What Is the Point of Democracy?
American democracy is in trouble. This, it seems, is about the only thing that Americans can agree on. During the last decade, we have settled into a kind of political trench warfare wherein we glare at one another across a cultural “no man’s land” that grows wider by the day. Civic friendship in the face of deep disagreement is, perhaps, a tall order in any diverse political community, and democracy may be able to function (if not flourish) without it. But surely a democracy characterized by outright civic enmity can only be decadent, if not moribund. A quick scan of the American scene leaves little doubt that, even if civic enmity is not yet fully developed as our default posture towards those with whom we disagree, that development is well underway.
As our body politic continues to struggle with these ailments, many have begun to ask how we might nurse it back to health. This is an important question, to be sure. Nonetheless, we face another question that is even more basic: Why is democracy so important in the first place? Is there any good reason to resuscitate our democracy instead of simply letting it expire?
The philosopher Walter Horn has recently offered the no-nonsense suggestion that democracy is uniquely valuable—and so, under our present circumstances, worth saving—because it alone identifies and delivers what the people want. Insofar as democracy properly aggregates citizens’ equally weighted votes, it will both reveal what they want and turn those wants into policies. Why, though, does it matter whether the people get what they want? If the people want something other than what is best, why should government defer to their (misguided) preferences?
[Read “Who Cares About Democracy?”]
Rule by the Knowers
In his provocative book, Against Democracy (2016), Georgetown political theorist Jason Brennan argues that the death of democracy might well be good riddance. According to Brennan, government is a tool for producing good policy outcomes and nothing more. And, like any tool, we should discard or update our current form of government if it proves unsuccessful—or less successful than available alternatives—at producing those outcomes. Brennan doubts that democracy is ever the most effective option on the table. For democracy tends to create and sustain political “hooligans” who, like the eponymous sports fans, treat democratic politics as a kind of tribal contest. Furthermore, democratic citizens have little incentive to become politically rational “Vulcans,” because the odds of making a difference to any democratic outcome are vanishingly small; if hooliganism feels good and costs nothing, why become a Vulcan? By Brennan’s lights, the incentive structure of politics produces a majority of hyper-partisan hooligans and checked-out political “hobbits” living alongside a small Vulcan minority. Our political experience as a nation, he points out, amply confirms this expectation. Indeed, as I write, Capitol Hill is still reeling from a violent right-wing hooligan insurrection.
If democracy is bound to be a hooligans’ playground, it is unlikely to be the best governmental tool at our disposal. Brennan suggests that “epistocracy,” or rule by the knowers, would likely do better. Since there are objectively better and worse policy decisions to be made, and since making the best decisions requires both expertise and a calm, rational disposition, we should empower calm, rational experts to make our political decisions. Theorists have proposed epistocracy in myriad forms; suggestions range from weighted votes for the educated to specially trained micro-publics selected by lottery. All of them, though, dispense with the hallowed political creed of “one person, one vote” in favor of a ruling expert elite.
Freedom Through Democratic Control?
One traditional line of defense on democracy’s behalf turns on the idea that citizens must share in the control of their government in order to be free. According to this argument, which has come to be known as the “republican” argument, a person is free in the sense that matters morally to the extent that she is free from domination or arbitrary power. Since the state necessarily wields enormous power over its citizens, there is a serious risk that it will dominate them. The solution, many republicans argue, is citizen control through democracy. As the philosopher Philip Pettit reasons, power is not arbitrary if it is controlled by the very people subject to it. Since democracy alone puts citizens in charge of their government, democracy is a uniquely legitimate form of government, even if democratic citizens sometimes (or often) make poor choices.
Few disagree that a person who controls the power another wields over her is thereby free from domination. To borrow one of Pettit’s examples, if I hand over the key to my liquor cabinet to my friend in order to cut back on my drinking, my friend’s resulting power over me isn’t dominating. The trouble with the republican defense of democracy, however, is that it is far from obvious that any democratic citizen’s relationship to the state can be relevantly similar to my relationship to my key-holding friend. My friend, after all, holds only the power I give him, for my own purposes, and on my own terms. But in the case of democracy, all I have is my one voice and one vote amidst millions of other, equally-weighted voices and votes. Thus, even if the democratic populace as a whole is in control of the state, it seems simply false that I am. But if it is control over the power I live under that makes me free, don’t I need to control state power in order to avoid domination under it?
Deliberative Democracy: A Different Approach from Bargaining
Democracy cannot, it seems, put any citizen in control of her government. Nevertheless, you and I can perhaps hope to become coauthors of our shared laws to the extent that our democracy is deliberative. As Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson explain in Why Deliberative Democracy (2004), deliberation is the practice of exchanging reasons in order to figure out what to do or believe as a group. Unlike bargaining, deliberation is inherently and necessarily cooperative; although deliberators need not (and often do not) end up in agreement with one another, they must share reasons with one another in a good faith effort to reach the best possible conclusion. Deliberators, that is, must understand themselves and their interlocutors as genuinely committed to hearing one another out and assessing fairly the reasons they offer to one another.
Deliberation stands in sharp contrast to bargaining, its more transactional (and more common) rhetorical cousin. Bargainers come to the discussion table with their values and preferences already fully formed. The point of bargaining isn’t to shape or update your values and preferences, but rather to secure your values and preferences as fully as possible under the circumstances. Rational bargainers are willing to compromise in order to get as much of what they want as they can, but the work of deciding what is worth wanting in the first place is over before they even take their seats. Questions of value, we may say, are exogenous to bargaining. Deliberation, by contrast, occurs when people engage in discussion in order to determine what it is best to do or to believe. Unlike bargaining, deliberation is a cooperative project aimed at settling some question of value. In this way, questions of value are endogenous to deliberation.
In order to further clarify the distinction between bargaining and deliberation, it will be useful to consider an example of each from American government. When Congress is (relatively) functional, disagreeing parties—whether across parties or within a single party—are willing to bargain. A recent example of intra-party bargaining is the series of discussions that took place between top Senate Democrats and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin over the size of unemployment payments to be included in the 2021 COVID-19 relief bill. Most Senate Democrats wanted to include $400 monthly payments in the bill, but Manchin was uncomfortable with that level of spending. Since Senate Democrats lacked the votes to pass the bill without him, Manchin had significant leverage, and his fellow Democrats were forced to compromise for $300 monthly payments. This was a case of bargaining because the parties involved were not seriously attempting to decide together what the most just unemployment payment would be; all of the senators came to the table with their positions settled. Each participant’s aim was simply to pass a bill that reflected her pre-established values as fully as possible.
Now consider the US Supreme Court. Although appointments to the Court are no less combative than anything else in American politics, the justices still sit together in a chamber and attempt to answer the legal and constitutional questions before them. Although the justices have well-known and fairly settled jurisprudential disagreements, each of them enters the chamber ready to participate in an exchange of reasons aimed at figuring out what the Court should decide. The Court thus offers an example of deliberation rather than bargaining.
Deliberation and Co-authorship of Our Laws
Many people think of successful democracy as public bargaining on a massive scale. Parties field candidates, people vote, and vote totals aggregate public preferences and translate them into numbers of seats held by the competing parties. The resulting distribution of political offices establishes each party’s relative bargaining power, which in turn governs what can and cannot pass. When this bargaining apparatus works as it should, the people get, as Horn would put it, what they want—more or less, anyway.
Deliberative democrats reject this bargaining model of democracy. They argue that democracy achieves its moral goals when citizens and their representatives deliberate instead of merely bargaining. The most important of these moral goals, I argue, is citizens’ co-authorship of their laws. Co-authorship isn’t exactly about anyone getting what she wants, nor is it about anyone holding control. To the contrary, when some plurality of persons coauthors something, the results are attributable to the group as a whole, even if none of its members gets what she wants or holds control. Deliberation promises a way to understand the law as our law—and, by extension, your law and my law—regardless of desire satisfaction and without anyone exercising personal control.
To get our bearings here, it will help to think about co-authorship in the literal sense of a group of people writing something together. Suppose that Kobi, Kaylah, and Kei have been charged with writing a magazine article. Their assignment is not to write three separate mini articles, nor is it to paste together three pre-written fragments into an article length collage. Rather, their assignment is to compose, all together, a single article that will be published under all three of their names. In order to complete this assignment, they will need to sit down together and deliberate about what their article should say, and why. Disagreements will no doubt arise, and some will likely remain unresolved. Nevertheless, the result of their deliberation will be a document that is fully and equally attributable to each of the coauthors, despite the fact that none of them would have written quite that article as a solo author. Each of them can and should say, “This article is mine, just as it is ours.” By the same token, Supreme Court justices always refer to the Court’s past decisions as “our” decisions, regardless of how each justice voted or which justices dissented.
We are now in a position to see how the deliberative democrat seeks to answer the question of what is so morally significant about democracy that we should be at pains to rescue it. Like the republican, the deliberative democrat sees government as a source of possible domination. In order for the awesome power of the state to be compatible with our liberty, it must somehow be answerable to each of us. One way to make sense of this answerability is in terms of control. But we observed that there is no clear sense in which the community’s control of the state counts as my control of the state. If, however, we democratic citizens (and representatives) share in a deliberative democratic practice aimed at figuring out which policy is best for the whole community, we can perhaps become coauthors of the law in a way that renders the law attributable to each of us no less than to all of us.
The Work Ahead for American Democracy
We began by noting that American democracy is not well. This in turn raised the question of why it is worthwhile to fight for its life instead of just letting it whither. I have suggested that democracy is a matter of the highest moral importance, and so worth saving, insofar as it allows us to coauthor our laws through deliberation. This deliberative vision, however, faces a stark and troubling fact.
Even if we were to address our most egregious democratic failings—open contempt, kneejerk stonewalling, political violence, and the like—our democracy would still not be remotely deliberative.
Take, for example, the recent passage of President Biden’s 1.9 trillion-dollar COVID-19 relief package. Most observers agree that the early collapse of talks between Democratic and Republican leaders was both regrettable and a function of our toxic political climate. But those talks were clearly a case (albeit an abortive one) of bargaining, not of deliberation. The idea of Democrats and Republicans actually attempting, in good faith, to determine together how best to proceed on a public question seems almost comically distant from the reality we face. Thus, if I am right that the moral value of democracy turns on deliberation, it won’t be enough to fix our democracy; to the contrary, it will be necessary to transform it. That task is, to put it mildly, an imposing one.
We thus end these reflections on a sobering note; in order to build a democracy that is morally superior to epistocracy or any other non-democratic alternative, it won’t suffice to disperse the fog of political war and bring opposing sides back to the bargaining table. To the contrary, we need to replace our (broken) bargaining tables with deliberation chambers. Sobering though this prescription is, it should not leave us hopeless or defeated. If democratic deliberation matters as much as I have argued that it does, we should not shrink from the hard work of beginning, slowly and at great pains, to coauthor the laws that bind us.
Daniel is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Davidson College. He writes and teaches about political philosophy and the history of political ideas.
He is also the author of Locke Among the Radicals: Liberty and Property in the Nineteenth Century (2020) published by Oxford University Press.