Democracy for Realists, Part VII: Not Against Democracy

Today’s post is a bit of an aside. I still want to go over in more detail what a group identity understanding of democracy might mean, as well as look at the 2016 election through this lens. But I just found new blog, Liberal Currents, that has a piece that is very relevant to the discussion here.

The title of the piece, ‘Not Against Democracy‘, is a reaction to the recent book by Jason Brennan, Against Democracy. The opening of the post summarizes some arguments against democracy, similar to those we have seen in Democracy for Realists; mostly the focus is on the failure of the folk theory.

What I found interesting was the author’s prime argument for democracy, which expands on Achen and Bartels’ defense of elections as the main good of democracy (as we saw last time).

To review, the great thing about elections is that they result in shared agreement about who rules.  But there are other systems that can do that as well. Hereditary monarchies, for example, have clear lines of succession that leave little ambiguity about who will rule. So, why is democracy better than a monarchy?

If we take as a given that any system of government will result in bad leaders some of the time, better to have a system that has a built in, peaceful method of transition than one that requires extralegal methods (assassinations, coups, etc) to remove a bad leader (or suffer a lifetime of poor governance).

He main thrust is that we should view elections as rituals of intensification:

Anthropologically speaking, voting is a ritual of intensification. Such rituals are undertaken during times of stress for the community—as when the political leadership might change—and they signal collective loyalty to the system so that all may see it and be comforted by it. We may demur that our preferred candidate did not win, or even that our preferred candidate never wins (and mine never does), but winning or losing is not the deeper point here. Rather, the exercise of democracy reaffirms the public commitment to a constant and orderly pattern of social life, and it does so in a way that inherently delegitimizes violence. Democracy may be of the state, but properly understood it is also a rebuke to the state, at least in the worst of its aspects.

Democracy does its good work—the work of keeping civil peace in a presumptive time of stress and danger—without depending at all on voters’ knowledge. Rituals of intensification don’t require a respectable scientific basis, or even a respectable metaphysics. Rituals of intensification work among peoples whom we might otherwise dismiss as superstitious, and they work among us, too, and they work for all of us because of our common evolutionary psychology. We are signaling creatures, and as such sometimes we find it necessary to signal to one another. And what better thing to signal than “Our social life, and our justice, must continue”?

On this view, one might object that democracy represents merely a psychological trick that we play on ourselves, like eating a full meal before we go grocery shopping. But look at the results: democracies are indeed more stable than other forms of government. They are more prosperous. They wage fewer wars against one another. They enjoy more liberty. And all of this begins, plausibly, with the social stability that democracies achieve at the dangerous moment when power changes hands.

There’s something rather gloomy in all this. Is the best we can really hope for a system that can only partially limit the effects of bad regimes, but not fully prevent them? That may be the central question we must grapple with in the near future.


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