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Posts Tagged ‘democracy

“Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”*…

… Still, ours is clearly going through a rough patch. David Karpf offers a pragmatic– and provocative– perspective on how we might begin to heal it…

Let me begin from first principles: much of the rhetoric surrounding democratic theory and practice begins from a presumption of equality. We invoke the first clause of the Declaration of the Independence — “We the People” — and consider democratic forms of government to be a thing that manifests from the shared deliberation of the public at large. Through this rendering, it follows that all people have equal voice, equal protections, equal representation under and by the law. We imagine that the purpose of a democratic government is to produce wise and just outcomes for the whole of society.

From this presumption of equality, a whole field of study has arisen, asking whether citizens have the requisite skills and knowledge for democracy to live up to these ideals. This field dates back roughly a century, at least to the time of Walter Lippmann. (Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg wrote an excellent historically-engaged book on this topic last year, btw, titled The Paradox of Democracy.) For the past couple decades, contributors to the field often turn their focus toward the internet, asking whether we are enhancing or degrading the capacity of citizens to engage in productive democratic practices.

I will grant that this is a powerful and attractive rhetorical trope. Indeed, it might be the case that it is an essential constitutive myth — that in order for democracies to succeed, we must pay rhetorical homage to the collective presumption of equality.

But it is also, as an empirical matter, clearly suspect. If we want to make sense of contemporary elite political behavior — of how the powerful act and what they prioritize — I think the presumption of equality does us a disservice. And that’s because it has never, empirically speaking, been an accurate description of actually-existing democracy. We have, for starters, never had a mass public that lived up to our imagined ideals for good citizenship (c.f. Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen).

American democracy was not founded by a mass citizenry coming together and uniting around a single set of shared principles. It was founded by elites — men who owned land, men who owned printing presses, men who owned people. America, just like every other mass democracy on the planet, was founded by an elite. And the purpose of democracy as a form of government was to maintain the privilege and status of that elite — to preserve the social order. We can better make sense of democratic practice today if we instead proceed from a presumption of hierarchy.

The presumption of hierarchy turns our focus away from “We the People,” toward another bedrock phrase: “the consent of the governed.” We ought to parse that term. It suggests the existence of two distinct groups — those who govern (the elites) and those who are governed (the masses). And from the masses, it merely requires that we reach a minimal threshold of “consent.” Consent is not robust, informed participation. It does not require deliberation or engagement. or engaged. We can consent to being governed in much the same passive way we consent to a website’s terms of service. Consent, in this context, can best be understood as social stability. Social unrest is synonymous with the governed withdrawing their consent. The lack of social unrest is synonymous with consent being maintained.

More provocatively, let me suggest the following: from the perspective of political elites, the central purpose of any form of government is the preservation of social order. And by that I also mean the preservation of the existing status hierarchy. Let’s call this the outcome of social order, by which I mean that governments are actually, in practice, evaluated on how well they preserve the status hierarchy with minimal changes.

From this perspective, the key innovation that has made democracy preferable to all other forms of government is that it produces a legitimate avenue for social dissent…

Neil Postman famously remarked in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that the real threat to Democracy came not from the ubiquitous government surveillance depicted in George Orwell’s (1949) 1984, but rather from the ubiquitous entertainment options that leave citizens passively disengaged in Aldous Huxley’s (1931) Brave New World. Many cultural commentators have noted in recent years how well Postman’s broadcast-television-era warning seems to fit the age of digital entertainment…

In the 2000s, it was common among political communication scholars and civic technology practitioners to look with hope at the influx of new technologies. There was, amongst many of us, the shared belief that, as information and communication technologies lowered the cost of citizen engagement, we would witness the emergence of a more engaged, informed citizenry.

I was always a bit suspicious of that instinct…

But even my early-onset-orneriness did not prepare me for the authoritarian turn of the mid-’10s. Ethan Zuckerman described this well in his essay “QAnon and the Emergence of the Unreal.” The same civic technologies that were being used to build and support civic communities in the ‘90s and ‘00s were used to support conspiracy theories and hate groups in the ‘10s. Likewise, as I noted in a 2018 essay, the thing that made QAnon different from past conspiracy theories was that it had all the trappings of an immersive ARG (alternative reality game). QAnon is not just a means of making sense of a chaotic world that has not gone your way. Participating in QAnon forums is the same type of fun as participating in Reddit forums or other online communities. The people who get involved in politics are the people who attain joy or profit from that involvement…

At the elite level, I fear what has happened is the erosion of the “myth of the attentive public” among our political elites. As I described in a 2019 essay, this was a load-bearing myth, necessary for the maintenance of an at-least-barely-functional democracy…

Over the past almost-decade, this myth has been eroded as the Huxleyite version of the public on stark display. If misinformation and propaganda flow at least as well as truth and adversarial journalism, then why bother worrying about the potential effects of negative news cycles? If the only members of the public engaging in political life are your worshipful fans and your crazed enemies, why bother focusing on the messy, complex work of actual governance? (It’s all just kayfabe anyway, right?)

We don’t solve these problems by building better citizens through media literacy camapaigns. We don’t solve them through kumbaya efforts that hearken back to an era when “people could disagree without being disagreeable” (which people, one ought always ask in response).

We solve these problems by building better elites — and by better elites, what I probably mean is elites who are appropriately concerned that they are going to lose the social order and stability they have come to take for granted.

The trouble with the presumption of equality is that it leads us to pursue fantasy solutions to the crisis of democracy. We begin by asserting that all citizens are equal under the law, and then find ourselves asking what all citizens should expect from one another. This can be an interesting thought experiment, I suppose. But it is a dead end for pragmatists trying to diagnose how we got where we are today.

I find the presumption of hierarchy more fruitful because it more accurately describes what actual, existing democracy is, and has been. It is a marvelously effective means of maintaining social order. Social order is generally good. We would sorely miss it if it were gone. Countries that face violent overthrow are not prosperous or great to live in. (It’s easy for revolution-minded intellectuals to imagine chaos and anarchy as a welcome change. It is not.)

And that’s particularly true in todays United States. I have mentioned this elsewhere, but it’s worth saying explicitly here as well. One ought not hope for violent confrontations when the opposition has all the guns…

The nice thing about focusing on elites is that there are, relatively speaking, not a lot of them. It is less work to convince the wealthiest 0.1% of the country that they ought to alter their behavior/have an ounce of shame or humility than to convince the other 99.9% that they should all be civil and respectful of their betters and pursue civic engagement but only in the right channels at the right times…

Pragmatic or defeatist? Read the full article for Karpf’s “basic elements of a successful mass democracy,” or as he styles it, “a minimalist theory of democracy”: “Huxley’s Electorate,” from @davekarpf.

[Image above: source]

* Winston Churchill


As we get down with government, we might recall that on this date in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, landmark legislation that funded a 40,000-mile system of interstate roads (commonly known as the Interstate Highway System) that ultimately reached every American city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, almost 90% of the interstate system crosses rural areas, putting most citizens and businesses within driving distance of one another. Although Eisenhower’s rationale was martial (creating a road system on which convoys could travel more easily), the results were largely civilian.  From the growth of trucking to the rise of suburbs, the interstate highway system re-shaped American landscapes and lives.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 29, 2023 at 1:00 am

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”*…

Andrea Casali: The Personification of History Writing on the Back of Time, early 1760s

The more that historians make their own experiences an explicit part of their work, David A. Bell argues, the harder it will become to let the sources speak clearly…

Although enrollments in college history courses have plunged in recent years, interest in the subject remains high, to judge from both the best-seller lists and history’s place in the gladiatorial combat known as American politics. We are, in many ways, saturated in history. But what purpose does it serve? Academic specialists and the general public alike seem more confused by this question than at any time in recent memory.

History has always had multiple purposes, of course. Among the oldest is moral education: providing examples of admirable character and conduct to emulate, and infamous character and conduct to shun. Equally venerable is the establishment of legitimate title, including, especially, to states: rulers have claimed the right to rule because of their descent from a line of predecessors stretching back into the mists of time. The great monotheistic religions, meanwhile, have looked to history to teach awe of God’s power and to reveal the unfolding of His plans for humanity.

But during the Enlightenment, a vision of history emerged that at least partially eclipsed these older ones: History with a capital H, history as a science. In this new vision, linked to the nascent social sciences, the study of history could reveal the regular, predictable laws that govern the development of all human societies, and therefore could help us understand not only the past but the present and future as well. During the French Revolution, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet composed one of the great early works along these lines, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (Ironically, he wrote it while in hiding from the revolutionary Terror.) He began with hunter-gatherer societies, worked his way up through the eighteenth century, and pointed to a glorious future in which humanity’s “indefinite advancement” would lead to the eradication of poverty and an extension of the human life span. Hegel and Marx, in their turn, saw History following determined paths toward a discernible and desirable future condition.

But in his new book, Singular Pasts, the historian Enzo Traverso writes, “The past no longer announces the future; it no longer contains any promise of redemption.” Even Marxist scholars, for all their continued belief in the importance of class, no longer have any confidence that the history of class struggle points toward the ultimate victory of the proletariat and the establishment of a more just society. Liberals who, after communism’s collapse, read Francis Fukuyama and hoped that History had reached an end point of sorts, at least to the extent that societies around the world were embracing a Western model of capitalism as well as moderate social democracy, have seen their dreams turn to nightmares. Very few historians still try to deduce universal laws from their often fragmentary and difficult source material or to predict the future. If any group of contemporary academics is forecasting what is to come in a convincing manner it is climate scientists, and if a specter is haunting the world today, it is the all too real specter of ecological doom.

Where has the fall of scientific history left us?…

A consideration: “Ego-Histories,” from @DavidAvromBell in @nybooks.

For a more optimistic answer, pair with Michael S. Roth‘s appreciation of historian/historiographer Hayden White: “The Ironic Radical: On Hayden White’s The Ethics of Narrative.”

* Winston Churchill


As we think back, we might recall that it was on this date in 1215 that King John affixed his seal to the Magna Carta…  an early example of unintended consequences:  the “Great Charter” was meant as a fundamentally reactionary treaty between the king and his barons, guaranteeing nobles’ feudal rights and assuring that the King would respect the Church and national law.  But over succeeding centuries, at the expense of royal and noble hegemony, it became a cornerstone of English democracy– and indeed, democracy as we know it in the West.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 15, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Mounting a campaign against plutocracy makes as much sense to the typical Washington liberal as would circulating a petition against gravity”*…

Brad DeLong elaborates on Jonathan Kirshner‘s bracing review of Martin Wolf‘s important new book

Jonathan Kirshner: Rigged Capitalism and the Rise of Pluto-populism: On Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism: ‘The middle third of this book, “What Went Wrong,” should be required reading…. When it comes to solutions, unfortunately, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism comes up short. Wolf, ever measured, is convincing in making the case for reform over revolution…. Yet it is disheartening that the sensible, reformist agenda of reasonable, practical measures that Wolf outlines already seems beyond the capacity of our politics…. Massive concentrations of wealth for a sliver of largely-above-the-law plutocrats, combined with stagnation and declining opportunities for the majority—leads to a basic political problem: “How, after all, does a political party dedicated to the material interests of the top 0.1 percent of the income distribution win and hold power in a universal suffrage democracy? The answer is pluto-populism”… [which] unleash[es] forces… [that] render liberal democracy unsustainable…. corruption, arbitrariness of justice, and fear for future prospects are poisonous to the body politic…. Its final sentence, “If we fail, the light of political and personal freedom might once again disappear from the world,” reads less like a call to action and more like an epitaph…

Martin Wolf’s The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism and Barry Eichengreen’s The Populist Temptation are, I think, the best books on theDover-Circle-Plus societies current Time of Troubles. And there is no clear way through.

It was James Madison who wrote, in 1787:

Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths…

And the death of real democracy does not have to be accompanied by the end of the form. The classic example here is the Jim Crow U.S. South from 1876-1965. It was less than half as rich as the rest of the United States for almost a complete century. It was ruled by an oligarchy uninterested in economic development and very interested in corruption. The oligarchy its power by focusing the electorate on the necessity of keeping the Black Man Down, and tarring anyone who wanted a government that was less corrupt or more pro-development with being a negro-lover. That it held rocksolid from 1876 to 1965 shows that the future of anything we could call prosperous democratic capitalism is not assured…

Bracing: “Pluto-Populism,” from @delong.

See also: Kishore Mahbubani‘s “Democracy or Plutocracy? – America’s Existential Question” (source of the image above).

Thomas Frank


As we get back to basics, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that Depression Era bandits Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed by police and shot to death in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut (Champion) Barrow were a criminal couple who traveled the Central United States with their gang during the Great Depression. The couple were known for their bank robberies, although they preferred to rob small stores or rural funeral homes. Their exploits captured the attention of the American press and its readership during what is occasionally referred to as the “public enemy era” between 1931 and 1934.

The 1967 hit film Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles, revived interest in the couple, who were treated somewhat sympathetically. The 2019 Netflix film The Highwaymen depicted their manhunt from the point of view of the pursuing lawmen but received mixed reviews.

Bonnie and Clyde in a photo from around 1932–34 that was found by police at an abandoned hideout (source)

“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom”*…

Lynn Hunt on Alexis de Tocqueville, who left France to study the American prison system and returned with the material that would become Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville was a study in contradictions: a French aristocrat of proud heritage who trumpeted the inevitable, salutary rise of democracy, using the United States as his exemplar; a cosmopolitan with an English wife and many friends in the Anglo-American world who brandished a fervent French nationalism; an antislavery advocate who felt no discomfort in supporting the French colonization of Algeria and hired as his main assistant Arthur de Gobineau, who later published one of the founding texts of white supremacy; and finally a man of delicate constitution who undertook an arduous trip on horseback into the wilderness of northern Michigan in order to see Native Americans and new settler communities for himself. Such inconsistencies make for a fascinating story, and in The Man Who Understood Democracy, Olivier Zunz, a French-educated historian who has taught US history for decades at the University of Virginia, shows that he is ideally suited to tell it.

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, became an instant classic and has remained one to this day. On its hundredth anniversary in 1935, the French government presented a bust of the author to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an article at the time referred to the book as “perhaps the greatest, most lucid, and most impartial commentary that free institutions in general, and American self-government in particular, had ever received.” Democracy in America served as a kind of textbook for US students for many generations, but it is now more often cited than read. That dutiful disregard may be the fate of all such masterworks, especially one that runs about eight hundred pages, but Zunz has succeeded in restoring its appeal, first by vividly retracing its origins and then by skillfully evoking the enduring excitement and relevance of its analysis…

Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who unpacked the tension between freedom and equality in the United States: “‘A Great Democratic Revolution’.”

* Alexis de Tocqueville– who went on to observe that “Americans are so enamored of equality, they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom.”


As we dedicate ourselves to democracy, we might note that today is Fibonacci Day, as today’s date is often rendered 11/23, and the Fibonacci sequence (also here and here) begins 1, 1, 2, 3…

Five Ways to Celebrate Fibonacci Day.


“A republic, if you can keep it”*…

Democracy’s meaning has always been contested. The problem with substantive definitions of democracy, Michael Ignatieff argues, is that there’s no agreement on what democracy is nor what it should be. Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be. Yet letting that struggle become a battle between existential foes risks upending the whole democratic project…

The problem with substantive definitions is that democrats with plenty of substantive commitment to democracy do not agree what it is or what it should be. When conservatives talk about democracy, they often express the desire to use democratic institutions to contain and control change. When liberals and progressives talk about democracy, they turn it into a vessel of aspiration into which they pour longings for civility, community, and justice.

What gets missed, in either side’s definitions, is that actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Those who think of democracy as a way of life risk framing partisanship as an abnormal rupture in democratic practice, when in fact partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition. When we theorize civility as the norm and competitive partisanship as a threatening exception, liberals and conservatives alike risk being hypocrites about their own partisanship or being helplessly nostalgic, bemoaning the breakdown of a comity that may have been a fantasy in the first place. It is thus a mistake, with large practical consequences, to confuse what we wish democracy could be with what it actually is.

This elision between what democracy is and what we wish it to be occurs, in part, because the democratic theory we teach, and the civics lessons we imbibe in school, lift democracy into an abstract realm of ideal types and pious ideals that is indifferent to historical context. There is no such thing as democracy in a pure state. All actual democracies bear the contours of the historic struggles that gave them shape. While there is a family resemblance in democracy’s basic form—majority rule as the source of legitimate authority—this feature is enacted in and through institutions specific to the societies that created them. Democracy displays crucial historical variations over time and from one society to another.

One salient feature that makes democracies differ from one another is the way each democracy has been shaped by its encounter with violence. Some democracies were born in the violence of revolution. Others that have replaced authoritarian or colonial rule with free elections have struggled to contain the violence unleashed once democracy was achieved. Encounters with violence are recurrent even in successful democracies. Violence cannot be understood as an exceptional irruption overturning democracy’s natural resting state. Many a democracy owes its birth to violence, and violent challenges to democratic order continue to defend themselves as necessary last resorts to save democracy itself.

The modern version of democracy created by the American and French revolutions began its life… with the task of converting violence into politics. In our own time, national-liberation struggles in Africa and Asia have faced the same challenge. This has remained democracy’s core purpose ever since. When democracy achieves this, it realizes what defines it as a form of government. The prohibition of violence—whether as an instrument of politics or as an instrument of rule over citizens—and the related commitment that all coercive measures must be justified to citizens and receive their consent, are the core principles that separate democracy from all forms of authoritarian rule…

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European liberals, faced with working-class and feminist demands for the right to vote, reluctantly agreed that inclusion was the best way to maintain democratic order in the face of revolutionary challenge. These classic liberals accepted as a basic premise that societies are not natural equilibria, but sites of constant social, cultural, and economic struggle, with a potential to boil over into violence. Democracy’s function was to keep conflict political and to prevent the war of all against all.

Today, in democracies that are more diverse and pluralistic than anything nineteenth-century liberals could have imagined, the priority they placed on democracy’s role in preventing political conflict spilling over into violence is more relevant than ever. In this perspective, democracy’s ultimate purpose is peace rather than justice, or rather, sufficient justice to secure peace, defined as a minimal, constantly tested and renegotiated willingness by competing groups, factions, and parties, to obey the rules of the democratic game. When competitors accept democratic outcomes as legitimate, they accept closure, at least until the next contest starts. If they win, they do not seek to crush their opponents. If they lose, they do not seek to take revenge or seize power. Legitimacy is thus contingent and performative and always conditional on the willingness of political competitors to abide by the same rules.

The saving grace of democracy is the possibility that losers get to become winners. Whenever a group, faction, or party believes that victory was stolen from them or that they are fated to be permanent losers, violence becomes a possibility in the democratic game. Successfully managing peaceful democratic transitions between competing elites is the sine qua non of democratic legitimacy.

Democratic assemblies and elections have regulatory codes that restrain extremist speech, but such codes will always be vulnerable to being gamed and manipulated by scheming opportunists. Democratic systems are built to moderate political competition, but moderation sometimes surrenders to hatred. As Tocqueville warned us more than a century and a half ago, more social justice need not make us more civil.

Neither is it the case that virtue and courage can always hold the line when institutions fail. Men and women of both parties did their duty during the insurrection at the Capitol, while others betrayed their oath of office. The result, as the Duke of Wellington famously said about the Battle of Waterloo, was the “nearest run thing you ever saw.” The most effective measures taken since the insurrection have been the holding of Congressional hearings to establish exactly what happened, so there is a true record for the future, and also the prosecution of leaders. This should discourage others from a similar course.

Even so, it is America’s very revolutionary traditions that will continue to provide justifications for the use of violence in the defense of liberty. These traditions, whether we like it or not, will continue to give desperate and misguided citizens the belief that they must take the law into their own hands.

Democracy is fragile, because it is a sacred thing vital to our liberty, easily lost, easily damaged, and like all such sacred things dependent for its survival on prosaic, daily acts of faith and sacrifice that are made in its defense.

In the end, there are simply no guarantees of democratic order. There is only the inherited belief—transmitted across generations among citizens and politicians alike, reproduced election after election, vote after vote, year after year, in speeches, classrooms, media outlets, civics courses, and all the various fora that a free society uses to figure out what it is doing—that violence can kill democracy and that violence endangers everyone, especially those who would use it to defend democracy itself…

“The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by reasonable compact, in civil Society” – George Washington, in a 1790 letter to Catherine Sawbridge Macauley.

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Politics of Enemies,” from @M_Ignatieff in @JoDemocracy.

See also: “America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both” (gift article from the New York Times— no pay wall).

* Benjamin Franklin, in response to a question from Elizabeth Willing Powel as he walked out of Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787


As we cope with conflict, we might recall that on this day in 2000, the U.S. presidential election ended in a statistical tie between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, only to be settled on December 12 by the U.S. Supreme Court after a bitter legal dispute.

As the Supreme Court debated, protesters gathered.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 7, 2022 at 1:00 am

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