The Myth of the Democratic Ideal: A Look at Joseph Schumpeter


The government, every one who has ever lived under a modern democratic government knows all too well, “works” for the citizen. Citizens delegate authority to their elected representatives on the condition that such representatives will do just what “the people” want.

This, at any rate, is the ideal of democracy.

It is an ideal that reached its apex during the eighteenth century, and that hasn’t shown any signs of abating since.

It is also an ideal that the twentieth century conservative theorist Joseph A. Schumpeter decidedly debunked long ago.

Schumpeter was born and raised in what is now the Czech Republic in 1883. In 1906, he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna, where he studied law. In 1909, Schumpeter acquired a post at the University of Czernowitz where he was a professor of government and economics. Twenty-three years later, he left for America, where he would began his teaching assignment at Harvard University. Throughout his life, Schumpeter would write extensively on politics, economics, and sociology.

Schumpeter explains that the theory of democracy ascribes “to the will of the individual an independence and a rational quality that are altogether unrealistic” (emphasis original). In reality, the citizen’s “will” is nothing more “than an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions.”

If, as is assumed, “the will of the citizen per se is a political factor entitled to respect,” then this would mean that “everyone would have to know definitely what he wants to stand for.” This, in turn, would mean that each person would have to possess “the ability to observe and interpret correctly the facts that are directly accessible to everyone and to sift critically the information about the facts that are not.”

If the will of each person is, as the theory of democracy supposes, a determinate thing, then from its union with the facts that it ascertains each person, “according to the rules of logical inference,” should be able to render “a clear and prompt conclusion as to particular issues,” verdicts possessing such “a high degree of general efficiency” that “one man’s opinion could be held…to be roughly as good as every other man’s.”

Schumpeter adds that all of this would have to occur “independently of pressure groups and propaganda, for volitions and inferences that are imposed upon the electorate obviously do not qualify for ultimate data of the democratic process.”

However, this idea of the individual voter as a rational machine carefully attending to his wants and needs and acting accordingly is, like so much else that came out of the eighteenth century, a fiction.

Schumpeter notes that “even in the most ordinary currents of daily life,” our “wants are nothing like as definite” and our “actions upon those wants…nothing like as rational and prompt” as theorists have imagined.

Take the consumer-producer relationship. Schumpeter tells us—what we already know—that consumers “are so amenable to the influence of advertising and other methods of persuasion that producers often seem to dictate to them instead of being directed by them.” With its commercial advertising, this relationship is particularly informative when considering the relationship between the voter and his elected representative.

The best advertising “indeed nearly always involves some appeal to reason.” However, “mere assertion, often repeated, counts more than rational argument [.]” Moreover, “the direct attack upon the subconscious which takes the form of attempts to evoke and crystallize pleasant associations of an entirely extra-rational” character is also far more formidable than any appeal to the sheer intellect could hope to be (emphasis added).

The voter’s will “is largely not a genuine but a manufactured will.” It is a creation or product of the political process—not its impetus.

Schumpeter remarks:

“The ways in which issues and the popular will on any issue are being manufactured is exactly analogous to the ways of commercial advertising. We find the same attempts to contact the subconscious. We find the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are the more effective the less rational they are. We find the same evasions and reticences and the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion that is successful precisely to the extent to which it avoids rational argument and the danger of awakening the critical faculties of the people.”

Schumpeter never denies that, in some areas of life, individuals can and do act rationally. Still, “when we move…farther away from the private concerns of the family and the business office” toward the realms of national and international politics, “individual volition, command of facts and method of inference” begin to fade.

To put it more bluntly, “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field.” Schumpeter elaborates:

“He [the typical citizen] argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

To anyone who would deny Schumpeter’s critique of the classical doctrine of democracy, Schumpeter poses a challenge:

“The reader who thinks me unduly pessimistic need only ask himself whether he has never heard—or said himself—that this or that awkward fact must not be told publicly, or that a certain line of reasoning, though valid, is undesirable.”

Schumpeter was no foe of democracy, it is important to grasp. This should be clear when we read the words with which he ends his critical appraisal of “the classical doctrine,” as he describes the object of his critique:

“More than anyone else the lover of democracy has ever reason to accept” that the ideal is flawed “and to clear his creed from the aspersion that it rests upon make-believe.”

As we enter into the final days of but another election cycle and find ourselves on the receiving end of a dizzying array of polls informing us of what we want, we should recall the wisdom of Joseph Schumpeter.

The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Jack Kerwick, holds a BA in religious studies and philosophy from Wingate University, a MA in philosophy from Baylor University, a Ph.D. in philosophy from Temple University, and is currently adjunct professor of philosophy at Rowan University; Penn State University; and Burlington County College. Mr. Kerwick writes from the classical liberal perspective inspired by Edmund Burke. He blogs at You can contact him at [email protected]