“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide” (John Adams,1814, letter to John Taylor).
To the 2022 graduating class of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., President Joe Biden recently alleged China’s President Xi Jinping told him: “Democracies cannot be sustained in the 21st century.” Biden not only said he disagreed with Xi but went so far as to tell the soon-to-be commissioned naval officers: “You'll be representatives and defenders of our democracy. Sounds corny, but literally our democracy, that's why you swear an Oath.”
This same over-the-top rhetoric about democracy has become pervasive among many on the political left in recent years. I believe we need to start fighting the increasingly false rhetoric about holding “democracy” above all else, including our republic. I know to some this may seem heretical but let me explain.
First, it’s critical to understand that the American founders were voracious readers of history, and through the study of previous democracies, they came to the conclusion that pure democracies were doomed to fail. James Madison put together the Constitutional Convention, drove much of the debate at convention, and defended the Constitution’s ratification by the states more than any other. Defending the non-democratic aspects of the Constitution in Federalist #10, Madison wrote: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, similarly warned that, “Too many ... love pure democracy dearly. They seem not to consider that pure democracy, like pure rum, easily produces intoxication, and with it a thousand mad pranks and fooleries.” John Adams also wrote of the pitfalls of pure democracy in an 1807 essay: “Democracy, will soon degenerate into an anarchy, such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes, and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure.”
Note he was writing this two decades after the birth of the our constitutional republic and warning about democracy becoming the alternative to a republic. Benjamin Rush went so far as to claim: “A simple democracy is the devil's own government.” George Washington slammed the “evils” of “democratical governments” in a 1786 letter to Marquis de Lafayette. Famed writer and historian Gore Vidal put it simply that, “The founding fathers hated two things: Monarchy and democracy. They wanted a Republic.” That is what we have in America.
The Naval Academy graduates Biden addressed will take the same oath of commissioning I took 32 years ago. Nowhere in that oath is the word “democracy,” and that is purposeful. The oath is that “I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and “will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” That Constitution establishes the American Republic and checks the power of majority rule to ensure protection of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Rights our Declaration claims are from God, and a “democratic” vote cannot remove. Though this system includes democratic attributes, its greatest attribute is in preventing the “mob rule” dangers associated with pure democracy. It includes checks and balances between the three branches of government. It provides checks and balances between the federal and state governments. All these parts of the Constitution are what those Naval Academy officers should support and defend in the years to come.
The reason why many people elevate the use of the term democracy beyond its rightful place in our republic is due to what happened around the middle of the 20th century. Parliamentary systems and republics faced autocratic enemies like fascism and communism. For ease of terminology, all systems including democratic attributes were called democracies.
In recent years, the political left has taken this to a new level. They go so far as to claim the non-democratic attributes of our constitution, like the Electoral College, should be abolished. They have started attacking the Supreme Court in a way we have never experienced. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats have called the Capitol building the “temple” of democracy and a “sacred” place.
Winston Churchill once said democracy was “the worst system of government, except for the others.” He said that from the standpoint of his constitutional monarchy with all the checks and balances against pure democracy involved. He would never have deified democracy or told new officers they took an oath to democracy.
Our nation needs to put our republic back on track and stop making democracy a false god used for partisan purposes.
Bill Connor, a retired Army Infantry colonel, author and Orangeburg attorney, has deployed multiple times to the Middle East. Connor was the senior U.S. military adviser to Afghan forces in Helmand Province, where he received the Bronze Star. A Citadel graduate with a JD from USC, he is also a Distinguished Graduate of the U.S. Army War College, earning his master of strategic studies. He is the author of the book Articles from War.