The Tragedy of Democratic Politics

A propos of nothing in particular, here are some thoughts about why democracy is better than any alternative. 

Political philosophers have asked which is the best form of government for millennia. There are perhaps as many answers as there are people who have asked this question, but we can think of two general ways that people go about answering it. One is to start with a set of values (divine right, some scripture, popular sovereignty, etc.) and figure out which kind of government best embodies that. If you think that a government should be whatever it is that the first born male heir to the current leader does, then that is your answer. If you believe that the most important thing is that all adults elect representatives, then that is your answer. Or, you might believe that a collection of property-owning white men, most of them deists, wrote a divinely inspired instruction sheet.* Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter what this government does, it matters that it has been composed or structured a certain way.

Another set of answers to this question start with a set of desired outcomes (stability, equality, peace, majority domination, minority rights, etc.) and then to figure out what kind of system of politics delivers that outcome. So you might say, “I don’t really care what the government structure is, I favor whichever one is best able to do what the majority wants.” Or, “the best government is the one that consistently delivers increasing material prosperity.” Or something like “I want the government that ensures that policy X is never implemented.”

Roughly, the difference between the two is the distinction between deontological and consequentialist approaches to normative ethics. Either you reason based on the procedures, or the outcomes. And yes, we actually care about both.** But politics is about choice under constraints, and so we press ahead.

Here is my core argument: as an empirical matter, almost everyone is a consequentialist. More to the point, almost everyone is a consequentialist when it comes to thinking about what sort of political system they wish to live under. They are pleased with that system when it renders outcomes that they like, and they are opposed to that system when it renders outcomes that they don’t like. Deontological arguments for democracy are the domain of ideal democratic theory and faculty meetings, and that’s it. These arguments are sometimes intellectually interesting, but they are politically irrelevant—their actual political function is to serve as ammunition for people who object to an outcome by objecting to the procedures that got us there.

How do I know that everyone is a consequentialist? Because I live and breath and notice the world around me.*** People switch back and forth in their evaluation of what is the best type of political system based on the identity of the government in charge, and their system-favoring preferences are contingent on the outcomes that they think the system gives them. I recently demonstrated by studying the anticipated legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election in the United States, finding people clearly evaluate the legitimacy of a democratic election based on who wins and who doesn’t. And, indeed, a large minority of Americans supported the overthrow of the American government because they didn’t like the policies of the person elected to be president.

(My non-U.S. readers may pause here to titter about how the American views all of politics through his own country’s ongoing political crisis. And then they should get serious, because there is nothing at all particular to the United States in what I write here.)

It’s hard to be a consequentialist about democracy. Democratic procedures don’t seem to have any special qualities that render better outcomes. Reviewing this point, Przeworski 1999 shows, very convincingly, that democracy does not do things like make better decisions or identify communal preferences. And yet, he also delivers a strong defense of democracy, which is that democracy is a routinized procedure to peacefully orchestrate changes in who holds political authority. 

My thinking builds from there. Let us abstract away from the details of a particular democratic regime (presidential versus parliamentary system, unitary or federal, single or multimember districts, two parties or may parties, term limits for the High Court) and focus on the core essence of democracy. Basically, here is the question: do you wish to have either

  1. a system in which your opponent can mobilize to seize power through an election and pass laws that you hate, but then you get the chance to mobilize to seize power yourself later and change them back, or,
  2. some other system?

If that other system does not allow your opponent to mobilize to seize power through elections and pass laws that you hate on the condition that you can try to do the same, then it’s not a democracy.****

Wouldn’t you prefer system in which your opponent can never threaten the policy issues that you care about? This seems attractive! Especially for a consequentialist. But it is actually the strongest possible argument in favor of democracy. Why? Because other people are motivated consequentialists, just like you are.

If you built a regime that did not allow your opponent the chance to pass laws that they hate, it would be a regime in which your opponents were guaranteed to detest their government. Think about it: you, too, would detest any government that never gave you a chance to win elections and pass laws about issues that you care about. A regime in which some large fraction of the population hates the government is not likely to be very stable.

How might you avoid the destabilizing consequences of a political regime that does not allow its opponents to pass laws that they favor? There aren’t a lot of options:

  1. Maybe let’s rule it out by assumption. Perhaps your government is so popular and wise that no one opposes it. 
  2. Or, a different way of avoiding the problem by defining it away. Perhaps your government is so effective that it can convince everyone to change their minds, to believe what you happen to believe. 
  3. Or, perhaps you decide that you do not care what your opponents think.

No one really believes in options 1 or 2 is realistic, but option 3 does seem nice—and feasible, at first glance. I don’t really care how much American bigots or misogynists hate my favored policies, for example. Why build a political system that allows them to have a voice? 

The answer is, once again, because they are consequentialists who care about politics too. If your political opponents have their own sincerely held political opinions, and they have numbers, then the only choices are to allow them to compete in the political arena or to forbid them from doing so. Forbidding them from participating in politics leaves them with precisely no reason to support that system. Why would they? And would they not fight to overturn the political system that you happen to favor?

There may be people who hold views that are so awful that they cannot be allowed to participate in politics. There are boundaries here: I am not advocating that we need to have democracy so that the Nazis can participate. I am saying, however, that if you wish to exclude the Nazis from politics once and for all, then you have to hope that they are small in numbers and loosely motivated, or you have to be prepared to repress them and deny them political voice.

The tragedy of democratic politics is that every single possible alternative to democracy—the system that says, allow your opponents to try to win elections and pass laws that you hate—requires someone to restrict the rights of some group of people. The only reason you would possibly favor an alternative to democracy would be if you were certain that you were going to be on the side of the ones in charge.***** If you are not, that alternative to democracy is intolerable. You would fight against that system.

Three final observations that follow from my discussion above: 

  1. Ask yourself the following. How long is the longest you have ever gone without having a deep disagreement with your country’s ruling government? With that in mind, assuming that you knew that your side would hold power under some non-democratic political system, how long would you imagine that you would unconditionally favor your own ruling government? Reason from there if you’d like to have a government that forbids people from trying to mobilize to overturn laws that they hate. 
  2. The democratic political scenario I laid out does not seem very attractive: two opposing sides that fundamentally disagree about a policy issue, and policies switch back and forth with each election. One hopes that this kind of interaction, repeated over time, leads to a kind of moderation towards the middle, as the opponents habituate themselves to one another and realize that a compromise is better. This is how Dankwart Rustow thought about democratic consolidation.******
  3. Democracy really does require a possibility that your opponent can win and set policies. That’s really the basic feature, and the rest is just an elaboration of that main requirement. Those who hold power would do well to remember that their opponents will seek to achieve their policy aims either through the democratic process, or around it. Those who do not like current policies should remember that the threat of extra-democratic sanction is a useful way to press your interests; their opponents, after all, have been doing the same for years.


* This is what Arizona’s Rusty Bowers sincerely believes

** Jason Brennan, for example, believes that most people are Stupid Idiots, so they should not participate in elections, and we should be led by Excellent People who will use their superior reason to make good choices. To show you why consequentialism really is the only way that people think about the value of democracy, remember that he also calls himself a libertarian. 

*** Survey research is almost entirely uninformative on this question. You learn nothing about support for democracy from survey questions about people’s support for democracy. (You might learn other things, like what kind of survey respondent they are.)

**** A lot of constitutional politics (anywhere around the world, not just in the U.S.) is about writing rules about what kinds of laws can be passed, and how. Or who can be elected, and how. It is a complete and utter fantasy to believe that those rules stand above politics in any way, and anyone who actually believes that should be embarrassed. That argument that constitutions set bounds for politics is, instead, a socially useful and (ideally) politically stabilizing communal fiction. It is also conservative, in the Burkean sense. That’s the point. 

***** This point has a risk-averse, Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” flavor to it. This is a good starting point to criticize my defense of democracy. 

****** I am probably personally responsible for the Rustovian turn comparative and American politics. He understood, in a way that few political scientists did at the time (and most Americanists still don’t get), that the essential requirement for democracy was common acceptance of the national political community. I noticed that Rustow’s point gives us the vocabulary to describe why bigotry and xenophobia are not just morally abhorrent, they are threats to democracy itself. Melvin Rogers wrote a Twitter thread that I really enjoyed on this point; lots of people working in Black political thought knew this long before Rustow did (and certainly before I did). I now believe that Rustow’s analysis is missing something about what is needed for the emergent norms to be system-preserving (that’s is, democratic) rather than system-undermining (anti-democratic). Ken Roberts has written about this, although his analysis is not yet public.