“Man with sign” by www.CGPGrey.com, licensed by Creative Commons

One of the upsides – or downsides, depending on your point of view – of being an academic is that one is sometimes forced to reconsider one’s basic commitments. Perhaps that should happen more often than it does, but the fact that it happens at all is a minor miracle of modern life.

I’ve recently been reconsidering one of my basic commitments – to democracy. There are times when democratic systems and cultures seem to give everyone, no matter who they are or what they think, the right to speak their mind, even if what they say is dim and uninformed on the one hand, or downright malicious – even evil – on the other.

And those, like me, who are inclined to worry about that find plenty of evidence to support their suspicions, from moronic pronouncements on rape and evolution (please, people, learn what scientists mean when they say “theory”) to the mass-madnesses of tax crusades and climate change denial, modern democracies can seem like systems for funnelling blind sloganeering and prejudice into law and public policy. Factor in talk radio and twitter, and it only seems to get more depressing, because now the ignorant have direct access to the public sphere where once they had to go through channels that filtered out some of the more egregious nonsense.

And yet… there are lots of reasons why, despite those moments of despair, I am a democrat. First, there are some principled reasons:

  1. Political, social and economic questions are not like natural science questions. They arise in particular political contexts, as a result of millions of ordinary, everyday interactions. The answers to them are therefore not generally lying around waiting to be “discovered”. Answers to political questions are created.
  2. Because of (1), the best way to understand political problems is to discuss them among those who face them – to ensure that our answers are created with reference to the actual experiences of those who have to live with the consequences of such answers.
  3. Democracy is about ensuring that collective decisions – answers to shared questions – are systematically responsive to the wishes of those affected by the decisions. That is, democracy is a form of collective decision-making that fits (1) and (2), with a set of accountability requirements to make sure it stays that way.

Other approaches don’t fit that need. Dictatorship and coin-tossing can be dismissed easily. We could have bureaucracy or expert-led government or philosopher-kings, but such people often don’t agree about the nature of problems let alone the solutions – Mike Fladlien has some fun at the expense of economics on this – and anyway, such approaches make the mistake about the nature of political and social problems I started with. Market-based coordination mechanisms have an important role, but markets require regulation to work effectively. Who decides what is regulated and what is not? Who decides the regulations, and in whose interests?

I could go on and on here – I am resisting the temptation to go off on a long tangent about libertarianism – but let me set out some further reasons to be cheerful:

  1. Many (most?) of the same people who spit moronic slogans on twitter can, in different settings, behave with mutuality and respect to their fellow human beings. People are not all good or all bad; we are mixes of potentialities, and some forums activate helpful potentialities while others activate harmful ones.
  2. Because of (1) we can tweak democratic institutions and the rules of the game to maximise the chances that people will disagree civilly. And that is why I am a deliberative democrat, interested in democratic processes that help us feel heard, allow us to disagree, sometimes vociferously, but still allow us to work to find common solutions to shared problems, rather than backing ourselves into corners.

All of this relies on a view of politics not just as something that politicians do, but something that is part of the human condition – we have opinions, habits, preferences and aims; those aims conflict; yet we need to rub along together, somehow. Democracy, for me, is a way of civilising that conflict and coming to agreements – temporary, cautious agreements – that are rooted in our experiences and speak to our hopes.

I don’t pretend there are not problems with the way different democracies operate. And I don’t think there’s any such thing as a perfect democracy. I do think there are better and worse ones. And I remain convinced that the alternatives are much worse.

Churchill was right, on that at least. He is often quoted as saying “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, usually as a means of butressing a cynical point. Rarely do the quoters include the rest of the sentence: “but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters”.

Sometimes we need reminding of that broad feeling, and of why that feeling is so widely shared.

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