Quotations about   democracy

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Many of our moral and political policies are designed to preempt what we know to be the worst features of human nature. The checks and balances in a democracy, for instance, were invented in explicit recognition of the fact that human leaders will always be tempted to arrogate power to themselves. Likewise, our sensitivity to racism comes from an awareness that groups of humans, left to their own devices, are apt to discriminate and oppress other groups, often in ugly ways. History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence. A recognition that there is a bit of Torquemada in everyone should make us wary of any attempt to enforce a consensus or demonize those who challenge it.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
Introduction to John Brockman (ed.), What is Your Dangerous Idea? (2007)
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The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life. If one meets a powerful person — Rupert Murdoch, perhaps, or Joe Stalin or Hitler — one can ask five questions: what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.

Tony Benn
Tony Benn (1925-2014) British politician, writer, diarist
Speech, House of Commons (16 Nov 1998)
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Benn used this set of questions -- often with different examples -- on multiple occasions.
Added on 9-Nov-21 | Last updated 9-Nov-21
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I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning. We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America’s right to know” and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
“A Cult of Ignorance,” Newsweek (21 Jan 1980)
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It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. When clear Prospects are opened before Vanity, Pride, Avarice or Ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate Phylosophers and the most conscientious Moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves, Nations and large Bodies of Men, never.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to John Taylor (17 Dec 1814)
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“It comes from a very ancient democracy, you see ….”

“You mean, it comes from a world of lizards?”

“No,” said Ford, who by this time was a little more rational and coherent than he had been, having finally had the coffee forced down him, “nothing so simple. Nothing anything like so straightforward. On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people.”

“Odd,” said Arthur, “I thought you said it was a democracy.”

“I did,” said Ford. “It is.”

“So,” said Arthur, hoping he wasn’t sounding ridiculously obtuse, “why don’t the people get rid of the lizards?”

“It honestly doesn’t occur to them,” said Ford. “They’ve all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they’ve voted in more or less approximates to the government they want.”

“You mean they actually vote for the lizards?”

“Oh yes,” said Ford with a shrug, “of course.”

“But,” said Arthur, going for the big one again, “why?”

“Because if they didn’t vote for a lizard,” said Ford, “the wrong lizard might get in.”

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English writer
So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, ch. 36 (1984)
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Allegiance to the group identity forged by political party affiliation renders Americans blind to the essential similarities between the agendas of the two parties, similarities that can be expected to be exactly the ones that run counter to public interest, in other words, those interests of the deep-pocketed backers of elections to which any politician must be subservient in order to raise the kind of money necessary to run for national office.

Jason Stanley (b. 1969) American philosopher, epistemologist, academic
How Propaganda Works, Introduction (2015)
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Added on 7-Oct-21 | Last updated 7-Oct-21
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The true democratic principle, that none shall have power over the people, is taken to mean that none shall be able to restrain or to elude its power. The true democratic principle, that the people shall not be made to do what it does not like, is taken to mean that it shall never be required to tolerate what it does not like. The true democratic principle, that every man’s free will shall be as unfettered as possible, is taken to mean that the free will of the collective people shall be fettered in nothing.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“Review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe,” The Quarterly Review (Jan 1878)
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Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, scientist, philosopher
(Spurious)

Frequently attributed to Franklin, but not found in his writing (and the word "lunch" dates only back to the 1820s). The phrase is only found in sources dating back to the early 1990s, e.g.,

  • "Democracy is like two wolves and a lamb deciding on what they want for dinner." [Shelby Foote in Ken Burns, Civil War (1990)]
  • "Democracy has been described as four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch." [Los Angeles Times (25 Nov 1990)]
  • "Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken, not even by a 99% vote." [Marvin Simkin, Los Angeles Times (1992)]
  • "Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner." [James Bovard, Lost Rights, "Conclusion" (1994)]
Added on 14-Sep-21 | Last updated 14-Sep-21
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All citizens do have a measure of control, at least in democracies where their votes are counted, of how they belong to their nations. Perhaps they will have more confidence in unconventional choices if they see that each nation’s founders were disobedient and unpredictable, men and women of imagination and ambition. The steel of every national monument was once molten.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
The Red Prince, “Orange: European Revolutions” (2008)
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Fascism, after all, is not only a historical term; it describes a modern style of authoritarian rule that seeks to mobilize the masses by appealing to nationalism, xenophobia, and populist resentment. Its trademark is the use of democratic procedure even as it seeks to destroy the substantive values of democracy from within. It disdains the free press and seeks to undermine its credibility in the public sphere.

Peter E Gordon
Peter E, Gordon (b. 1966) American intellectual historian
“Why Historical Analogy Matters,” New York Review of Books (7 Jan 2020)
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Added on 2-Sep-21 | Last updated 2-Sep-21
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Choose your leaders
     with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward
     is to be controlled
     by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool
     is to be led
     by the opportunists
     who control the fool.
To be led by a thief
     is to offer up
     your most precious treasures
     to be stolen.
To be led by a liar
     is to ask
     to be lied to.
To be led by a tyrant
     is to sell yourself
     and those you love
     into slavery.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) American writer
Parable of the Talents, ch. 11, epigram (1998)
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Added on 26-Aug-21 | Last updated 26-Aug-21
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When democracy granted democratic methods for us in the times of opposition, this was bound to happen in a democratic system. However, we National Socialists never asserted that we represented a democratic point of view, but we have declared openly that we used democratic methods only in order to gain the power and that, after assuming the power, we would deny to our adversaries without any consideration the means which were granted to us in the times of opposition.

Joseph Goebbels
Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) German Nazi politician, propagandist, bureaucrat
Nature and Form of National Socialism [Wesen und Gestalt des Nationalsozialismus], Pamphlet (1935)
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Quoted in Office of the United States, Chief Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, Vol. 1, ch. 7, doc. 2412-PS (1946)
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With exceptions so rare they are regarded as miracles of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately. Politicians rationalize this servitude by saying that in a democracy public men are the servants of the people.

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) American journalist and author
“The Democratic Malady,” The Public Philosophy (1955)
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The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

Uki Goñi (b. 1953) Argentine historian, author
“‘Silence Is Health’: How Totalitarianism Arrives,” New York Review of Books (20 Aug 2018)
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Democracy without respect for individual rights sucks. It’s just ganging up against the weird kid, and I’m always the weird kid.

Penn Jillette (b. 1955) American stage magician, actor, musician, author
“I don’t know, so I’m an atheist libertarian,” Interview, CNN (16 Aug 2011)
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It is often said that governing is the art of compromise. But this is not a statement about governing; it is rather about the values of democracy. Legislating in the common interest means not confusing one’s own values with the common values. It requires giving equal weight to values that one does not share. But too often, commitment to this principle appears weak — a failure to stand by one’s principles.

Jason Stanley (b. 1969) American philosopher, epistemologist, academic
“Democracy and the Demagogue,” New York Times (12 Oct 2015)
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You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual — and thus the collapse of any political system that depends upon individualism.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017)
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When public men indulge themselves in abuse, when they deny others a fair trial, when they resort to innuendo and insinuation, to libel, scandal, and suspicion, then our democratic society is outraged, and democracy is baffled. It has no apparatus to deal with the boor, the liar, the lout, and the antidemocrat in general.

J. William Fulbright (1905-1995) American politician
Speech, US Senate (2 Feb 1954)
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In the Congressional Record, Vol. 100, p. 1105.
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Once more, let me remind you what fascism is. It need not wear a brown shirt, or a green shirt — it may even wear a dress shirt. Fascism begins the moment a ruling class, fearing the people may use their political democracy to gain economic democracy, begins to destroy political democracy in order to retain its power of exploitation and special privilege.

Tommy Douglas (1904-1986) Scottish-Canadian politician [Thomas Clement Douglas]
(Attributed)
Added on 25-Feb-21 | Last updated 25-Feb-21
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Where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme democracy, or a pure oligarchy; or a tyranny may grow out of either extreme.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) Greek philosopher
Politics [Πολιτικά], Book 4, ch. 11 / 1296a.1-3 [tr. Jowett (1885)]
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Alternate translations:

  • "When some possess too much, and others nothing at all, the government must either be in the hands of the meanest rabble or else a pure oligarchy; or, from the excesses of both, a tyranny." [tr. Ellis (1912)]
  • "Where some own a very great deal of property and others none there comes about either an extreme democracy or an unmixed oligarchy, or a tyranny may result from both of the two extremes." [tr. Rackham (1932)]
  • "Where some possess very many things and others nothing, either rule of the people in its extreme form must come into being, or unmixed oligarchy, or -- as a result of both of these excesses -- tyranny." [tr. Reeve (2007)]
  • "Where some people are very wealthy and others have nothing, the result will be either extreme democracy or absolute oligarchy, or despotism will come from either of those excesses."
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The filibuster is an affront to commonly understood democratic norms, but then so is the Senate.

Hendrik Hertzberg (b. 1943) American journalist, editor, speech writer, political commentator
“Ups and Downs,” The New Yorker (14 Nov 2005)
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The case against intellect is founded upon a set of fictional and wholly abstract antagonisms. Intellect is pitted against feeling, on the ground it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical. It is pitted against practicality, since theory is held to be opposed to practice, and the “purely” theoretical mind is so much disesteemed. It is pitted against democracy, since intellect is felt to be a form of distinction that defies egalitarianism. Once the validity of these antagonisms is accepted, then the case for intellect, and by extension for the intellectual, is lost. Who cares to risk sacrificing warmth of emotion, solidity of character, practical capacity, or democratic sentiment in order to pay deference to a type of man who at best is deemed to be merely clever and at worst may even be dangerous?

Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970) American historian and intellectual
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Part 1, ch. 2 “On the Unpopularity of Intellect” (1962)
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I swear to the Lord
I still can’t see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright
“The Black Man Speaks,” Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943)
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All free governments are managed by the combined wisdom and folly of the people.

James A. Garfield (1831-1881) US President (1881), lawyer, lay preacher, educator
Letter to B. A. Hinsdale (21 Apr 1880)
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The test of a democracy is not the magnificence of buildings or the speed of automobiles or the efficiency of air transportation, but rather the care given to the welfare of all the people.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) American author and lecturer
“Try Democracy,” The Home Magazine, Vol. 11, # 4 (Apr 1935)
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American capitalism is predatory, and American politics are corrupt: The same thing is true in England and the same in France; but in all these three countries the dominating fact is that whenever the people get ready to change the government, they can change it.

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) American writer, journalist, activist, politician
Letter to John Reed (22 Oct 1918)
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The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.

John Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902) British historian
“Review of Sir Erskine May’s Democracy in Europe,” The Quarterly Review (Jan 1878)
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BERNARD: But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know.
SIR HUMPHREY: No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.

Jonathan Lynn (b. 1943) English actor, comedy writer, director
Yes Minister, S1E1 “Open Government” (25 Feb 1980) [with Anthony Jay]
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I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
“Equality,” The Spectator (27 Aug 1943)

Reprinted in Present Concerns (1986).

See Lincoln.
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The people — the people — are the rightful masters of both Congresses, and courts — not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert it.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) American lawyer, politician, US President (1861-65)
Speech, Cooper Union, New York City (27 Feb 1860)
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On preventing the spread of slavery to new states and territories. Sometimes paraphrased, "We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who would pervert the Constitution."
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To be vested with enormous authority is a fine thing; but to have the onlooking world consent to it is a finer.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ch. 8 “The Boss” (1889)
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Whether Parliament is either a representative body or an efficient one is questionable, but I value it because it criticizes and talks, and because its chatter gets widely reported. So two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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Democracy is not a beloved Republic really, and never will be. But it is less hateful than other contemporary forms of government, and to that extent it deserves our support. It does start from the assumption that the individual is important, and that all types are needed to make a civilization. It does not divide its citizens into the bossers and the bossed — as an efficiency-regime tends to do. The people I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create something or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than elsewhere. They found religions, great or small, or they produce literature and art, or they do disinterested scientific research, or they may be what is called “ordinary people”, who are creative in their private lives, bring up their children decently, for instance, or help their neighbours. All these people need to express themselves; they cannot do so unless society allows them liberty to do so, and the society which allows them most liberty is a democracy.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) English novelist, essayist, critic, librettist [Edward Morgan Forster]
“What I Believe,” The Nation (16 Jul 1938)
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Democracy means that people can say what they want to. All the people. It means that they can vote as they wish. All the people. It means that they can worship God in any way they feel right, and that includes Christians and Jews and voodoo doctors as well.

Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) American screenwriter and novelist [James Dalton Trumbo]
The Remarkable Andrew (1942)

Based on Trumbo's 1941 book of the same name. Parallel text.
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The surface of Americna society is, if I may use the expression, covered with a layer of democracy, from beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) French writer, diplomat, politician
Democracy in America, ch. 2 (1835) [tr. Reeve (1899)]
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    Alt. trans.:
  • As above, but given as "... sometimes seep."
  • "American society, if I may put it this way, is like a painting that is democratic on the surface but from time to time allows the old acistocratic colors to peep through." [tr. Goldhammer (2004)]
  • "The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint, but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colors breaking through."
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Conscience and the press ought to be unrestrained, not because men have a right to deviate from the exact line that duty prescribes, but because society, the aggregate of individuals, has no right to assume the prerogative of an infallible judge, and to undertake authoritatively to prescribe to its members in matters of pure speculation.

William Godwin (1756-1836) English journalist, political philosopher, novelist
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Book 2, ch. 5 (1793)
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Added on 20-Nov-17 | Last updated 20-Nov-17
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Segregation is a cancer in the body politic which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized. The underlying philosophy of segregation is diametrically opposed to the underlying philosophy of democracy and Christianity and all the sophisms of the logicians cannot make them lie down together.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Keep Moving from This Mountain,” Spelman College (10 Apr 1960)
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King used many of these phrases in other speeches and sermons during this period.
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I accept this idea of democracy. I am all for trying it out. It must be a good thing if everybody praises it like that. If our government has been willing to go to war and sacrifice billions of dollars and millions of men for the idea I think that I ought to give the thing a trial. The only thing that keeps me from pitching head long into this thing is the presence of numerous Jim Crow laws on the statute books of the nation. I am crazy about the idea of democracy. I want to see how it feels.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) American writer, folklorist, anthropologist
“Crazy for This Democracy,” Negro Digest (Dec 1945)
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As democracy is perfected, the office [of the President] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
“Bayard vs. Lionheart,” The Baltimore Evening Sun (26 Jul 1920)

Variant: "As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron."

Verification and discussion of this quotation here, here, and here.
Added on 3-May-17 | Last updated 3-May-17
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Look at the tyranny of party — at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattels, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern Master.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
“The Character of Man” (23 Jan 1906), in The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 (2010)
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Because power corrupts, society’s demands for moral authority and character increase as the importance of the position increases.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
(Attributed)
Added on 22-Mar-17 | Last updated 22-Mar-17
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Democ’acy gives every man
The right to be his own oppressor.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) American diplomat, essayist, poet
The Bigalow Papers, Second Series, “Ef I a song or two could make,” l. 97 (1867)
Added on 13-Mar-17 | Last updated 13-Mar-17
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The exact measure of the progress of civilization is the degree in which the intelligence of the common mind has prevailed over wealth and brute force.

George Bancroft (1800-1891) American historian, statesman, education reformer
Speech, Adelphi Society, Liamstown College (Aug 1835)
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The splendor of the goal of the French Revolution is simultaneously the source of our strength and of our weakness: our strength, because it gives us an ascendancy of truth over falsehood, and of public rights over private interests; our weakness, because it rallies against us all vicious men, all those who in their hearts seek to despoil the people . … It is necessary to stifle the domestic and foreign enemies of the Republic or perish with them. Now in these circumstances, the first maxim of our politics ought to be to lead the people by means of reason and the enemies of the people by terror. If the basis of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue.

Maximilien Robespierre (1758-174) French lawyer, politician, revolutionary leader
Speech, National Convention (7 May 1794)
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In a parallel thought, he wrote in On the Principles of Political Morality (1794):

If virtue be the spring of a popular government in times of peace, the spring of that government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror: virtue, without which terror is destructive; terror, without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing wants of the country.
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A democracy is badly served when newspapers and television focus so intensely on the personal joys and tragedies of famous people. This kind of “news” crowds out more serious issues, and there is an important difference — as the Constitution’s framers well knew, and as many people today appear to have forgotten — between the public interest and what interests the public.

Cass R. Sunstein (b. 1954) American legal scholar
“Reinforce the Walls of Privacy,” New York Times (6 Sep 1997)
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This is the affirmation on which democracy rests … [W]e can all be responsible … We become what we do. So does the world we live in, if enough of us do it — whether “it” be good or detestable. This is the burden of freedom: that it is all our fault or our credit.

Herbert Agar (1897-1980) American journalist and historian
“The Perils of Democracy” (1966)
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I do not say that Democracy has been more pernicious, on the whole, and in the long run, than Monarchy or Aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as Aristocracy or Monarchy. But while it lasts it is more bloody than either. […] Remember Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes exhausts and murders itself. There never was a Democracy Yet, that did not commit suicide.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to John Taylor (17 Dec 1814)
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Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.

Václav Havel (1936-2011) Czech playwright, essayist, dissident, politician
“New Year’s Address to the Nation” (1 Jan 1990)
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The humblest citizen of all the land, when clad in the armor of a righteous cause, is stronger than all the hosts of Error.

William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) American lawyer, statesman, politician, orator
Speech, National Democratic Convention, Chicago (Jul 1896)
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See, free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don’t attack each other. Free nations don’t develop weapons of mass destruction.

George W. Bush (b. 1946) US President (2001-09)
Speech, Milwaukee (3 Oct 2003)
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Referring to insurgencies in Iraq.
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The known propensity of a democracy is to licentiousness, which the ambitious call, and the ignorant believe to be, liberty.

Fisher Ames (1758-1808) American politician, orator
“The Dangers of American Liberty” (1805)
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Our country is too big for union, too sordid for patriotism, too democratic for liberty. What is to become of it, He who made it best knows. Its vice will govern it, by practising upon its folly. This is ordained for democracies.

Fisher Ames (1758-1808) American politician, orator
Letter (26 Oct 1803)
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DENNIS: Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Monty Python (contemp.) British comedy troupe
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
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On the whole, with scandalous exceptions, Democracy has given the ordinary worker more dignity than he ever had.

Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) American novelist, playwright
It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
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Monarchy is like a sleek craft, it sails along well until some bumbling captain runs it into the rocks. Democracy, on the other hand, is like a raft. It never goes down but, dammit, your feet are always wet.

Ames - feet are always wet - wist_info quote

Fisher Ames (1758-1808) American politician, orator
(Attributed)

This is the earliest reference I can find to this metaphor. Variants:
  • "A monarchy is a merchantman which sails well, but will sometimes strike on a rock and go to the bottom; a republic is a raft which will never sink, but then your feet are always in the water." This variant is often attributed to a speech in the House of Representatives in 1795, but is not found in records of Ames' speeches.
  • "A monarchy is like a man-of-war -- bad shots between wind and water hurt it exceedingly; there is danger of capsizing. But democracy is a raft. You cannot easily overturn it. It is a wet place, but it is a pretty safe one." -- Joseph Cook (1860-1947) Anglo-Australian politician
  • "Dictatorship is like a big proud ship -- steaming away across the ocean with a great hulk and powerful engines driving it. It’s going fast and strong and looks like nothing could stop it. What happens? Your fine ship strikes something -- under the surface. Maybe it’s a mine or a reef, maybe it’s a torpedo or an iceberg. And your wonderful ship sinks. Now take democracy. It’s like riding on a raft, a rickety raft that was put together in a hurry. We get tossed about on the waves, it’s bad going and our feet are always wet. But that raft doesn’t sink … It’s the raft that will get to the shore at last." --- Roaldus Richmond (fl. 1940) American writer. In, ed., "A Yankee Businessman in New Hampshire," American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1940
  • "Democracy is like a raft: It won't sink, but you will always have your feet wet." -- Russell B. Long (1918-2003) American politician
  • "But you have to understand, American democracy is not like the system you have. We're not an ocean liner that sails across the ocean from point A to point B at 30 knots. That's not American democracy. American democracy is kind of like a life raft that bobs around the ocean all the time. Your feet are always wet. Winds are always blowing. You're cold. You're wet. You're uncomfortable -- but you never sink." -- Colin Powell (b. 1937) American politician, diplomat, soldier
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