In Times of Tyranny, Democracy Is Liberty's Friend
At many times in the history of the Anglo people, the abuses of liberty by Power (capitalized to indicate the official power of the centralized State and those close to it) have produced such resistance by enough normal men and women who felt their lives directly changed by those abuses, that real political change of historic importance was the result.
There has probably never been a year -- perhaps not even a day -- when Power did not, through policy or the political process, expand itself at the expense of the liberty of someone, somewhere. In normal times, the process of Power's self-aggrandizement is mostly political: laws get made, agencies get established -- but the effect on the everyday experiences of normal people is small enough that the culture generates no resistance.
In the United States, since 9-11 especially, some of the chattering classes (this writer included) and a few concerned citizens have been complaining about the brazenness of the 21st-century approach to the abuse of citizens by the State, its agents and its friends. The stripping of individual rights has been in this millennium extensive and fast (habeas corpus, due process, privacy, rule of Law (as enacted by elected and accountable officials rather than appointees of the Executive) etc.).
Until recently, however, these abuses have remained mostly political, rather than cultural. That is to say that Americans' loss of rights have had not much of an impact in the culture because they did not affect the everyday experiences of a significant section of the population.
For example, the loss of the right to due process did not create per se a reaction against Power because most people don't experience due process in their everyday lives; the loss of privacy does not cause a reaction against Power because the violation of privacy, if undetected, doesn't change our everyday experiences; and the farming out of law-making power to unelected agents of the State is unperceived as long as we don't know when our behavior is being regulated by agents of the Executive and their rules, or by Law, properly made in Congress.
However, that is now changing. And the change is historic, in the literal sense of the word. Every few generations or even centuries -- Power begins to impose drastic changes that are felt immediately in the everyday lives of normal people. At such times, the People immediately feel that Power has made their tomorrows very different from their yesterdays, in ways that offend their most basic sensibilities, notions of justice and even consent to being governed. Most importantly, Power's offenses against liberty are resisted not out of any particular political belief, but because they are felt immediately as impingements on normal life. Throughout history, liberty movements have succeeded in forcing political change when Power has given them such moral, emotional and cultural justification.
Indeed, in the Anglo tradition, the re-establishment of liberty against a wayward State is typically not triggered by the most egregious denials of liberty, but by those most easily felt.
We have ample examples in America today. For instance, by most measures, the loss of a healthcare plan that you liked and its replacement with a similar one of a higher price (from which this writer has suffered) is less of an abuse against your liberty than is your loss of privacy, the elimination of right to due process or even the funneling of your taxes to connected corporations -- but you feel the loss of your healthcare plan much more immediately in your life than you feel any of those other things.
With respect to the issue of privacy, Edward Snowden didn't tell Americans anything that many liberty-loving commentators have not been warning Americans about for years -- but his actions turned a political abstraction (a Constitutional right to privacy is being violated) into a felt change in our everyday lives (this call I am making to my family member is being listened to by people who have essentially deceived me about doing so) and all of a sudden, the political class is responding as bills are written and votes are taken to limit the abuses.
Or perhaps your thing is gun rights. The fact that people who wish to purchase a gun must go through a few more checks than before is much less an abuse of your freedom than the fact that the government now believes it can assassinate you without a trial, but the prospect of those regulations generate much more upset, because one's enjoyment of one's firearms, or the sense of security they provide, is part of the cultural experience of many Americans -- something that provides part of their identity, and perhaps happy memories at the range with their sons.
When Power's abuses against Liberty remove from us not just the rights that we have, but the rights that we actively enjoy in our daily lives, we take them personally and respond to them more viscerally -- more as human beings than as political beings. When the everyday expectations and experiences of enough people -- rather than the ideas of a group of people with one political ideology or another -- are challenged, political change that is not possible in normal times becomes possible. That change is, in the proper sense of the word, democratic.
The word "democracy" comes from δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), which combines demos (people) and kratos (power). In its full sense, it means much more than pressing a few buttons on a voting machine every couple of years.
According to our Declaration of Independence, the power of the American government is the power of the people -- the kratos of the demos -- delegated. In that respect, at least, our nation is a democracy, and that democracy is not only inconsistent with our Constitutional Republic, it constitutes it. And by that same Declaration, "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it" -- the ultimate democratic act.
Constitutionalists and libertarians are quick to point out that the USA is not a Democracy but, rather, a Constitutional Republic. Their point is that in a pure Democracy, a majority can remove the rights of the minority, including the smallest minority -- the individual -- and that so doing goes against America's very raison d'etre. They are not wrong -- and, in fact, much of what ails us now has happened in just that way, albeit mediated by the poor decisions of our representatives.
But if we Constitutionalists and libertarians are going to succeed in shrinking the State and undoing its most outrageous offenses against Liberty (as we must), then we must know that we are engaged in a deeply democratic process, just as were the Founders: only the kratos of the American demos can push back the kratos of the state far enough that it will result in substantial political change.
Whereas in normal times, individual liberty protects the citizen against the tyrannies of both Democracy and the State, when the State becomes sufficiently tyrannical, democracy fights on liberty's side.
That is how it has always been. Paradoxical as it may appear at first glance, it was just such a democratic process that created this Constitutional Republic in 1776: enough people were moved by felt injustice (not some new political ideology) that they resisted their own political establishment (which is what the British state was at the time). The movement that became the American Revolution began among the people, and ended in a political change that altered their relationship with Power to the benefit of the liberty. The other Bill of Rights -- the English Bill of Rights in 1689 -- came up in just the same way: the kratos of the demos crystallized in resistance to abuses of Power that were perceived in the lives of common men, and the political result (the Bill of Rights, itself) was the end of the process. Before that was the Grand Remonstrance of 1641, and before that was the Petition of Right of 1628, each crystallizing in the political realm popular disquiet in response to direct experiences of the abusive exercise of power -- not ideological dissatisfaction. And yes, although the farther we go back the smaller is the demos with any power to exert against the state, the same argument can be made for the Magna Carta, too.
All of these political achievements -- each one a roll-back of state Power in response to offense against liberty, felt in culture rather than seen in Law -- were the end of processes that began among people, whose power, aggregated, was set against the State, motivated by a sense of injustice mostly unmediated by any political ideology.
For lovers of liberty and of the Founding principles of America, this is our time, and each new abuse of our Rights by the State that is our latest, best weapon.
To respect the importance of democracy is to respect history, and to embrace the tool without which liberty has never been won back from Power that would trample on it. The liberty movement must take care before setting democracy up as a foil to liberty, because it can be Liberty's servant too.