Should We Fear for our Democracy?

American Unity as hands in a group of diverse people connected together shaped as a support community symbol of a group team or teamwork and togetherness.

Recently a colleague sent me an article describing the Tylter Cycle that describes how civilizations that originally were designed to be democracies experienced a predictable series of changes that ultimately led to the demise of that democracy. I found the information both intriguing and frightening, considering the current politicized and fractured state of our country.

Wikipedia provides some fascinating historical information and a very cool map of the world that highlights by years countries that have evolved into becoming democracies.

Wikipedia defines democracy in the following way: “democracy is a political system, or a system of decision-making within an institution or organization or a country, in which all members have an equal share of power. Modern democracies are characterized by two capabilities that differentiate them fundamentally from earlier forms of government: the capacity to intervene in their own societies and the recognition of their sovereignty by an international legalistic framework of similarly sovereign states. Democratic government is commonly juxtaposed with oligarchic and monarchic systems, which are ruled by a minority and a sole monarch respectively.” Ancient Greece is seen as the first country practicing democracy but there were earlier civilizations that also seemed to be following the tenants of a democratic society. 

In the late 1700s Alexander Fraser Tytler was a Scottish advocate, judge, writer, historian and a professor of Universal History at the University of Edinburgh. He stated: A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.” 

I have not been able to stop thinking about this since I learned of this information. I believe that most Americans love their country and believe that democracy is the best form of government. I learned a great deal about government when taking the required Civics course in high school, something I think is no longer required in most schools. That makes me wonder where our young people learn about the basics of our democratic form of government!  

There have been some things that have happened recently that appear to be some of what is described in the Tytler Cycle. At the same time the historians I researched – and encourage you to research – paint a picture of a path that we may in fact be on that puts our democracy at great risk. An interesting and enlightening editorial from the website sponsored by Hillsdale College provides some specific information about facts related to our current economic situation.

And an interesting quote I found by Winston Churchill in 1947: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, and that public opinion expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.” 

Another important quote made by George Santayana in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” 

The tear of an American minority washing away a flag of the United States painted on a face

The current pandemic has made many of us feel very vulnerable to something sweeping across our world, wreaking havoc and doing tremendous damage to individuals, families, communities and the world. This information about Democratic civilizations and what has happened during this pandemic have some striking commonalities. 

Maybe I’m a cockeyed optimist, but I think there are some reasons for hope that did not exist in other civilizations where democracies eventually collapsed. One is that we have a Constitution that includes freedom of speech. We have a system of government that incorporates checks and balances to preserve and protect the laws that are based on that Constitution. While we sometimes don’t agree with things that are written in the press, that is part of the beauty of a democracy where people have the right to express themselves even when others disagree.

There are many brilliant minds that offer the kind of information we all need if we are to preserve and protect our democracy: books, articles, websites, podcasts, television documentaries and weekly shows highlighting key political figures. I have spoken to many young people who are passionate about maintaining the freedoms our democracy provides. Social media, while certainly sometimes not the most accurate source of information, gives us ways to communicate quickly and broadly. So for me there are reasons for hope and a call for us all to take to heart our responsibilities to ensure that our precious democracy continues. 

For me this information has ignited a passion for spreading the word that we all need to be vigilant and mindful not to take or democracy for granted. Like me I hope you will do the research that provides to glean information and ideas for what needs to be done for this generation and future generations so that our democracy can continue for hundreds of years, not just the average 200 years of civilizations past.  

Invitation for Reflection 

  1. Notice how this information is making you feel. Do your feelings include such things as being alarmed, fearful, discouraged and/or motivated? What feelings are the strongest? 
  2. Does this information evoke a sense of urgency to be even more vigilant than you currently are about preserving and protecting our democracy? 
  3. What are some specific things you can do to be an advocate for our democratic form of government? 

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute