Churchill on Democracy: Lessons for Today

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by Larry Garber

Five years ago, during a previous government shutdown, I used my downtime to research one of the most frequently cited quotes about democracy, which I then shared with a small group of friends and colleagues. Given the seeming “no way out” of the current predicament and the growing frustrations with the dysfunctional U.S. political system, as well as the Brexit mess in Great Britain, I am sharing the product of my research with a broader audience.  

Like many, I have frequently referenced the Churchillian quote that “democracy is the worst form of Government except all other forms that have been tried from time to time.” However, I have always wondered about the context of the quote. The source is a 1947 speech in parliament during a period when Churchill was the head of the opposition Conservative Party.

The quote is part of a lengthy intervention by Churchill during the debate over an amendment to the Parliament Bill of 1911, which limited the House of Lords’ ability to delay legislation passed by the House of Commons to no more than two years. The Labor Party, which had obtained a surprise majority in the first post-World War II election, was seeking to reduce this delaying power from two years to one year.   According to the Conservative opposition, the Labor Party motive was to set the basis for more quickly nationalizing the steel industry, which would, in the Conservative view, radically and irrevocably transform the British economy.

The debate was framed by Churchill as implicating core concepts of democracy. Thus, he stated: “Democracy is not a caucus, obtaining a fixed term of office by promises, and then doing what it likes with the people.” More broadly, he argued that the “idea of a group of super men and super-planners, such as we see before us, ‘playing the angel,’ as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy.” The famous quote then follows:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all other forms of that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously 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.

As a quote, the last and less frequently referenced phrase is a wonderful affirmation of the democratic creed. However, reading through Churchill’s entire intervention suggests that, despite the noble language, his argument was much more a political response to the contemporary controversy than a broad statement of democratic principles. Churchill claims, for example, that “no free country of which I have heard up to the present, which is enjoying democratic institutions, has adopted single chamber Government.” According to Churchill, a second chamber ensures that the “persistent resolve of the people shall prevail without throwing the community into convulsion and disorder by rash or violent, irreparable action and to restrain and prevent a group or sect or faction assuming dictatorial power.”

Leaving aside the historical accuracy of his assertion regarding the presence of second chambers in all free countries, Churchill was seeking to prevent the majority of the elected body of parliament from enacting legislation by assigning “a largely hereditary branch of government to protect the liberties of the people,” at least as he defined such liberties. Labor Party representatives responded that relying on such a body was, even in 1947, an “anachronism,” and should be replaced by the broader and more modern conception of popular sovereignty.

Ultimately, the Labor Party prevailed on the issue of reducing the delaying power of the House of Lords.   The Iron and Steel Law was passed into law, but ironically without the House of Lords seeking to delay the effort even for the now prescribed one year. And, despite other reforms to the composition of the House of Lords during the past six decades, this unelected and seemingly anachronistic second chamber retains the authority to delay, but not preclude, the adoption of laws approved by a majority of the House of Commons.

Democracy is messy and, at times, seems quite dysfunctional. Moreover, the definition of what constitutes a democracy, and whether certain practices are consistent with democratic norms and values, are often subject to quite heated debate in the academy and among the general public. This is true whether the practice involves granting hereditary bodies with a constitutional role in approving, disapproving or delaying legislation, or allowing a small group of legislators in one branch of Congress to shut down the government and threaten an economic calamity unless their demands are accepted.   Yet, the Churchill quote remains powerful precisely because, despite all these challenges and the frequent public frustrations with encountering democratic realities, Americans have yet to find a palatable alternative form of government that better serves U.S. interests and more effectively protects U.S. liberties.

As I reread these 2013 reflections, I note that my political concern then was with a small group of legislators in one branch of Congress using their political power to affect a government shutdown. Today, I blame the obstinacy and small-mindedness of the president for the chaos that prevails. Through his actions, President Trump is significantly reducing U.S. national security and Americans’ faith in their institutions by hijacking a revered constitutional framework for political purposes.

The broader message, however, must persevere: Americans cannot lose faith in democracy even as they face the consequences of the current circumstances. Instead, they must adopt essential political and electoral reforms, notwithstanding the time-consuming challenges posed by the status-quo orientation of the constitutional framework. Indeed, as the historical context for the famous quote illustrates, the British accomplished important democratic reforms in 1947, despite Churchill’s rhetorical eloquence.  

Larry Garber is a former senior official at the US Agency for International Development and a long-time observer of democratic reform processes around the world.

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  1. Churchill’s contribution to political theory was that democratic government was messy and inefficient but way ahead of other forms of governance. But time is beginning to show that unfettered government of the people, and for the people, may, like the dinosaur, have taken the wrong turn in its evolution. It has become over-sized, brain deficient, and functionally challenged. As George Kenan once wrote, while the dinosaur was as big as a house, its brain was the size of one’s fist. To get it mad, one virtually needed to cut its tail off, but then it could destroy you, and its own natural habitat.

    Democracy is supposed to have begun in Greece where decisions were taken by voice vote in the public square. Politicians hired men with the loudest voices for support. When our Founding Fathers set up shop, they chose to mute the role of organized clacks by qualifying voter participation using such screens as property, race, sex, and age. Since then, the Constitution has been amended for the better to include the property-less, all races, women, and 18 year olds. Given present technology, however, the agitating skills of campaign managers, and the chattering of the media class, democracy has become more entertainment than governance. Campaign ads are designed to stimulate fear, hate, and the love of God, country and little children. After all of that, one is hard pressed to vote with with one’s head.

    Elections used to be in the hands of the States, as prescribed by Our Founding Fathers. They still are, but with a difference. Now, Washington and the Courts have cut into these responsibilities. The government continues to be composed of member States, and balances population in the House with the equality of States in the Senate. Voter eligibility has been expanded by eliminating a literacy requirement. The vote has been locked in with State automobile licensing administrations. The independence of the electoral college has largely been neutered. Which all goes to show that we look toward more direct democracy as the solution to problems of governance. Wrong.

    Democracy is admired as a reflection of common sense and wisdom of the people. But think about it for a moment. More than half those of voting age are functionally illiterate. One would not trust the average voter with the keys to your house much less the investment of your savings, or how to spend half your income. But one does through the decisions on tax policies and program expenditures taken by the duly elected.

    We need to ponder the problems excessive democracy is creating. Ballots are now confusingly populated by county councils, school boards, party organizations, judges, etc., as well as state and national offices. And then, of course, there are the amendments to charters, legislative initiatives, and referendums providing grist to the agitating and chattering classes. With so many decisions, it is not surprising that elections are more an emotional and irreverent roll of the dice than a thoughtful exercise of choice. Even informed voters have to draw on “cheat sheets” put together by the local newspapers, or hot button advocates, appealing to prejudice rather than thought.

    Take the Presidential elections. Between 50 to 60 percent of the voting-age population actually votes. The difference between candidates is very rarely as high as 10 percent. The Clinton-Bush race had a 4 percent spread, and the Bush-Gore election by a rounding error. That means that the Presidency can be won by affecting a single digit percentage of actual voters, and half that of the voting age population. Politically speaking, that’s spillage. The outcome is a matter of chance.

    We need to parse out what we mean as democracy. To begin with, non-democracy is not always bad. Take Hongkong. The voters never elected their ruler under the British. The Crown took care of that. Now they vote, but the outcome is as consequential as the elections held in Cuba. On the other hand, a democratic tally in Chicago circa 1962 had its farcical side. What was important in Hongkong and Chicago, but absent in Cuba, was a predictable system of laws, private property rights, and freedom of speech – a market system of economics and thought. While opinion found release in the media and the press, its consequences were not as changeable and damaging as the weather in monsoon season. There was, occasionally, serious digestive venting, but the system adjusted to the passions of the mob preserving reasonable dynamic societal stability.
    Our Founding Fathers knew of the hazards of direct democracy and took them into consideration when framing the Constitution. They provided for the President to be chosen indirectly by an Electoral College equal in number to the number of representatives and senators of each state. The Electoral College was to be chosen by each State Legislature, but none of the Members of the Electoral College were to be Members of the Legislature. Members of the House of Representatives were to be elected by voters within the States, and Senators were to be elected by State Legislatures. This form of democracy was designed clearly to filter the momentary emotions of mass politics through layers and intermediaries of voters.. It fostered deliberation and thought at each level of the election process. The Founding Fathers also crafted a Bill of Rights for everyone outside the reach of ordinary legislation. Finally, they retained those authorities not delegated specifically to the Government in Washington to the states.

    We need to revisit the wisdom of our Founding Fathers – not regressively, but intelligently. We may have sacrificed too much of their wisdom and constitutional design on the altar or direct democracy.

    Jaime L. Manzano
    Federal Civil and Foreign Service (Retired)
    Bethesda, MD

  2. Ideally, the higher chamber should provide wisdom: it needs to consist of people of ability, knowledge, experience, and accomplishment who are respected by their peers: not by professional politicians.

  3. “a … form of government that better serves U.S. interests”

    What exactly is meant here by “US interests”?

    The interests of the mass of the people, or the interests of the ‘military/industrial complex’ or of the governing classes, or other elite or plutocratic interests?

    Without an answer to this question the whole article is moot.

    As for JManzano’s problem of “excessive democracy”, well the mind boggles. Presumably what he is getting at is the lack of good universal education, and the corresponding lack of an independent media. At least, I hope that’s what he’s getting at. The alternative is a promotion of fascism.

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