“But even if we should accept and defend democracy as an ideal, we should not make the mistake of forgetting that anti-democratic—or, at least, non-democratic—procedures and institutions are necessary for sustaining a liberal democratic society like our own.”
defined democracy as “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Defenses of democracy often amount to some version of this least worst option line. It is witty and certainly true. But is there not a better, more robust defense of democracy—of government of, by, and for the people—out there?inston Churchill famously
There is, and that stronger, more inspiring defense of democracy would be one of principle rather than pragmatism. To rediscover that more robust defense of democracy today, we must return to first principles regarding who we are as humans—what we are owed by way of rights and how we relate to one another.
As the Declaration of Independence itself makes clear, we are individuals endowed with equal dignity and human rights. There are certain things—rights, we call them—we are owed as individuals by virtue of our humanity.
But in addition to being separate, individual beings endowed with certain unalienable rights, we are also social beings. It is in our very nature to need one another, to interact with one another, to fight with one another, to cooperate with one another. In a word, it is natural and inevitable that we relate to one another. We turn to politics, law, and government (or violence) to help us structure those relations.
Constitutional democracy squares with these two basic truths—(1) our individuality and (2) our sociality. How?
By virtue of our being social beings, there is such a thing as a common good. And there are things like roads and economic relations, as well as the need for criminal laws to govern our collective response to instances when one of us inevitably wrongs another in some way.
Democracy responds to the reality of human sociality without forsaking the principle of individuality. In governing our shared affairs, democracy takes into account the fact that though we are social, we are also separate, equal beings. Thus, it would make no moral sense for one of us to have more of a say than another over how we are going to govern ourselves, unless that person earns the right to have some form of inflated influence—namely, by being elected to political office.
In denouncing slavery, Abraham Lincoln summed up the principled defense of democracy well. In his famous 1854 speech decrying the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln stated that “My faith in the proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own lies at the foundation of the sense of justice there is in me. I extend the principles to communities of men, as well as to individuals.”
There are realms of our human experience that are communal; there are others that are private, and there are others that lie somewhere in between. Democracy is premised on individual dignity, which is why it grows incoherent and immoral when it begins to trample upon the rights and dignity of the individual—when it extends beyond its rightful realm (of the community) and into the territory of the individual. The whole philosophical point of democracy is not that 51% somehow have a greater grasp on justice than the 49% but, rather, that each of us is blessed with equal worth, so that when we govern our common affairs together (i.e., when we engage in politics), we ought to do so on an equal footing with one another. When a democracy begins infringing on the rights of the individual in the name of “us” the group, it has lost its way; it has detached itself from its fundamental reason for being. Democracy only makes philosophical sense if we accept individual dignity, such that when a democracy infringes on individual dignity it is not only committing a moral error; to some significant degree, it is acting nonsensically and out of character.
There is a strong philosophical justification for democracy, one that is grounded in our individual dignity. But even if we should accept and defend democracy as an ideal, we should not make the mistake of forgetting that anti-democratic—or, at least, non-democratic—procedures and institutions are necessary for sustaining a liberal democratic society like our own.
Pure democracy never makes for optimal governance, for two reasons.
First, as a prudential matter, pure democracy would be a disaster. Even if we ought to approximate having equal voices to the greatest extent possible, mediating institutions—like political representation—are necessary for a variety of reasons. Take this most obvious example of representation. By electing representatives to wield political power, we free ourselves to live our own lives. We barely have time to read the news, let alone stew on it each day and form an opinion on each and every policy question and political issue. We are busy. So, we elect people, our representatives, to carry out some of that essential political learning, reasoning, and deliberation on our behalf.
Moreover, we expect our representatives to exercise their own independent judgment in order to reach optimal policies. We understand that we are ultimately in charge, as we can “vote the bums out,” but we also want the supposed bums to prove themselves not to be bums—to reflect on the issues of the day, formulate thoughtful and principled responses to them, and, to some degree, demonstrate for us how to work through these tough questions ourselves. The best politicians are not followers but democratically cognizant leaders. They do not run roughshod over public opinion, but they also shape it and lead We the People as needed. In doing so with a tactful touch, they earn our respect, our votes, and perhaps even a place in the history books. As James Madison put it in Federalist No. 10, representative (republican) government aims to “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
The second reason that pure democracy is flawed has to do with our sociality. As social animals, we not only relate to one another, as I discussed above. We also have an innate desire to be a part of groups, or tribes, and then have those groups be esteemed and respected by others, as Francis Fukuyama aptly points out in his 2018 book Identity. Thus, every question cannot be left up to a national plebiscite; Group A must be empowered to govern Group A-specific affairs, Group B must be empowered to govern Group B-specific affairs, and so on and so forth. Moreover, if Group A and Group B are both members of Group C, it might make a good deal of sense to allot representation on this group-specific basis (A gets a vote and B gets a vote, even if there are more people in A than B) rather than spreading it out equally across Group C.
This is why the United States Senate made a great deal of sense at the time of the Founding. It gave states—which were organic, consciously distinct political communities at the time—equal shares in their common Union. There was a democracy of groups, if not individuals. The Senate was not anti-democratic for the sake of being anti-democratic. Laws, history, culture, and mores had conspired to divide Americans into separate political communities, and the Senate was a way through which those communities were granted equal, democratic voices within their nascent, fragile, shared Union.
The reason the Senate (and the Electoral College) are losing legitimacy in the eyes of many is that the states are no longer meaningful political communities for most Americans. This does not mean we ought to do something radical like abolishing the Senate or the Electoral College, but it does mean that we—no matter our partisan allegiances—should start thinking more about how our democratic institutions square with our modern-day tribal and group loyalties. Some reforms around the edges at least may be needed.
In the months and years ahead, we will continue fighting with one another over the meaning of our democracy and its future direction. Many will unnecessarily accuse one another of being enemies of American democracy. Sometimes that description will be apt, but often it will not be.
Going forward, I hope this extended discussion of why we have democracy and why pure democracy must be limited in certain ways will inform how we approach these democratic discussions and disputes. We are individuals of equal worth, but we are also social beings. Democracy squares with both of these realities, but the latter fact of our sociality counsels against overdoing democracy. That is, groups must be given a voice in politics and governance qua groups, which might run afoul of numerical democracy.
Figuring out how to structure meaningful group representation in America—allowing like to govern like (localizing more political power would be a start on this front) and to have a coherent, institutionalized voice at more central levels of governance—might be one of the core tasks we must complete in the years ahead.
Thomas Koenig is a student at Harvard Law School and the author of the “Tom’s Takes” newsletter on Substack. He can be found on Twitter @thomaskoenig98