The Political Question of Our Time

Is democracy in trouble in America? Yes. And in a way, that is a good thing.

No, I haven’t become a fascist. But there is a kind of democracy that America has had since its inception 240 years ago which is ending. That is a good thing. The question is: what will take its place?

The declaration of independence from 1776 reads:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And yet, when this declaration was affirmed, “the consent of the governed” was not applied to women or African-Americans. The declaration was even seen to be compatible with slavery. How could “all men are created equal” be compatible with slavery?

It is entirely natural if one sees blacks or women as unequal to white men. “All men are created equal” then means, as it was originally intended to mean: All men of a certain culture, education, class; namely, men like us writing this declaration, men like the British King or men like the Enlightenment thinkers, European men of standing.

So the way the founding fathers read “All men are created equal” was: “All people who are created equal as the most rational humans (who happen to be European men who are educated, cultured…) are endowed with certain unalienable Rights…” It was the way the declaration was generally read till the 20th century.

Call this Supremacist Democracy. It is democracy since a government should be based not on autocratic rule, but on the vote – the consent – of the people. It is supremacist since the vote only applies to those deemed to have reached the pinnacle of human rational agency. (Note: there is nothing intrinsically white supremacist about this. If supremacist democracy had started in India or China or Egypt, etc., then it would be educated Indian men, etc. who would have been deemed superior to Europeans, Africans, etc.).

This supremacist democracy is evident in the context of Kant’s 1784 “What is Enlightenment?”. It begins:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another… Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a proportion of men, long after nature has released them from alien guidance, nonetheless gladly remain in lifelong immaturity… It is so easy to be immature.”

How could someone who wrote this also be ok with slavery and colonialism? Pretty easily if it is assumed that women and Non-Europeans cannot overcome their immaturity. If it is assumed that educated European men are the only ones who can shed their immaturity.

A consequence of supremacist democracy is that society is governed by the cultural norms of those deemed superior and so can vote. There is an order, a ranking, a hierarchy of cultures, habits and modes of conduct. There is no question of how white and black culture can coexist as equals, since blacks are not equal to whites, nor Asians, etc. There isn’t a chaos of cultures running headlong into each other, for they are clear standards of what is superior to what, what deserves public respect over what.

This idea of supremacy was essential to democracy being a viable alternative to monarchy.

It is tempting to think that diversity is a recent development, as if in the past all countries or empires were homogenous units. Of course, this is absurd and clearly wrong.

Diversity and pluralism is intrinsic to human society since thousands of people started to live together in the earliest cities and civilizations, from about 3,000BC in Egypt. Once there started to be empires, there were people of different cultures, languages, religions living together under that one empire, and who for the most part got along with each other in day to day life.

It was the very pluralism of thousands and later millions of people seeing themselves as bound to a common political unit that made authoritarianism a natural political reality. The threat of pluralism pulling people and the state apart, resulting in chaos and anarchy, in relativism and nihilism – that is the source of the human impulse to submit to a powerful ruler, one who claims to hold the diversity and the unity together.

The achievement of the Enlightenment – and of America as an experiment in particular – was to show that democracy could play this role of combining diversity and unity as well, and that authoritarian rule was not the only option. That indeed democracy could be a better way of holding the diversity and unity together.

But the democracy of 18th century America and the Enlightenment could do this only on the assumption of supremacy – that the culture and religion of the most rational people who get to vote is treated as the most ideal and which therefore sets the standard for all people in the society, including, and especially, those who were seen as not rational enough to vote.

The tale of the 20th century, in one sense, is the tale of the breakdown of this supremacist assumption. The tale of equal rights for women, gays, the end of colonialism and segregation. As the assumption gave way that blacks in America or Indians under British rule or women in general are inferior to European men, the concept of democracy came apart from the concept of supremacy.

While in 1800 supremacist democracy seemed perfectly natural, by 1950 it seemed like an inner contradiction. That any assumption of supremacy is itself contrary to democracy.

What we normally now think of as democracy is what might be called pluralistic democracy: the idea that in a democracy all people, irrespective of their gender or culture or education or morality or religious views or sexual orientation, get to vote, and get to speak their consent.

This raises the question, which is the political question of our time: Can pluralistic democracy hold pluralism and unity together, and if so, how?

Not surprisingly, with the downfall of supremacist democracy, the fears of social chaos, of losing one’s own culture and history to an unknown mesh of cultures and habits are taking root.

So if not supremacist democracy, what is the option? On the one hand is authoritarianism, and on the other hand, is pluralistic democracy. As long as the latter is not clearly defined and defended, authoritarianism will, I suspect, be casually accepted as the only option by many people – without even thinking of it as authoritarianism.

This authoritarianism likely won’t be one of enforcing one single way of life on everyone. It will be one which touts diversity and pluralism, but then asserts itself as the only way of having such pluralism without chaos. An authoritarianism which aims to create order by treating the authoritarian and his circle as exemplars of a superior mode of life, a way of life which sets the standards and so presents a sense of order and stability. It will be an authoritarianism which sees itself as democratically elected and which dismisses any alternate democratic result as necessarily illegitimate.

It’s a good thing that, after 200 years, supremacist democracy is coming to an end. But if democracy is to continue, that leaves open the question of whether democracy can in fact handle real pluralism and diversity. Whether we as people can handle such pluralistic democracy institutionally and psychologically.

I hope so. But it will require as much intellectual effort and moral courage to articulate and put in practice pluralistic democracy now as it did 250 years ago to articulate and put in practice supremacist democracy.

3 thoughts on “The Political Question of Our Time

  1. What does pluralistic democracy look like? For example, would you see disagreements about climate change or childhood vaccination as pluralistic differences?

    Also, say representative democracy is done away with, replaced with plebiscitary democracy (where everyone gets a chance to vote on proposals .. think of California’s statewide propositions). Would this be compatible with a form of pluralistic democracy?

    On other words: What is key animating principle of pluralistic democracy? Is it protection of minority rights? Technocratic rule of law? Equal access to the ballot box? Restriction of state power so as to enable individual (and subgroup) freedom?

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  2. Good questions. Exactly the kind of issues which have to be faced up to. The sense of choas and unclarity in the possible answers to thede questions is what makes underlies the concern whether democracy can withstand the rise of pluralism.

    Supremacist democracy was flawed in the supremacist assumptions which it reenforced. At the same time, the homogeneity such supremacy fostered created a sense of stability, and a sense of right and wrong. Changes in America in the last 50 years have challenged these supremacist assumptions, and rightly so. But what in the pluralist version of democracy can foster the sense of stability and order, of right and wrong?

    This is not a point about implementation. But of just what even in theory all this looks like.

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  3. The new authoritarianism could aim “to create order by treating the authoritarian and his circle as exemplars of a superior mode of life, a way of life which sets the standards and so presents a sense of order and stability,” or it could claim to do so while actually attempting to reassert the old supremacy model of democracy, of which the authoritarian and his circle are exemplars.

    Among Gautam’s list of possibilities above for the key animating principle of pluralistic democracy, there is “restriction of state power to enable individual (and subgroup) freedom.” To me, this has appeal. In a diverse society there are, by definition, many different cultures and ways of life. To the extent that each sees its way as “the right way,” it’s unlikely that the truth or conviction of one’s beliefs will serve as a ground to convince others of the legitimacy of one’s way of life. Therefore, peaceful coexistence might require that the state not intervene, to the maximal extent possible, in the cultural practices of the different groups within its borders.

    There is, of course, a price to be paid on this view–some people will be born into communities that hold (what to us seem to be) very regressive or oppressive views towards some of their members, and those members will suffer some injustice within those communities. But intervening in the practice of those communities, especially by legal compulsion would be ill-advised, but for exceptional cases. For intervention will only result in those communities becoming more insular, and they will reduce/forgo engagement with other communities. A closed community is likely to be much more oppressive–both in its treatment of own members and its exclusion of outsiders.

    The social and legal tolerance (by a state) of different cultural communities and ways of life, and the ability of its citizens to freely mix with members of these different communities isn’t just compatible with, but necessary to the peaceful coexistence of different cultures within a geographical region; otherwise we would have either ghettoized and alienated groups as exists in parts of France and Belgium, or cultural zones of living that are reminescent of international borders (and all the problems that come with the tight regulation of such borders). Free movement has worked better.

    This is not to minimize questions of security, but to bracket them when dealing with questions of diversity and immigration; the latter raise a much broader slate of considerations.

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