Study Guide #1
Readings on Democracy


We begin the course with five brief but complex readings on democracy.

The common issue in these readings is the relationship between democracy and majority rule. John Locke, a political philosopher who deeply influenced the Framers of the American Constitution, claims that any just political society must be run on the basis of majority rule. But Wilson Carey McWilliams argues that Locke has it all wrong, at least according to the Ancient Greek conception of democracy. For the Greeks, Locke's emphasis on the prerogatives of the majority is misplaced. The Greeks believed that majorities should not be free to act as they like, but must instead act for the good of the whole polis. Where Locke's approach squares with what we will call the plebescitary vision of democracy, McWilliams describes the elements of the classical or participatory vision. In another article on the classical vision, J. Peter Euben suggests that for one of the most famous of all Ancient Greek thinkers, Aristotle, politics was an inherently moral enterprise that enlarged one's humanity.

Alexis de Tocqueville, meanwhile, is alarmed by the prospect of majority rule; he calls it "fate-laden and dangerous," and he worries about those it "crushes." But Edmund Burkes makes perhaps the strongest argument against majority rule. Burke (great name!) believes that elected representatives should not defer to majority views; instead they should act on the basis of their own conscience and expertise. After all, public opinion may be "hasty" and unreasoned. Burke is defending what I will call the trusteeship vision of democracy.

Finally for a contemporary perspective on these competing visions of democracy, you should read Gerston and Christenson article, “Recall!”  The article describes the events of 2003, when California voters “recalled” Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzeneggar.  As this episode suggests, California state government is profoundly shaped by the institutions of “direct democracy” (initiative, referendum, recall), making California politics strongly plebiscitary in the terms of the course.

To help you prepare for my lecture on competing visions of democracy, here are some questions you should be able to answer after reading the articles:

 1. Locke says that no one can be "subjected to the political power of another without his own consent." What do you think he means by this? Is it true? Have you consented to obeying the government of the United States? Of Wellesley? (How would you indicate that you do not consent?)

 2. Locke says that once you have consented to become a member of a community, you must accept the rule of the majority in that community. Why? What makes majority rule so important for Locke?

 3. According to McWilliams, how do the Ancient Greeks differ from Locke in their views on majority rule?

 4. McWilliams claims that for the ancient Greeks, "living as one likes" is not a good definition of democracy. Why is an "individualist" not a good democrat for the Greeks?

 5. How is the polis "prior" to the individual for the Greeks?

 6. Why, according to Aristotle, must one learn to be ruled to be a true democrat?

 7. Why is a small state better for democracy according to the Greeks?

 8. According to Euben, for Aristotle "representation makes no sense." Why?

 9. According to Euben, Aristotle believes politics is unlike all other social activities. How so?

 10. According to Tocqueville, why do Americans believe so strongly in majority rule? Why does Tocqueville think majority rule is so dangerous?

 11. Burke tells the people who voted for him that he will not always act as they want him to do in parliament. On what basis does Burke feel free to disregard the views of his constituents?

 12. Burke says that "if government were a matter of will" than he would simply follow the views of his constituents. But, he says, government is a matter of "judgment and reason." Do you agree with Burke? Isn't this an argument against majority rule, and the plebescitary vision of democracy?

13.  What is a “recall”?  An “initiative”?  A “referendum”?  Who brought them to California?  (What do you think Edmund Burke would say about them?)