When Democracies Lose Their Loveliness
The Democracy EssaysDebate
When Democracies Lose Their Loveliness
Success and inertia might prop up democracy for a few decades, but long-term legitimacy requires something deeper.
Published on: Apr 15, 2021  |  

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Having spent a fair amount of time around you, Damir, in the last year (in the context of our “secret reading cabal”), I’d like to take a stab at stating what I call the Marusic Paradox. It goes something like this: rulers should be scrupulously attentive to what their people value in order to build and maintain power, even though they (the rulers) know that there is no actual weight to those values.

If I have that right, I take it to be a paradox because it heightens both extremes. On the one hand, it is insistent that one of the most important and ineliminable facts about our species is our constant attachment to meaning-making, to grounding ourselves in reality, to looking for a broader story. On the other hand, it is confident that it is justified in deflating all of those overwrought truth-claims.

While I have my objections to this principle, I bring it up here because I think it is actually very useful in drawing attention to one of the most tangled questions about democratic theory: How do democracies gain their legitimacy? The undergraduate answer here is always “the people.” Sovereignty is not simply inherited, nor bestowed by divine gift, but is vested within the population. This initially sounds fairly straight-forward, and perhaps echoes of something like the humanism I would advocate.

It’s not easy, however, to see what it means in practice. Perhaps popular sovereignty just is a claim for majoritarianism—strength of numbers wins. If enough of the population can register their preference, then that policy or government is legitimate. For most modern audiences, however, this isn’t enough as we are also concerned with protecting minorities against certain sentiments in the majority.

Other answers—the logic of representation, focus on structural integrity—are familiar but also seem to be breaking down. People seem to want to distrust the system, often even in the face of evidence regarding its reliability.

The narrative about why democracy is legitimate is in trouble. So here’s the question: What is at stake in this question of legitimacy? Where are we when a system loses the power to convincingly articulate its metaphysical story?

—Samuel Kimbriel

The answer to your question about stakes, Sam, is simple enough: “Everything is ultimately at stake.” Maybe, as Ross Douthat suggests in his most recent book on decadence, we can and will muddle along in this morass for quite a while. But I’m not so certain that’s true. Or, perhaps better put, I’m worried that it’s not true. I’m not sure that we have collectively thought very hard about what democratic legitimacy derives from. And in being too glib about it, in thinking that all we need to sustain a democratic polity is an adherence to (also poorly articulated) universal values such as “equality” and “fairness,” we are perhaps inadvertently trampling its remaining vestiges underfoot.

Let me be clear on this point, because I think you might be ascribing to me a certain kind of college freshman glibness of my own: “equality” and “fairness” are in fact important values, and there is much to suggest that as human beings, we feel their innate pull from an early age. In that sense, these values are arguably “universal,” and even a fundamental driver of human behavior. But there is a huge leap from acknowledging both these things to be true to arguing that they are sufficient for the cohesion of a polity—especially a democratic polity.

(I’m oversimplifying by somewhat arbitrarily singling out “equality” and “fairness” as the principles that most modern Western democrats see as foundational for their societies. The list is longer and woolier, and there is no consensus on what it contains. But there is a sense that a certain set of “universal values” are sufficient, and that this is what binds “us” and legitimates our regimes.)

It seems obvious to me that the legitimacy of any regime is dependent on the actions of its leaders, its elites—or its “rulers,” as you put it above. We say that elites need to constantly earn the trust of the people in order to retain their power. But that’s all too simplistic. If they are to be successful, they need to enchant the process of ruling in such a way that the legitimacy of the system is sustained. And doing so is a lot more than just paying lip service to “universal values,” which for almost all American presidents up to but not including Donald Trump was second nature.

Donald Trump’s lapse in rhetoric is not the problem. The inability to enchant had already faltered, even under the gifted orator Obama. It’s telling, however, that as we now struggle to recover, we are clutching ever more tightly at these childhood values even as the ground slips out from under us.

—Damir Marusic

Your comments about decadence and legitimacy have set me thinking about the 14th century Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun. Amidst his swirling attempt to find some structure in how civilizations rise and fall, he has a feisty passage arguing that when “orange trees are much grown in a town, the town invites its own ruin.” The point, as he elaborates, is that a culture sedentary enough to sustain ornamental fruits is also likely to be too complacent for long-term cohesion.

What I find striking in your response, Damir, is your very appropriate seriousness about how difficult it is to keep a civilization together. The idea that thousands or millions of people can live together in any kind of ordered way is anything but obvious, and I think you are right to emphasize the profound challenge of maintaining long-term legitimacy.

Perhaps we can call the post-World War II decades “the age of proficiency.” It seems to me the theory that has motivated both the “free-market right” and the “distributive justice left” is that planning, innovation, wealth, and system design are largely sufficient for holding a society together. The reason we have deferred to large but thin language like “fairness,” “freedom" or “equality” is because we have confidence that what really matters in the end is the technical engine of the society.

Where Ibn Khaldun might be onto something is in his sense that a civilization can die from its own success. Sometimes, when a societal paradigm has worked to a sufficient degree, its principal beneficiaries—including its rulers—are the least well-placed people in the world to understand why it is breaking down.

This feels familiar. Since the populist shocks of 2016, discussion in political centers like Washington and Brussels and in elite economic venues like the World Economic Forum have been fixated on the “crisis of democracy.” Yet as they have looked at this crisis, they have, in my view, been entirely unable to get outside of their familiar lens, the lens that has caused the problem in the first place. To put it pointedly: as the idea of holding society together by technique has begun to break down, they have met the crisis with more technique, endless technique.

I think you are exactly right to emphasize enchantment. Technique is not enough; a society needs story. This makes the key question all the more pressing, however: when sources of prior enchantment dry up, where can one turn? If the story of democracy, or the story of expansive wealth, or the story of Teslas in space fail, where does one go instead?

—Samuel Kimbriel

I have no answers to where we go for enchantment, but I do think we need to recognize its fundamental importance—and think hard about what that implies. I’m less interested in the fights over “disenchantment” as secularization—whether secularization permanently banishes our wonderment at the world, whether re-enchantment is or isn’t possible—and rather focus on something perhaps more fundamental: the constructed nature of political reality itself.

The great American historian Edmund Morgan hit on something critical in describing how democracy in the Anglo-American world came into being:

Government requires make-believe. 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.

Morgan goes on to stress that just because all of these things are fictions, it does not mean that they are lies. What he meant is that the fictional nature of all legitimating claims does not imply that there is a “truth” that is being obscured. Rather, it’s that these kinds of stories—all constructs in one way or another—are a fundamental ingredient for ordering societies. “Truth” is beside the point. All we can reasonably ask is how well these fictions are doing in ordering the world. And Morgan might say that the fiction of representative democracy is becoming threadbare in the face of technologies that have trained and emboldened individuals to demand more and more direct democracy.

But will satisfying these demands yield more legitimacy? Not necessarily. Hannah Arendt pointed out that political freedom doesn’t quite work that way, and that the “lived experience” of infinite choice isn’t in fact liberating at all, since free will itself is disquietingly elusive even in the inner lives of individuals. She contrasts this individualistic, atomized idea of the political with a more performative conception that existed in antiquity—politics as action and spectacle rather than of choice. We can glimpse the tendency we’ve been talking about in what she’s describing: a kind of disenchantment with politics as the political gets defined down as merely personal fulfillment. We’re losing something important by making politics about satisfying the individual.

As I mentioned earlier, Obama was a great orator and had a narrative for America, but it didn’t succeed on its own terms. People frequently say that a racist reaction to the reality of a black man being elected president exacerbated polarization on the right. But these same people often ignore that Obama’s liberal pieties were rejected on the left as well. Trump had a crude narrative of delegitimization, and certainly injected spectacle (if not action) back into American politics. His efforts “succeeded” insofar as he has made the country less governable, and its institutions less legitimate. Biden seems to be trying something else: legitimation though technocratic competence and the distribution of goodies. It’s a bet that if the people are materially satisfied, the problems of democratic legitimacy will go away.

I guess I’m not sure that’s a good bet.

—Damir Marusic

There’s something intuitive, forceful about the line of argument so far: our prevailing crisis of democracy is the result of a bet gone wrong.

Most human cultures have tended to the narratival moorings of civilization with extreme—even preeminent—seriousness. This involved more than merely paying the poets well, but had to do with taking great care to transmit and amplify legitimacy from age to age through pageantry, ritual, and cult.

The late 20th century—and, if one accepts some recent accounts, the Protestant age as a whole—seems to have developed deep disgust for all of this. Narrative and spectacle were seen as extraneous and inflated. What mattered were minimal goods: freedom, equality, money and pragmatic coordination.

What we both seem to be emphasizing is that minimalism like this was always a bet, a bet which seems now to have turned against us. We elevated the economists and pauperized the bards and so have ended up where we are.

One reason why neither of our political factions have been able to provide anything but the meagerest of responses to the crisis is that, beneath it all, they had both gone all in on this same de-mythologizing project—and now find themselves hardly able even to countenance the idea that it might have gone wrong.

The practical conclusion to all of this is that we need to start taking the meaning-seeking aspect of human life and human order much more seriously. If democracy is to have a future, it seems likely that it will only come on the basis of stronger, deeper stories, not (merely) further technocratic reforms.

Here, though, I think that you (and perhaps Morgan as well) have taken a wrong turn. The powerful role of comprehensive narrative in motivating and legitimating a regime, and the widely different forms that such narrative can take may mean that all story is just story—fiction as you say. But that seems to me to be much too strong a conclusion for the premises. At the very least the facts about the centrality of meaning in culture seem to imply a kind of agnosticism: We know human beings need meaning, and we can’t say for sure whether meaning is to be found.

But I think that I would want to push at least one step beyond agnosticism. We are at a juncture in which we need to put effort into figuring out if there is meaning to be found, and I think that there is hope that it can. If we can take the “load-bearing” role of meaning in human culture as a kind of anthropological fact, I think that implies two things.

First, that whatever else may be true, it is true that human beings need stories, and given how intertwined we are with everything else, that seems to me to be a kind of soft evidence regarding how reality works more generally. Second, and more pragmatically, it's also worth emphasizing that a regime that is genuinely convinced it is worth looking for a true story is likely to be stronger in the long-term than one who merely “uses story” without believing it. This is both because one is likely to find better, stronger stories if you think there is “something there” to find, and because revolutionaries hate hypocrites above all else.

What matters, in any case, is that we shake off the era of meaning-avoidance. The entrenched human desire to find a coherent vision of reality has been slighted for too long. Perhaps money and inertia can prop up democracy for a few decades, but its long-term future can only be found in story.

—Samuel Kimbriel

We generally don’t disagree, Sam, though I must quibble as we wrap up. I’m afraid we’re back to the so-called (by you) “Marusic Paradox,” wherein I’m said (by you) to be counseling some kind of manipulative cynicism. That’s not what I’m arguing.

Yes, a “regime” ought to be convinced that it is looking for real truth, but for the legitimating story to work, it has to be a story that is not falsifiable. It ought to be something that is ultimately a question of faith, beyond the reaches of reason. Maybe it rankles that I comfortably categorize faiths as fictions, and I understand that my choice of words makes me sound like some kind of relativist. But really, it’s an attempt to insulate legitimacy from the corrosion of what you above called the Protestant age, and what I have in my earlier responses described as disenchantment.

Let me leave you with another passage from Edmund Morgan that states my defense more elegantly than I can:

Because it is a little uncomfortable to acknowledge that we rely so heavily on fictions, we generally call them by some more exalted name. We may proclaim them as self-evident truths, and that designation is not inappropriate, for it implies our commitment to them and at the same time protects them from challenge. Among the fictions we accept today as self-evident are those that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and that they owe obedience to government only if it is their own agent, deriving its authority from their consent. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate these propositions by factual evidence. It might be somewhat easier, by the kind of evidence we usually require for the proof of any debatable proposition, to demonstrate that men are not created equal and that they have not delegated authority to any government. But self-evident propositions are not debatable, and to challenge these would rend the fabric of our society.

—Damir Marusic