Speaking less about democracy

Yesterday, I had a wonderful time at a national conference of history teachers. It actually helped me to clarify my own position, and explain why speaking less about democracy (and more about other moral and political values) would be more fortunate in the present situation.

What is the problem with speaking too much of democracy?

It is a commonplace in political science recently that democracy is “backsliding” in the world. But this is misleading. The truth is that in the 1990’s the number of liberal democracies seemed to be steadily growing, while today, all other sorts of democracy seem to be winning the day. Non-liberal democracies are not backslides, but an entirely different, and – for that matter – more genuine type of democracy. That some countries with universal suffrage, a multi-party system, and free elections are becoming increasingly monolithic and tyrannical is not a derailment of democracy, but democracy in its prime: where election results and opinion polls legitimize leaders to an extent that is unrivaled in more liberal ones. If we insist too much on “democracy” or the “will of the people” (which is in fact always the will of an artificially construed majority), we will soon have to give up our moral objections in favor of a mathematical concept.

Does it mean that the word “democracy” should be abandoned?

Not necessarily. The democratic element is an integral part of all modern political governments. It would be better, however, if we realized that the best form of government was what the Middle Ages called a “mixed government” (regimen mixtum). Popular participation is an important, but only ONE important element in governance. The rule of law, the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances are equally important. If you don’t like the medieval word of “mixed government,” you can also call it a “republic.” Kant or the framers of the American Constitution never called their system “democratic,” only “republican.”

So what follows from that in a practical sense?

What follows is that we should concentrate more on concepts like the rule of law, on the legal and moral constraints of power, on institutional checks and balances, or political culture and tradition; not only on the hypnotic word of “democracy.” Democracy can be just as oppressive as any other political regime. There have been enough great political thinkers from Plato to Tocqueville to teach us just that much.