The Good, the Bad, and the Democratic
Monday Notes
The Good, the Bad, and the Democratic
Can we be democrats without being discontented?
Published on: Oct 17, 2022  |  

Not all problems have solutions. As it turns out, democracy is one such problem. What makes it great is also, apparently, what makes it frightening. Should democracy be as frightening as it has become? Is there a way to temper it, constrain it, and make it more digestible for its jittery consumers? I think the answer is yes—with caveats.

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a book for almost the entire duration of Wisdom of Crowds’ existence. Life can be judged not in years but in podcast eras, a great philosopher once said. I don’t think this book would have become what it is today without this broader community of like-minded thinkers, writers, listeners, and readers. Damir pushed me to clarify my “priors” (a word which I had never used prior to meeting Damir). That’s precisely what I tried to do. And so I thought and wrote about the democratic idea, in the hope of offering up an alternative interpretation of that idea, updated for our current moment.

This past weekend, on October 15th, marked the culmination of this perhaps over-ambitious effort. My book, suggestively titled The Problem of Democracy, was officially released. I’m really excited to share it with you and hope that many of you will get a chance to read it, one way or another. Buy it, barter for it, borrow it from a friend, check it out at your local library (libraries still exist, one hopes). This is where I lay it all out on the line, to use a sports metaphor, although I must confess that I don’t know quite which sport this would be a reference to.

With all that said, I wanted to personally invite all of you, dear readers and listeners, to stop by for the virtual launch of the book with three scholars who have had a profound influence on me, including the great Francis Fukuyama, author of the book on liberalism’s discontents. I guess I’ll be talking about democracy’s own discontents. I’ll be laying out some of the core arguments of my book and reflecting on how I’m feeling about democracy, or the lack thereof, in light of recent developments. I expect there will be some constructive disagreement as well. [UPDATE: If you missed it, you can watch the whole conversation here. And there was constructive disagreement!]

If you're interested in asking a question that didn't get addressed during the event, I'll be using the hashtag #DemocracyProblem to engage with readers in the coming days, if you want to commend, criticize, or perhaps even skewer me for my bad (or good) ideas.

Speaking of which, usually when I use the words “bad” or “good,” I use scare quotes. This isn’t to say I’m some sort of moral relativist, God forbid. But, as time passes, I feel increasingly uncomfortable making judgments about what constitutes a good or bad democratic outcome. For example, I’d be more agnostic about wokeism if more people actually subscribed to it. Part of what grates about wokeness is that it has limited democratic legitimacy while also seeming completely uninterested in seeking popular consent of any sort. Instead, it accumulates tremendous political and cultural currency despite being, in effect, a minority faith. There is the madness of crowds, but there is also the wisdom of crowds. And, at least on this, the crowds appear to be wise.

I suppose I'd say that all other things being equal (a big if), the fact that more rather than less people believe something makes it more legitimate, which in a sense makes it more true (or at least more likely to be true). In a flight of fancy some time back, I tweeted the following:

If people keep voting for something (assuming it doesn't violate the constitution), then it's probably not as bad as we think, although it could still be a disfavored outcome.

Upon re-reading this sentence today, I found myself thinking: wow, I said that? Do I really think that, or was I caught up in the moment, stretching myself too far and placing a burden on the democratic idea that it couldn’t bear? For now, I’ll leave this as an open-ended question, because there are different ways of answering it. Just as not all problems have solutions, not all questions need answers, at least not right away.