“Democracy is the worst form of Government…”

“Democracy is the worst form of Government…”

democracy
The young ora­tor, 1907.

Democ­ra­cy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment, except for all the oth­ers. “It is fre­quent­ly claimed that Churchill said this (or words to that effect). I have tried to locate the source of that quote, but I have not been able to trace it. Is it gen­uine, and if so, where and when?” —D.C., Bogotá, Colom­bia

He said it (House of Com­mons, 11 Novem­ber 1947)—but he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor. From Churchill by Him­self, 574:

Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­ra­cy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­ra­cy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those oth­er forms that have been tried from time to time.…

So, although these are Churchill’s words, he clear­ly did not orig­i­nate the famous remark about democ­ra­cy. William F. Buck­ley, Jr., com­ment­ing on trick­ery in pres­i­den­tial debates, remind­ed us of Churchill’s reflec­tion when he wrote in June 2007: “We are made to ask what it is that polit­i­cal democ­ra­cy gives us. The sys­tem is util­i­tar­i­an. But is it a fit object of faith and hope?” Cred­it Churchill as pub­li­cist for an unsourced apho­rism.

Democracy: Churchillisms

But here are some orig­i­nal things (includ­ed in Churchill by Him­self) that Churchill did say about democ­ra­cy:

If I had to sum up the imme­di­ate future of demo­c­ra­t­ic pol­i­tics in a sin­gle word I should say “insur­ance.” That is the future—insurance against dan­gers from abroad, insur­ance against dan­gers scarce­ly less grave and much more near and con­stant which threat­en us here at home in our own island. —Free Trade Hall, Man­ches­ter, 23 May 1909

At the bot­tom of all the trib­utes paid to democ­ra­cy is the lit­tle man, walk­ing into the lit­tle booth, with a lit­tle pen­cil, mak­ing a lit­tle cross on a lit­tle bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or volu­mi­nous dis­cus­sion can pos­si­bly dimin­ish the over­whelm­ing impor­tance of that point. —House of Com­mons, 31 Octo­ber 1944

How is that word “democ­ra­cy” to be inter­pret­ed? My idea of it is that the plain, hum­ble, com­mon man, just the ordi­nary man who keeps a wife and fam­i­ly, who goes off to fight for his coun­try when it is in trou­ble, goes to the poll at the appro­pri­ate time, and puts his cross on the bal­lot paper show­ing the can­di­date he wish­es to be elect­ed to Parliament—that he is the foun­da­tion of democ­ra­cy. And it is also essen­tial to this foun­da­tion that this man or woman should do this with­out fear, and with­out any form of intim­i­da­tion or vic­tim­iza­tion. He marks his bal­lot paper in strict secre­cy, and then elect­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tives and togeth­er decide what gov­ern­ment, or even in times of stress, what form of gov­ern­ment they wish to have in their coun­try. If that is democ­ra­cy, I salute it. I espouse it. I would work for it.” —House of Com­mons, 8 Decem­ber 1944

31 thoughts on ““Democracy is the worst form of Government…”

  1. Maybe. We’ll nev­er know, though he usu­al­ly named his sources. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy he invokes “Parcere sub­jec­tis et debel­lare super­bos,” which he trans­lates fine­ly, “Spare the con­quered and war down the proud.” He then adds: “I seem to have come very near achiev­ing this thought by my own untu­tored reflections.The Romans have often fore­stalled many of my best ideas, and I must con­cede to them the patent rights in this max­im.”

  2. I won­der if, when Churchill used the phrase “It has been said.” he used it as a lit­er­ary tool.It could have giv­en his state­ment more thrust than if he had just posed it as an orig­i­nal thought. Sort of like if some­one says, “Leg­end tells it” or “A wise man once said.”

  3. In the same vein. Did not some­one once say that :”Democ­ra­cy is the best form of gov­ern­ment, until the peo­ple realise they can vote them­selves a pay rise”. A cyn­i­cal state­ment per­haps about the integri­ty of the mod­ern politi­cian.

  4. Win­ston Churchill was a pret­ty poor politi­cian, except for all his oth­er con­tem­po­raries.

  5. Thought­ful. Do you have a link?

    Churchill had him­self many quib­bles and con­cerns over Democ­ra­cy. See his essay “Mass Effects in Mod­ern Life,” reprint­ed in Lar­ry Arnn’s eru­dite book “Churchill’s Tri­al,” which has much to say about his reser­va­tions.

  6. Har­vard Polit­i­cal Sci­ence pro­fes­sor, Gra­ham Alli­son authored a small essay ” Sin­ga­pore Chal­lenges the Idea That Democ­ra­cy Is the Best Form of Gov­er­nance”. It offers one way to weigh the valid­i­ty of the belief that “democ­ra­cy” is the best form of gov­er­nance. Churchill’s remarks were part of a speech, deliv­ered with appro­pri­ate rhetor­i­cal flour­ish­es includ­ing a pat clever remark about rel­a­tive supe­ri­or­i­ty of a west­ern tra­di­tion called “democ­ra­cy”. It is arguably quite unlike­ly if this affir­ma­tive asser­tion could be for­mal­ly argued, QED, to the sat­is­fac­tion of a the­o­ret­i­cal oppo­nent. Allison’s cheery essay points to the kinds of prob­lems encoun­tered. It is like a per­son claim­ing “my life – in all its splen­dor, detail, twists and turns – is the best. Except, of course, when it is not.”

  7. “Democ­ra­cy is a very bad form of gov­ern­ment, but I ask you nev­er to for­get : all the oth­ers are so much worse” was the open­ing of a total­ly for­get­table TV polit­i­cal soap opera called “Slattery’s Peo­ple” (open­ing clip avail­able on YouTube). When it was screened in the UK I remem­ber won­der­ing why the BBC had wast­ed its mon­ey. Even in the USA it only ran for two sea­sons (1964-1965).
    The scriptwrit­ers must have got that quote, which seems to dif­fer slight­ly from the one ascribed to Churchill, from some­where. Are they still alive to ask?

  8. What are “club laws”? I’d be very chary say­ing what Churchill would do today about issues he nev­er dreamed of. When­ev­er some­one would say that “per­haps” Sir Win­ston would do this or that about some­thing, his biog­ra­ph­er Sir Mar­tin Gilbert would say, “Per­haps not!”

  9. In these strange times for UK , it is inter­est­ing to note that Churchill would nev­er have held a ref­er­en­dum on EU mem­ber­ship or at least, he would have applied the nor­mal estab­lish­ment and club laws that per­ma­nent change needs a two thirds major­i­ty.

  10. This is pos­si­bly a Web site where rea­soned peo­ple swap ideas real­iz­ing that few peo­ple know every­thing. I look for­ward to the read­ing….

  11. I believe that tele­vi­sion show was Slattery’s Peo­ple. It starred Richard Cren­na.

  12. Richard Con­rod,
    I think the TV show that opened with the remark “Democ­ra­cy is a very bad form of gov­ern­ment but all the oth­ers are so much worse.” was “The Defend­ers”, star­ring E. G. Mar­shall & Robert Reed.

  13. I was googling the state­ment “Democ­ra­cy is a very bad form of gov­ern­ment but all the oth­ers are so much worse.” So I found your blog. When I was a teen I remem­ber the words from a TV show series. In each episode it would do a black screen with the quote in white let­ters. Do you know what show that was? BTW, when I was in Jr. High & Sr. Hi I read Clarence Car­son, Hans Sennholz, Lud­wig von Mis­es, Leonard Reed (esp. “Deep­er Than You Think”), John Cham­ber­lin, Frédéric Bas­ti­at, etc.

  14. If I may… I think that the lit­tle inter­change between you and Mr. Met­calf is sim­ply a mis­un­der­stand­ing around the phrase “although unknown to them” in the first sen­tence of your scholar’s expla­na­tion.
    I believe Mr. Met­calf inter­pret­ed “them” to be “the found­ing fathers” and thought you were say­ing that the framers of our democ­ra­cy were unaware of clas­sic phi­los­o­phy.
    In his defense, that is rather awk­ward­ly word­ed :)

    I think what was meant to be said was that the *clas­sic philoso­phers* were unaware of the improve­ments made by the US found­ing fathers. The “them” in that pas­sage refers to the philoso­phers whose ideas were improved upon and, being long-dead, are not able to ver­i­fy that the improve­ments were con­sis­tent with the spir­it of the orig­i­nal tenets. 

    I have no idea what com­pelled me to weigh in here. I’ve nev­er com­ment­ed on a blog before in my life! I think I just enjoyed this page so much that it made me sad to see any dishar­mo­ny :)
    I hope that you and Mr. Met­calf are not hold­ing any grudges! All the best.

  15. I’m not sure I have to excuse you but I’m a lit­tle confused…your point is? My post con­cerns what Churchill said about Democ­ra­cy. In answer­ing Amay P. Ong Vaño’s ques­tion I quot­ed a schol­ar who teach­es the clas­sics and the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. Of course he expressed your view. And I share your regret that many who have fol­lowed were not as reflec­tive of the founders’ vision.

  16. Excuse me, Mr. Lang­worth, but most of the founders of the inde­pen­dent states, the Con­fed­er­a­tion and the Con­sti­tu­tion that fol­lowed knew quite well the philoso­phers you had in mind, from clas­si­cal to the Enlight­en­ment. They care­ful­ly not­ed their obser­va­tions, crit­i­cisms and warn­ings and act­ed as prag­mat­i­cal­ly, per­sua­sive­ly and flex­i­bly as the times and the peo­ple would tol­er­ate. If only those who fol­lowed, and we who strive to do so even yet, were as informed, reflec­tive and faith­ful to their vision…

  17. Good ques­tion, but a lit­tle afield from this post, and my exper­tise. I asked a schol­ar who has devot­ed many years to the sub­ject, who replies: “​The clas­sic philoso­phers were indeed skep­ti­cal, not neu­tral, as to forms of gov­ern­ment. They thought they mat­tered very much. Of course they thought who man­ages the gov­ern­ment is also impor­tant.

    “Those who found­ed the Unit­ed States made cer­tain improve­ments in demo­c­ra­t­ic rule that, I argue, are in the spir­it of the clas­si­cal philoso­phers, although unknown to them. These are the famous ones: rep­re­sen­ta­tion, sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, fed­er­al­ism, sep­a­ra­tion of sov­er­eign­ty, and author­i­ty to gov­ern. All are made pos­si­ble by the insti­tu­tion of rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment, which sep­a­rates sov­er­eign­ty, or ulti­mate gov­ern­ing author­i­ty, from the actu­al work of gov­ern­ing. It also makes pos­si­ble the sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers among branch­es and up-and-down along lev­els of gov­ern­ment.

    ​”In the U.S. con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem, most gov­ern­ment pow­ers are legal­ly, and were in actu­al oper­a­tion, reserved to local­i­ties. Most gov­ern­ment was local, sec­ond-most only state, third-most fed­er­al. Toc­queville writes that in Amer­i­ca most local gov­ern­ment was also vol­un­tary gov­ern­ment, mean­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices per­formed by the cit­i­zens them­selves with­out com­pen­sa­tion. There­fore in the sys­tem of gov­ern­ment that pre­vailed in Amer­i­ca for about half its his­to­ry, gov­ern­ment was not only of the peo­ple and for the peo­ple, it was also by the peo­ple.”

    Uncom­pen­sat­ed gov­ern­ment ser­vices are still per­formed in cer­tain local­i­ties, empow­ered direct­ly by insti­tu­tions like the New Eng­land town meet­ing, or unpaid or lit­tle-paid state leg­is­la­tors.

  18. An ancient Greek philoso­pher is said to have writ­ten that the best form of gov­ern­ment is that which serves the peo­ple best, not nec­es­sar­i­ly democ­ra­cy. If we define or under­stand democ­ra­cy as the rule of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple and for the peo­ple, the ques­tion aris­es: How can the peo­ple rule? For all prac­ti­cal pur­pos­es, the peo­ple do not or can­not rule them­selves; they should be ruled by a leader or a group of lead­ers they elect to office to rule or gov­ern them for their own ben­e­fit.

  19. Thanks for your note. Please see our new Hills­dale Churchill Project site which is build­ing up fast though only just launched: winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu

    The Churchill Cen­tre web­site, http://www.winstonchurchill.org/ con­tains over forty years of con­tent from Finest Hour, which I edit­ed from 1982 to 2014, and David Free­man since 2014.

  20. I know this web­site pro­vides qual­i­ty arti­cles and data; is there any oth­er site which pro­vides such data in qual­i­ty?

  21. Hi there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this site before but after
    look­ing at a few of the arti­cles I real­ized it’s new to me.
    I’m cer­tain­ly delight­ed I found it and I’ll be book­mark­ing it and
    check­ing back often.

  22. Hi! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after
    brows­ing through a few of the posts I real­ized it’s new to me. Regard­less, I’m cer­tain­ly hap­py I stum­bled upon it and I’ll be book­mark­ing it and check­ing back reg­u­lar­ly!

  23. An out­stand­ing share: I’ve just for­ward­ed to a co-work­er who
    has been doing a lit­tle research on this. And he bought me din­ner sim­ply because I stum­bled upon it for him…So thank-you for the meal! And thanks for spend­ing some time to dis­cuss this top­ic.

  24. Hi! This is kind of off top­ic but I need some advice from an estab­lished blog. Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very tech­in­cal but I can fig­ure things out pret­ty fast. I’m think­ing about cre­at­ing my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any tips or sug­ges­tions? Many thanks

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