What We Talk About When We Talk About Democracy


There are a lot of ways to tell people to shut up. A good one, in the wake of a large vote is to say “democracy” loudly and repeated, and to accuse your opponents of anti-democratic tendencies. This is a shitty rhetorical trick.

Democracy is not a process designed to arrive at the “right” decision. Like any political process, it’s both far more and far less than that. Mostly, it’s a mechanism for delivering legitimacy to the instruments of state that wield power over our lives. (And notwithstanding the totalizing power of “democracy” in our discourse, it’s hardly the only one.[1]) Democracy seeks to deliver, in both the classic and modern senses, authority. To assume that it is some kind of mathematical formula by which we arrive at a correct solution is to miss the point so completely, so thoroughly, and so obviously, that it smacks of sophistry.

If you need a reductio to help drive this point home, just imagine racist or sexist measures—say, the internment of Japanese Americans—passed by referendum. Such measures do not by dint of majority support suddenly become right.

So, if democratic decisions aren’t simply “right”, what then?

What about “respecting the decision”? There’s a thin sense in which this is legitimate. Refusing to act on the will of the people is both a practical and political problem. While this is neither legal nor ethical advice, you should not start forming a militia in the woods of Wimbledon Common.

However, it’s something else entirely to suggest that young, educated, metropolitan voters should calmly nod while their futures are set ablaze. Respecting the decision is allowing it to proceed; it is not disengaging your mental faculties. Democracy is not a pact of silence for the minority, as the Leave campaign well knew.

What then, about “respecting the voters”? Calls for civility have a long and checkered history. (The American left—particularly the feminist left—likes to call it “tone policing”.) Surrounding the Brexit vote, there’s been much hand-wringing about the tendency of the “elites” to talk down to the working classes. In Britain, there’s an overlay of class consciousness that is worth keeping in mind, but there’s still something perverse about this.

First, Leave voters are not children to be coddled. The assumption that one must play nice with them is a symptom of the very phenomenon that’s the subject of criticism. The public can handle some cut and thrust, and they do plenty of it on their own. There’s just as much punching up going on as punching down. In fact, as you may have noticed, the elites are losing.

Second, sometimes people are wrong. Voters are entitled to their own opinions (and hence their own vote), but they are not entitled to their own facts. Pointing out factual errors is entirely legitimate. In fact, it’s probably a core function of a healthy democracy. This is true even if some of those people are offended by the suggestion they have their facts wrong.

Third, sometimes people are awful. People often make choices for the wrong reasons, and some of those reasons—like racism—are genuinely reprehensible. There’s as little reason to assume the best of people as to assume the worst. Sure, some people may be responding to the concentrated losses and diffuse benefits of globalization. Others may just be racists.[2] Assuming either without evidence is no way to proceed. Asking others to temper their arguments based on your assumptions is a layer cake of wrong.[3]

If you wish to kvetch on Facebook about Brexit—or any other democratic decision for that matter—have at it. Despite what others might tell you, you have not transformed into a totalitarian.

This much is fairly straightforward, so let’s ask one more question about democracy: is the rise of anti-elite sentiment a democratic triumph or a democratic failure? There’s been some interesting, almost prophetic, analyses of recent events – the Twilight of the Elites and the The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium both come to mind.[4] Sometimes, there’s an almost triumphal, sticking-it-to-the-man quality when discussing this phenomenon. Finally, we hear, the zombie elites will get their comeuppance for failure to provide any vision of the future.

This is all well and good, but it’s only half a story. The failings of the status quo are not an argument for radical change, in whatever form it might present itself. To imagine that things can’t get worse is the most self-indulgent of political failings. Things can absolutely get worse. And when spiting the elites means little more than the public harming itself, there are no winners. That is no triumph.

[1] At the risk of triggering flashbacks to Political Science 101, I’d remind readers that most Western democracies are actually fusions of liberalism and democracy, which are in tension. Constitutionalism, which has a particular grip on the American imagination, is also far from democratic.

[2] The motivations of Trump voters, for example, seem to be far more than just economic malaise.

[3] Caveat: this is not intended a license to be an asshole. Do not be an asshole.

[4] I have only read about these books, not actually read them, so have your salt shaker on hand.

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