Democracy’s Hard Truths

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Democracy is the ideal of a self-governing society of equals. An immediate upshot of political equality is political disagreement. Among equals, no one get simply to dictate what others must believe about politics. As equal citizens, each gets to exercise their own political judgment, for better or worse.  Democracy hence is the proposition that we can live together as self-governing equals despite ongoing political disagreement.

Democracy is a dignifying proposal. But it’s no picnic. Democracy is rooted in a handful of hard truths that responsible citizens need to keep in mind.

First is that you can’t always get what you want. In fact, you often can’t avoid getting what you don’t want. Knowing the truth about what justice requires or which candidate is best does not entitle you to get your way. Nor does your ability to refute your opponents. Thus, a harder political truth: in a democracy, you can’t always get what you know is right.

That’s not all. When your side loses at the polls, it would be illegitimate for democratic government to enact your will. For electoral losers the principal consolation is that there’ll be another election, and thus another chance to get fellow citizens to see the light. This means that in the wake of defeat, those who care about justice must redouble their effort. Another hard truth: knowing what’s right in politics makes for more work, not less. Read more »