Democracy and Autocracy
Democracy Newsletter: March 2023
An excerpt from Steve Zolno’s new book, The Pursuit of Happiness.
“Available wherever books are sold” as of March 15, 2023
At the time of the founding of the United States, every other country was under autocratic rule. The word “democracy” had not been used for over 2000 years. That term, meaning “rule by the people,” came out of ancient Greece, while the Romans later used the word Libertas, or freedom, to describe what they considered an essential principle of their republic.
During the US Revolution, most people thought only of overthrowing British oppression and had no idea about what would be the best way to govern the new nation. This is typical for revolutions. The US Founders were well-educated and mainly from upper classes. Many were slave holders, yet they considered themselves oppressed by the British King. They were inspired by such writers as the Englishman John Locke who insisted that people have the right to overthrow oppressive government, and the Frenchman Charles Montesquieu who proposed that a separation of powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government is needed to keep one branch from becoming too powerful.
At first the US was a loose association of states under the Articles of Confederation. Eleven years later it became clear that a strong central government was required for the nation to succeed, and the Constitution was born. Since that time over 100 countries have tried to install democratic governments, many with limited success.
One of the most famous phrases in democracy is from the Declaration of Independence. It states that human beings are entitled to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” These terms are not well-defined in the fairly short Declaration, but the phrase has inspired people for nearly 250 years to believe that these qualities are their due. We will briefly discuss each in an attempt to clarify what the writers may have had in mind.
We might think the meaning of “Life” to be obvious. But does it simply mean a right to stay alive, or does it refer to a life of quality and recognition for the value of each individual? Most likely everyone who has been inspired by those words would agree it means the latter.
And what is meant by “Liberty?” We can surmise that the term refers to an ability to determine the course of one’s own life rather than have major decisions decided by others.
Of these three the phrase that seems to have the least clear meaning is “The Pursuit of Happiness.” This was the most fought-over. Did the US Founders intend for denizens of the new country to determine their own paths to the extent possible? Did they assume that the pursuit of happiness was equivalent to freedom?
Most of us probably would agree that democratic governments are more likely than autocracies to afford people an opportunity to pursue happiness. Millions of refugees from autocratic regimes have sought to live in democracies since they came into existence. Those who live under autocracy seek democracy not only for political freedom but because many autocracies lack economic opportunity, and in many the bulk of the population is mired in poverty.
But once we have secured our life and liberty, are we free to pursue happiness? And do those of us fortunate enough to live in democratic countries even agree about what happiness is? Is it the accumulation of goods, involvement in meaningful relationships, or is it freedom to pursue our own path? These are some of the directions that happiness could take. We might also ask if there is an underlying quality that unites our experiences of happiness that lends meaning to the term. And perhaps more importantly, do we have control over our happiness, or are we always at the mercy of the situations of our lives?
Even within what we consider democracies, there are those who would move their countries in the direction of being more autocratic. If we want to preserve democracy it is essential that we identify and combat those elements before they become prevalent.
A group of oligarchs attempted to seize power in ancient Athens, and the Emperor Augustus ended the Roman Republic. In the United States there was an attempt to overthrow the presidential election by an insurrection. Efforts by those of authoritarian minds and their followers always are a threat to “rule by the people.” But one person cannot overthrow a government without a large group of followers. So what is it in the human personality that seeks democracy when subject to autocracy, but for many, seeks autocracy when living under democratic rule? Is there a conflict within each person, or just different preferences among different people?
Democracy and autocracy are determined not only by the government in a country or state, but by the nature of its institutions. A truly free country has a free press that explores and exposes shortcomings wherever they find them, including the government. A truly democratic country has a balance between branches of government so that no one person or group can dominate and deprive people of their rights.
A country that intends to maintain democracy has educational institutions that train students in what democracy means. It creates a model for how individual freedom is built by encouraging free and creative expression. Its educational institutions not only train students in the lessons of the past but encourage them to consider how best to move democracy forward. They expose them to a variety of views so they can come to their own conclusions about how best to nurture democracy. Clarity about the nature of democracy and how best to preserve it is the greatest lesson our schools can impart.
But above all, democracies that endure have the bulk of their population committed to the idea that “rule by the people” means a government that represents and serves all of the people. Countries where that understanding is not prevalent often have had their democracies overturned.
We who live in democracies see autocrats around us trying to use their influence to permeate the globe. This applies not only to autocratic states, but to countries that pretend to be democratic while moving toward greater oppression. It can be seen in censorship of the press and manipulation of what students are taught.
If we are to preserve our democracies, there must be a clear plan on the part of democratic governments to make a statement that autocratic rule is not permissible. This could include sanctions on leaders put in place on a scale of the degree of freedom a country provides and that hopefully do as little harm as possible to residents. The democratic freedoms of everyone worldwide are connected. If we abandon those who are oppressed anywhere, we are opening a gate for the spread of autocracy everywhere.
Going back to the pursuit of happiness, the guarantee of democratic freedoms is an ongoing effort that always will be with us. There is an element in everyone that seeks models for how to act and another element that wants freedom to chart our own course. When we consider those we choose for our leaders, it is essential to determine if they are committed to the tenets of democracy, which include recognizing the value of each individual and an appreciation of the potential contribution of everyone. Leaders who denigrate others appeal to the autocratic side of our personality to gain support, and once in power demand allegiance to themselves — even from their followers — rather than to the principle of equal treatment for all.
While we work toward our democratic ideals, we can focus on the happiness that democratic government allows us to pursue. If not, the most essential promise of democracy will have been wasted. Understanding what happiness really is and how best to bring it into our lives is not only a worthwhile pursuit but an indispensable element of making democracy work.
Please recommend this newsletter to people who you think might appreciate it. If you want to be added to the list to receive each new newsletter when posted, fill out our contact form and check the box just above the SUBMIT button. You may also use that form to be removed from our list.
Visit our Books page for information about purchasing The Future of Democracy, The Death of Democracy, Truth and Democracy, and Guide to Living In a Democracy.
Click ↓ (#) Comments below to view comments/questions or add yours. Click Reply below to respond to an existing comment.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.