Equality in a Democracy Does not Mean What You Think it Means.

“In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration, I stand for the national policy of exclusion . . . . Democracy rests on the equality of the citizens.” 

Woodrow Wilson, May 3, 1912.*

“Let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man voting when he is unfit to vote.” 

Warren Harding, October 26, 1921.**

President Wilson was correct to say that “democracy rests on the equality of the citizens,” but his words do not mean what most “democrats” nowadays suppose they mean.  Democracy rests on the actual and not just the legal or nominal equality of citizens.  It is not democracy that makes men equal, but rather men who are more-or-less-equal who make democracy.  As President Wilson understood (but more recent Presidents have not), more-or-less equal means broadly similar in circumstances, outlook and temperament.

Five hungry men can vote on where they will go for lunch, provided their palates and budgets are broadly similar.  But five men cannot operate as democracy if all five men are not hungry, or their palates and budgets are radically dissimilar.  Any vote in the second group will cause radical dissatisfaction, very possibly revolt, in the minority that is forced to do, or eat, or spend what it really, truly does not wish to do, or eat, or spend.

President Wilson therefore believed that democracy must fail—must lead to radical dissatisfaction and very possibly revolt—if it attempted to combine white Americans and oriental coolies. The mental and moral character of these elements was simply too dissimilar, too unequal, for them to vote with amity, honesty, or an intention to be bound by the result.

President Wilson made a second point that would baffle or disgust more recent Presidents.  A democracy should conserve the culture of its citizens by protecting them against “unjust and impossible competition” by foreigners.  If the United States admitted millions of peasants who were willing to work seven days a week, sleep ten to a room, and subsist on foul air and rat stew, a horrible equalization would begin to pull white Americans down to the peasant level.  Here is the full quote from President Wilson.

 “In the matter of Chinese and Japanese coolie immigration, I stand for the national policy of exclusion.  The whole question is one of assimilation of diverse races.  We cannot make a homogenous population out of a people who do not blend with the Caucasian race.  Their lower standard of living as laborers will crowd out the white agriculturalist, and in other fields is a most serious industrial menace.  The success of free democratic institutions demands of our people education, intelligence, and patriotism, and the State should protect them against unjust and impossible competitions.  Remunerative labor is the basis of contentment.  Democracy rests on the equality of the citizens.”*

President Harding agrees with Wilson (and no doubt appalls all recent Presidents) when he says that voting is not a human right.  Democracy presupposes a peerage.  A democratic peerage is far larger than an aristocratic peerage, but it must still include some criteria of mental and moral merit, some degree of equality in circumstances, outlook and temperament.  When indiscriminate immigration changes the electorate into a mere congeries of discordant elements, one has an ochlocracy and not a democracy.  There will still be plenty of voting, but no one votes with amity, honesty, or an intention to be bound by the result.

Equality is a precondition of democracy and not a result

*) Woodrow Wilson quoted in Peter Clark MacFarlane and Edward Hungerford, Anti-Alien Legislation in California (San Jose, 1913), p.16.

**) Warren Harding, “Address at the Celebration of the Semicentennial of the Founding of the City of Birmingham, Alabama, October 26, 1921.

9 thoughts on “Equality in a Democracy Does not Mean What You Think it Means.

  1. Your five men going to lunch analogy is excellent and a very useful illustration of the difficulties of democracy. I will have to add that to my toolkit.

  2. The Ancients were very much of the same mind. “Most of the arts,” says Xenophon, “weaken the body; those who practice them must sit in the shade or by the fire; they have time neither for their friends nor for the republic.” It was only with the corruption of certain democracies that artisans attained the status of citizens. This is what Aristotle teaches us, and he maintains that a good republic will never grant them civil rights.

    In Sparta, “that lightning-flash of freedom in the dark night of despotism and crime,” the free citizen knew no trade but arms.

    Curiously, the Jacobins, the spiritual ancestors of today’s liberals, thought so, too. So, we have Saint-Just declaring that, “Trade ill becomes the true citizen. The hand of man was made only to till the soil and to bear arms”

  3. Pingback: CDXLII – Torturing An Analogy – Times-Dispatch of Vichy Earth

  4. Yet somehow nativism only erupts into public influence temporarily and at long intervals. Apparently economic growth is too important to be checked by any consideration of short-term casualties or long-term political wisdom.

    • Nativism is a low-class opinion, so few people admit to having that opinion, even to themselves. It occasionally pokes above the surface, like volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean.

      • Many people would prefer losing their life to losing their status. It’s how we’re wired. But you’re right that it does limit solidarity.

  5. Yes, but this country has never been a democracy. It is a constitutional republic in conception and in practice, though much perverted by its detractors who feed off of the productive wealth of the citizens they abhor.


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