The hubris of democracy


A century ago, the death of God was a sensation which few took seriously. Now it is a trivial fact, and the man-in-the-street has become the measure of all things. Such a self-satisfied breed suggests nothing but its impending downfall. Man cannot, in the end, justify himself.

Dangerous self-adulation

In the wake of godlessness the field is open to ahistorical improvidence, the fiendish misrepresentations of modern superstition and, worst of all, the hubris of the average citizen. The man-in-the-street has become the measure of all things, a target of abject adoration and idolization. Comfort and security rank highest in the scale of values, death is a scandalous imperfection, the God-relation a mental disorder. Such a syncretistically reduced and self-satisfied breed suggests nothing but its impending downfall.

The particular hubris of democracy is to accept its own average as the measure of all things. At all cost, we try to externalize our home-grown problems, suppressing the inference that the worst threat comes from ourselves. No amount of risk avoidance can protect us from our narrow-mindedness and impercipience. True insight is always the result of hard-won experience: “no pain, no gain” as the body-builders say.

Democracy is, least of all, an endorsement of carefree happiness; it is, rather, a tough exercise in hazardous freedom. In the end, you can only blame yourself – a most unhappy condition. Responsibility and discipline are not imposed from the outside; we rely solely on a broad framework of internally generated rules for political process. This machinery cannot create values, it can only channel them. The presumption that democratic rule in itself commands creativity or guarantees social and cultural progress is a dangerous illusion. The real content and meaning of the political game springs from deeper sources.

Play fair and square!

To idolize popular opinion and make it into a measure of everything is to invite moral regress. If the public comes to believe that it always knows best, indiscriminate dissatisfaction with the governing bodies will pervade politics. The sense of fair play weakens and the political plus-sum game can fall apart when the lack of respect for the government is translated into wholesale contempt for a democracy, which cannot produce capable leaders.

In The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria laments the irresponsible public opinion in modern democracies. When the public insists on participation in decision making, the authority of the political leadership is undermined. They do not lead any more but try desperately to follow the intentions of the electorate which are mapped in exquisite detail. If the leading stratum lacks credibility in the eyes of the people, the emergence of an informed opinion is hampered. The transmission between the elite and the electorate has slipped out of gear.

The choice between a vicious and a virtuous spiral, between a moral descent and ascent, remains forever open as it depends on our everyday conduct. Plain honesty should keep us on the narrow road whereas lying, slander, polemics, nay every nasty word poisons the plus-sum game and constitutes a step away from democracy.

The alpha and omega of morality is the sanctity of our everyday rules of the game. Everything else is sanctimony without weight or value. But decent common people – the building blocks of democracy – can also fall into self-righteous smugness. The majority has not only might but automatically also right on its side. The will of the people becomes an idol, the infallibility of the electorate a dogma, humble learning an impossibility. Hubris threatens each and everybody who blindly believes in himself.