What is Democracy For?
The Democracy Essays
What is Democracy For?
For many people this is a strange question. Democracy’s value is self evident—the people rule, and it is good that they do. But is that enough?
Published on: Mar 13, 2021  |  

I remember many Cold War era claims about democracy still hovering in the air in my childhood in the 1990s. Most were no longer arguments, now just clichés: “of the people, by the people, for the people”; “checks and balances”; “least worse form…”; “the laboratory of freedom.” What had been passionate defenses of the American way of life were now pieties—words so obvious as to be uninteresting.

But it seems pretty clear that democracy is not morally basic in this way—something so obvious that no-one can question it.

For one thing, many people do question it, and increasingly so it seems. Sometimes these criticisms come from the elite, but they often also come from those who find themselves most outside the majority.

For another, it is hard to think of democracy as a good all by itself. When we do defend it, we tend to do so with reference to some other term—human autonomy for example, or global peace.

A key aspiration for this series is to test the idea of democracy—to roll the concept around, to demand more of it than many of its contemporary defenders remember how to do.

In order to accomplish this purpose my view is that we have to treat democracy as less self-evident. We have to expand our imagination to a more complete range of possible human communities, and try to find the grounds on which we might evaluate one community as better than another.

The background to this approach is a pretty buoyant view of the possibilities of philosophical argument (a view that perhaps stands in contrast to Damir's—hopefully we can flesh that out at some point). Sure, it is common that people simply argue to their own interests, but there is more to it than this. When one sweeps the haze of clichés away, there are heavier questions here: What is good for human life? What are the aspects of human beings that we think are particularly valuable? How do we understand the nature of happiness and what is required for it?

We have grown lazy in doing this work, assuming we already know the answer. But as those prior certainties have become unsettled, it seems increasingly important to strip democracy back to this level, determined to find out whether democracy can give a fuller accounting for itself.

Perhaps the haziest of the clichés is this idea that the only societies that care about their people are democratic ones.

One can understand how the idea has come about. There is an ease by which one can move from “by the people” to “for the people.”

Yet, as a matter of historical record, there are many disturbing episodes of democratically underwritten violence, and, likewise, there is a strongly humanist sensibility running through almost all of the dominant defenses of monarchy, oligarchy and other types of rule.

Plato, famously builds his fiery critiques of democracy precisely on a humanistic basis, arguing that democracy is actually bad for the people, creating conditions of fear for anyone who is not in the majority, and a lust for dominance in those who are.

This is not to say that non-democratic humanism is necessarily successful, but rather that if democracy is to succeed, it probably has to be good at humanistic arguments as well.

This is what I mean that democracy needs to get better at answering the question of “what it is for.” Perhaps it needs to get better at arguing about how it promotes human happiness, or perhaps it needs to push back on the idea of human happiness as the right goal of political life—but in either case it needs to become much less complacent about showing why its underlying assumptions are coherent, why it has compelling answers to questions that are deeper than itself.

One way I think about this is that democracy has incumbent-election-syndrome. After years of holding power uncontested, democracy seems indignant about having to be back in the great debate. What it really needs to do is pull itself together and show whether it is still able to rise to the occasion.

This raises two considerations for me that I am looking forward to exploring more deeply in this series—one which I think supports democracy’s claims, and one which is a problem for them.

Something that seems very sound in the structure of democracy is the idea that if you want to know what is good for people, you can just ask them. Voting, protest, polling and party formation are all be ways of asking—of allowing people to speak about their lives and what they need to flourish. The ideal then is that these places of speech can have real effect on determining the structure of the society.

There is a lot of promise in this “epistemic function” of democracy, the idea that democracy can help us to see humanity in a unique way relative to other political structures, and it is a defense that should be developed much more fully.

My concern about democracy arises from a similar arena.

Over the past year, we have seen very raw displays of pain. Whatever else may be said, the society we are living in has incubated an acute kind of human suffering that is spilling into the streets. Any semi-careful reading of history emphasizes that society-level pain is not unique to democracy, nor is it new to ours. There does, however, seem to be something specifically democratic about recent events, but it is hard to put one’s finger on what.

Democracies make big claims for themselves—both to their human sensitivity and their universality. ‘This is the place where ordinary voices, all voices, are heard.’ These claims do have merit—the channels to listen, and voting above all—are well-developed and well-defended.

What is striking, though, is that because democracies think that they are good at human sensitivity as a function of the system they can be surprisingly callous when they encounter humanity outside of the proper channels.

Some of the paradoxes here are familiar. Even as European states developed greater internal equality they found it uniquely difficult to recognize humanity outside of Europe’s borders. Sometimes this resulted in savage conquest; other times in the gnarled reality of a slave-owning nation claiming the phrase “all men are created equal.”

This same issue—humanity outside the lines—shows up in countless other places. It shows up when someone who is unable to vote tries to speak. It shows up when people who have the vote try to say something more complicated than the question being asked on the ballot. It shows when human suffering requires something more than incremental change. There is something uniquely, democratically maddening about each of these cases: about a society that makes grand claims about its human sensitivity even as it is too inelastic to listen if the proper form has not been filed.

My intuition is that the issues regarding democracy arise somewhere here, in the fraught space between grand political structure and human character.

It has become common to afford quasi-religious piety toward democracy, but that is insufficient. It must be pressed to show not merely whether it can talk in elevated terms about “the people” but whether it can do justice to actualpeople, in all of our awkwardness, sensitivity and untamability.

It is no bad thing for democracy to have to undergo an ongoing test against humanity. The essential question for this moment is whether it will rise to the challenge.