Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Is Democracy so Great, Anyhow?

In writing about the failures of democracy, I have been making the unstated assumption the democracy is good and that its failures are bad.  But recent events have rather undermined my enthusiasm for democracy. Seeing one newly democratic government after another veer off in a disturbing direction has not done much for my confidence in the virtues of the common people, and, after all, if the common people are not virtuous, giving them power can be disastrous.  Nonetheless, if recent events have not done much for my confidence in the common people, they have done even less for my confidence in purportedly "enlightened" elites.

As for the failings of the common people, I look back to old history books I read in high school and college, about the simultaneous rise of democracy and nationalism in Europe in the late 19th Century.  These two trends, one good, one bad, occurred together, one holding bright shining promise, the other little more than a distant menace -- until it exploded in to orgy of destruction that was WWI, and again into WWII.  At the time, I could dismiss this as mere coincidence.  The fact that these two developments occurred hand-in-hand was simply an accident of fate, or perhaps engineered by sinister elites to defuse class struggle by channeling aggression outward.  But looking at the rise of democratically elective governments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and of growing popular mobilization in China, it is becoming increasingly clear that this was a comfortable illusion.  Nationalism sells.  Scapegoating of vulnerable minorities sells.  Appeals to baser instincts are more successful than appeals to better angels.  And it is of no use for conservatives to argue that these are reasons to reject ethnic diversity, that ethnic uniformity is the only hope for democracy to succeed.  This is nonsense for several reasons.  One is that ethnic uniformity can be highly subjective.  The tendency to factionalism is deep in human nature, and people are quite good at magnifying minor difference into major ones if that is all they have to work with.  Another is that ethnic uniformity is a fantasy.  Ethnic groups do not line up neatly on one side or the other of an artificial line.  Achieving ethnic uniformity is a blood, brutal business, one that we wish to avoid.  And finally, assuming no domestic minorities to serve as scapegoats, these aggressive impulses simply turn outward, from civil strife to international war.  We can certainly hope that the people of Eastern Europe or the Middle East can learn from Western Europe's mistakes and refrain from their most ghastly manifestations.  But hoping to avoid WWI or WWII is not setting the bar very high.

I should add here that the failings of democracy and the common people are not the ones that democracy's elite critics have so often claimed, from Classical antiquity down well into the 19th Century.  Their criticisms took two general forms -- that the people are fickle, and that they are too eager to tear down their betters, i.e., that they are always eager to punch up.  Neither of these is born out.

Complaints that the people are fickle really amount to saying that the people (like elites) may define politics in terms of leaders, but the really make their judgments based on results.  Suppose there are food shortages and the people riot and overthrow their leader and cheer on a new one, who promises cheap bread.  Cheap bread fails to materialize, so the people riot and overthrow this leader and flock to the banner of yet another, and so on indefinitely.  In one sense, the people are being fickle -- they have no lasting loyalty to any leader.  But in another sense they are being perfectly consistent -- they want cheap food.  Their wishes may not be realistic, but they are altogether consistent.  A leader, no matter how popular at the outset, will never stay popular if he governs badly.  And a leader who starts out unpopular may win the people over by doing well.  Furthermore, as this post points how, starting with extremely strong popularity can actually be a disadvantage because it means people have unrealistic expectations that are bound to be disappointed.  I think many of democracy's aristocratic critics recognize this -- that the people's purported fickleness is simply a tendency to turn against leaders who don't deliver.  But they resent the people for lacking loyalty and not standing by a leader through bad times.  I would say it depends.  A leader who has banked significant political capital can hold onto the people's loyalty for a significant time and get a reasonable chance to turn things around.  But in the end, no one's political capital lasts forever.  Fail to deliver and the people will turn against you.  Indeed, philosopher Karl Popper cited this as the capital virtue of democracy -- it gives a mechanism for getting rid of leaders who have outlasted their usefulness without resorting to violence.

This, incidentally, closely matches a modern criticism of democracy, that the people are unwilling to make sacrifices, and that it is almost impossible to pass necessary but unpopular measures.  But the events of the recent economic downturn have proven this accusation false as well.  In fact, in time of crisis, the people are eager to make sacrifices, whether helping out their fellow citizens in a natural disaster, the sacrifices associated with war, or austerity measures in times of economic downturn.  It is true that the people lose patience when asked for more and ever more sacrifices because they perceive such calls (usually correctly) as evidence of incompetent management.  What has proved to be difficult in the recent downturn is persuading people to go against their intuitions and take necessary but counterintuitive measure.  (But more on this in my next post).

The other elite criticism of democracy, that the people left to themselves will overindulge in punching up and just want to tear down their betters is not born out by the evidence. That elites are so constantly afraid the majority punching up reflects two things.  One is an exaggerated fear for their prerogatives and believe that the slightest infringement on elite prerogative is the prelude to some all-out assault.  The other may stem from cases in which a formally democratic system had degenerated into a cozy little oligarchy and the oppressed public was engaging in the sort of destructive punching up that really does happen in non-democratic systems.  John Stuart Mill in his preface to de Tocqueville's Democracy in America addresses these common elite fears and why they are groundless:
It is not easy to surmise any inducements of interest, by which, in a country like America, the greater number could be led to oppress the smaller. When the majority and the minority are spoken of as conflicting interests, the rich and the poor are generally meant; but where the rich are content with being rich, and do not claim as such any political privileges, their interest and that of the poor are generally the same: complete protection to property, and freedom in the disposal of it, are alike important to both. When, indeed, the poor are so poor that they can scarcely be worse off, respect on their part for rights of property which they cannot hope to share, is never safely to be calculated upon. But where all have property, either in enjoyment or in reasonable hope, and an appreciable chance of acquiring a large fortune; and where every man’s way of life proceeds on the confident assurance that, by superior exertion, he will obtain a superior reward; the importance of inviolability of property is not likely to be lost sight of.
In other words, the democratic public does not engage in excesses of punching up unless outward democratic forms mask a true oligarchy.  But then, although he seems to deny that this is a true tyranny of the majority, Mill acknowledges the real faults of democracy:
It is not from the separate interests, real or imaginary, of the majority, that minorities are in danger: but from its antipathies of religion, political party, or race; and experience in America seems to confirm what theory rendered probable, that the tyranny of the majority would not take the shape of tyrannical laws, but that of a dispensing power over all laws. The people of Massachusetts passed no law prohibiting Roman Catholic schools, or exempting Protestants from the penalties of incendiarism; they contented themselves with burning the Ursuline convent to the ground, aware that no jury would be found to redress the injury. In the same reliance the people of New York and Philadelphia sacked and destroyed the houses of the Abolitionists, and the schools and churches of their black fellow-citizens, while numbers who took no share in the outrage amused themselves with the sight. The laws of Maryland still prohibit murder and burglary; but in 1812, a Baltimore mob, after destroying the printing office of a newspaper which had opposed the war with England, broke into the prison to which the editors had been conveyed for safety, murdered one of them, left the others for dead; and the criminals were tried and acquitted. . . . It is not so much the riots, in such instances, that are deplorable; these might have occurred in any country: it is the impossibility of obtaining aid from an executive dependent on the mob, or justice from juries which formed part of it . . . For where the majority is the sole power, and a power issuing its mandates in the form of riots, it inspires a terror which the most arbitrary monarch often fails to excite.  
Mill then makes a sort of half-way apology for such lawless outbreaks of mob rule -- they are short lived and not really dangerous because "[There is] no permanent class to be tyrannized over. The subjects of oppression are casual objects of popular resentment."  In that, Mill was entirely wrong.  Despised racial and religious minorities were, indeed, a "permanent class to be tyrannized over, and oppression of these groups proved to be prolonged and intractable.  He makes the further argument that, although the US has temporary outbreaks of majority tyranny in the form of mob rule, at least it does not have the more permanent oppression of unjust laws.  Given that at that time large swaths of the country by law permitted slavery, his argument is most unconvincing.  (And even most free states had harshly discriminatory racial laws).

Mill, like de Tocqueville, gropes at, but fails to quite grasp, the true capital flaw of democracy -- its deplorable tendency to kick down.  Polished elites, from Classical times to the 19th Century feared that democracy simply meant mob rule.  The events Mill and deTocqueville describe show that such fears were not altogether unjustified.  But polished elites were quite wrong in believing that they were the most likely targets of the mob.  The most likely targets were some despised ethnic minority.  This was the great stain on democracy in the US, it is proving the great stain on newly democratized countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East; and it is spreading like cancer in Western Europe as well.

This being said, if recent events have not done much for my confidence in democracy and the common people, they have done even less for my confidence in purportedly "enlightened" elites.  A subject to be addressed in my next post.

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