Is democracy a natural state of mankind?
Maybe Alexander Hamilton, not Thomas Jefferson, was right after all.
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Here is a thought experiment to put things in perspective. Imagine a map of the world in 1800. Color in all the countries that took part in or were directly influenced by the Enlightenment (let us say, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, the US, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries).Skip to next paragraph
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Now jump forward two centuries and color in all the countries with working democracies (as defined by the Economist Intelligence Unit). It is virtually the same map. Every one of those 22 nations (or their derivatives) today has a working democracy. And how many countries have a fully functional democracy but were not among, or did not spring from, those 22 countries? Just one – Japan.
What does this tell us about the Jefferson versus Hamilton question? In a Hamiltonian world, democracy will always be a precious commodity – sustained, and even desired, only by people whose cultural history includes an enlightened viewpoint, or something close to it. The Enlightenment was a kind of miracle, and not one we should take for granted.
Indeed, if Jefferson returned today, he would be shocked by the reemergence of self-styled Christians hacking away at the wall between church and state. Hamilton and Jefferson were both deeply affected by the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason, but Hamilton believed reason would always be under attack by demagogues who know hate and fear are stronger motivators than reason and rationality.
Why do I take a darker view than I did 16 years ago? Today, we have a coarser public discourse and lower standards, and we have suffered the consequences of a political party that quite openly set about to divide Americans into hostile camps because it believed that strategy would give them a narrow electoral advantage. The result is an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible to have a mature, adult, logical national debate about important issues.
Maybe Hamilton was on to something. Is democracy a natural state of mankind? Is the survival of democracy assured even in the United States? It is a sign of our times that we cannot be sure the answer to these questions is "yes."
• Tim Hackler, a freelance writer, served as press secretary for two Democratic senators in the 1980s and was a resident fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville, Va.