Democracy   /   Spring 2000   /    Articles

Democracy and Its Nightmares

Colin Bird

Wheel of Fortune illustration (detail) from Carmina Burana manuscript, 13th century; Wikimedia Commons.

Only reasoned challenges to democratic politics call for, or deserve, reasoned apologias.


FROM THE BEGINNING , democracy has confronted a recurring nightmare. In order to identify and pursue worthwhile collective goals, concerted, coherent, and purposive social action is necessary. But what if this invariably involves a higher degree of social control, discipline, and hierarchy than any recognizably democratic social ideal could ever tolerate? Plato was perhaps the first to canvas this possibility. If he is right, the circumstances of human life render self-defeating (and hence irrational) the democratic aspiration to empower and improve society by liberating it.

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