After a divisive election, the question of democracy’s stability has again commanded public attention. What has philosophy said to this, one of our discipline’s foundational questions?
Plato and Aristotle both regarded stability as a vital metric by which to evaluate political systems, though they differed in their judgments about democracy. Plato’s Republic is about proper governance, of the City and the Soul. In Book VIII, Socrates introduces the democratic city to his interlocutor Adeimantus, as follows:
First of all, then, aren’t they free? And isn’t the city full of freedom and freedom of speech? And doesn’t everyone in it have the license to do what he wants?
That’s what they say at any rate.
And where people have this license, it’s clear that each of them will arrange his own life in whatever manner pleases him.
Then I suppose that it’s most of all under this constitution that one finds people of all varieties.
Of course. [557b]
What follows this passage is a description of “the characteristics of democracy,” such as “the city’s tolerance.” [558b] In summary, “…it would seem to be a pleasant constitution, which lacks rulers and not variety and which distributes a sort of equality to both equals and unequals alike.” [558c]
A culture whose central value is liberty will lead to sweeping social equality. In a democratic city, students in the academies challenge their teachers (there are campus protests) [563a]. A democratic culture equalizes those who are natural-born and immigrant; in such a system “[a] resident alien or a foreign visitor is made equal to a citizen.” [562e] Democracy is inconsistent with enslaving others [563b], and in a democracy there is equality between men and women [563b].
Lacking access to a quality education is a severe restriction on freedom, as it limits one’s career possibilities. Lacking a safe source of fresh water is a limit on freedom, as the search for it can absorb time better spent on pursuing liberty, rather than attending to necessity. A society’s commitment to liberty is precarious if the sphere of free action accorded to some, merely by virtue of birth position, is vastly greater than the sphere of free action accorded to others. This is why we provide public goods, in the form of for example public education, and drinking water. But even if unjust inequality is eliminated, liberty will lead to inequalities of wealth due to life choices. In a society devoted to liberty, people will rise to positions of wealth and influence by such choices, and obstacles to the rise of members of traditionally oppressed groups will be dismantled.
Socrates recognizes that the flourishing of liberties, the diversity of practices and customs, and social equality may seem attractive. However, he urges us to attend to its risks. People are not naturally inclined to self-governance, “always in the habit of setting up one man as their special champion, nurturing him and making him great.” [565d] Democracy also creates a vast amount of resentment, due to the social upheaval required by prizing freedom, and the attendant costs to traditions, customs, and hierarchies. A tyrant takes advantage of the resentments created by democracy, and the hunger for authority. The tyrant “dominates a docile mob” by bringing “someone to trial on false charges.” [565a] The tyrant’s “impious tongue and lips taste kindred citizen blood,” and the tyrant “drops hints to the people about the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of land.” [566a]
About the first days of the future tyrant’s reign, Plato writes:
During the first days of his reign, and for some time after, won’t he smile in welcome at anyone he meets, saying that he’s no tyrant, making all sorts of promises both in public and in private, freeing the people from debt, redistributing the land to them and to his followers, and pretending to be gracious and gentle to all? [566d,e]
What follows [566e -569c] is a description of the descent from the first days. The tyrant will need to “stir up a war, so that the people will continue to feel the need for a leader” [566e], those who dare “to speak freely to each other and to him, criticizing what’s happening” [567b] will be purged. Finally, the tyrant will appoint a bodyguard from among his most “loyal followers.” [567e]
Plato sees in democracy’s ideal of the freedom of speech the cause of its inevitable downfall. Ever increasing pressure for freedom and equality will lead to resentments of fellow citizens, as will the inevitable hypocritical use of these ideals (e.g. when the ideal of liberty is used to justify corruption). A tyrant will exploit these resentments to stoke fear of fellow citizens. Taking advantage of the human attraction to authority, they will present themselves as the only savior from the enemies who are the focus of their demagoguery. Once the tyrant takes over they will end democracy, replacing it with tyranny.
Aristotle was more sanguine. In Aristotle’s democratic city, all citizens participate in the formation of the laws by which they are governed, an activity that for Aristotle was the purest expression of freedom. The equal participation of all citizens in the formation of the policies that will be adopted and fairly applied lends the system its stability. Aristotle also emphasizes Democracy’s epistemic virtues, arguing that open and honest cooperative deliberation about policy between all citizens yields better results, in the form of wiser policy, further strengthening the stability of the system. Democracy requires a clean public square.
Plato’s democratic city is based upon a notion of liberty as unconstrained freedom to satisfy one’s desires, freedom from the limitations of customs and traditions. Aristotle’s conception of democracy, by contrast, allows democratic societies to have homogeneous value systems. However, this is possible only if all citizens freely and equally participate in the decision to adopt them, decisions that must be continually revisited. Participating equally in such decisions is, for Aristotle, genuine freedom.
Contemporary liberal democracies differ from these conceptions of democracy in at least two ways. First, they incorporate essential insights of Christianity, such as the concept of human rights. Secondly, they involve elected representatives to act on behalf of our best interests, tasked to deliberate with one another reflectively, openly, and truthfully, with willingness to changing their minds and compromise.
American democracy differs in a significant way from most other Western democracies, which make Plato’s concerns particularly relevant. Democracies throughout the world, in the words of Jeremy Waldron, have the “conviction that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect for its citizens.” But our Constitution provides the broadest protections for speech in the political arena. India’s first amendment bans hate speech; our first amendment protects it. In many other democracies, a public official who described Islam as “like a cancer,” a “political ideology that hides behind this notion of being a religion,” as the incoming National Security Advisor has said, would be prosecuted. In the United States, we have chosen a different path. If Plato is right, our democracy is especially in danger.
The historical record, however, speaks differently. The United States is the world’s oldest continuous government. Our institutions and practices seem especially safe.
Yet optimism is warranted only insofar as it reflects our country’s historical commitment to its values. Sadly our democracy has always been partial, its ideals hypocritically employed. In 1852, in a Fourth of July speech, Frederick Douglass asked:
What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?
Perhaps the fact that American politicians have traditionally felt the need to express their loyalty most centrally to the democratic ideal of freedom speaks to the strength of our country’s democratic character, even in the face of its history?
Aimé Césaire writes, “a civilization which justifies colonization – and therefore force – is already a sick civilization, a civilization which is morally diseased, which irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one denial to another call for its Hitler, I mean its punishment.” This was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, whose rejection of what we now call “nation building” was due to his understanding of the difficulty of insulating an imperial power’s domestic politics from the clearly anti-democratic practices required in invading and occupying other nations by force. When we waged war against the Japanese, we interned our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry. Our recent colonial adventures in the Middle East threaten to reverberate in similar ways back to our shores.
This election campaign raises clear concerns about our democratic character. A press free to criticize those in political power is the emblem of a healthy democracy. But during his campaign rallies, the president-elect would place the media into a “pen,” and whip his audience into a frenzy of hatred against them. Campaigning by demonizing a critical media is campaigning against democracy. The explicit illiberalism of the president-elect, his hatred of the press and his open intolerance, is what attracted voters to him.
Clinton’s campaign made a devastating error by failing to recognize the appeal of illiberalism. The strategy of their ad campaign, which featured lengthy snippets of the president-elect at his most illiberal, presupposed a general commitment to liberal democratic values. It is in any case a familiar point from George Lakoff’s 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, that one should not repeat the opposition’s rhetorical frames even if it is to condemn them. Instead, one should provide an alternative positive vision, in this case of liberal democratic values. Anything else is campaign money spent on advertising for the opposition.
For Aristotle, it is the law that gives democracy its stability. If all citizens participate equally in its formation, and the law is applied fairly, the system will be stable. Taking these two criteria as metrics of stability, how should we think of our current situation?
In many states, the laws that ensured that minority groups could equally participate have been abandoned and replaced by laws that impede their ability. The president-elect has nominated Jeff Sessions to administer the laws; he is famous for harshly pursuing the prosecution of civil rights activists registering black fellow citizens for voter fraud. The president-elect has claimed that there was an immense voter fraud problem in the recent election. Bernie Sanders has pointed out that there is a “hidden message” here; it is green lighting Republican governors to pursue restrictive voter registration laws that disenfranchise minorities in large numbers.
It is also important to note how the president-elect communicates the message that even more restrictive voter registration laws are required. He does so by appealing to his power as leader to define an alternative reality. Given his alternative reality, one needs such laws. Therefore, one needs such laws. This is not normal democratic politics. It is authoritarian politics. The leader can dictate the reality that justifies the application of the laws.
There are other signs of an embrace of an authoritarian conception of the law. Recently, Sessions praised the president-elect’s 1989 comments about the Central Park Five, teenagers accused and convicted on the basis of coerced testimony of a terrible crime and later completely exonerated, as showing his commitment to “law and order.” At the time, the president-elect described them as “crazed misfits,” and called for their execution. Sessions’ use of “law and order” refers to a system of laws that has at its center an authority figure whose judgments, whether fair or not, constitute the law. This is a conception of law and order the rejection of which is the very basis upon which our country is founded. To be subject to the arbitrary whim of a ruler is not freedom.
From a perspective that regards tradition, identity, or religion as the chief sources of value, liberal democracy is an existential threat to what gives meaning to human life. If liberal democracy’s disturbances of the social order bring no obvious benefit, materially or spiritually, to those to whom the losses have been most deeply felt, we can hardly expect universal support for its values.
Carl Schmitt denounced freedom as a merely hypocritical ideal, on the grounds that liberal states regularly defend their freedoms by suspending them. A healthy liberal democratic culture resists these temptations to “protect” its democratic freedoms in such manifestly hypocritical ways. And yet our nation has a long history of this kind of hypocrisy. Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman recently described the motivation for Nixon’s “war on drugs” as follows:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
In Michigan, democratically elected mayors and city councils are disbanded in cases of supposed “financial emergency.” Even liberal democracy’s greatest critics did not think its citizens would allow the language of emergency to be so misused in peacetime.
And what if the United States fails? What if we replace our allegiance to freedom with an allegiance to some version of national identity, of a fictionalized shared heritage, or an official national religion? What if we become a one party state, with a muted and cowed press, left with the formal procedures of democracy but little else? What obstacles will face those of us who seek to make America great again?
We have grown accustomed to hyper-incarceration as a solution to our social problems. This is dangerous in a country that has only ever known what W.E.B. Du Bois called our “two systems of justice,” one for our white citizens, and the other for our black citizens. When the president-elect randomly tweets, apropos nothing, that burning the flag should lead to loss of citizenship, or a term in prison, he is signaling that it is the second system of justice that awaits those who dissent.
Both previous administrations have defended an all-powerful security apparatus and severe punishment for its whistleblowers. In the face of legal protest, our police don the garments of our military. Too many members of the political class in the UK and USA have profited mightily from power. While it has not been to the extent of the world’s most notable authoritarians, it has been notable enough to ward off future alarm bells that should be headed. Charges of dynastic succession will ring hollow when it is recalled that in this election, the “smart money” pit the son and brother of two former presidents against the wife of another.
Suspicion of the press has mutated into the loss of truth; we lack a common reality. But when truth is gone, the press can no longer defend itself against charges of bias. Our deliberative bodies have long since collapsed, our representatives locked in combat, not cooperation. Politicians have placed fealty to Christian values explicitly over democratic ones, and have been rewarded for it at the ballot box. With this background, it is understandable that many Americans are sympathetic to the view that all politics is struggle between groups, with the façade of cooperation or honesty being only propaganda used to mask that reality. Convincing American citizens that the values of liberal democracy are not mere masks for political struggle between groups is the largest challenge we face.
Illiberal nationalist parties have swept to power, or its doorstep, in healthy and prosperous European liberal democracies. Judging by Hungary and Poland, such parties have no incentive to be fair to their critics. Nor we should not expect them to be. Fairness is a liberal value. Illiberal nationalists view politics through the prism of war, and the legal system as a weapon.
Plato predicted that democracy would end by the hand of a demagogue who stoked the fuel of the resentments caused by freedom’s disturbances of the ground of tradition. Faced with an enemy for whom political disagreement is war, the struggle to retain our liberal freedoms will be hard. We must resist the temptation to adopt their ethic; it is no way to defend our own. But the window of liberal democracy is closing, and the time for its vigorous defense is now.
Jason Stanley is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. He is the author of How Propaganda Works.