Democracy’s Skeptics—and Its Necessity
The Democracy Essays
Democracy’s Skeptics—and Its Necessity
Democracy has always made some people nervous, even as it has transformed the world. That trend continues.
Published on: Mar 13, 2021  |  

In these essays, we’ll be examining democracy’s foundational principles—where did they come from to begin with and how seriously do we really take them? Consider majority rule, for instance —in the vast majority of elections held in this country, a candidate can win despite being opposed by the majority of voters so long as they gather a larger group of supporters than any other individual candidate. Political scientists and reformers have long insisted that we should be troubled by this. Few are. Should we be?

Of course, philosophers and leaders of many stripes through the ages have been troubled less by democracy’s technicalities than by its fundamental premise: that the people should rule. The West’s first democracies in Greece produced skeptics like Plato who warned that democratic regimes led not only to popular misrule but the disordering of the self. Our own republic, as some Americans know, was built by colonial elites who tried to curb the power of the common men they had urged into a fight against tyranny and who excluded minorities and women entirely from their “empire of liberty.”

And in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the expansion of democratic rights led to critiques of mass politics from figures like the journalist Walter Lippmann, who despaired of locating a coherent “public” capable of making reasoned and informed decisions in an increasingly complex world. “The environment with which our public opinions deal is refracted in many ways, by censorship and privacy at the source, by physical and social barriers at the other end, by scanty attention, by the poverty of language, by distraction, by unconscious constellations of feeling, by wear and tear, violence, monotony,” he wrote in 1922’s Public Opinion. “These limitations upon our access to that environment combine with the obscurity and complexity of the facts themselves to thwart clearness and justice of perception, to substitute misleading fictions for workable ideas, and to deprive us of adequate checks upon those who consciously strive to mislead.”

Nevertheless, the people must rule. And my own moral intuitions here, which I hope to ground more firmly in the months ahead, begin with my conviction that democracy and human agency are inseparable. I think each of us should have the capacity to alter the conditions shaping our lives. Very little of the time each of us spends alive is truly ours. And we cannot reclaim the time being frittered or stolen away without political power. It would be easy to reduce this to something like the principle of non-domination—to say that democracy is simply the means by which we might reclaim for ourselves all that’s been foreshortened by others. But it’s more than that, really. Beyond the theoretical protection it offers us from arbitrary and unaccountable authority, democracy also allows us to allocate material resources in ways that might insulate us from tragedies of chance.

Democracy is a soupçon of security against the fragility of existence. It’s the railing we hold onto as we feel our way forward in the dark. And it’s perhaps the best means available to us of knowing and improving ourselves. The implication of the phrase “civic” or “democratic education” is typically that ordinary people ought to be made ready for democracy. It is rarer to hear it invoked in service of the idea that democracy itself is human education. The airing of information, trial and error, taking action and responding to mistakes and successes—this is how we learn. And we probably benefit from trying to govern ourselves in the same way even if democratic deliberation doesn’t reliably produce consensus.

It is true, after all, that “the public” of our political imagination is an amorphous fiction and that our broad collective interests are often undermined or subsumed by the mutually incompatible and destructive factional interests of the constituencies that make up our societies. But “the phantom public” has managed to do pretty well for itself over the last two centuries anyway— since we’ve liberated ourselves from the supposed benevolence of political authoritarians, we’ve gradually come to live longer and more prosperous lives. The results of the democratic experiment have been positive enough, in fact, that we ought to push ourselves further: not just to finish the work of instantiating democratic principles in our politics but to begin the work democratizing our economy, where authoritarians—from the individual workplace at small scale all the way through to the fundamental structure of the global macroeconomy—still reign by what might as well be divine right.