Consensus Is Difficult. But Is It Even Necessary?
Democracy's greatest strength has little to do with getting along and much more to do with chaos and uncertainty.
Why is democracy good? Or, to put it differently, why is democracy better?
The pandemic reopened and intensified one of the vital debates of the post-post-Cold War era: how much does regime type matter? In an essay at the start of the pandemic, Francis Fukuyama argued that state capacity and trust in government were the crucial determinants, not regime type. This week, President Joe Biden addressed the debate in his speech to Congress, saying "autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies, because it takes too long to get consensus."
A president wants to get things done with the opposing party, so it is only natural that building and realizing "consensus" would be a pressing concern. But if this is how we judge our competition with autocrats, we are likely to find ourselves disappointed. There was a time when democracies were better at producing consensus, particularly during the Cold War, when having a shared enemy pushed Republicans and Democrats to minimize their differences, particularly on foreign policy. That time has passed. Not only that, the country has grown increasingly diverse, along ethnic as well as religious lines. It doesn't help that those divisions are overlaid on a partisan divide, which in effect amplifies each of the divisions in question.
To state the obvious, then, consensus is difficult, and there's little reason to think that it will grow less so with time. But the framing of the problem (and the proposed solution of demonstrating that democracies can be just as effective or efficient as autocracies) betrays a technocratic bias—that regime types should be judged based on whether they work. "What works-ism" provides us with a purely instrumental argument, and one that wades into the democracy vs. authoritarian contest on authoritarians' terms.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Wisdom of Crowds to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.