Democracy Can’t be Fixed

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Democracy is a precious social good. Not only is it necessary for legitimate government, in its absence other crucial social goods – liberty, autonomy, individuality, community, and the like – tend to spoil. It is often inferred from this that a perfectly realized democracy would be utopia, a fully just society of self-governing equals working together for their common good. The flip side of this idea is familiar: the political flaws of a society are ultimately due to its falling short of democracy. The thought runs that as democracy is necessary for securing the other most important social goods, any shortfall in the latter must be due to a deviation from the former. This is what led two of the most influential theorists of democracy of the past century, Jane Addams and John Dewey, to hold that the cure for democracy’s ill is always more and better democracy.

The Addams/Dewey view is committed to the further claim that democracy is an ideal that can be approximated, but never achieved. This addition reminds us that the utopia of a fully realized democracy is forever beyond our reach, an ongoing project of striving to more perfectly democratize our individual and collective lives.

This view is certainly attractive. Trouble lies, however, in making the democratic ideal concrete enough to serve as a guide to real-world politics without thereby deflating it of its ennobling character. Typically, as the ideal is made more explicit, one finds that it presumes capacities that go far beyond the capabilities of ordinary citizens. It turns out that democracy isn’t only out of our reach, it’s also not for us.

Those who recoil against this kind of view tend to embrace a more realist picture according to which democracy is no aspiration at all, but rather a mechanism for preserving a decent social order under conditions of individual freedom. The thought here is that there’s really no common good for citizens to work towards, only more or less satisfactory decisions made among individuals who have varied preferences and interests. On this view, democracy is that set of institutions and processes that facilitates generally peaceful negotiations among politically opposed parties; when it functions properly, democracy results in bargains and compromises that are tolerable enough to disincentivize revolt.

Though it has the advantage of better capturing practices in contemporary democracies, it also requires one to cede a certain critical stance towards them. Whatever else a conception of democracy must be, it should make intelligible the thought that some flawed political decisions in a democracy owe to the citizens’ failure to live up to democratic ideals. That a procedurally valid but substantively flawed outcome has been implemented stably does not establish its credentials as a proper exercise of democracy. This is why democratic citizens are entitled to criticize and protest political decisions even when they have been made by way of properly democratic processes. The realist view contends that if the democratic process has produced an outcome whose implementation will not spark a revolution, the democratic citizen’s job is done, and any further contestation of the matter is nondemocratic.

In our new book, Political Argument in a Polarized Age, we develop a conception of democracy that opposes both of these views.  Although we ally with the Addams/Dewey tradition (and against the realists) in seeing democracy as an ideal, we reject the claim that social ills are always the result of falling short of that ideal. We hold that democracy is an ideal composed of elements that are prone to conflict with one another. These conflicts create sites for certain democratic dysfunctions, even when citizens are all performing as they should. Accordingly, democracy suffers some ills that admit of no cure. Some of democracy’s failings cannot be fixed.

To explain, democracy is the ideal of self-government among political equals. Political equality is a complex notion, but it’s clear that a byproduct of such equality is that citizens will exercise their own judgment, think their own thoughts, and formulate their own opinions about politics. This means that citizens will inevitably disagree about such matters. And insofar as they are members of a self-governing polity, these disagreements will be engaged in some way: democratic citizens will not only hold different and opposing views about politics, they will also argue with one another about politics.

Now, even under the most favorable conditions, argumentation over important matters is fraught. Yet, as we document in the book, when arguing over matters of politics, particularly in a democratic context where we are required to regard our interlocutors as our political equals, novel obstacles emerge. To be specific, the urgency and moral stakes that are in play in most political debates amplify the need for competent and precise argumentation. This requires us to develop a vocabulary for evaluating one another’s (and our own) argumentative performances. For example, we must craft a diagnostic idiom for identifying fallacies and other common foibles of reasoning. However, politics is intrinsically messy, and consequently so too is the diagnostic vocabulary. Witness terms like “politicize,” “fake news,” “troll,” “weaponize,” and “civility.” These terms enter the political diagnostic vocabulary as means for identifying errors in argumentation. However, partly because they are crafted in media res and partly because we function both as players and referees in argumentation, such concepts are inevitably fuzzy and variable. Given certain baked-in psychological inclinations, such as our tendency to positively evaluate arguments for conclusions we agree with even when they’re flagrantly fallacious, our deployments of that vocabulary quickly devolve from being ways to diagnose errors in reasoning into new ways to express our favored conclusions. To give one vivid example, the realities of online political communication necessitated the coining of the term “bot” to refer to a social media account enacted by computer code to mimic human partisans. Now, however, in online discourse, “bot” is used as a term of abuse against human interlocutors with whom one disagrees. As a result, democratic discourse devolves into a thinly disguised form of name-calling.

There is no way to insulate our diagnostic concepts from this kind of devolution. And, what’s more, the devolution is often the result of our sincere attempts to reason well together. Our spirited engagements of democratic citizenship heighten our vulnerability to cognitive forces that distort our collective political reasoning. Democracy suffers, even though citizens are acting as they should. Hence there is an ill for which more and better democracy cannot be the cure, because there is no cure.

However, the upshot of Political Argument in a Polarized Age is not despairing. The point is not that democracy is doomed, but rather that in order to avoid doom democracy must be maintained. This means giving up the realist idea that democracy is simply a set of institutions and procedures that can be established and then left to run themselves. But is also means giving up on the idea that all of our political failings are due to an incomplete or imperfect realization of democracy. Democracy is always a work in progress, but it is also a work that, even at its ideal limit, is always flawed. In this sense, democracy can’t be fixed but only maintained. And we need to embrace that point if we want democracy to trive.