Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Democracy – Fraternity = Catastrophe

  • 15 September 2022
To say that democracy is under threat is now a truism. The claim is fed by the rise of authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia, Philippines, Hungary, and Brazil, and of populist movements in other nations. The polarisation between liberal and conservative sections of the population and the populist threat to conventions of government in the United States also fuel debate there and in other nations, including Australia. The durability of democracy merits reflection.

Public conversation about democracy is often shallow. This reflects lack of clarity and conviction about what it involves and why it matters. Much of the argument for democracy rests on the assertion that it is our form of government, and so evidently superior to the forms of government in feared or despised nations. The distinguishing virtues of democracy are often seen to lie almost exclusively in the ability to change the government in elections and in the degree to which individuals are free to choose. It displays little knowledge about the history of democracy and its development.

Classical Greek thought debated the relative virtues of monarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy or democracy. Democracy was thought to be vulnerable to the whims of public opinion and to irrational decisions. Oligarchy was vulnerable to self-interest, whereas aristocracy, the rule of those best fitted to rule, was often favoured. The prejudice against democracy continued in the West, crystallised in the fear of the mob that always needed to be placated but could not be allowed to rule.

The catchcry of the French Revolution — Liberty, Equality and Fraternity — forms a helpful matrix for reflection on democracy. All three elements need to in a well-functioning democracy. The French Revolution itself descended into bloodshed and autocracy when it privileged equality to the neglect of fraternity. Liberty was then reserved for the few who led the Revolution.

When reflecting on democratic government after the Second World War the survivors could go to school on the various regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. It was clear that democratic government relied on more than efficient machinery for changing the government by election. It required an educated public who could weigh policies placed before them. It also required the readiness of governments to step down when defeated in popular vote. The sustaining of democracy depended on fraternal and equal groups of citizens free to speak and represent their minds, and on institutions that supported them.

'If fraternity is to govern the relationships between citizens,