Building towards a minimalist theory of democracy
I’m in Paris this week, attending a conference on “the internet and responsible citizenship.”
It’s a real pleasure to be included in the conference, especially because I am here to argue against one of the foundational assumptions of the gathering.
What follows is a work-in-progress. It’s eventually going to be a larger, more polished essay. But this is sort of a side project, so that will take awhile.
Let me begin from first principles: much of the rhetoric surrounding democratic theory and practice begins from a presumption of equality. We invoke the first clause of the Declaration of the Independence — “We the People” — and consider democratic forms of government to be a thing that manifests from the shared deliberation of the public at large. Through this rendering, it follows that all people have equal voice, equal protections, equal representation under and by the law. We imagine that the purpose of a democratic government is to produce wise and just outcomes for the whole of society.
From this presumption of equality, a whole field of study has arisen, asking whether citizens have the requisite skills and knowledge for democracy to live up to these ideals. This field dates back roughly a century, at least to the time of Walter Lippmann. (Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg wrote an excellent historically-engaged book on this topic last year, btw, titled The Paradox of Democracy.) For the past couple decades, contributors to the field often turn their focus toward the internet, asking whether we are enhancing or degrading the capacity of citizens to engage in productive democratic practices.
I will grant that this is a powerful and attractive rhetorical trope. Indeed, it might be the case that it is an essential constitutive myth — that in order for democracies to succeed, we must pay rhetorical homage to the collective presumption of equality.
But it is also, as an empirical matter, clearly suspect. If we want to make sense of contemporary elite political behavior — of how the powerful act and what they prioritize — I think the presumption of equality does us a disservice. And that’s because it has never, empirically speaking, been an accurate description of actually-existing democracy. We have, for starters, never had a mass public that lived up to our imagined ideals for good citizenship (c.f. Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen).
American democracy was not founded by a mass citizenry coming together and uniting around a single set of shared principles. It was founded by elites — men who owned land, men who owned printing presses, men who owned people. America, just like every other mass democracy on the planet, was founded by an elite. And the purpose of democracy as a form of government was to maintain the privilege and status of that elite — to preserve the social order. We can better make sense of democratic practice today if we instead proceed from a presumption of hierarchy.
The presumption of hierarchy turns our focus away from “We the People,” toward another bedrock phrase: “the consent of the governed.” We ought to parse that term. It suggests the existence of two distinct groups — those who govern (the elites) and those who are governed (the masses). And from the masses, it merely requires that we reach a minimal threshold of “consent.” Consent is not robust, informed participation. It does not require deliberation or engagement. or engaged. We can consent to being governed in much the same passive way we consent to a website’s terms of service. Consent, in this context, can best be understood as social stability. Social unrest is synonymous with the governed withdrawing their consent. The lack of social unrest is synonymous with consent being maintained.
More provocatively, let me suggest the following: from the perspective of political elites, the central purpose of any form of government is the preservation of social order. And by that I also mean the preservation of the existing status hierarchy. Let’s call this the outcome of social order, by which I mean that governments are actually, in practice, evaluated on how well they preserve the status hierarchy with minimal changes.
From this perspective, the key innovation that has made democracy preferable to all other forms of government is that it produces a legitimate avenue for social dissent. Critics of the current regime have a pressure release valve — they need not overtrhow the government, they merely have to vote them out in the next election. Convince their fellow citizens that the government is corrupt or wrongheaded. Run for office oneself. This legitimate path allows, in theory, for self-correction. If elites run too far afoul of public will, the public will select different elites — no gallows required. And, at a minimum, it also increases social stability, because public discontent is channeled toward legitimate avenues. (The most vocal opponents of the George W. Bush regime did not brew molotov cocktails; they wrote blog posts and knocked on doors.)
The great existential fear for elites is that the masses will seize their belongings and physically imperil their bodies. All human bodies are frail. That’s equally true for billionaires and bricklayers. If you own a private jet, a thing that you would not like to be reminded of is that your corporeal form is just as vulnerable as the next persons. (Ultimately, that is. Gold-plated health care is nice. But no one can buy immortality.)
You can see this around the edges of news events all the time — the utter freak-out when some citizens interrupt Bret Kavanaugh at dinner or shout down a campus speaker. The coverage never looks like a sober discussion of speech rights, counterspeech protections, and social norms. It is always inflected with a fear that those people are misbehaving, disrespecting the social order. (Often left just-barely-unsaid here is Wilhoit’s Law: “There must be those that the law protects but does not bind and those who the law binds but does not protect.”)
And, just to be clear, social order is good. It is much, much better than the alternative. Everyone suffers amidst a breakdown of social order, and those who are least protected tend to suffer the most. And democracies, imperiled though they have been in the past decade or so, are still more resilient than autocracies.
Authoritarian governments rule through repressive force. They maintain the consent of the governed by preventing collective organization that might successfully challenge and overthrow the ruling elite.
That’s a bad bet. Dictatorships aren’t especially durable. And if you are an elite outside of government, their protection is flimsy. (Just look at all the Russian oligarchs who keep falling out of windows.)
Democracy is preferable, because it provides a legitimizing outlet for dissent. If you don’t like the government, vote harder next time. This is government of, by, and for the people. You have your say. Protest, particularly violent protest, is for sore losers.
My point here is that, if we want to understand why 21st-century democracy seems increasingly fragile, it is a distraction to ask whether our citizens are good enough, informed enough, civil enough. (They surely are not. Nor have they ever been.)
We should instead ask whether the pressure release valve still functions. Have our elites become too confident and comfortable in their own righteousness and immunity from public reprisal? I suspect that they have. What threatens the social order provided by democracy now is not a degraded mass public, but a social elite that has become lazy and indifferent.
We do not need better citizens. We need better elites. And it is there, at the elite level, that the internet has had its most corrosive effects.
I read an interesting essay a few months ago, titled “The New Libertarian Elitists,” by Henry Farrell, Hugo Mercier, and Melissa Schwartzberg. (Farrell just launched a Substack, btw. You ought to subscribe.)
The authors take seriously the new trend among rightwing intellectuals who have decided that the problem with democracy is that too many of the wrong people are allowed to vote. These include business-school-philosopher/libertarian troll Jason Brennan’s proposal for “epistocracy,” in which only those who pass a rigorous qualifying exam would be allowed to cast a ballot, and George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan, who thinks that markets and those who adore them should be given greater electoral power than everyone else.
It’s a good essay, and I’m glad to see someone take these jokers’ arguments seriously on the merits. But also, I found myself shaking my head and unable to take the jokers’ arguments seriously myself, because they so obviously run counter to the outcome of social order.
Imagine, for a moment, that we lived in a society where only Jason Brennan’s revered epistocrats were allowed to vote. The unwashed masses have no voice in government policy-making, and no legitimate pressure release valve when they object to decisions that harm them (or just when they generally think life is crap and the people in power ought to be doing something about it). Oh, and the reason they have no voice is because government officially told them “you are worthless and we’ll all be better off if you have no voice or power.” How will that turn out?
The best I can say for Brennan’s fantasyland is that it had better be a utopia of endless resource abundance and fantastic entertainment. There better not be any hard, complicated choices that don’t work out as intended. Because when times get hard, the masses are going to beat the shit out of Brennan’s elites. Jason Brennan currently lives in an America where it is relatively unlikely that a bunch of people beat him to a bloody pulp. The America he advocates for is one in which, ultimately, it becomes far more likely that a bunch of people beat him to a bloody pulp. By this, what I really mean is that Jason Brennan has not thought his argument through. Or at least he is fundamentally unserious.
Arguments like Jason Brennan’s are what elites arrive at when they have come to take social stability for granted. And therein lies the root problem: our elites have become entirely too cocky, and it led to all sorts of ridiculous behavior that threatens the social stability that we all enjoy (but that they enjoy more than the rest of us).
Neil Postman famously remarked in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that the real threat to Democracy came not from the ubiquitous government surveillance depicted in George Orwell’s (1949) 1984, but rather from the ubiquitous entertainment options that leave citizens passively disengaged in Aldous Huxley’s (1931) Brave New World. Many cultural commentators have noted in recent years how well Postman’s broadcast-television-era warning seems to fit the age of digital entertainment.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.
In the 2000s, it was common among political communication scholars and civic technology practitioners to look with hope at the influx of new technologies. There was, amongst many of us, the shared belief that, as information and communication technologies lowered the cost of citizen engagement, we would witness the emergence of a more engaged, informed citizenry.
I was always a bit suspicious of that instinct. I wrote at the time of what I termed the “field of dreams fallacy” (if you build it, they will come). People weren’t avoiding civic deliberative forums because they were too costly in terms of time and attention. They were avoiding them because these forums were boring. The history of civic tech is a graveyard of well-meaning projects that failed for lack of public demand.
But even my early-onset-orneriness did not prepare me for the authoritarian turn of the mid-’10s. Ethan Zuckerman described this well in his essay “QAnon and the Emergence of the Unreal.” The same civic technologies that were being used to build and support civic communities in the ‘90s and ‘00s were used to support conspiracy theories and hate groups in the ‘10s. Likewise, as I noted in a 2018 essay, the thing that made QAnon different from past conspiracy theories was that it had all the trappings of an immersive ARG (alternative reality game). QAnon is not just a means of making sense of a chaotic world that has not gone your way. Participating in QAnon forums is the same type of fun as participating in Reddit forums or other online communities. The people who get involved in politics are the people who attain joy or profit from that involvement.
This is not quite Huxley, mind you, but it is certainly nothing like Orwell.
At the elite level, I fear what has happened is the erosion of the “myth of the attentive public” among our political elites. As I described in a 2019 essay, this was a load-bearing myth, necessary for the maintenance of an at-least-barely-functional democracy.
The myth of the attentive public has long held favor among American media and political elites. It states that there is a public trust between politicians and their constituents, that those constituents are aware (or might at any time become aware) of politicians that stray from their public promises or violate the public trust, and that those who are found to violate the public trust or break their public promises will incur a cost. The myth of the attentive public is, in many ways, what separates democracy from all other forms of governance. It imbues voting with the importance of an active referendum upon the state of policymaking, where in nondemocratic countries voting serves just as a civic ritual that signifies the ongoing assent of the masses to continue to be governed.
Notice, however, that the myth of the attentive public is an elite myth. Democracy does not require an active, participatory citizenry that attends zoning board meetings and monitors conflicts-of-interest among Supreme Court justices. It requires an elite that behaves as though such a citizenry exists, or at least might be conjured into being if they get too far out of line.
Over the past almost-decade, this myth has been eroded as the Huxleyite version of the public on stark display. If misinformation and propaganda flow at least as well as truth and adversarial journalism, then why bother worrying about the potential effects of negative news cycles? If the only members of the public engaging in political life are your worshipful fans and your crazed enemies, why bother focusing on the messy, complex work of actual governance? (It’s all just kayfabe anyway, right?)
We don’t solve these problems by building better citizens through media literacy camapaigns. We don’t solve them through kumbaya efforts that hearken back to an era when “people could disagree without being disagreeable” (which people, one ought always ask in response.).
We solve these problems by building better elites — and by better elites, what I probably mean is elites who are appropriately concerned that they are going to lose the social order and stability they have come to take for granted.
Here are the basic elements that I suspect any mass democracy ought to include, in order to maintain social order across time:
Governments elected through free and fair elections. These elections ought to be competitive, such that elites feel required to compete with real stakes involved, and masses continue to believe that the pathway of legitimate opposition is not an utter farce.
The divide between masses and elites must be permeable. There have to be meritocratic pathways by which everyday citizens can become elites. Hereditary elites just become unbearably sloppy. <*cough* RFK Jr *cough*>
Broad public confidence that things are improving, or at least staying the same. (This, btw, is a lot easier to maintain if life-in-general is improving or at least staying the same.)
Available pathways for deeper public engagement, even if they suffer from the field of dreams fallacy. This, again, shores up the legitimate pathway of dissent.
The absence of obvious corruption and/or incompetence from political elites. (There’s a whole piece to be written about what, from a minimalist perspective, “legitimacy” even means in a case like the U.S. Supreme Court. What does it mean for the court to no longer be perceived as “legitimate?” But the basic answer is “the social order breaks down, and elites start having increased reasons to seriously worry about their physical safety.”)
Strictly from a minimalist perspective, this is all you need for a democracy to maintain social order. And what I want to stress here is that this really is not a difficult bar to clear! Democracies ought to be pretty resilient. They are a great bargain for political elites. You accept some very gentle constraints, in return you get the guarantee of social order.
And yet. Everywhere I turn, there is howling evidence that our current elites are no longer willing to hold up their end of the bargain. It seems they have forgotten that there is a bargain here at all. They chafe at any suggestion that they should face any constraint on their behavior. They believe themselves to be inherently superior to their fellow humans. They believe all that they have has been earned, and that they are due deference and special privileges as a result. They no longer believe in the myth of the attentive public, nor do they even believe public attention is warranted.
That way lies chaos and violence. And the solution is not impressing upon the mass public that they ought to be obsequious and thankful. The solution is in impressing upon elites that they have much to fear if they continue down this path.
I am reminded of a story from Doug Rushkoff. It’s the story at the heart of his latest book, Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. Rushkoff was invited to give a talk at a small conference at a private retreat. They didn’t want to hear his standard lecture about technology and society. They didn’t want to hear about any of his recent scholarship. They wanted him to help them answer a simple question: “after The Fall, how can we keep control of our security forces?” These billionaires were preppers, in effect. They figured social chaos was coming. What they worried about was how they could maintain their power, security, and physical safety if their money was no good anymore."
Rushkoff tried to impress on them that maybe, just maybe, they should try to prevent the chaos to begin with. But that suggestion was a non-starter. Then he suggested that they ought to treat their employees well now, in the hopes that they would have better cross-class social relationships later. This, too, wasn’t what they were looking for.
(With great power, it seems, comes the absence of responsibility.)
The trouble with the presumption of equality is that it leads us to pursue fantasy solutions to the crisis of democracy. We begin by asserting that all citizens are equal under the law, and then find ourselves asking what all citizens should expect from one another. This can be an interesting thought experiment, I suppose. But it is a dead end for pragmatists trying to diagnose how we got where we are today.
I find the presumption of hierarchy more fruitful because it more accurately describes what actual, existing democracy is, and has been. It is a marvelously effective means of maintaining social order. Social order is generally good. We would sorely miss it if it were gone. Countries that face violent overthrow are not prosperous or great to live in. (It’s easy for revolution-minded intellectuals to imagine chaos and anarchy as a welcome change. It is not.)
And that’s particularly true in todays United States. I have mentioned this elsewhere, but it’s worth saying explicitly here as well. One ought not hope for violent confrontations when the opposition has all the guns. (I would prefer not to come to into an actual civil war armed with clever quips and an impressive citation count. It would certainly not turn out well for me.)
The nice thing about focusing on elites is that there are, relatively speaking, not a lot of them. It is less work to convince the wealthiest 0.1% of the country that they ought to alter their behavior/have an ounce of shame or humility than to convince the other 99.9% that they should all be civil and respectful of their betters and pursue civic engagement but only in the right channels at the right times.
[And with that, I’ll end here. There’s a lot more that could be folded into this essay, especially the parallels to the Republic of Letters argument. But I’ll need to tackle that at some later point. Let me again note that this is a work-in-progress. Thanks for reading. Critical feedback is particularly appreciated at this stage of the process.]