Social Psychology of Democracy, Wisdom
Sages weigh in on what makes for successful and failed democracies.
Posted Mar 03, 2017
Social psychology usually prides itself as being a scientific, data-based discipline. However, there is not a lot of empirical work on what makes for a good democracy. Furthermore, democracy is, in some sense, one vast social psychological phenomenon — it is people, banding together, to govern themselves in such a way that maximizes their communal benefits and protects their fundamental rights, even from potentially exploitative or tyrannical majorities.
Unfortunately, social psychology does not have a whole lot of data on what makes democracies work well or not. There is some data on people's beliefs in democracy, and, in fact, like most systems, democracy works best if people believe in it. But the focus in this blog is not people's belief in democracy, but in the social psychological factors that make for a strong democracy.
In that spirit, the Founders —and a few others —have had, in my view, deep, thoughtful, and invaluable insights into what makes for a good democracy. Here is a sample of some of those insights:
"All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent." — Thomas Jefferson
"Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to liberty." — George Washington
"Guard against impostures of pretended patriotism." — George Washington
"I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. ... The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home..If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be under the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." — James Madison
"It is the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins." — Benjamin Franklin
From Hannah Arendt:
"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.
"...the result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world - and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end - is being destroyed.
"Politically speaking, tribal nationalism [patriotism] always insists that its own people are surrounded by 'a world of enemies' - 'one against all' - and that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.
"Although tyranny...may successfully rule over foreign peoples, it can stay in power only if it destroys first of all the national institutions of its own people.
"We are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights."
From George Washington’s Farewell Address:
"The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty."
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." — Isaac Asimov
“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.” — Abraham Lincoln
"The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." — Patrick Henry
"The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government — lest it come to dominate our lives and interests." — Patrick Henry
"America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves." — Abraham Lincoln
"To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men." — Abraham Lincoln
'We the People are the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts–not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution." — Abraham Lincoln
"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it." — Thomas Paine
"It is the duty of the patriot to protect his country from its government." — Thomas Paine
"Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does NOT mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country." — Theodore Roosevelt
"Hold on to the Constitution, for if the American Constitution should fail, there will be anarchy throughout the world." — Daniel Webster
"The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it." — H.L. Mencken
"During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." — George Orwell