Why do we live in ‘democracies’? And why should we want to?
I’ve been watching a conversation recently about the uses/abuses of the word ‘democracy’. Norman Geras castigates Priyamvada Gopal, who demands “real democracy”, for “conflat[ing] political democracy with the substantive social and economic programme that our [loony left] spokesperson favours”. Paul Sagar adds some historical musings on the meteoric rise of the word ‘democracy’, going from marginal and disdained to “the only legitimate form of politics admissible on the world stage today.”
I don’t doubt that the word ‘democracy’ occasions endless conflations, deflations, and inflations (possibly using “meshuggeneh-leftist hot air”, but it’s not clear to me that the conflation of ‘leftist aims’ with ‘democracy’ is more of a mistake than their sharp separation.
What is our rationale for democracy?’ That means both ‘why is it a good idea’, and ‘why do we have it’, which will hopefully coincide to some extent, if we have it because of the actions of various people motivated by various opinions about what’s a good idea. Consider just two possible answers.
The first answer is “to accomodate persistent political disagreement without civil war.” Democratic elections incentivise aspiring political factions, to channel their zeal/ambition into peaceful activities. The ‘carrot’ is that they have a chance of becoming the ruling faction if they’re good enough at politicking, rather than being ‘locked out’ by the present ruling faction.
The ‘stick’ is that, firstly, by holding regular elections you can gauge your popular support – if you lost, you probably wouldn’t win a civil war, and if you won, you don’t need to – and secondly, that by getting various disagreeing groups to ‘sign on’ to the system, you improve the odds that if faction B moves to displace the ruling faction, A, they have to overcome not just A but also C, D, E, etc.
The second answer is “because consent is a necessary condition of political legitimacy”. After all, person A has by default no right to issue commands to person B and back them up with force. Something needs to happen to make that legitimate, such as person B somehow ‘agreeing to it’.
As I said, there are certainly other rationales that one might present – for instance, concerning the quality of actual decisions. But sticking with these two, observe how divergent their implications can be.
For instance, which members of society should receive ‘democratic rights’? The consent-based rational says ‘everyone with a prima facie right not to be coerced’. That would probably exclude children, but it wouldn’t (without a lot of extra argumentative work) exclude the propertyless, prisoners, women, or any racial group.
But the stability-based rationale gives a very different answer: since it’s function is to ‘neutralise’ the threat of rowdy factions, it recommends giving rights to those who would otherwise be potentially rowdy factions, the more so the more of a threat they’d be if excluded.
Depending on various extraneous factors, this could probably justify both universal male suffrage, and highly restricted ‘elite’ suffrage. What I suspect you couldn’t argue for is female suffrage, because throughout history, women more or less never constitute political factions by themselves, in the way that even very marginalised classes or races of men do. Granting women the vote might be pragmatically useful (to stop the suffragettes protesting) but it’s not an advance for democratic principles.
Then ask, what political power should citizens be given? The stability-based rationale is based on appealing to and enlisting the ambitions of factions, of would-be rulers, so the balance of power between factions in general and ‘ordinary people’ is actually fairly irrelevant. There should be ‘checks and balances’ to prevent anyone doing anything really stupid or destabilising, but there’s no real need for the majority of people to exercise more than token power.
For the consent-based rationale, each citizen’s political rights need to substitute for, and thus be relevantly similar to, the sort of ‘consent’ that would legitimate some individual in coercing them. Now, what that actually means is very unclear – if you ask someone like Hobbes, it shrinks down to ‘being smart enough to know that if they don’t have one guy coercing them, the world will descend into violent chaos’. Whereas on the opposite extreme, it might expand to ‘actually consenting, individually, in a situation of meaningful choice’, which would probably be effectively anarchist in practice. Somewhere in the middle, it seems, we modern Canadians accept ‘a few million people you’ve never met deciding on it’.
So I’m just going to say that if we take seriously the idea that political democracy secures ‘the consent of the governed’, then we will also have to take seriously that sharp power differentials, both between citizens and between government and citizens, may impair consent.
Now, my goal is not to disparage the stability-based rationale: civil wars are very nasty things, and if we can make them less frequent, that’s great. I just want to bring out that these are very distinct arguments. In fact, they may be so distinct that to unify them as ‘arguments for the same thing’ is misleading: a powerful, secretive state whose control periodically rotates among factions depending on the votes of an elite of wealthy men is a very different system from one where the entire population exercises political power together.
But here’s an interesting question: what should citizens be taught about ‘democracy’? The consent-based rationale seems to demand honesty, because consent is impaired by misinformation. So we should teach citizens the truth, namely that democracy is a principled requirement of justice based on their individual dignity as people.
Conversely, the stability-based rationale has no particular interest in honesty. But what makes the system stable is that people will stand up for ‘democracy’ even when it doesn’t fit with their personal ideology, which is helped if people are deeply committed to democracy. So even though it’s not, citizens should be taught that democracy is a principled requirement of justice based on their individual dignity as people.
That is, one of these rationales actually includes a rationale for fostering confusion about rationales. If our government had evolved primarily in light of people wanting a ‘stability-guaranteeing’ “democracy”, we should expect it to legitimate itself in terms of a ‘consent-securing’ “democracy”, in spite of their differences.
Given the enormous malleability of the term ‘democracy’, this seems like something worth bearing in mind when considering the value we place on “our democracy”.