hearing the faint music of democracy

Democracy has many inherent flaws. This is just the start of a comprehensive list:

  1. Majority tyranny: the many may oppress the few.
  2. Free-riding: it doesn’t pay to be informed or active when you can let others engage instead.
  3. Propaganda: it works.
  4.  Motivated reasoning: people pick information to reinforce existing beliefs.
  5. Boundary problems: many political issues are about who belongs within a given polity, so how can a polity legitimately decide where to draw that line?
  6. The Iron Law of Oligarchy: even in organizations fundamentally committed to equality, a few come to dominate because bureaucracy rewards specialized expertise.
  7. The privileged position of business: because communities need investment, capital will be advantaged even if businesses don’t actively lobby.

Most of these issues have been understood for centuries, yet the scholarly evidence for them accumulates. Then along comes an actual fiasco like the 2016 election, and it’s tempting to give up on the whole idea. Democracy seems to be that system that places a racist fool in the White House.

Yet people have constructed rather remarkable “patches” to keep democracy going. Just for instance, it seems implausible that many citizens would purchase and consume a daily source of fairly independent and well-sourced news that focuses on matters of public importance. But for about a century, most Americans did buy a metropolitan newspaper every day, and the proceeds funded shoe-leather journalism. The newspaper’s financial model worked because people paid for classified ads, comics, and sports as well as news, but they saw the daily headlines on the front page. Although the model was profitable–hence sustainable–it couldn’t have existed without the dedication of the people we call “the press”: professional reporters, editors, publishers, journalism educators (k-16), and some newspaper owners, who were motivated in part by the public interest.

That’s just one example. I would add broad-based political parties, civil rights organizations, public-interest lobbies, responsive government agencies, civic education courses, civic forums, community organizing efforts, the DREAMer movement, and many more.

Why have people worked so hard to create and sustain these efforts, when the flaws of democracy seem intrinsic and intractable? They’ve heard the democratic music as well as the everyday prose.

The music is there if you listen for it. Whitman heard it: “Though it is no doubt important who is elected governor, mayor, or legislator, (and full of dismay when incompetent or vile ones get elected, as they sometimes do,) there are other, quieter contingencies, infinitely more important.” Alexander Hamilton, in most ways so unlike Whitman, heard similar chords. He started the Federalist Papers asking whether we can live together by “reflection and choice” rather than “accident and force.” These authors saw republican self-rule not only as a way of making decisions by choice but also as a path to cultural and spiritual development. For Whitman, it meant being able to stand up “without humiliation, and equal with the rest” and starting that “grand experiment of development, whose end, (perhaps requiring several generations,) may be the forming of a full-grown man or woman.”

If we’re smart, we’ll focus on the prose: the catalog of serious and enduring flaws that beset democracy. But if we’re wise, we’ll also hear the music, and that will keep us working on a new generation of solutions.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.