Democracy: Beyond Idealism

by Sophia Nugent-Siegal ©

In the ancient world, the election of officials was thought of as more an aristocratic than a democratic mechanism—most functionaries in Athens were selected via sortition, and the election of generals (and later certain finance officers) was looked upon as something of a necessary evil from a democratic point of view. All this we know—it represents the difference between participatory (or true) democracy and what we are pleased to call representative democracy. What I feel needs further clarification are the inconsistencies in theory that this in itself entails, and our consequently tepid and illogical conception of the unchallenged banner of democracy.

It is my view that the democratic ideal has no official enemies these days because its philosophical underpinnings are never clearly stated and therefore its logical consequences are not seen. Apart from the simple idea of popular sovereignty in the sense of the need for the consent of the governed—which need have no more democratic upshot than the monarchism of Hobbes—there are two main justifications for democracy.

Firstly, there is the idea that political wisdom is evenly distributed amongst all people, as argued by the eponymous character in the Protagoras—or to put that differently, that if fifty-one percent of people see something as a correct course of action then it is likely to be so. To say that this is a hard to defend view is to put it mildly. However, we can leave that aside for the instant (it is easy to demonstrate that neither in constitution nor in action do we honour this principle in anything but the breach).

Secondly, there is the notion that, regardless of whether their preferred course of action is the most advantageous or not, the freedom of the majority to decide is more important.

However, current democratic systems tend to have less than binding ties to either of these concepts. Apart from the fact that our liberal ‘democracies’ place firewalls between electors and policies which routinely prevent participation in decisions on particular measures, our democratic systems also enshrine a respect for minorities which is characteristic of contemporary liberalism but alien to the core principles of democracy.

While we refrain from criticism either of democratic philosophy or of our system’s failure to be consistent with it, we do criticize our political culture on other grounds.

We criticize contemporary democracy for the quality of being a popularity contest, and for the partisan antagonism that exists almost on every topic.

In order for there to be any sort of democratic order there must be a body serving a probouletic function and there must be debate before the people—put more simply, because so large a group as the entire citizenry of a modern nation cannot formulate the topics upon which it is most vital to have views, and then decide on a rational course of action, it is necessary that opposing views be expressed in such a way that ‘the people’ have a simple binary upon which to decide. This entails within it excessive polarization and simplification—the party antagonisms, therefore, are not an aberration from ideal practice, they are a natural symptom of representative government, in which it is not possible (as it was in ancient Athens) for any ordinary citizen to make a proposal or draft legislation.

So too, in the case of the oft-remarked superficiality of debate (of which Lindsay Tanner has so intelligently complained), this is an inevitable corollary of the politics of popularity in which likeability is inevitably paramount. If there is anything people fighting for democracy worldwide do not understand, it is that there is a frivolity to democracy at which the martyrs who suffer under tyrannies cannot guess.

What does all this mean for democracy? Well, Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst political system, apart from all the others; and if an argument is to be made for it, I fear it must be on Utilitarian rather than idealist grounds, with an eye to its inevitable flaws.