legitimate” form of governance then the next step in the degeneration towards despotism is sovereignty of the nation-state, nationalism, and the canonization of democracy as its own ideology. Brian Nelson provides an excellent explanation of why the era of democracy has led to nationalism in most established democracies, he explains:

the early revolutionary liberals…considered themselves the advocates of the ‘rights of man,’ not just the rights of a particular national grouping. [However,] their internationalist goals…seemed most attainable within a national framework. But they could defend the idea of the nation-state only be recognizing…the right of self-determination of all national groupings. In political fact this often meant defending national entities that systematically violated liberal ideals…This in turn suggested, if only implicitly, that the nation-state constituted an ideal higher than those universal values traditionally espoused by liberalism. (Nelson, 362)

However, this simply laid the framework of nationalism. In order to legitimize the sovereignty of the nation, where the nation-state is the supreme value in the hierarchy of power, while appearing to simultaneously uphold the sovereignty of the people, it was first necessary to make the people identify themselves as the nation-state as vice versa and thus the need for the ideology of democracy. The result of which is the consummation of the individual will by the “general will,” which is claimed to be simply the sum of parts thus maintaining the integrity of the individual wills that make it up and the integration of a cacophony of contradictory and disharmonious ideologies into one single ideology, democracy, which claims to be able to harmonize and appease all of them to the degree that they are compatible with what is deemed the “greater good.” Nelson points out that, “in becoming adjuncts to nationalism, the theoretical integrity of the major ideologies of the modern world has been subverted. In actual political fact, this subversion has had the effect of supporting the trend toward state centralization on the one hand and, correspondingly, of subverting the individual’s moral autonomy on the other. (Nelson, 363) He goes on to explain that the fact that individuals already subordinated themselves to ideologies is what “ideologies so useful to the nation-state that could now legitimize itself by claiming to embody these higher principles.” (Nelson, 364) Just as the monarchs promised to bring peace between warring factions or liberate the people from their feudal lords only to make them subjects of a more centralized power, capable of being equally barbaric, so too does democracy promise to unite diverse wills and competing ideologies under the centralized power of the nation-state. Jouvenel explains that “the will of democratic power goes by the name general. It crushes each individual beneath the weight of the sum of individuals represented by it; it oppresses each private interest in the name of a general interest…The democratic fiction confers on the rulers the authority of the whole.” (Jouvenel, 285)

All of the smoke-screens that democracy provides on behalf of the nation-state are there to secure the “consent of the governed” which is where all power is derived from. If the people are not revolting, or overthrowing, their current government then their consent is implied. The elite could not rule the masses without their consent whether they acquire it through force or smoke-screens make it no less necessary. In fact, some degree of consent amongst a significant portion of the masses is necessary before they could utilize force or illusion. Etienne de la Boetie explains why in The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude:

He who thus domineers over you…has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do no provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you?…What would he do…if you were not traitors to yourselves? (p. 52)

Once the people realize this fact then they can reclaim any power and dispose of any tyrant.

If the natural inclination of democracy is towards despotism and is ill-suited towards the goals of the enlightenment, sovereignty of law and individual liberty, then what is the alternative? The answer is “democracy,” but as defined by Ludwig von Mises who thought that “rather than majority rule…democracy meant literally ‘self-determination, self-government, self-rule,’ and accordingly, a democratic government was an essentially voluntary membership organization in that it recognized each of its constituents’ unrestricted right to secession.” (Hoppe, 79) This form of democracy avoids the first mistake of the revolutionaries of, whether implicitly or explicitly, putting the sovereignty of nation-states above the goals of liberty and the “rights of man.” Mises’ democracy requires a paradigm shift of current political thought that requires government to hold a coercive monopoly over an arbitrary geographic area, which directly negates the possibility of explicit consent of the governed and substitutes, instead, the idea of “implied consent” where the only limitation on the government’s arbitrary power becomes the potential for violent revolution, as opposed to peaceful secession as the means of accountability. Recent history has exposed the fallibility of democracy. Fledgling democracies in the Middle East and Africa have become less free when compared to the dictators that preceded them and established democracies are on the verge of collapse due to the weight of ever more centralized bureaucracies that are less capable of adaptation and less representative of their constituents as they become more generalized to appease the greatest number of ideologies, while twisting and turning in unsustainable ways due to their inherent contradictions. If democracy, and the nation-state, is not infallible, sacred, or divinely inspired then it must be judged objectively according to its proclivity and historical effectiveness towards the goals meant to achieved be achieved by its creation.




Boetie, E. (1975). The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. New York:

Free Life Editions.

Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

New York: Pantheon Books.

Hoppe, H.H. (2007). Democracy—the God that Failed: The Economics and Politics of

Monarchy, Democracy, and Natural Order. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Higgs, R. (1987). Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American

Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, D. (1971) “The First Principles of Government” in Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary.

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jouvenel, B. (1993) On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth(J.F. Huntington, Trans.).

Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund.

Nelson, B. R. (1996). Western Political Thought: From Socrates to the Age of Ideology (2nd ed.).

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.



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  • On October 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm Damien said

    The absence of ideology you perceive is actually the absence of competing ideologies with the predominant ideology of democracy or statism. Ideology, of this sort, does not require consistency. In fact, that is the beauty of this particular ideology, for those seeking power, since it allows them to rule arbitrarily. As long as it appears that different “ideologies” are getting a turn in power then they can hope that one day it will be their will forced on their fellow subjects. This makes their current subjugation easier to endure in the mean time as they await their comeuppance and turn in power. This is also what leads to a democratic country not being in danger of being overthrown. The people identify themselves with the state and so they believe they would only be revolting against themselves and they are willing to suffer greatly so long as they believe their will be done in the future.


  • On October 12, 2012 at 7:00 am Anonymous said

    My general comment on Damien’s article is that the American society has evolved: Some of the issues addressed by the philosophers addressed during the monachy and liberalism transition are not very relevant. The danger of the society is not ideology but labelism and apathy. When we say democracy or communism or socialism seldom people stick to a”coherent comprehensive belief system” ideology, which requires submit oneself to a bigger idea. I think “The death of ideology” is common around the world. We inherently feel that the way of life and system we have is the best comparing with forms of the goernements in the world without defining what we have and what others have. This explains the inconsistency that the US has been friends and enemies with everybody of the world regardless of the form of governments or ideology. The politicians are trying to please the population by hand-outs or doing a show to satisfy the population who are only thinking of the immediate benefits to vote. I would categorize the American system is latent oligarchy who have different interests and common interests behind the political machines, far from dictatorial power. There is a security machine to keep people in line. But that has been tuned down because the country is not in danger of overthrown.


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