what if the people don’t want to rule?

The Athenian tyrannicides found a democracy

It should come as no surprise when elites try to undermine democracies and other forms of republican self-government. It is not in their interest to share power. A republic’s founding story is usually the overthrow of a tyrant, an oligarchical cabal, or a theocrat; and many republics have died at the same hands.

But what if the people don’t want to rule? This is an acute worry at times like the present, when some electorates seem to prefer politicians who disparage democratic values (not just Trump in 2016, but also Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi today) and when the only governments in the world that appear to be broadly trusted are in China, the UAE, India, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Meanwhile, influential frameworks or paradigms in political psychology are raising doubts about people’s ability to participate in–and support–democracy.

Evidence that the people don’t want to rule

These concerns were at least as grave between the world wars, when dictators emerged as popular figures, sometimes attaining office through genuine elections, and when theorists like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Schumpeter anticipated today’s academic skepticism about people’s desire and capacity for self-government.

One cluster of research on this problem was the Frankfurt School, whose most pressing original topic was the failure of the European working class to support revolution. I don’t happen to share the founders’ Marxism, but theirs was a species of republican theory: they wanted the people (equated with the workers) to rule themselves instead of being ruled by capital. And they were concerned about a very real problem: workers’ support for right-wing authoritarians like Mussolini. By exploring the hypothesis that popular opinion might affect history and not simply result from historical forces, the Frankfurt School broke from one orthodox currant in Marxism. As Wayne Gabardi writes, for them, “the problem was not one of objective conditions, but rather of subjective states. This required a radical rethinking of the relationship between social structure and character structure, political-economic forces and social-psychological syndromes, the material and the mental.” It is reminiscent of today’s focus on “subjective states” as an explanation of outcomes like Trump’s 2016 election.

Wanting to add an empirical dimension to the research, Max Horkheimer hired Erich Fromm to conduct a survey. Fromm and colleagues collected data from 584 Germans, including items about their objective circumstances, their lifeworlds, and their opinions. Among the questions were: “What do you and your wife think about early sex education for children (birth, procreation, sexual diseases)?” and “Do you like jazz?” Fromm and colleagues concluded that many of the workers who belonged to left parties held authoritarian attitudes in their personal lives and showed other telltale signs of fascism, such as anti-Semitism and admiration for Mussolini.

This study was the main inspiration for The Authoritarian Personality, the major work that the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno and several American colleagues published in 1950. (See my recent post on that book’s methodology.) Given the change of time and place, the question had shifted from “Why doesn’t the working class support Marxist revolution?” to “Why don’t voters support liberal democracy?” But the threat was the same: authoritarianism. “The major concern was the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda” (p. 1). The conclusion was also similar to Fromm’s: a substantial proportion of Americans appeared to be potential fascists.

A comparable finding emerged much later on from John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (2002). Many Americans apparently believed that political disagreement was a sign of corruption and preferred government by disinterested elites.

And the currently very influential Moral Foundations theory of Jonathan Haidt finds that many people display a latent variable of Authority, which sounds at least potentially undemocratic, especially if it is a predominant factor for an individual. At the same time, Moral Foundations theory implies that people will generally be resistant to sharing political power with other citizens who emphasize different Foundations from their own.


Each of these research programs has been criticized.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality did not field their scales with representative samples of the US population, so they could not estimate the prevalence of potential fascism. They did not attempt to identify pro-democratic personalities or estimate their prevalence. And they did not explore whether there might be left-authoritarians as well as right-authoritarians.

Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey (2010) challenged the Stealth Democracy thesis in a paper entitled “Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why?” For part of their paper, they simply asked questions that were the reverse of those fielded by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. For instance, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had tested the proposition: “Our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people.” Thirty-one percent agreed, which Hibbing and Theiss-Morse considered high. Neblo et al. tested: “It is important for the people and their elected representatives to have the final say in running government, rather than leaving it up to unelected experts.” Ninety-two percent agreed. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that 86% agreed that “Elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems.” But Neblo et al found that 92% agreed that “It is important for elected officials to discuss and debate things thoroughly before making major policy changes.” Hibbing and Theiss Morse found a majority (64%) in favor of the statement: “What people call ‘compromise’ in politics is really just selling out one’s principles.” But Neblo et al found that 84% agreed, “One of the main reasons that elected officials have to debate issues is that they are responsible to represent the interests of diverse constituencies across the country.”

By asking questions that were opposites of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s items, Neblo et al. revealed that even most people who held anti-democratic views also held pro-democratic views. One way to make sense of the apparent contradiction is to think that people wanted real dialog and deliberation, but were unimpressed by the actual debate in Congress.

The other main source of evidence in Neblo et al. is a field experiment, in which people were offered the chance to deliberate with real Members of Congress. People were more likely to accept if they had negative attitudes toward elected leaders and the debates in Washington. Again, that could be because they did not reject deliberation in principle but disliked the official debates that they heard about or watched on TV. People who held those skeptical views were especially impressed by an offer from their real US Representative to deliberate. Individuals were also more likely to accept the offer to deliberate if they were young and if they had low education.

Further, if people showed up to deliberate, their opinions of the experience were very positive. According to the paper, “95% Agreed (72% Strongly Agreed) that such sessions are ‘very valuable to our democracy’ and 96% Agreed (80% Strongly Agreed) that they would be interested in doing similar online sessions for other issues.” These results are consistent with almost all practical deliberative experiments.

Kevin B. Smith and colleagues (2017) cast doubts on three strong claims of the Moral Foundations Theory: that the dispositions labeled “foundations” are stable for individuals over time, that these foundations predict and explain political ideology (and hence explain ideological differences), and that the foundations are inherited–as they must be if they result from Darwinian selection. Surveying twins along with other family members, Smith et al. find that “moral foundations are not particularly stable within individuals across time, at least compared to ideology.” At a given point, individuals’ answers to Moral Foundations questions do relate to their ideologies, but their views change over time. The causal arrow seems to point from ideology to moral foundations, as much as the reverse. Presumably, people are influenced by events, experiences, and discussions to revise their political views, thereby changing their Moral Foundations (which are not actually foundational). Thus the stream of research exemplified in Moral Foundations Theory has been “overly dismissive of the role of conscious deliberation.”

I also believe that we should be careful about generalizing the findings of Moral Foundations Theory to political contexts. Haidt et al. ask individuals to make private judgments about emotionally charged questions that are often related to human biological functions: universals. In completing these questionnaires, respondents do not have to act, make decisions together, preserve relationships with fellow decision-makers, follow procedures for group decision-making, or assess the kinds of complex, changing, and morally mixed institutions that are the main topics of politics–things like the US government, or the neighborhood’s public schools, or Islam. (See Flanagan 2016.) The Foundations may recede in importance once we enter the Public Sphere.

What should we make of the evidence?

So far, I have summarized some empirical evidence that challenges the assumption that people really want to govern themselves, and then some rebuttal evidence. But once any evidence emerges that people may not want to deliberate and rule themselves, the worm of skepticism is already inside the apple. Maybe some studies have overstated the prevalence of anti-democratic attitudes; nevertheless, it’s clear that such attitudes exist, and they may be prevalent in a given time and place. That helps to make sense of the fact that 44% of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s performance in office, even today.

This is the main response I would offer: Some people are authoritarian. It is not wrong to construct a causal theory in which these people help to cause democracies to fail. However, that is not the whole causal story. Something makes people authoritarian. If authoritarianism were inherited or hard-wired, then we could not explain massive changes in attitudes toward democracy within the same populations. In Erich Fromm’s time, many Germans were proto-fascists, which they demonstrated by giving Hitler’s party the largest share of the vote in 1932. Today, their descendants widely support one of the stablest and best-performing liberal democracies in history. Context and experience must matter.

Some combination of centuries of feudalism followed by rapid industrialization, the slaughter and then defeat of World War I, hyperinflation, and sophisticated Nazi propaganda could make people into fascists. On the other hand, living in Angela Merkel’s Germany makes or keeps most people liberal and democratic. As Neblo and colleagues show, inviting people to a well-designed deliberative event with their own elected representatives increases their commitment to democracy. The Tocquevillian argument is that “experience with liberty” and “experience with solving problems directly through collective action” inculcate liberal and democratic virtues (Allen, Stevens & Berg 2018, p. 36)

What should we do?

One conclusion might be that elites–the people in charge of institutions–should create rewarding opportunities for self-governance at many scales, from empowered student governments in middle schools to national deliberations that influence Congress.

That conclusion is true but empty. Elites will not share power because they should. They will do so if they believe it is in their self-interest, and they are more likely to reach that conclusion to the extent that the public organizes to demand self-governance. Unfortunately, such pressure will be weak to the extent that most people have lost experience with, and appetite for, self-governance.

A vicious cycle is certainly possible–and probably evident in many countries today. But the situation is not as dire as it might seem. The good news is that we do not need the active support of a majority of citizens to spread opportunities for self-rule. Some of us can build such opportunities and invite others in, and we can thereby expand the constituency for real democracy.

If we could ask the public–in a truly valid and reliable way–whether they want a deliberative democracy, the results would probably be mixed and ambivalent. Depending on the political context, more or fewer people would agree. Unfortunately, at crisis points, when it’s most important for people to stand up for democracy, their support is likely to be the softest.

But whether a whole society should be a deliberative democracy is not the salient question, anyway. None of us can decide to make it one. The salient question is whether we–you and I and our colleagues and allies–should build and expand opportunities for deliberative democracy in the various contexts where we have influence: our schools and colleges, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and online venues.

The answer to that question may not always be yes. Values other than deliberation and democracy may be paramount in some contexts, such as a scientific lab, an artist’s studio, or a warship. But there are good reasons for us to build more deliberative democratic opportunities than we find around us today. These opportunities can make their immediate contexts better and can extend the public’s appetite for deliberative democracy at larger scales.

Citations: Wayne Gabardi, “The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study by Erich Fromm, Barbara Weinberger and Wolfgang Bonss” (review), New German Critique, No. 41, Special Issue on the Critiques of the Enlightenment (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 166-178; Neblo, M. A., Esterling, K. M., Kennedy, R. P., Lazer, D. M., & Sokhey, A. E. (2010). Who wants to deliberate—and why?. American Political Science Review, 566-583; Smith, Kevin B., John R. Alford, John R. Hibbing, Nicholas G. Martin, and Peter K. Hatemi. “Intuitive ethics and political orientations: Testing moral foundations as a theory of political ideology.” American Journal of Political Science 61, no. 2 (2017): 424-437; Flanagan, Owen. The geography of morals: Varieties of moral possibility. Oxford University Press, 2016. Barbara Allen, Daniel Stevens & Jeffrey Berg, Truth in Advertising? Lies in Political Advertising and How They Affect the Electorate (Lexington Books 2018).

This entry was posted in civic theory, Uncategorized on by .

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.