For my professional sins, I end up spending a disproportionate amount of time going to (and sometimes hosting!) events with titles like “Saving Liberal Democracy,” “Fixing America’s Troubled Democracy,” and “Is Democracy in Decline?”. These events are part of a large public effort—running through media organizations, think tanks, journals, private foundations, corporations, congress itself—to “save democracy.”
The first thing one notices about this new industry is that the language tends to be, well, dense. Recent reports in this genre include phrases like:
These are hard, inorganic words. Operative verbs tend to be “fix,” “boost,” “re-engineer,” “adjust,” “calibrate.” It’s like democracy is a giant machine and we just need to get the fluid levels right.
A lot has been said about the erosion of democracy at the popular level— a crisis showing up in temptations toward populist candidates or questioning election results. But this language—of mechanism, calibration, and control at the elite level—displays a different kind of crisis of democracy.
Our recent fixation with the mechanics of democracy is understandable. As internal tensions—around populism, Trump, January 6th—have grown, attention has naturally fallen on protecting democratic procedure. If there is a real possibility of a contested election in 2024 or 2028, for example, we need clear resources to respond.
But beneath these immediate needs is a broader narratival vacuum that has only been growing over the past decades around the idea of “democracy” itself. Most of the language we rely on to legitimate democracy is legacy language from the Cold War: freedom versus authoritarianism; self-governance versus communism; democracy versus autocracy. The earlier assumption was that once one side of the conflict disappeared, the other—democracy—would thrive on its own terms. What we have found instead is that it has become harder and harder to tell positive stories about democracy with any spirit. The language of mechanism and technique is the latest in a long series of attempts to fill this void.
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The turn toward procedure jars for another reason. Whatever else it may be, democracy is relentlessly and indelibly humanistic as an ideal. When we tell the story of democracy, we sometimes tell it too neutrally. Take for example the pragmatist argument for democracy: in periods of intense religious or ideological strife, liberal democracy is able to step in to quell the violence. In this story, it’s the warring factions have strong principles, and democracy—precisely because it’s so empty of content—can serve as a neutral mediator.
True as aspects of this story may be, democracy is anything but neutral. The entire ideal is built up from stout—and controversial—humanist premises that cannot be stripped away. To take the view that the people should rule is intrinsically to have a certain degree of confidence in people—to trust them, to be curious about them, to want to ask deep rather than thin questions about what they want, to make a public space that is in some fundamental sense responsive to human aspirations themselves. None of these ideals are trivial.
Once one sees how specific the idea of democracy is, it’s also easy to contest. There has been a long line of non-stupid, non-evil critics of democracy. Plato, al Farabi and James Madison famously criticize the democratic idea for catering to the most violent and gluttonous instincts of the crowd. More recent critics have seen it less as an impediment to virtue and more as an impediment to competency. In a famous passage Tocqueville emphasizes that “Aristocracy is infinitely more skillful in the science of the legislator than democracy can be. Master of itself…[it] proceeds wisely; it knows the art of making the collective force of all its laws converge at the same time toward the same point. It is not so in democracy; its laws are always defective or unseasonable.” Echoing the same theme, the political critic Walter Lippmann argued as early as 1922 that the world had become too complex for the people to manage competently.
For all of our work in “saving democracy” we have spent far too little time thinking through these fundamental criticisms, or trying to work out why democracy might still be good despite these faults—or perhaps even because of them.
The lack of attention to these foundational questions regarding democracy is showing. A New York Times/Siena poll from earlier this month concluded that “a majority of American voters across nearly all demographics and ideologies believe their system of government does not work.” The pessimism, furthermore, tracks generational divides strongly with only 28 percent of adults 18 to 29 saying that America’s political system could still address the nation’s problems.
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In the end, we do actually have to decide whether we think that society is akin to a machine that should simply be managed through technocratic competency. In a world as complicated as ours, it’s not an implausible view, but we do have to be clear that it is also a decidedly undemocratic one.
Democracy is a more demanding, less neutral ideal than we often realize. To believe in democracy is to insist that above all else that the people should rule.
The essential feature of democracy is not, in other words, its structure—voting or the right to assemble or protections for protest—but its purpose. To locate sovereignty in the people is to embrace the idea that the full range of human aspiration should be able to shape public life in a non-trivial way. Those specific mechanisms—or any others we might dream up—find their value not as an end but as a means, in service to a specific confidence in human beings and their capacity to determine the purposes for life.
There are any number of ways to critique this view on both philosophical and practical grounds. However, if the task is to “replenish democracy” in some basic sense, it can’t be done at the level of means, but only at the level of ends. To put it another way, the future of democracy cannot be found in moderation, or abstraction, or technique, but in much more maximalist considerations regarding the full blood and heat and passion of human visions of life. To shed the language of mechanism is to turn to far more unnerving, expansive human words like trust, rage, bitterness, sorrow, tragedy, hope, love—words that relate to the full complexity of being human and the range of ways that it comes out in collective life.
None of this in principle rules out having an elite in a democracy or delegating responsibility to representatives. But it does define very strictly what representatives are for. Their first purpose and obligation cannot be to fostering efficient, competent or precise governance, but to the much less tidy activity of mediating the full range of questions, frustrations and aspirations that boil within human life itself.