It is easy to think that by the 20th century a broad consensus existed on the nature of democracy in the western world. This was not the case. Many asked if democracy is simply a mechanism for deciding who governs, or does it define the character of society in general? Others highlighted the problems of pluralist democracy, as well as the inadequacies of the modern liberal state. Defenders of participatory democracy condemned the inegalitarian features of late 20th century democracies, while others argued that liberal principles are an essential component to democracy. Nevertheless, a broad consensus had been reached that representative democracy was the only form worth considering. Writers as late as Madison thought this to be a qualified form, compared to the direct democracy of the ancient Athenians which represented the ‘pure’ form.
The American philosopher John Dewey most clearly articulated the idea of democracy in terms of democratic culture, which is far more reaching than the process of electing politicians. Dewey believed that people are inherently sociable. He followed Hegel in thinking that while we are born ready to become fully human individuals, we only become so through drawing on the moral and intellectual resources of society. We naturally form ties with multiple communities, but the overarching “community of communities” is democracy. In other words, the practice of democracy is a community working out what its needs are and how to satisfy them. The role of education is key to making democracy work correctly, and Dewey took a pragmatic stance between the views of Plato and Rousseau. He rejected Plato’s desire to educate an elite who could think for the ordinary person, as well as Rousseau’s assertion that every idea a child needs is latent within them. We must think for ourselves as Rousseau wanted, but thinking is a skill that must be taught. Dewey’s democratic society is dynamic – constantly solving problems and creating new ones. It is also one where its citizens are understood to be entitled to equal access to the riches of the world: emotional, intellectual and spiritual, as well as material.
Dewey’s views on democracy have had plenty of critics, one of the most influential being leading early 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter. He grouped all moral defences of democracy (including Dewey’s) together and called it “the classical theory”, and contrasted this with his own “realistic” theory. Schumpeter described the classical theory as the view that democracy is a means of achieving the common good via public discussion. A majority of voters come to a view that they then instruct their delegates to put into action. However this is not how things work, as demonstrated by a commercial analogy. We do not develop engineering specifications for automobiles, and then find a manufacturer to build it. Engineers create new products and marketers offer them to the public, hoping that their products will be the most popular. It is the same with politicians. The classical view of democracy makes unrealistic demands on the knowledge of voters and their ability to aim for the common good, whatever that might be. Schumpeter likens democracy to capitalism: it is a method where political elites engage in a competitive struggle for people’s vote via an election. The job of the people is not to make decisions on policy but to legitimate the rulers – to put the ‘crown’ on one set of heads rather than another. Schumpeter recognised that democracy does not determine the values of society. If a society is illiberal, democracy will ensure that its laws are also illiberal. Some societies have chosen to remove elements of politics from democratic debate, such as the protection of religious or ethnic minorities, in order to protect society from itself. Schumpeter’s views on democracy became the mainstream in the western world, particularly in the U.S. The exception was his view that the role of voters between elections was to let their elected governments govern, without interfering. For a realist, this was a surprisingly unrealistic position.
Robert Dahl & Polyarchy
Building on Schumpeter’s principles, Robert Dahl recast democracy as ‘polyarchy’, i.e. rule by many different groups of people. This emphasises the importance of considering the views of minorities as well as the majority. It recognises that modern societies are pluralist, consisting of many social groups with different interests. If these groups are “cross-cutting” (for example different ethnic groups consist of both rich and poor, radical and conservative) it will prevent united blocks from forming which can press their interests too heavily. The benefit of polyarchy is its ability to accommodate many divergent interests, but this comes at the price of slowness and can give some groups a disproportionate ability to stop anything from happening.
After World War II, liberal representative democracy (broadly aligned to Schumpeter’s views) appeared unchallenged in the western world. However in the 1960s and 1970s some demanded a more participatory democracy, in response to a general feeling that increased affluence was making society worse not better – unequal, tedious, and without meaning. Participatory democracy can be thought of as direct democracy but on a smaller scale, with for example workers having a say in how businesses are run, and pupils having a say in how schools are run. The division of the world into the givers and the takers of orders was argued to be morally intolerable. While initially popular, the movement faded as it became clear that there was no appetite among the majority of workers or students for continued engagement in the management of workplaces or educational institutions.
John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” provides an account of legitimate social, political and economic arrangements in the modern world. It starts with the idea that if we were to design a society without knowing what our own place would be, we would focus on ensuring that the worst-off person did as well as possible. This is contrary to the egalitarian view that a fair society is one where everyone is the same. If we can provide the talented with incentives to use their talents, and distribute some of the benefits to the least well-off, then the least well-off will do better than under a strictly equal society. A level of inequality is legitimate if it means the least well-off are better off as a result. Well-off in this case means in every sense including access to political and civil rights, which take priority over economic welfare. Liberals have historically looked for ways to constrain what the majority could do. For Rawls, democracy is not about balancing the rights of majorities against minorities, but about protecting rights full stop. A vote is entitled to respect only if it respects the equal liberty of everyone. Voting for racial segregation is not “democratic”, even if supported by the majority.
Citizen or Subject?
Finally, it is worth returning to the question of whether we have more in common with the citizens of ancient Athens or the subjects of the Persian Empire. We are much freer in the modern liberal sense then either ancient civilisation – freer to think and act as we choose without state persecution. We have settled for a less participatory and less generally politicized society than ancient Athens, and we are not very concerned with the desire for equal political power. However we have secured more checks on the authority of our rulers than the Persians could have imagined. Wealth inequality continues to exist, but is generally less visible than in ancient times. Our modern system manages to combine elements of both the Athenian and Persian political systems with modern liberal liberty, but plenty of questions remain over what our democracy will look like in the future.
If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it: