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Democracy's Enduring Tensions



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In each of the last two semesters I have been privileged to read democratic theory with two different gifted doctoral students. Last term one student read theorists with deep interest in how democratic civic virtues—to use the old-fashioned term—are developed and maintained in societies in ways that conduce finally to effective self-governance. This semester’s readings focus much more closely on the conditions necessary to secure deliberation in democratic decision-making. These opportunities to consider again many key readings on democracy have sharpened my awareness of several central tensions and abiding concerns in assuring both a democratic form of governance and the freedom we often associate with such a regime. I share a number of those here briefly in the hope they provoke additional discussion.

First, a nation cannot maintain democracy by voting and formal institutions alone. Exercising the franchise, as important as that may be, offers no protection from ill informed or tyrannical choices. Indeed, history suggests that citizens can undo their own democracies at the ballot box. A free and fair voting system is a necessary, but insufficient condition to secure freedom and democracy.

Second, the greater the individual autonomy and freedom of choice a democratic system provides its citizens, the more essential it appears to be that the nation’s acculturated norms, values and practices equip those individuals with the capacity to discipline their own will to self-interest on behalf of the commons. Unless such can occur without coercive government intervention to ensure it (itself tyrannical) from generation to generation, it is not clear what will prevent freedom from being displaced by license. Indeed, it is arguable our nation is undergoing just such a process now, in which America’s citizens, when making public choices, are increasingly unwilling to consider the commons or other interests beyond their own privatized concerns.

Third, if the prior point holds, it follows that clarion calls to place more power or authority in the hands of “the people” should be leavened by sober consideration concerning how to insure those individuals possess the information they need to make probative judgments on the one hand, and the requisite reasoning and emotional capacities (read self-reflexiveness, self-discipline and a strong empathetic imagination and willingness to act on it) to do so, on the other hand. None of these ends is easily accomplished, and the freer the society, as noted above, the less control any one actor may possess to influence either concern.

Fourth, heterogeneity (in interests and demographics) poses difficulties for democracy, as diversity makes forming majorities innately more difficult and, more particularly, it poses significant challenges at the individual level in overcoming anxiety and fears of alterity and difference in favor of shared claims and aspirations.

Fifth, for all of the above noted reasons, democracy is not for Romantics. Its dynamics, released by the freedom it both seeks and enjoys, open space for unfettered avarice, smallness, intolerance, scapegoating and cruelty as well as their opposites. These realities seem set to undo romantic illusions and hopes in short order. Indeed, the tough question is an age-old one: how to maintain freedom for all while relying on individuals to make public decisions.

Last, and perhaps worth special attention, are twin dangers. The first is the omnipresent possibility that one or more individuals will successfully persuade a majority to tyrannize or, more subtly, to take a course not in the collective interest. In such cases, a democratic regime may literally take actions that will hollow or end it. The second danger is the potential that a majority of citizens, lacking adequate knowledge and understanding of even their own interests, will act in ways that permit focused and energetic groups or elites to manipulate them actively and broadly. Democratic manipulation is still tyranny.

These tensions and concerns suffice to show that majoritarianism, even with fair and free elections, cannot protect freedom. Nor, can voting itself ensure deliberation or prevent its own usurpation. These realities are always worth pondering.

Publication Date

February 20, 2012