An interesting hypothetical case study.
Direct democracy does not scale up well and tyranny is unacceptable so country X has been established as a republic. As a republic, it relies on elites to run things, with the elites maintaining legitimacy by not straying too far from public sentiments and by giving the enough of the people what they want enough of the time.
But human nature being what it is, elites are tempted to use their privileged positions to enhance their self-interest. And since there is no bright line test for the factors that maintain legitimacy no one knows where the boundary is, and there is constant movement away from the public good toward the private good of the favored.
In time, the country begins to resemble an oligarchy. But it is only halfway there. In fact, at a certain point you could say it is exactly halfway there: poised, if you will, on the knife’s edge. While large swaths of the country feel they have not been taken care of, the genius of the system, at least to date, has been in taking care of enough—just enough.
But a knife’s edge is an unstable place and the movement in the elite’s direction continues. Soon the elites have lost their ability to claim they have satisfied enough. Perhaps now, in our hypothetical case, only 48% of the public feels well-served and perhaps 52% do not.
This is the critical inflection point at which the mettle of a proper republic is tested.
A republic by its nature is a compromise between democracy on the one side and a lack of it on the other. Once elites allow a country to get to this point, the public now sees the stark choice, previously fudged, in a blindingly white light. Do we attend to the demands of democracy, and follow the 52% Or do we continue with the default path of deference to the leaders, meaning we follow the 48%?
Shame on the elites for allowing the country to come to such a pass. It’s not nice to have to make these choices.
Political leadership in a republic calls for some serious prestidigitation. It is not a good idea to push things to the point at which the demands of democracy and oligarchy come into sharp relief. Better to keep that trade-off muted. In turn, as always, elites are expected to operate with high levels of prudence, wisdom and restraint. When they do not, and risk destruction of the whole enterprise, it is time for new elites.