Saturday, March 17, 2018


Democracy (or, as in the case of the United States, a Republic), as a form of government, is a means, and not an end. For this reason, I find articles worrying about people's failing commitment to democracy tiresome. While I understand the overall tendency to link commitment to "democratic ideals," as they are often called, to broader measures of social enlightenment, the fact of the matter is that the two are not particularly closely related.

I have worked with children and managed adults, and one of the things that I've learned is that the primary difference between adults and children is often height. Children tend to be big boosters of democracy - when they think that they're going to win the vote, and thus be able to legitimately demand that things go their way, regardless of the objections of others. When they understand themselves to be in the minority, however, their enthusiasm for majoritarian rule (and the overriding of their own wishes) quickly fades. And while adults may have a substantially more nuanced view of the pros and cons of participatory decision making, that basic tension remains. It's not terribly difficult to find examples, on both the American Left and Right, of issues (effectively of their understanding of virtue) that people feel should be above the risk of being put to a popular vote.

To borrow (and slightly alter) the well-worn saying from Lord Palmerston: "People have no ongoing values or principles, they only have ongoing interests." And, as a result, they will tend to back those things that they understand align with their ongoing interests. When Yascha Mounk portrays Americans' "age-old fantasy of a benevolent dictator" as depressing and the "long-standing desire for a strongman [leader]" as something to be healed, he is casting that commitment to one's interests over he choice of a specific form of government as pathological. But the understanding that a commitment to democracy is the healthy choice is never supported, it is only assumed.

Conservative/Republican voters and/or Trump supporters who are in favor of President Trump's (personal) authoritarian leanings are simply backing what they understand at this time to be most likely to advance and sustain their interests and better their fortunes. Democracy, Republicanism or whatever you wish to call it may be wonderful - but in and of itself, it neither provides food to eat, clothing to wear nor shelter from the elements. And when one understands at least a sizable minority of the rest of the population to be willfully perverse "takers" who will happily "vote themselves a share" of one's "hard-earned" food, clothing, housing and other income and/or wealth, it's easy to decide that participatory government needs, at least, fewer authorized participants. It's also worth pointing out that if President Trump is followed by a Democratic president who appears (or can be made to appear) to have authoritarian leanings of their own, especially if that person (like President Trump) is elected due to the vagaries of the Electoral College system, that support for "democracy" will surge among the same voters who have less use for it now. And this is not to call them out as hypocritical, any more so than anyone else is. It simply acknowledges the fact that people are in this because of the benefits that they understand it brings them and the disadvantages it imposes on their perceived rivals. As far as I'm concerned, when people claim they have ongoing values, rather than ongoing interests, they are incorrect. (Intentionally or not does not matter in my view.) Their perceived ongoing values may align closely with their genuine ongoing interests, but the two are still separate things.

The idea that Democracy (and the commitment thereto) and Enlightenment are linked, and therefore any genuinely Enlightened people will express an unshakable preference to Democracy is based on flimsy reasoning at best and pure assumption at worst. And the result of this is that hand-wringing over a waning of that commitment obscures the notion that simply because one believes something is correct does not free them of the responsibility of proving its right to exist, let alone enjoy permanent favor. Likewise, the adoration accorded to the founders of the American Republic ignores the fact that they didn't secede away from the British Crown because they understood that, despite all of the advantages and benefits that monarchy brings, participatory government without hereditary leadership, even if it had disadvantages, was the correct moral choice. The American Revolution was a direct result of the Colonists commitments to their own interests over a commitment to what was viewed internationally as a legitimate government. It's not at all difficult to imagine a Loyalist at the time indulging in the same sort of hand-wringing over waning commitment to monarchy - even if such sentiments would have been dangerous to express in public.

(This is another side effect of the fact that early American history is typically taught in the very early grades of school. The shabby treatment that dissenters to the Revolution received, some of which would count today as atrocities, is completely ignored in the service of maintaining a G-rated patriotism.)

While Democracy (however one winds up defining and/or implementing it) is unlikely to ever simply go away anytime soon, the fact remains that in order for it to thrive, it must be recognized that it, like any other system of government, has a responsibility to the people who live under it and not the other way around. If democratic processes and institutions are not perceived to be best protectors and advancers of public interests, then the public will be drawn to those systems that seem better. They may change their minds later, but this is simply the nature of the beast. And it's worth keeping top of mind for that reason.

No comments: