Can democracy work?

19 March 2021

André Devambez, Barricade, The Paris Commune, May 1871 via Wikimedia Commons  (Public domain)

Did American democracy survive the presidency of Donald Trump? The question seems sure to occupy historians, commentators and the public during the administration of Joe Biden and beyond. If nothing else, the Trump presidency and its aftermath highlight the need to dig deeply into the very idea of democracy and its history, theory, practice, and limitations. In short: can democracy work?


This is the title of James Miller’s Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World. It could also be the title of William Davies’ Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. The two works, both written during the Trump presidency, fall short of providing definitive or even reassuring answers to the question that Miller, professor of politics and liberal studies at New York’s New School for Social Research, has taken for his title. But each casts enriching light on democratic theory and practice.


Miller’s approach is largely historical. Through a series of selected—and “Eurocentric”—case studies, he considers how the term “democracy” has evolved over the centuries, beginning with ancient Athens. The approach of Davies, a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, might be described as philosophical. It is grounded in seventeenth century philosophers René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, who serve as a departure point for a complex and not always straightforward explanation of the roots of today’s anti-elite populism. Davies is most concerned about two manifestations of the “decline of reason,” his subtitle: lack of confidence and trust in experts and democratically elected representatives; and the role of emotion and fear in contemporary politics.


Miller frames his historical overview with a paradox: despite anti-democratic tendencies across the globe, democracy generally retains its appeal as the most desirable form of government for much—maybe most—of the world’s population. Nearly every public demonstration against the status quo utilizes the language of democracy and almost all the world’s political regimes, from the United States to North Korea, claim to embody some form of democracy.  The ideal of democracy is “more universally honored than ever before in human history.”


But adhesion to this ideal is relatively recent, dating largely from after World War II, when the concept of democracy came to embrace national self-determination for formerly colonized peoples. Throughout most of history, democracy was seen as a “virtual synonym for violent anarchy.” Modern democracy in Miller’s interpretation began with the French and American Revolutions. Since the early nineteenth century, representative government, where voters elect their leaders—“indirect democracy”—has come to be considered the only practical form of democratic governance for populous nation-states.


In fourth and fifth century BCE Athens, where Miller begins, direct democracy prevailed. Near absolute equality existed among Athenian citizens, although citizenship was tightly restricted to a fraction of the adult male population. Many of Athens’ rivals, governed by oligarchs and aristocrats, considered Athenian democracy a formula for mob rule, a view that long persisted. By the late eighteenth century, however, a competing view had emerged in France that democratic rule could check monarchy and aristocracy.


In revolutionary Paris in early 1793, the Marquis de Condorcet led the drafting of a proposed constitution that Miller considers to be the most purely democratic instrument of the eighteenth century and maybe of the two centuries since. Condorcet’s draft envisioned a wide network of local assemblies in which any citizen could propose legislation.  It was not implemented, but the thinking behind the proposal gave impetus to representative government as a system “preferable to, and a necessary check on, the unruly excesses of a purely direct democracy.”


Early nineteenth century debates centered on suffrage. Democracy proponents pushed to remove or lessen property-owning requirements and extend the franchise to ever-wider segments of the (male) adult population. Meanwhile, additional institutions and practices—free and fair elections, protection of the human rights of all citizens, and adherence to the rule of law—came to be considered essential to buttress an extended franchise. But Miller’s nineteenth century case studies are instances of short-term setbacks or failures for the democratic cause. Chartism failed to extend the franchise significantly in Britain in the 1840s. The revolutions of 1848 on the continent sought representative political institutions and something akin to universal male suffrage but failed to extend the franchise everywhere but in France.


In rapidly industrializing Europe, Karl Marx doubted whether “bourgeois democracy” could alleviate widespread urban poverty and the exploitation of workers. The most spectacular failure among Miller’s case studies was the Paris Commune of 1871, which collapsed into disastrous violence amidst tensions between economic and political freedom. Ironically, the fear of violence that the Commune unleashed led to a series of democratizing political reforms throughout Europe, with the right to vote extended to more male citizens. The organization of workers into unions and the rise of political parties similarly contributed to the process of democratization in late 19th and early 20th century Europe.


In the United States, a special case for Miller, a genuinely democratic culture had taken hold by the 1830s, as the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville recognized. As early as the 1790s, there was a tendency to use the terms “republic” and “democracy” as synonyms for the American constitutional system, even though none of the drafters of the 1787 Constitution thought of himself as a democrat. The constitution’s drafters envisioned a representative government in which voters would select a “natural aristocracy,” as John Adams put it. The notion of a natural aristocracy all but disappeared when Andrew Jackson split the Democratic-Republican Party in two. Running for president as a “Democrat,” in 1828, Jackson confirmed that “democracy” from that point forward would be an “unambiguously honorific term in the American political lexicon,” Miller writes.


Tocqueville saw in the restlessness of Jacksonian America what Miller describes as a “new kind of society, in which the principle of equality was pushed to its limits.” In America, democracy was a “way of life, and a shared faith, instantiated in other forms of association, in modes of thought and belief, in the attitudes and inclinations of individuals who have absorbed a kind of democratic temperament.” Tocqueville nonetheless warned against “democratic despotism,” where the majority could override minority rights and liberties.


Woodrow Wilson’s plea in 1917 to the US Congress that the United States enter World War I to “make the world safe for democracy” constitutes the beginning of the idea of democracy as a universal value, Miller argues. But Wilson’s soaring faith in democracy turned out to be “astonishingly parochial.” The post-World War I peace conferences in 1919 left intact the colonies of Britain and France, “under the pretext that the nonwhite races needed more time to become fully mature peoples, fit for democratic institutions.”


The Covenant of the League of Nations, “encouraged an expectation of self-determination as a new and universal political right,” even as Congress thwarted Wilson’s plan for United States membership in the League. For countries living under colonial domination, the expectation of self-determination was heightened after World War II, especially through the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which helped inspire human rights and independence movements across the globe.


Miller finishes by explaining his attraction to modern attempts at direct democracy, particularly the notion of “participatory democracy” which influenced him in the 1960s and which he saw replicated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. But direct democracy, he concludes, is no more viable today than at the time of the French Revolution. It is impossible to create a workable participatory democracy model in a large, complex society. Any “serious effort to implement such a structure will require a delegation of authority and the selection of representatives—in short the creation of an indirect democracy, and at some distance from most participants.”


The Trump presidency, Miller argues, is best considered “not as a protest against modern democracy per se, but against the limits of modern democracy.” Like Brexit, it expressed, in an “inchoate and potentially self-defeating” manner, a desire for “more democracy, for a larger voice for ordinary people”—not unlike the participatory democracy campaigns of the 1960s. At the time of Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Miller appreciated that he remained free to “protest a political leader whose character and public policies I found repugnant.” But he realized that he was “also expected to acknowledge, and peacefully coexist with, compatriots who preferred Trump’s policies and personal style. This is a part of what it means to be a citizen in a liberal democracy.”


Democracies, Miller concludes, need to “explore new ways to foster a tolerant ethos that accepts, and can acknowledge, that there are many incompatible forms of life and forms of politics, not always directly democratic or participatory, in which humans can flourish.” Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, this sounds much like an acknowledgement that present day populism is here to stay. By an altogether different route, Davies reaches roughly the same conclusion.


Davies is not the first to highlight the challenges to democracy when voters appear to abandon reason for emotion, nor to try to explain why government experts and elected representatives are met with increased suspicion and diminished trust today. But he may be the first to tie these phenomena to the disintegration of philosophical distinctions that Descartes and Hobbes established in the seventeenth century—Descartes between mind and body, Hobbes between war and peace.


For Descartes, the mind existed independently of the body. Descartes was obsessed by whether what we see, hear, or smell is actually real. He gave shape to the modern philosophical definition of a rational scientific mind, Davies argues, but to do so, he had to discount sensations and feelings. Hobbes, exhausted by religious war on the continent and civil war in England, argued that the central purpose of the state was to “eradicate feelings of mutual fear that would otherwise trigger violence.” If people don’t feel safe, it “doesn’t matter whether they are objectively safe or not; they will eventually start to take matters into their own hands.”


Davies shows how Descartes and Hobbes helped create the conceptual foundation for the modern administrative state, fashioned by merchants who introduced “strict new rules” for public record-keeping,” not least for more efficient tax collection. These seventeenth century merchants were forerunners of what we today call experts, especially in statistics and economics, whose currency was “facts.”


Facts provided by economists, statisticians, and scientists had for Hobbes a peace-building function; they are “akin to contracts, types of promises that experts make to each other and the public, that records are accurate and free from any personal bias or political agenda,” Davies explains. If democracy is to provide effective mechanisms for the resolution of disputes, there must be “some commonly agreed starting point, that all are willing to recognize”—some agreement on the relevant facts.


Davies argues that the rise of emotion in contemporary politics and the inability of experts and facts to settle disputes today are consequences of the breakdown of the binary distinctions of Descartes and Hobbes.


The upshot is that democracies are being transformed today by feeling and emotion in “ways that cannot be ignored or reversed.” Objective claims about the economy, society, the human body and nature “can no longer be successfully insulated from emotions.” While we can lament the decline of modern reason, “as if emotions have overwhelmed the citadel of truth like barbarians,” Davies suggests that we “value democracy’s capacity to give voice to fear, pain and anxiety that might otherwise be diverted in far more destructive directions.”


Yet Davies leaves unanswered whether there are limits to the fear, pain, and anxiety to which democracy should give voice. He recognizes the potency of nationalism as a “way of understanding the life of society in mythical terms.” But should democracy strive to give voice to nationalism’s most xenophobic and exclusionary forms? What about racism, a matter Davies does not touch upon at all?


Climate change skepticism offers another example of popular mistrust of expert opinion and scientific consensus. Davies rejects a renewed commitment to scientific expertise and rational argument – “bravado rationalism” — as an insufficient response to such skepticism but doesn’t spell out what would be sufficient. Were Davies writing today, he likely would have addressed resistance to expert claims about fighting the pandemic, such as the efficacy of wearing masks (the book went to press prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic).


Writing today, moreover, Davies might have used an expression other than “barbarians storming the citadel of truth,” an expression that now brings to mind January’s assault on the US Capitol. Those who took part in the assault can be dealt with through the criminal justice process, with all the due process protections that a democracy affords. Yet many Americans who did not participate in the assault remain convinced that Joe Biden and the Democrats “stole” the 2020 presidential election. How can democracy work when there is widespread disagreement over an incontrovertible fact? What if a massive number of citizens refuse to accept the obligation that Miller felt when his candidate lost in 2016, to acknowledge and peacefully coexist with the winning side?


Davies’ trenchant but quirky analysis provides no obvious solution to this quandary. If we can find one, it will constitute an important step in assessing whether American democracy survived the Trump presidency.


Photo credit: André Devambez, Barricade, The Paris Commune, May 1871 via Wikimedia Commons  (Public domain)


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