Democracy Corrupts All Other Ideals

Stephen Yearwood
3 min readAug 3, 2023

No ‘pure’ political ideal can be realized.

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

We have all heard the phrase, ‘The system is the problem’. Specifically, it refers to the political system. When I was coming of age ages ago in the U.S., people on the political left were more disillusioned with ‘the system’ than people on the political right were. Now it’s the other way around.

They refer to the political system as ‘the swamp’. They are appalled at how corrupt the system is — not just individuals, but the system itself. It is so bad that it corrupts everyone who tries to do good in it.

No ideal is safe from the corrupting influence of our political system. It’s enough to make people wonder what’s so good about having a democracy.

It has to be said that they are correct. It is impossible in a democracy for any pure ideal of governance to be realized. Corruption of any ideal of what society should be like is inevitable.

It’s called compromise. It is the defining characteristic of a democratic political system. A functioning democracy will always be a contest among competing ideals, and none will ever be able to achieve a total victory. No matter what, there will always be people opposed to any political ideal, and no matter what, in one way or another, in some place(s) or other, to one extent or another they will all have their way politically.

Again: no pure political ideal will ever be totally realized to the exclusion of any other in any functional democratic nation. There is a word for nations in which one ideal is totally realized to the total exclusion of any other: totalitarianism. It it the stuff of the Gestapo and the KGB, concentration camps and gulags.

In the rarefied air of political ideals, the only one that absolutely must be realized is democracy itself. It must be its own ideal.

Why?

For one thing, because only democracy is compatible with liberty. No matter what the ideal, it cannot be totally realized without limiting the opportunities for people with other ideals to participate in the political process. To ban people from fully participating in the political process because of their ideals is an outright assault upon the most important liberty there is. My political ideal might be your worst political nightmare this side of banning your ideal from the process, and vice versa, but as long as it does not seek to subvert democracy itself, people advocating for any ideal must be allowed to participate fully in the political process.

More broadly, democracy is self-government: the citizenry governing themselves. As such, it is the only just form that the governance of society can take. It is the realization for society as a whole of the idea behind Kant’s famous “Categorical Imperative:” the only just moral law is one a person chooses for oneself. (Kant then had to attempt to prove that any rational agent — any human being — would choose the particular imperative he discerned.) For sure, every member of society has to obey all its laws whether they are laws one would choose or not, but in a democracy all have the right to participate in the process via which laws get made.

It is all too easy for any opponent of any ideal to claim that its advocates are anti-democratic. To be sure, everyone participating in the system wants to see a particular ideal realized as fully as possible. A hint of totalitarianism is always in the air. That is the most serious political charge there can be, however. It is all too easy to use that charge to seek to exclude competing ideals from the political process. For the sake of democracy itself we must all, whatever our political ideals, resist that temptation to political evil.

Democracy is the one political ideal we must all defend with all our hearts, minds, and souls. Only in a democracy — self-government — can liberty for all be realized.

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice