Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Democracy's Death

I have a confession to make.

I don't like democracy.

Longtime readers may be a bit surprised to hear this. And before I go on, allow me to make some caveats. When it comes to democracy, I am decidedly Churchillian--I agree whole-heartedly that "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." This is why I am such a fierce advocate of international democratization--simply put, in most cases it is by far the best case scenario.

Nor am I discounting the immense benefits of democracy. Put aside the intangible (but likely still real) effects of legitimacy and implied societal loyalty. Empirically, democracies are less likely to go to war with each other, less likely to engage in mass killings of their own citizens or others, almost guaranteed never to face a major famine, can expect to see far higher economic growth than even comparable non-democratic states, and experience a host of other bonuses.

All well and good. And in light of that, I will say flat out that I want to keep democracy around, at least until something better comes along (or even better, someone fixes the bugs in the system). But until then, let's ask ourselves--if democracy is so great, why are there so few democrats (small "d" essential)?

I. Foreign Policy

The American left has traditionally been the greatest advocate for democracy in the modern geopolitical scene. The influence of the democrats there, though, is but a shadow of its former self, mostly contained within the neo-liberal movement characterized by The New Republic and likeminded spirits. Other Democrats have become far less democratic, either becoming outright isolationists in a juvenile response to Bush's aggressive unilateralism, or joining up with the radical multiculturalist left in treating democracy merely as one (western) choice amongst many options--in other words, not something we (the imperialist west) can impose from without.

The American right likes to pretend it has stepped up for democracy, but again, it is only a small portion of true neo-conservatives who really believe. The rest play lip service to the ideal, but are not converted from their realist roots. Iraq demonstrated this most clearly--once the realist justification for the war fell apart with the lack of terrorist links or WMDs, the Bush administration's incompetence at democratization shone through. In their dealings with other nation's, we see the same thing--how else can you justify our devil's bargains with Uzbekistan, much less, of all places, Sudan? There are some true believers in the Bush administration--Wolfowitz, I think, is sincere if a bit naive--but most are not. Bush himself is only a recent convert to an aggressive US foreign presence--and I suspect that the philosophical shift never happened at all, even as political realities made lip service to the ideal essential.

II. Domestic Policy

Domestically, we're no better. At the moment, of course, Republicans preach a total submissiveness to the "will of the people," which would seem democratic if it weren't for the obvious fact that they're in charge of all our nation's democratic institutions and thus have an incentive to magnify the importance of democratic legitimacy. Where democratic norms have shown themselves to be an obstacle to the pursuit of power--as in Texas redistricting--or democratic bodies have enacted laws at odds with conservative principles--as in Takings Clause cases and the Kelo decision--conservatives have not hesitated to chuck the "will of the people" entirely out the window. Democrats have of late discovered that non-democratic bodies are more likely to be receptive to some of their core policy claims. The vast majority of recent Democratic victories have come from the courts--Roe, Lawrence, Goodridge, many others. Furthermore, they believe that smear campaigns and deliberate misinformation can undercut the process of democratic deliberation by distorting the issues and making it so that a majority of people aren't really seeing the options on the table. Poll after poll has shown issues where a majority of Americans agree with nearly all of the Democrat's policy prescriptions for a given problem--then turn around a say they "trust" Republicans more. Undoubtedly, Republicans feel the same way on many issues--that their arguments are being systematically distorted and twisted so that the people aren't hearing the words they're speaking. In this world-through-the-looking-glass, all liberals are spineless, pacifistic, socialist, nannies and all conservatives are brutish, heartless, racist aristocrats (or hicks). Somewhere along the line, the message is being lost, and after a century of trying to break through the left and right are beginning to despair.

III. On Being the Minority in a Democracy

I tend to view democracy like many members of the critical legal movement view rights or equality. Useful concepts in getting us from A to B on the social progress scale, but at the same time making it virtually impossible for us to move from B to C. The trick, of course, it to figure out how to get to C without risking sliding back to A. Democracy is great for securing governmental legitimacy, ensuring a basic degree of conversation between disparate citizens, and giving some voice to hitherto disenfranchised masses crushed under the heel of the elite. What it is really bad at, however, is protecting the interests of vulnerable minority groups whom the majority opposes. If you believe that American society is still fundamentally racist, for example, how can you communicate that idea through the democratic structure? The majority isn't going to listen to you--you're calling them a racist (even though you're not--there is a subtle distinction between saying society is structurally racist and that the people within it actively harbor malicious feelings toward minority races). It is difficult, if not impossible, to get the powerful to aid the disempowered for no reason at all except for the victims' victimhood. Perhaps you can appeal to "neutral" principles that will force the majority to treat you like they are treated. But again, this is unlikely to work. On the one hand, neutral standards are unlikely to remedy truly deep-seated inequalities. The same standard, applied to two groups in completely different situations, is not going to have the same effect. For example, saying everyone has the right to a $10,000 deduction for their house is only beneficial to those who have homes. Everybody being allowed to speak is only meaningful to those with microphones. And everybody's right to not be discriminated against on the grounds of race only will have an effect where one can prove overt racial discrimination--solving some of the problem, certainly, but not all of it. Where the discriminatory impulses are deeply rooted or subconscious, as racism has become in modern society, this becomes an impassable hurdle.

But, you protest, but this same hurdle is present to the dominant race as well! Submerged racism against them is also nearly impossible to find, or at least prove in a court of law. Very true. Also, very irrelevant. Think about it. If you are a white man in America, how big of a barrier to success would invisible, subconscious black racism be? Odds are, very little. The interviews you have at top companies are likely to be conducted with fellow whites. The important clients you deal with, same. Your boss, same, your co-workers, same. Indeed, with only a little exertion, you probably could avoid ever placing yourself in a situation where black-over-white racism ever impeded your career path. Hence, the inability to provide legal sanction against subconscious black racism is likely to be of little concern, and not being able to remedy it (weighed against, I presume, the harm of accidentally fingering an "innocent" man) will seem "fair." The reverse, alas, is not true. A black person facing subconscious white-over-black racism cannot avoid it and cannot get around it. What for a white person is at worst minor inconvenience is for him at best a major obstacle. The neutral standard remains, but suddenly it is seen in a very different light.

We've strayed a bit from democracy, so let's try and bring it back. Of course, there are many "neutral" standards one could create--presumably some of which would be more hospitable to minority claims. Why does it seem these standards are never presented? The reason is simple--the folks who set the standard are the dominant majority, and the dominant majority is blind to the effects their "neutral" standard has on those out of power. Changing the standard--raising or lowering the bar for proving discrimination claims, for example--is not seen as re-evaluating the standard because it isn't working for certain people. It is seen instead as a request for special rights--an effort to bend the system for the benefit of the few as opposed to an impartial arbiter for all. Don't you see, the majority chides, that it is exactly those grants of special rights that caused your problems in the first place? When we, in our shameful past, helped ourselves and oppressed you? We will not return to that time, and shame on you for asking.

IV. In Their Silence They Cry Out

And that's the rub--"shame on you for asking". The questions that need to be spoken are the ones most likely to get buried. And that brings me to the final criticism from this morbid post--the salvation of democracy, and why I do not see its arrival. For there is indeed a way to fix the problem--deliberative democracy. The only real problem, when you get right down to it, is that we aren't listening to each other. The narratives of the poor and downtrodden almost never reach the ears of those with wealth and power. The stigma of being racially oppressed almost never is known to those in the dominant caste. Our deepest hopes, dreams, and fears never reach the ears of those outside our own group. We talk only amongst ourselves, where democracy requires us to talk to everyone.

Note that today America almost never mentions the word race. Proof that we have moved beyond that sordid chapter in our nation's history? I doubt it. More likely, it is because any white who talks about race is presumed to be a racist, and any minority who does is "playing the race card." Whites don't want to be racists, and minorities don't want their achievements discounted, so everybody keeps quiet and the problems remain beneath the surface. Like many other issues, race has become a taboo--and deprived of being part of the democratic discussion, it enters autopilot. The results, alas, are predictable.

And race is just one of the worse offenders. As Jonathan Chait makes clear in his latest New Republic article, American voters as a whole are disengaged from the policy part of the political process.
The central assumption is that politics revolves around issues and ideas--rather than things like personality, tactics, and outside circumstances--and that the party that wins is the one that presents a more compelling vision of the future.
Alas, this sort of thinking assumes a wildly optimistic level of discernment by voters. Polls consistently show that large swaths of the voting public know very little about the positions taken by candidates. In 2000, the National Annenberg Election Survey found that just 57 percent of voters knew Al Gore was more liberal than Bush, 51 percent knew he was more supportive of gun control, and a mere 46 percent understood that he was more supportive of abortion rights. "The voting behavior literature, which is massive, shows that people are not particularly idea-driven," explains Berkeley political scientist Nelson Polsby. "They don't know what the fashions are, with respect to what ideas go with other ideas."

The people who discuss democracy are likely to be engaged in the issues concerning a democracy. The people who vote, by contrast, are not. We forget that at our own peril, because it is a necessary fantasy that keeps our faith in democracy alive. But there is no there there. Without engagement in politics, there is no way that the dominant groups will ever see past their narrowest self-interest (and the crudest caricatures of their fellows) to a broader sense of community with their less advantaged peers. The balkanization of the media and the growing polarization of political sects merely exacerbate the problem. I don't trust Republicans, therefore I don't listen to Republicans, therefore I don't talk to Republicans, and therefore I never can hear what it is they have to say. Politics becomes a Hobbessian world of pure power games, and it is the poor and disadvantaged, least able to defend their own interests, who inevitably will lose out.

V. Conclusion
This post was depressed, almost needlessly so. I am not that pessimistic about the state of our nation or anything else. Indeed, I think for all its faults, America is still a damn fine nation. But the most important thing, to me, is an everlasting belief that we can do better. We can do better than this oppressive silence that prevents people from discussing their grievances and connecting with their supposed "enemies." We can do better than blind faith in "neutral principles" and easy assurance that we are on the right path. We can do better than a nation in which nearly 66% percent has laws explicitly on the books relegating homosexuals to second class citizenship, where blacks are more likely to go to prison than go to college, where drugs users in inner cities are trucked off for multi-decade sentences while those in the suburbs get treatment after treatment after treatment. We have done better, and we can do better. I will not abandon that dream. Not for democracy, not for stability. Not for anything.

UPDATE: Traffic Jammed.


Anonymous said...

Well, our founders did give us a republic (if we can keep it)

For the libertarian perspective check Hans Hoppe's Democracy: the God that Failed

Randomscrub said...

I don't think that the problems are quite as glaring as you seem to, but it is good for people to acknowledge that however much democracy may be trumpeted as the best form of government, it does have its weaknesses. Keep up the good work.