Democracy Teetering?  Not As Long As Hierarchy Remains Intact

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Fashionable circles like to see looming ahead of us the end of democracy. Pundits stoke this idea, often because their candidate didn’t win office, and they were the ruling elites. The rumbling goes on because progressive ideas aren’t the only ones afloat.  

Freedom House publishes an annual report on political rights and civil liberties. This year it paints a sad picture of democracy in crisis. By their lights Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Hungary, and Poland have scored setbacks.  And the United States can’t be far lagging.

The Arab Spring left dictators and chaos in its wake. Whether lax governing brings a more authoritarian successor is not clear. But periods of unrest and anarchy are often fertile grounds for stronger and bolder leadership. If borders are porous and refugees disrupt the citizens, we can expect new populist unrest.  

Freedom House, in political-speak, notes “the accelerating withdrawal of the U.S. from its historic commitment to promoting democracy.” Who do they hold responsible?  You guessed it. “Even when he chose to acknowledge American treaty alliances with fellow democracies, the President spoke of cultural or civilization ties rather than shared recognition of universal rights.” Freedom House must share real estate with the UN. 

The assault on this administration goes much wider.   And deeper.  The deep state, shadow government, whatever you call it, has its own resistance to change. Mike Mulvaney wants to reduce funding for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (Senator Elizabeth Warren’s brain child), an agency that ran wild in the previous administration, issuing punishing regulations and conducting endless fishing expeditions. A request for zero funding is the first step in reducing bureaucracy. But how much resistance will erupt from the bureaucrats who want to keep their jobs?  It makes for chaotic government.

One of the benefits of bureaucracies is that we have someone to blame when things go wrong.  Hierarchical structure gives us a leader, a CEO, to hold accountable.  Witness the recent naval accounts where a ship went aground or collided with another vessel in the Pacific Ocean. Blame the captain. Then he gets retired from his post.  Top Hollywood star-makers are accused of abusive behaviors and they are out of the movies. If a corporate stock goes south or a product fails, the CEO is sent packing. It is the way things work. It is the nature of a hierarchical organization to find someone to blame:  king, general, president, minister, head of school, or police chief. 

Historical hierarchies, like Roman and Assyrian empires and the Roman Catholic Church in the years after Constantine, were effective means for establishing control and spreading stable rule — for a time. In some periods, spiritual and temporal goals intersected. Other communities, viewing themselves as reforms of a corrupt society, also developed hierarchical structures. Thomas More’s Utopia, monastic orders, even hippie and cult communities — all develop levels of authority.

Today the popular view is to see democracy as the opposite side of the coin from hierarchical authority, or the teeter-totter of power, since when one is up, the other is down. Some voices use democratic language as a way to bypass and spread new definitions of human rights, sexual liberation, expanded notions of civil liberties. In peoples’ intense desire for more goods and services from our government, the primary victim is limited constitutional democracy. To the Progressives, more bureaucracies are needed to administer and impose policies —policies many citizens disagree with and never voted for. Extraconstitutional authorities use their expertise to promote their views on climate, sexuality, educational standards, and immigration.

British historian Niall Ferguson joins a fresh chorus of critics who worry about these unaccountable and explosive voices demanding a utopian world of their dreams, one run by their networks of opinion-makers. Instead they will find a world in which malign actors exploit opportunities to spread virus and mendacities. Which of their personal antidotes are real and which are false? What is really fake news? For instance, what has been the impact of their famed Russian dossier? Who is playing games with information? 

In the end, we may be governed by this new (but, again, unaccountable) interconnected hierarchy.  Most alarming is the new “cyber-caliphate,” a dark and lawless realm where Russian trolls or ISIS Twitter users work to subvert institutional democracy. Even our new capitalist lords, the creators of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, rule by controlling competition and information flow. They benefit from leading both a hierarchy and a knowledge network.  They are the beguiling power brokers with leverage over all we see and hear. 

We aren’t going to see revolutionary ideas disappear.  Advocates for invented new rights will be heard from Wall Street to Main Street and find their ideas repeated in classrooms. Similarly, revolutions are repeatedly sweeping the Middle East. However, Ferguson notes that the monarchies of the Middle East, if sometimes repressive, have been the most stable regimes. In all, history has taught us that hierarchy is preferable to anarchy.

Ferguson argues that the lessons of past governments and their wars have taught citizens that unless one wishes to reap one revolutionary whirlwind after another, it is better to impose hierarchical order on the world and to give it some legitimacy.  Despite widespread discontent with our present ruling business, Internet, and government bodies, and despite cracks in the bricks and disappointing leadership, hierarchies are still necessary.  They are in place to stem the decline and provide a framework for democracy to work.


Kevin Ryan is a Boston University emeritus professor and Marilyn Ryan is a political scientist and writer.  The Ryans live in Brookline. Read their past columns here.