Democracy is the worst sort of good government, or so says Plato in the Statesman. And democracy turned bad might even be enough to make you wish for something else entirely. Aristocracy, or lawful rule by a few, looks good on paper. Best of all would be monarchy.
But these come with risks, too, and actually pretty big ones if things end up going badly. Monarchy turned bad is tyranny, the worst of all—corruptio optimi pessima. Aristocracy can devolve into oligarchy. At the end of the day, democracy has the least far to fall, so it's a decent gamble to make.
Politics is, after all, a gamble. Never quite so plainly made as putting a bet on a set amount with clear odds. What's "democracy" or "tyranny" depends on who's writing the history, or on whose livelihood or creed is at stake. And regimes aren't so much chosen as discovered. No one selects an aristocracy, or a democracy for that matter. A form of government crystallizes slowly over time.
Political gambles are made through the attitudes of the governed, not only by their votes. Voting is a way of expressing an attitude, but there are other ways, too, civil war being the most extreme. We tend to hear the most about these two: Voting is a sort of political "sacrament," and civil war always looms just beyond the horizon, it's what we're trying to avoid the most. If the best odds are in fact on democracy, and if democracy lives by the vote, then this is a reasonable tension. It's hard to argue with it.
Tension slips, though, if the attitude of the ruling majority slips. If the people who voted for a leader wish to change the leader's role, as well. This can all be very dramatic. Julius Caesar, for example, was elected consul in 59 BC by pretty standard (if also dirty) politics. He was an effective military leader who made Rome even greater. When he marched back with his legion in 49 BC, he met no resistance and became a powerful strongman who morphed the consulship into an autocracy. Fifteen years later he was officially made dictator for life, and summarily killed.
Tension can slip in other directions, too, and in less perceptible ways. There's always a better looking—and better feeling—sort of government just a little ways off. If we could just get the right people in the right places for long enough, we could find it.
According to Plato, a regime's success depends on the quality of its rulers. There's a sort of political knowledge that a good ruler should have, and without it a regime will fail. As usual, he can't quite define what that knowledge consists in, but he knows it's there.
There's nothing new under the sun, or especially in politics. Like Plato, we think we can put our finger on the hidden wisdom of good political rulers. We believe there's a secret option, that there are better political instincts than those that have been tried before. Still, if democracy is at least the worst sort of a good thing, we shouldn't be too quick to throw it off. And if American republicanism is a better version of democracy, we shouldn't be quick to lose sight of the democratic elements that make it so, nor of the aristocratic ones. After all, we have doubly far to fall if we lose our footing, since an oligarchic, sham republic is almost as bad as a tyranny.
Unless, of course, the tyrant is on our side.
Andrew M. Haines is editor and founder of Ethika Politika
, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight