Churchill’s “Democracy is the Worst Form of Government…”

Churchill’s “Democracy is the Worst Form of Government…”

Q: The Democracy quote

“Democ­ra­cy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment, except for all the oth­ers.” I see this alleged Churchill quo­ta­tion often. 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 did he say it? —D.C., Bogotá, Colombia

A: Famous but unoriginal

He said it (House of Com­mons, 11 Novem­ber 1947)—but he was quot­ing an unknown pre­de­ces­sor (note bold face below). Cred­it Churchill as pub­li­cist for an unsourced apho­rism. 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 quip about democ­ra­cy. William F. Buck­ley, Jr. remind­ed us sim­i­lar­ly: “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?”

Democracy: some WSC originals

The young ora­tor, 1907. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Here are some orig­i­nal words (also in Churchill by Him­self) that Churchill him­self did say about democ­ra­cy. They are of his own making—and from an ear­ly age:

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

Understanding the word

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

2 thoughts on “Churchill’s “Democracy is the Worst Form of Government…”

  1. Bertrand Rus­sell, in The His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy (1946), in his chap­ter on Aristotle’s polit­i­cal thought, says that (this is not a direct quote) all gov­ern­ments are bad; democ­ra­cy is the least bad. (That’s Russell’s own view, not Aristotle’s.)

    Thanks, good point; it’s a pos­si­ble fore­run­ner. —RML

  2. Though most think Democ­ra­cy is some­thing to strive for, the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Repub­lic that exists should be more-so. Democ­ra­cy leads ulti­mate­ly to tyran­ny as we’re wit­ness­ing occur­ring before our eyes today. But to fight that urge of the igno­rant to demand and defend it is the duty of the free peo­ples every­where. The Con­sti­tu­tion­al Repub­lic must not be allowed so to die at the hands of the igno­rant. This is the fight wor­thy of all.

    Churchill was speak­ing in the most gen­er­al terms, and you have a point. —RML

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