How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Democracy
Maybe we shouldn’t fret so much about the end.
I’m not sure when it is that I first caught myself saying that “legitimacy is defined as that which you can get away with.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t coin the phrase, but cursory Googling is not kicking up any results. It’s a phrase that tacitly underlies a lot of what I write, including my most recent rejoinder to Shadi. But before you write me off as some ghoul, let me give you some context for where I’m coming from.
(And apologies for the blockquote-heavy Monday Note. Sometimes, Monday Notes are really just a series of notes written on a Monday...)
I probably hit on the phrase at some point after reading Edmund Morgan’s wonderful book, Inventing the People. Longtime listeners may recognize the title, as it’s come up a few times here at Wisdom of Crowds. I think we devoted the most time to it in our episode on political representation from several years ago with my now-colleague Jason Willick.
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Morgan didn’t coin the phrase either—he’s no vulgar Machiavellian nihilist—but the first part of the book is certainly mischievous enough to evoke it. He starts off with this banger passage from David Hume:
Nothing is more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than to see the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and to observe the implicite submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. ’Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.
“Opinion” for Hume is transformed into “fictions” by Morgan, who proceeds to spin out a fascinating historical account of the rise of popular democracy in England and the United States. From parliamentary maneuvering during divine right monarchy to the development of models of representation on both sides of the Atlantic in the centuries since, Morgan is always playing with this notion captured in the passage above—that politics is akin to walking on thin air.
“Government requires make-believe,” Morgan writes.
Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.
But the great virtue of Morgan is that this is not cynicism. Instead, he gets at something profound about how politics develops through history. One might even call it a theory of progressive historical change. Here’s one of the last passages in his book:
From its inception in the England of the 1640s the sovereignty of the people had been filled with surprises for those who invoked it. It was a more dynamic fiction than the one it replaced, more capable of serving as a goal to be sought, never attainable, always receding, but approachable and worth approaching. It has continually challenged the governing few to reform the facts of political and social existence to fit the aspirations it fosters.
That, in a nutshell, is what I think is the best case for democracy persisting—something I alluded to at the end of my most recent essay. What Morgan means is that while the very concept of the popular will is practically unrealizable, its invocation has nevertheless always driven us further in trying to realize it. “The people” and “democracy” exist in an asymptotic relationship.
There’s something to most democracy writing that strikes me as very algebraic. Every element, every manifestation, every variable is somehow linear, part of a static plot. What is missing in this writing is a sense of the dynamic. We don’t need to calculate the slope of an equation, or where two lines intersect. We need to find the derivative, get at the rate of change of things.
Morgan is one of the few writers who tries to capture this dynamism. And he does so by putting everything up for grabs. It’s all fictions, it’s all whatever you can get away with.
But getting away with anything is no small feat. Because even as the political entrepreneur thinks he’s figured it all out to his benefit, he realizes that the political world has reconfigured itself around his actions, his claims. The successful politician, therefore, is an improviser of sorts. He is ultimately a slave to fortuna perhaps, or maybe he has caught the hem of God’s robe.
Maybe it’s best to therefore not reify democracy to the extent we do, as some kind of blessed end-state, and fret about mapping out what it is and what it isn’t, how it can be defined so that it can be saved. And maybe instead we should come to understand it as part of a long and ongoing political process.
As David Runciman puts it at the end of his somewhat elegiacal recent book:
We also have to recognise that, while democracy still has life left in it, it has to be lived. If the period till the end is spent worrying about the end, the time between will simply pass by in a blur.
Deep but still practical. Our democracy has gone through so much and is still here. Goes to show you the ruggedness and durability of the American fabric. 🇺🇲
Reminds me of some passages in the book 'Political Hypocrisy' by David Runciman where he discusses how all politics is based to some degree upon deception. I don't live in fear of the crumbling of democracy and its institutions but I do fear to some extent we have run out of ideas. In this sense, I take the new Fukuyama line that a lot of the 'new' innovations are simply reheated policies from decades ago. Maybe the lack of innovation can be directed to a form of 'fear' about the current state of politics in democracies... perhaps we are too nervous to upset the balance one way or another.