The Bane of Democracy: The Average Voter

Alexander Tytler was a historian at the University of Edinburgh, and he is attributed with claiming in 1787 that the average lifespan of a democracy is 200 years. He remarked that “a democracy is always temporary in nature, it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government,” and pursuant to his observation of Athens and Rome, he recognized the following cycle, which he posits all democracies follow:

  1. From bondage to spiritual faith;
  2. From spiritual faith to great courage;
  3. From courage to liberty;
  4. From liberty to abundance;
  5. From abundance to complacency;
  6. From complacency to apathy;
  7. From apathy to dependence;
  8. From dependence back into bondage.

According to Tytler’s theory, every democracy is doomed to suicide. Incidentally, in 2000, 120 out of the 192 member states of the United Nations were labeled as democracies. If Tytler is correct, the West is normalizing a flawed system. To have any thesis or solution to this problem, one must observe his claims, and test the theory’s validity. Tytler’s postulation can be augmented by Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge, who provides us with a perspicacious overview of Roman history in her New York Times Bestseller, S.P.Q.R. It can also be supported by the research of Paul Cartledge, a professor at Cambridge, in his book Democracy: A Life.

The people of Athens, under the bondage of Peisistratus and his two sons, Hippias and Hipparchus, revolted with great courage, attained liberty under the introduction of Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms, and grew into a prosperous empire that held control over numerous Hellenic City-States. However, under Pericles’ reforms in the later years of Athens’ history, pay for play was introduced in the Assembly (the administrative group that governed the city). Cartledge explains that pay for play was normal in ancient democracy. At its inception, it was an obol (1/6 drachma, “a craftsman’s daily wage”), but it increased to a staggering drachma and a half. Cartledge writes that “No pay for attendance was considered necessary nor desirable in the fifth century (Solon and Cleisthenes’ “early” democracy): evidence either of a greater spread of wealth or of a greater public-spiritedness, or both, then were on offer when pay for attendance was introduced in the 390’s (Pericles’ “later” democracy).” This made corruption a key component of the Athenian democracy, and “after the death of the statesmanlike Pericles, Athenian politics descended into an unusual series of spats between mere demagogues”; Sophists just corralling the masses to their side to win either power or judicial disputes. The voters, who were citizens who rotated throughout the administrative assemblies of the government, became complacent, apathetic, and eventually dependent on the privileges of the public treasury for their daily bread. This “lack of public-spiritedness,” blinded Athens from the growing strength of Macedon and Rome, the soon to be tyrannical powers.

The people of Rome, under the bondage of “Tarquin the Proud,” revolted with great courage, attained liberty with the formation of the Republic, and grew into a prosperous empire with provinces as far as Central Europe, Spain, North Africa, and Greece. However, due to the “…alleged corruption, incompetence,” and “the senatorial weakness for bribery,” as Mary puts it, Rome became “a city for sale and bound to fall as soon as it finds a buyer.” The Senate gave unbridled financial aid to the governors of provinces (military leaders who conquered the provinces), and the right to tax provinces was held for auction. Only the voters could have undone this detrimental fiscal policy; however, the voters (lobbyists, veterans, ex-governors, and tax collectors; those who benefited from expansion policy) continuously voted for those who would advance fiscally irresponsible policies. The people became complacent, apathetic, and eventually dependent on the privileges of the public treasury for their daily bread. Military leaders were continuously elected, and after their campaigns in distant lands, they returned in search of something more valuable than land: power, as the case of Julius Caesar shows.

Athens and Rome both prided themselves in the prosperity that representative government offered them, but they quickly fell from their pedestals of abundance back into the initial bondage from which they arose. Tytler’s Cycle of Democracy has shown that once the average voters, in the words of Tytler, “discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

In light of Tytler’s claims, it is imperative, then, to understand what the bane of democracy is. The average voter is not the bane of democracy; rather, they are the fate of democracy. Democracy is designed to adequately respond and adapt to the citizens’ wishes. It was the voice and knowledge of the voters to thank for Athens and Rome’s prosperity, and it was likewise their apathy and ignorance to blame for their inadequacy. So, therefore, the bane of democracy is the people’s choice for policy, which makes masses of people dependent upon the state for their wellbeing. If such a generous, however fiscally irresponsible, policy were enacted, no candidate who promised to remove the policy would receive votes from those dependent upon it; this makes the policy’s abrogation almost impossible.

Therefore, the key to a great democracy is great people, educated and principled minds who value the fate of their democracy over what monetary gifts a candidate can promise. This requires the people to be learned in civics and in history; they must understand the great democracies of the past. The people must engage in the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and, above all, diversity of thought. Educated citizens are the greatest life support a democracy has, and the best combatants against the rise of dependence.

As we enter a new era of humanity, democracy has become the most utilized form of government. As stated before, in 2000, 120 out of the 192 member states of the United Nations were labeled as democracies. The United Nations has dedicated a page of their website to their efforts on promoting democratic elections throughout the world, an effort they consider a “global issue,” listed right between the global issues of “decolonization” and “food.” They market democracy to be the gold standard for governments, yet they do not portend that there are serious flaws with democratic governance, expound Tylter’s Cycle, or how to cultivate a great democracy in order to postpone its suicide. They provided a product, yet no warnings or user’s manual, especially considering that with today’s advances in technology, information systems, medicine, etc., new threats propose themselves to democracy.

Humans are living longer and are dependent on expensive healthcare for their wellbeing, within the United States, some college degrees cost as much as houses, and throughout the world, many marginalized people are showing need for welfare and aid. The most commonly proposed solution to these needs is federal funding: aid from the public treasury. Surely in Tytler’s eyes this does not bode well for democracy. But are humans to be denied the healthcare they so desperately need? Is it better for students to enter the economy with debts the size of houses? Are we to forsake our brothers and sisters who have been marginalized and in need of assistance? Surely there must be a way to assuage these problems without the wallet of the central government, but, then again, maybe not?

These are the new questions facing voters within the new era, and they require the attention of an educated and engaged citizenry to answer them. There are, however, barriers, which obfuscate veracity in this new era of politics. Media has developed to a point where information is distributed and consumed faster than it can be verified; information is easier to attain, yet harder to find. If the content is “fake news,” then it negatively affects the voter’s judgment at the ballot box. Another enemy is the development of polarity of thought: partisan tribalism fosters Manichean stereotypes, which precludes the exchange of ideas. These two enemies make it difficult to become involved in politics, but they are ineffectual against an intellectually engaged citizen who cares for the truth.

Perhaps the gravest admonition to voters comes from President John Adams, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” As we enter a time in which democracy is adapted on an ever-increasing scale, we must remember that all past democracies have fallen by suicide, and there is strong precedent for it to be repeated. But we must also remain hopeful, for within the quote, is the conditional, “yet.”

About the Author

JonMichael Connolly
JonMichael Connolly (GSB '20) is from Queens, New York, attended Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale Long Island, and intends to major in finance and minor in political science. Contact JonMichael at jconnolly36@fordham.edu