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Demystifying Democracy: A Critical Look at Democracy and Ideology


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.

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Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Oct 7, 2012

Defining Power: Coercion vs Voluntary Cooperation


Recent Essay for political sociology class defining power:

Power may be better understood as coercion, to differentiate from natural, electrical, or even Bertrand Russel’s definition (as cited in Janoski, 2005) as “simply the capicity to realize ends” by the individual. To treat power as a synonym for coercion would fit the definitions provided by Max Weber (as cited in Janoski,2005) as “the chance of a man or a number of men to realize their own will in a social action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the action.” The other similar definitions cited in the text (Janoski, 2005) correctly state this kind of power leads to “zero-sum” contests and is “thus inextricably linked with conflict in social life”; however, the application of the definition seems overly broad to include any type of influence, dependence, or interaction between individuals. This view presents a very cynical take on human nature that casts every relationship and every type of coordination or interaction between individuals with the roles of exploiter and exploited. Not only is this overly broad application cynical but it also diffuses any analysis and makes extracting any concrete principles regarding the concept of power nearly impossible since this application makes power “sociologically amorphous” since “all conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation.” (Max Weber as cited in Janoski, 2005)

Coercion, the use of force explicitly or implicitly, is only one way individuals and groups interact with each other and will inevitably lead to “zero-sum” contests but individuals and groups can also interact through voluntary cooperation, in which case they will be mutual beneficiaries and cast off the doomed outlook that every relationship is that of “exploiter” and “exploited.” Even if a disinterested third party finds the interdependence of various relationships to be unbalanced, so long as it is voluntary each party involved in the interaction will be exchanging some good, service, etc that they value less for one that they value or more or else they would withdrawal their participation, absent coercion.

With this definition of power, it is clear that power is the very essence of politics. “The modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination.” (Weber as cited in Janoski, 2005) The state is power, or coercion, incarnate. The difference between state power and individuals exercising power, though, is that state power has been legitimized by appealing to divine sovereignty, historically, or popular sovereignty, by wrapping itself in the enigmatic “general will.” In all the examples of exploiter/exploited relationships provided in the text one can easily find evidence of explicit coercion of one individual or group over another, which would be condemned by most any observer, or with a little more effort be traced to the implicit coercion of the laws, regulations, influence, and support of the state lingering in the shadows of the interaction, choosing the winners and losers in relationships that are no longer free.


Janoski, Thomas. (2005). Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization. Cambridge University Press.

Filed under Philosophy, Politics
Mar 14, 2011