Democracy Works Even Without Democrats
First Draft
Democracy Works Even Without Democrats
Mitch McConnell doesn't need to believe in democracy for the system to work.
Published on: Dec 17, 2020  |  

Editor’s Note: “First Drafts” are attempts to work through tensions in our own thinking in real time, with you, the crowd, as our interlocutors. Please feel free to challenge us in the comments. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.


What we try to do here at Wisdom of Crowds is offer our opponents the benefit of the most charitable reading of their worst behavior. The crowds can be tempted by the guillotine (or the metaphorical equivalent of a guillotine). Yet we prefer wisdom. So let's try to do the same with Senator Mitch McConnell, may God grant us forgiveness. He and other Republican senators have finally reconciled themselves to reality and accepted Joe Biden as the president-elect.

What these Republicans—and there were many of them—exhibited was profound cowardice. They undermined one of my "non-negotiables"—respecting the sanctity of democratic outcomes. That I cannot forgive, but can I understand? Should I try to understand, extending a courtesy I don't always extend for fellow Democrats? It's true that I'm often harder on my own side. As a matter of principle, I believe it's better to hold yourself and others like you to a higher standard. (It makes more sense practically too, since it's not as if Trump supporters were going to be swayed by my arguments about lack of respect for democracy, considering that every mainstream outlet and commentator was saying precisely the same thing.)

If you focused on the day-to-day noise, it was all too easy to get caught up in a sense of danger. It wasn't mere playacting: maybe Republicans really were trying to stage a coup (even though this willfully misunderstood the basic meaning of the word). So I couldn't help but get a bit nervous too. Yet, the system did work. Even leading legal light Larry Tribe says so. Presumably, Mitch McConnell was well aware that it would work too, being familiar with how the Electoral College operates. Let's play this out. If McConnell had done the honorable thing from the start, he would have received plaudits, however half-hearted, from the likes of the New York Times and presumably people like me. But no one's view of him on the left would have really changed. We would have still disliked him rather vehemently, for all the other reasons that he's worth disliking vehemently.

Mitch McConnell is Mitch McConnell, after all, and he would have quickly returned to his default posture of making it as difficult as possible for Democrats to govern, using whatever raw power at his behest to play the spoiler. On the other hand, the people McConnell depends on—Trump supporters—would have turned against him, while Trump himself would have done all he could to unleash the angry crowds upon the senator and his legacy. There's also a collective action problem: McConnell would have had relatively little incentive to act honorably if he wasn't sure that other senators would follow suit, particularly if the immediate backlash required him to backtrack.

So besides moral comport and honor (and perhaps one's relationship to God), what exactly were the good senator's incentives to do what was right? Of course, there's a cynical undertone to my argument: I don't necessarily believe people do the right thing if the right thing isn't in their interest. There's also the means-ends defense, sort of the political equivalent of Jason Bateman's character in Ozark. He needs to launder hundreds of million of dollars and basically be a gangster, however respectable, for the greater good of protecting his family. If McConnell believes that Democrats are bad for the country, then this small concession to reality—for barely 5 weeks—seems like a small price to pay.

There's a bigger lesson here. It is difficult to imagine liberalism without liberals. Democracy is different. Because democracy, in its minimalist form, is concerned with process rather than outcomes, few people are naturally democrats. Here, I'm reminded of Ghassan Salame's seminal volume titled Democracy Without Democrats, which focuses on the Middle East. More broadly, a rather large academic literature has developed in recent decades to argue that constraints, institutions, and the desire (or need) to "institutionalize uncertainty" effectively incentivize and even compel people toward a reluctant embrace of procedural democracy. In some sense, Mitch McConnell fits well within this theoretical premise. To put it bluntly, McConnell, like most human beings throughout history, is not a "democrat." But, fortunately for us, he doesn't need to be one for the system to work.

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