The Problem of (and with) Democracy

I’m no fan of democratic governance. By “democratic,” I mean the parliamentary nation-state in which sovereignty allegedly rests with “the people.” This form of governance, combined with some form of republicanism (the election of “representatives” by the people to exercise that sovereignty), is the primary form of governance in the world today, and has been the idea of good, progressive, popular, effective and moral government since at least the middle of the 19th century (it is what the revolutionaries of 1848 were clamoring for). Jacques Ellul in Anarchy and Christianity notes:

We have to ask whether things became any different under democratic systems [than it had been under monarchy in Europe]. Much less than one might think! The central thought is still that power is from God. Hence the democratic state is also from God. The odd thing is that this was an old idea. From the 9th century some theologians had stated that all power is from God through the people. Plainly, however, this did not lead directly to democracy. In “Christian” democracies we find a similar alliance to that already described, except that the church now has fewer advantages. In lay democracies there is theoretically a complete separation, but that is in fact not the case. The church has shown much theological uncertainty in this area. (p.29)

Ellul goes on to describe the various arrangements between churches and government in France (of the two Napoleons as well as the republic), acceptance and support of the Nazi government by German Lutherans and Roman Catholics, and especially the decision by the Orthodox Church to serve the Soviet state following the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June, 1941. 
This is not the concern here. What I’m interested in is the statement that “the democratic state is also from God.” Or, better, “that all power is from God through the people.” This, as I understand it, is the point of Defensor Pacis, the late medieval treatise on secular authority. 
It’s funny that when monarchs assume the divine right to rule, this is called “tyranny.” But when “the people” assume the divine right to rule, this is called freedom. It also, I think, prompts some questions:
  • Who are “the people?” What defines “the people?” 
  • Is there some place “the people” aren’t? Are there some people who are not “the people?”
  • If “the people” are all people everywhere, what limits could possibly exist on their power?
  • If “the people” are the expression of the will of God politically and socially, does that make opposing the will of the people — which is, after all, the will of God — a kind-of heresy? Is it possible to oppose the will of “the people?” Can one say “no” to “the people?”
  • How do “the people” effectively exercise their sovereignty? If it is through agents, then what moral cause allows those agents to use that delegated power on “the people” themselves?
  • Or, if “the people” is an amorphous collective, can agents of sovereignty use their delegated power on individuals who are members of “the people” (or not) but who do not, as individuals, constitute “the people?”
  • Are “the people” empowered by God to make laws or exercise power without limit, or are there limits to the power of “the people?” If there are, how can you possibly defend limits binding the will or power of God?
Modern democratic political theory as applied in the late 18th and 19th century gave human beings real tyranny and totalitarianism, forms of government impossible with monarchy because enough people (as Ellul notes in the pages prior to the above quote) understood that the personal government of the monarch worked against them. That they were not their government and they knew that. Democracy annihilates this intellectual and moral distinction between ruler and ruled (while keeping it in practice, because it is impossible to do away with), thus giving the state one more tool to subdue those most likely to object. Democracy also subjects to the state, the instrument by which the will of God is realized in the world, all things, thus cracking the door open for totalitarianism — that of the revolutionary socialist state or the social democratic welfare/warfare state.