The Case For (and Against) Democracy
I have a new article up at Discourse examining the case for “democracy.” The piece is general, abstract, and more about political philosophy than political commentary—yet it seems really timely for some reason.
The article is largely about the case for “democracy” as a thing: a system of representative government. But those who have followed me over many years will notice that I have changed my position, not on the thing, but on the word. I used to be one of those "we're not a democracy, we're a republic" guys, but I have given in and acquiesced in the use of the term "democracy.”
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Partly, I was just trying to make myself understood to a wider audience. In the past few years, everyone has been talking about defending “democracy” against the January 6 insurrection and against plans to overturn election results. And for once, they were using the word to refer precisely to the part that I agree with: a representative government where leaders answer to the people and can be kicked out of office. So it became too cumbersome to throw in a lot of throat-clearing about how it’s really just representative government or a republic and everybody else is using the wrong word.
Moreover, I realized that one of the old “republic-not-a-democracy” talking points was not as solid as I thought. Yes, the Founding Fathers warned against an unlimited and direct democracy. But by the 1790s, supporters of Thomas Jefferson were beginning to refer to their party as the “Democratic Republican” party, and as early as 1802 they began formally changing the names of their state parties to include the term “Democratic.” And if it's good enough for the Jeffersonians, I supposed it’s good enough for me.
Moreover, “republic” has not exactly remained unsullied. Every tinpot dictator fashions himself as president (for life) of a “republic,” and during the Cold War there was a running joke that if a country had the words "democratic," "people's" or "republic" in its official name, then you knew it was not democratic, not a republic, and didn’t answer to the people. (This is still true many places today. See the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)
In short, I have given ground on terminology, because it matters less than substance.
As to the substance, there is a perfectly good term that is widely used and readily understood—liberal democracy—that provides the relevant qualifications we would like to make.
That’s what I start with in the article.
But what is the point and justification for democracy? Is it simply that the majority should always get its way? In practice, no one actually seems to believe this or to want unlimited democracy. In the recent election, for example, one of the major issues was abortion, which has been threatened by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Because this ruling allows abortion restrictions on the state level, unmarried women—the group most affected by this issue—turned out and voted for Democrats by a huge margin. These voters also helped pass ballot measures to codify abortion rights in state constitutions.
But notice that these measures are designed to place abortion outside of normal majority-rule politics. Dobbs, after all, was a “pro-democracy” decision in the crudely majoritarian sense. It put abortion in the category of issues that are up for a vote and subject to control by the majority in any given state of the union. Yet that is clearly what many pro-democracy voters do not want.
In short, everyone wants power to the people, until the people go clamoring off to do something they don’t like, at which point everyone discovers that maybe there ought to be some limits on the power of the people.
I came up with a very succinct way to explain both the case for and the case against democracy.
Both liberalism and democracy—as words and as ideas—have their roots in the classical world, and there are two stories from Ancient Greece and Rome that define their proper relationship.
The first is the rape of Lucretia, the event that triggered the creation of the Roman republic. According to legend, the son of King Tarquin forced himself on the wife of a Roman patrician, and in outraged response, the Romans overthrew Tarquin and vowed not to have a new king in his place, instead choosing to govern themselves. The purpose of the Roman republic’s democratic institutions was to protect its citizens from the abuse of power by tyrannical rulers.
The second story is the death of Socrates, the Greek philosopher who was executed by the vote of an Athenian jury—one of their democratic institutions—for asking uncomfortable questions about truth and morality. Majority rule can undermine a tyrant, but it can also empower demagogues and unleash popular prejudices.
These two stories sum up the promise and peril of rule by the people. The whole trick of liberal democracy is to create a system that will protect us from Tarquin, while protecting Socrates from us.
But here’s the real evolution in my thinking. In delving into the history on this, I realized that democracy, in the sense we’re talking about here, is not incidental to the history of freedom. It is at the root of other freedoms.
The history of freedom in the modern world is to a large extent the history of England. It begins with the Magna Carta, which guaranteed that the king could not levy taxes on the aristocracy without getting their permission first. This was the basis for the creation of the English Parliament, and after that, Parliament had a consistent policy of using the kings’ endless need for money as leverage to force them to cede more power and recognize more freedoms. So it is the right to vote that historically undergirded the recognition and enforcement of all other rights.
Freedom of speech has been called the “first freedom,” but part of the point of protecting speech is to allow us to criticize our leaders so we can then vote them out. Historically, the vote is the first freedom and the origin of all the others. From the Magna Carta on down, rulers have only relinquished power and agreed to protections for the rights of citizens when they have been required to answer to the people they govern.
This is why it is so important to protect liberal democracy when any party threatens it and why voters are right to make this a higher priority than other, seemingly more immediate problems.
In this piece, I quote a line from 20th Century political philosopher Judith Shklar that has been going around recently: “Liberalism is monogamously, faithfully, and permanently married to democracy—but it is a marriage of convenience.” The idea is that the right to vote is an indispensable means to protect freedom, but it is only a means to an end.
That is true, and we should never forget which is the means and which is the end. But this is my attempt to find a little more love in the marriage.
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