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The Idolization of Democracy
Can democracy be elevated by expecting less from it?
At times, I’ve been accused of being a democratic “absolutist” or “maximalist,” although this is the sort of thing that strikes me more as a compliment than anything else. I guess I am a bit absolutist when it comes to certain things, and particularly this. I do wonder about how far is too far. Am I so wedded to a concept that I’ve let it lead me astray? It’s possible. But I do think in times like these, it’s better to err on the side of consistency on the big questions, even if that leads you to outcomes that you may not be entirely comfortable with. In this sense, consistency on first principles is sort of like democracy: you have to hold to it even when it doesn’t seem to be doing what it should. If you’re committed to an idea, you have to be willing to “stress-test” that commitment.
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As some of you know, I’ve tried to lay out an alternative approach to democracy, which I call “democratic minimalism.” The idea here is to elevate and revive democracy by cutting it down to size. Paradoxically, we can come to more firmly and fervently believe in democracy by coming to terms with its flaws, or even just acknowledging that they exist in the first place. In light of unprecedented polarization even in advanced democracies like ours, we need to rethink the democratic idea by adjusting it to the needs of the moment.
This is to say nothing of fledgling democracies that struggle with these questions even more, and where the temptation to discard democracy becomes even stronger. Young democracies tend to experience significant instability, at least at first, precisely because they propel uncertainty to the surface rather than suppressing it. Meanwhile, institutions aren’t yet strong enough to temper uncertainty by institutionalizing it—in other words making uncertainty more tolerable by making it more predictable.
If we believe in ideas, then we have to be careful not to project too much of a burden on them. And this is the problem today with the word “democracy” (but also for that matter a word like “fascism”): it becomes a talisman divorced from specific context or meaning. Words and ideas become more powerful, the more carefully we use them.
So we become more ideologically committed to democracy the less we expect from it. It is our minimalist that we become maximalist. For example, instead of expecting that democracy will, or should, produce “consensus,” we instead concede that it won’t. In their book The Priority of Democracy, Jack Knight and James Johnson highlight the important role democracy plays “not in achieving consensus or commonality, but rather in addressing the ongoing conflict that exists in modern society.” One can read this and be disappointed that democracy cannot produce a significant amount of this other thing that we want. The other way to read this is with relief. We can relax, because we will no longer have to make arguments for democracy that it cannot live up to. We can see with our own eyes that democracy increasingly doesn’t lead to consensus, so why pretend otherwise?