How Democracies Become Dictatorships

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In graduate school in political theory, I read Plato on the way democracies are actually more susceptible to becoming dictatorships than oligarchies or aristocracies. Plato's striking argument - and you have to read the dialogue carefully and see that Plato is engaging in conversation, not dictating some absolute truth - is that freedom's excesses, and the refusal of many in a democracy to accept any limits on what they can get or buy or conquer eventually hit reality. And when the reality hits, the frustration and insolence at finding that money does not grow on trees or that the world cannot be hammered into the shape our ideology demands easily gives way to a new form of government. That new government promises to remove all the perils and difficulties of self-government in favor of the certainty and security of raw executive power.

In the last few years, we have seen the executive branch declare itself outside the law - in prosecuting a war on terror. The law against torture has been suspended. The balance between the executive and legislative branch has been dismissed by signing statements and the theory of the unitary executive. The executive has declared its right to suspend habeas corpus indefinitely, to tap anyone's phones without court warrants and to detain and torture anyone it decides is an "enemy combatant." In that sense, we have already left the realm of constitutional government in favor of a protectorate outside the law promising to keep us safe (but never from itself).

But this new move to create a de facto dictator for the financial markets, to invest a Treasury secretary with unprecedented powers to buy and sell at close to a trillion dollar level - with no oversight or accountability: this is a new collapse in democratic life and constitutional norms.

These measures are enabling acts of a sort. And they are what Plato feared. I have been derided as a hysteric for my fear about what this administration has done to the constitution and to ancient liberties. My current worry is that I haven't been afraid enough.

(Photo: Tim Sloan/Getty.)

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