Is Democracy Possible?
Robert M. Hutchins
[Reprinted from The Center Magazine (The
Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions), January-February
Sixteen years ago I wrote an essay on this topic that was published
in the Saturday Review. The very nice lady who acted for the Review
objected strongly to the title. She said it was so shocking that
nobody would take the paper seriously. She may have been right. At any
rate nobody did take the article seriously. If nobody takes this
article seriously, it will not be because of the title. If we look
almost anywhere in the world, we find people asking whether democracy
is possible and usually giving a negative answer. The dictatorships in
Latin America, Africa, and Asia leave the Western world with an almost
complete monopoly of self-government. Only Europe and North America
make serious claims to democracy as we understand it. The peoples'
democracies that burden the Eastern world need not detain us, for they
are clearly not within the range of our subject. The difficulties
besetting the governments of Europe and North America are serious
enough to raise the question whether democracy is possible even when
these countries actually have governments democratic in form. Britain,
for example, is a democracy, but it is a fair question whether it can
escape a temporary interruption of its democratic course. And for
ourselves, we have only to remember the narrow escape of Watergate.
Democracy is a system of government by which people rule and are
ruled in turn for the good life of the whole. It is a system of
self-government. It is government by the consent of the governed, who
have consented, among other things, to majority rule. Nothing excludes
a system of representation, though a system of full-time politicians
and indifferent citizens can hardly be a democracy except in name. The
aim of any democracy must be the common good, which is that good which
no member of the community would enjoy if he did not belong to the
The exact opposite of democracy is government by pressure groups.
This is a government under which special interests, by deals and
propaganda, endeavor to exploit the community for their own benefit.
For example, everybody ought to have a chance to live in a decent
environment. Everybody ought to have a chance to live in a decent
home. Those who destroy the environment in order to provide homes and
those who would preserve the environment by refusing to provide homes
are equally guilty of perverting democracy; for they must see that the
common good requires both.
A community is of course composed of diverse people with diverse
interests. These people become a community through their dedication to
the common good. They have to be dedicated to the common good, or
there will be no community, and they will lose that good which would
accrue to them if they did not belong to it.
Tocqueville remarked that the individual is a defaulted citizen, that
democracy fosters individualism, and that individualism first saps the
virtues of public life and ends in pure selfishness. Tocqueville said
that democracy, by way of individualism, .throws every man "back
forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him
entirely within the solitude of his own heart." The citizens of
the United States, Tocqueville thought, would escape this fate because
our Constitution required us to learn together to seek the common
good. We would be forced, he said, by the necessity of cooperating in
the management of our free institutions, and by our desire to exercise
our political rights, into the habit of attending to the interests of
the public. This was, indeed, the hope of the founding fathers.
Tocqueville's expectations have not been fulfilled. The people of the
United States are in fact defaulted citizens, with an indifference and
even a hostility to government, politics, and law that would have
astounded Tocqueville - and the founding fathers. Instead of being a
citizen the American individual is a consumer, an object of
propaganda, and a statistical unit. In view of the condition of our
education, our mass media, and our political parties, the outlook for
democracy, the free society, and the political community seems dim.
All the studies the Center has been carrying on have come out at the
same place. We are entering a new world, and we are not very well
prepared for it.
In 1934 Mr. Chief Justice Hughes said, delivering the opinion of the
Court, "The vast body of law which has been developed was unknown
to the fathers, but it is believed to have preserved the essential
content and spirit of the Constitution.... This is a growth from the
seeds the fathers planted."
In this view, the founding fathers meant us to learn. They meant us
to learn how to form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to
insure domestic tranquillity, to provide for the common defense, to
promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to
ourselves and our posterity. They founded a political community; a
community learning together to discover and achieve the common good,
the elements of which they set forth, but did not elucidate, in the
Preamble. The reliance on us to continue learning is evident in every
line of the Constitution and in the brevity of the whole.
The Constitution is to be interpreted, therefore, as a charter of
learning. We are to learn how to develop the seeds the fathers planted
under the conditions of our own time. This political botany means that
nothing we have learned and no process of learning could be
unconstitutional. What would be unconstitutional would be limitations
or inhibitions on learning.
Learning is a rational process. Law is an ordinance of reason,
directed to the common good. If the Constitution is to teach us, and
we are to learn under its instruction, the dialogue that goes on about
its meaning must be about what is reasonable and unreasonable, right
and wrong, just and unjust. The question is not what interests are at
stake, not what are the mores of the community, not who has the power
or who is the dominant group, not what the courts will do or what the
legislature has done, but what is reasonable, right, and just.
What are the prospects of learning?
Not too long ago the Resource Guide for English and the Social
Studies for the tenth grade in Pasadena announced: "In the tenth
grade, study is concentrated on the growth of democracy, and
especially on the form of government which developed. Such a study
should be brief and to the point, in order to allow time for the unit
on Driver Education."
We have triumphantly invented, perfected, and distributed to the
humblest cottage throughout the land one of the greatest technical
marvels in history, television, and used it for what? To bring Coney
Island into every home. It is as though movable type had been devoted
exclusively since Gutenberg's time to the publication of comic books.
William Berkeley, governor of Virginia in the seventeenth century,
said, "Thank God there are no free schools or printing, for
learning has brought disobedience into the world, and printing has
divulged it. God keep us from both." We are combining Berkeley's
ideal of no communications at all with the democratic ideal of
communications for everybody by having mass communications without
content. In the same way it sometimes seems as though we were trying
to combine the ideal of no schools at all with the democratic ideal of
schools for everybody by having schools without education.
Lincoln once referred to us as the "Almighty's almost chosen
people." Whether he meant that the Almighty had given us careful
consideration and decided to pass us by, or whether Lincoln was simply
being modest, I do not know. He probably meant that the Almighty had
provided us with all the materials necessary for us to display a great
experiment on a world stage. He was not forcing us to play such a
role. But He was giving us a chance to be the last best hope of earth.
If we look at ourselves in this light, as trustees for democracy, the
means for which have been lavishly supplied to us, we have not been
doing very well by ourselves or others. Domestic and foreign policy
appear to be conducted without regard to the democratic history or
intentions of our country. Now that the Cold War may be over, foreign
policy seems to be carried on in the light of the needs of the
munitions makers, the Pentagon, the C.I.A., and the multinational
corporations. These corporations must, among other things, be allowed
to make enough money to bribe foreign governments, political parties,
and purchasing agents. Domestic policy is conducted according Jo one
infallible rule: the costs and burdens of whatever is done must be
borne by those least able to bear them. What is the price of gasoline
to me? To a blue-collar worker who must commute two hours a day -
usually because he can't find a home nearer to his job - the coming
price of gasoline may have all the charm of a heart attack.
Against the poor, and especially the black and Chicano poor, the
forces of what we call the community are massed. Since the poor are a
majority of the people, we must say that the political community
required by democracy has disappeared and that what we have is what
the Athenians called a timocracy, a government by money. We must say
also that the political community must be restored. If it isn't, we
shall experience a period of disruptive violence the like of which we
have not seen since the Civil War.
The procession of corporate executives who have pleaded guilty to
violating the laws of this country and who have admitted spending
millions on paying off foreigners, suggests, like Watergate, that
wealth and college degrees have no connection with morality or with
the common good. The power of wealth includes the power to get a
college degree. But a college degree provides no assurance that its
recipient will have any faint glimmer of the dedication to the common
good that democracy demands.
We are without leadership because that dedication is missing -
political power is simply power, the object of which can be either
good or evil.
Contrast this to Werner Jaeger's description of the consequences for
democracy of the conviction of the greatest Greeks that they were the
servants of the community. Jaeger says, "In that atmosphere of
spiritual liberty, bound by deep knowledge (as if by a divine law) to
the service of the community, the Greek creative genius conceived and
attained that lofty educational ideal which sets it far above the more
superficial artistic and intellectual brilliance of our
individualistic civilization." The Athenians did not have much of
an educational system. They did not need one. They learned from the
City, not merely what it was, but what it ought to be, a political
community dedicated to the common good.
So to Abraham Lincoln this was a government not merely of, by, and
for the people. It was a government dedicated to a proposition. The
proposition was that all men are created equal. This proposition,
which we neither understand nor apply, is likely to be the
battleground of the future as it was in Lincoln's day. At that time
the most conspicuous manifestation of inequality was slavery.
Democracy demanded that all men be free; justice made the same demand.
Today freedom and justice demand that equality be applied to
opportunities for each citizen to achieve his fullest possible
development. This means equal educational opportunity. It also means
access to the legal system, to the health system, to housing. The
political community cannot be restored or maintained unless minorities
and the poor are given that equality to which this community was
The exclusion of minorities and the poor from the political,
economic, and social system means that the diversity out of which the
community is formed is so restricted that the rich and the majority
cannot learn through the community. We should ponder the words of a
justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who said the other day, "A
homogeneous community . . . is culturally dead, aside from being
Hence the basic theoretical question with which the Center is now
dealing is equality in relation to freedom and justice. Take any
subject on which we have worked in the last six months: the revision
of the federal criminal code; the possibilities of accommodation as
against those of litigation; planning; electoral reform; the press,
its freedom and its responsibility; the penal system (now called
corrections); the community and the schools; the British experience
with the privatization of profits and the socialization of losses;
growth and the right to housing; and world organization. The central
issue has been equality in relation to freedom and justice. These
appear to be the central elements of the common good.
Democracy today has all the problems Tocqueville saw in it, but it
has them on a world scale. The atrocities of which the C.I.A. has been
guilty may not show that democracy is impossible worldwide. But they
do show that merely having a democratic form of government is no
guarantee that atrocities will not be committed.
We know that freedom, justice, and equality - the common good - must
be preserved worldwide because all our problems are world problems.
But we have not even begun to think about them as such. Sixteen years
ago I was able to say that reality was concealed from us by our
current remarkable prosperity, which resulted in part from our new way
of getting rich, which was to buy things from one -another that we did
not want because of advertising we did not believe at prices we could
not pay on terms we could not meet. We know better now. Perhaps we
shall learn also that our preoccupation with Russia is also somewhat
exaggerated. Russia has played a curious double role in our lives as
the devil in our world and as the standard by which we measure our own
progress. If we weren't getting ahead of Russia, or falling behind
her, how would we tell where we were? History will smile sardonically
at the spectacle of this great country getting interested, slightly
and temporarily, in education only because of Sputnik, and then being
able to act as a nation only by assimilating education to the Cold War
and calling an education bill a defense act.
The pursuit of the common good on a world scale presents special
difficulties. When nations see something to gain, the pursuit seems
bound to fail. The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions
plunged into the oceans eight years ago. What I have principally
learned from the resulting studies is that there is no apparent limit
to the greed of those who want to exploit the oceans, which used to be
called the common heritage of mankind.
Of course we have to keep trying, and we have to see the world
situation as it is, and not as this morning's headlines present it.
The French historian and philosopher, Etienne Gilson, describes what
is actually going on as follows: "The throes of the contemporary
world are those of a birth. And what is being born with such great
pain is a universal human society. .. . What characterizes the events
we witness ... is their global character. . .. The unity of the planet
is already accomplished. For reasons economic, industrial, and
technical, reasons all linked to the practical applications of
science, such a solidarity is established among the peoples of the
earth that their vicissitudes are integrated into a universal history
of which they are particular moments .. . These peoples are in fact
parts of a Humanity .. ., something of which they must now become
conscious in order to will it instead of being subject to it, in order
to think it, with a view to organizing it."
World order is not, then, something that we can ignore or pay
attention to as we choose. It is here, and it will be good or bad
depending on whether or not we will it instead of being subject to it,
and whether or not we think it, persistently, patiently, in spite of
the newspaper headlines, with a view to organizing it.
As we have learned to our sorrow from the Vietnamese and the
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, things do not always go
our way merely because, as Mr. Nixon liked to say, we are the most
powerful nation on earth. Power is more complicated than it used to
be. We are going to have to learn how to live under unprecedented
When it comes to learning through the political community, the object
is to learn how to be a responsible citizen, enjoying liberty under,
law. The freedom of the individual must be protected, but in addition
the citizen must grow in responsibility if our country is to become
conscious of itself as a part of Humanity and to think Humanity in
order to organize it. Individual freedom and liberty under law are not
incompatible, and they are both indispensable.
Law is a great teacher. It does not represent that minimum of
morality necessary to hold the community together. It stands rather
for such moral truth as the community has discovered that can and
should be supported by the authority of the community. The conception
of law as coercion, or the command of the sovereign, or the expression
of power, or what the courts will do leads to the conclusion that it
is proper to do anything that nobody can compel you to abstain from
doing - or that you can get away with.
Some such misconceptions must have been in the minds of our
governmental agencies that have planned crimes against our citizens
and against other nations and their leaders. These offenses suggest
either that our officials are hypocritical when they talk about the
rule of law or that when they use the words "rule of law"
they don't know what they are talking about.
The principles of world law are the principles of thinking Humanity
in order to organize it. I think they will be found to be the
principles embodied in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United
We must revive, reconstruct, and learn to operate the political
community in the United States because the task we confront on our
two-hundredth anniversary is nothing less than the organization of the
world political community. We have thought that we have had hold of
some truths that would mean something in the universal history of
mankind. The founding fathers rightly believed that the truths in
which America was conceived would stir the aspirations of all men
everywhere. And so they did until it began to look as though we were
losing our grip on our original ideas and ideals.
If today we are called on to exemplify these truths, we have to keep
our hold on them. We have to keep learning them. We have to learn all
they can imply for today and tomorrow. Only if we can do this is
democracy possible. Meanwhile, the proposition to which the
Declaration of Independence and Lincoln dedicated us now extends to
the whole world. Once more, on a new scale, Americans have the duty of
forming a more perfect union, which will involve establishing justice,
promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty
to ourselves and all the people of the earth.