voice for democracy

Lessons from the history of democracy – The Economist

DEMOCRACY IS THE most widely accepted form of governance, yet its flaws have become increasingly apparent in recent years. Gridlocked legislatures, low trust in the press, and judiciaries challenged by expansive executive power have all called attention to the many ways in which Western institutions can become dysfunctional. The rise of China, moreover, is held up by some as proof that democracy is neither inevitable nor necessary for countries seeking economic growth and political stability.
Yet crises of confidence in democracy are nothing new. Over the centuries, reality has never lived up to lofty ideals. Self-criticism gives democracies the ability to correct errors, but also makes them vulnerable to rival ideologies. It gives power to the people, but does not guarantee that they are sufficiently well informed or well intentioned to make good decisions. These concerns run through “Can Democracy Work?” by James Miller of the New School for Social Research in New York.
The book is a history of democracy as both idea and political practice, from ancient Athens to the Occupy Wall Street movement. How have conceptions of self-governance changed over time? What is the popular will, and what are the ways in which political leaders have sought to harness it?
Mr Miller has written about democracy throughout his career, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the ideals of the Enlightenment to the American student movement in the 1960s. (A long-time music critic, he was also the original editor of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll.) The Economist’s Open Future initiative interviewed Mr Miller about democracy’s achievements and flaws, its chequered history and uncertain future. In particular, we asked if some of the pathologies of democracy are inherent to it as a form of government, or whether the right institutions can keep them in check. The interview is followed by an excerpt from the book about the press and the popular will.
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The Economist: A central question you ask in the book is “What is democracy?” How has the concept changed from antiquity, through the American and French revolutions, to today?
James Miller: The answers range from the closed, self-governing community of ancient Athens, through the armed assertion of popular sovereignty in revolutionary Paris in 1792, to the rise in America of a commercial republic of free individuals, who shared a faith in the virtues of the common man.
The conviction of 19th century social democrats and democratic socialists that self-government required an egalitarian economy and society gave way in the 21st century to a vaguer belief that democracy merely required politicians to be responsive to “public opinion,” as ascertained via polling. Despite these vicissitudes, democracy at its core, even today, implies “people power”—just as it did in ancient Athens. That’s why democracy, when it’s taken seriously, still represents a potentially disruptive challenge to privileged elites.
The Economist: In tracing the history of democracy, what are some ideas associated with the term that we would find foreign or surprising today?
Mr Miller: In democratic Athens, almost all political offices were filled by random selection rather than rational choice. The use of lotteries nullified the corrupting advantages of wealth, status and fame. For this reason, Aristotle regarded lotteries as a quintessentially democratic device, whereas elections favored aristocrats and oligarchs. More disquieting were the preferences of early modern proponents of popular sovereignty: after toppling the king in 1792, Parisian democrats asserted a “right to insurrection” as an essential aspect of “people power.”
The Economist: What are some lessons we can learn from the failed democracies of the past?
Mr Miller: The revolutionary democrats in France weren’t able to implement the world’s first democratic constitution, drafted by Condorcet in 1793, in part because they never could reconcile the demands of the armed artisans in the big cities, for a republic of equals, with the wishes of the peasants in rural areas, who still recognised the hierarchical authority of the Catholic church. The suppression of dissent—a problem we see today closer to home, in both the left and the right—is a standing temptation for any group convinced that they alone represent the true will of a people.
The Economist: One timeless concern about democracy is that it gives power to ordinary people, but does not guarantee that they will make good decisions. Are there any ways we can tailor our institutions and norms to avoid this pitfall?
Mr Miller: In the 18th century, the great hope was that the spread of public education might lead to universal enlightenment, fulfilling the preconditions for wise self-government. As we know, these hopes have yet to be fulfilled. Enlightenment is an elusive goal in any case: modern psychology suggests that human beings all suffer from “bounded rationality,” and the unavoidable cognitive errors that come from what the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman call “heuristics and biases.” *
At the same time, the capacity of ordinary people to exercise political power in the past century has been sharply limited, not only in an avowed “Democratic People’s Republic” like North Korea, but even in a relatively open society like America.
This is a key irony of modern democracy as it has evolved. After the end of the Great War in 1919, Woodrow Wilson and Lenin both seemed eager to uphold popular sovereignty as a political principle; both affirmed a people’s political right to self-determination. Yet the extent of active political participation in both the liberal and communist contexts was carefully qualified.
Wilson’s administrative state transferred a great deal of power to the federal president and the unelected civil servants who reported to him, while Lenin’s conception of “democratic centralism” concentrated power in the hands of an apparatus controlled by the elite of one party, the Communist Party. In effect, both liberal and communist states have paradoxically tried to ensure sound democratic outcomes by empowering specially trained elites—this was the American writer Walter Lippmann’s solution to what he perceived as the pitfalls of modern democracies.
To put it mildly, the record of these elites has been mixed. In the past generation, both liberal and social democratic regimes have presided over a galloping growth in inequality, and, in more than one case, they have plunged their nations into reckless wars of choice.
Under the circumstances, it’s no wonder that our world has witnessed, in virtually every single country, both rich and poor, authoritarian or relatively free, a fitful, sometimes futile series of democratic revolts and protests, when crowds of ordinary people unite to demand a fairer share of the common wealth—and to claim for themselves a larger share in more truly democratic institutions.
I am thinking, for example, of both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in America, but also of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Maidan revolt in Ukraine in 2013, the abortive umbrella revolution in Hong Kong in 2014, and the 2016 Brexit “leave” vote in Britain, mobilized under the democratic slogan “Take back control.”
The Economist: Your book asks, “Can democracy work?” Can it? Or is it instead, as you also write, “an elusive fantasy, forever out of reach”?
Mr Miller: With hard work and effort, and shared goodwill, yes, democracy can work. It worked for the ancient Athenians for almost two hundred years. A more modest and limited version of popular sovereignty has proved workable in the United States and other Western nations with constitutional safeguards. I also believe that modern institutions could do more to appeal to, and engage, people’s capacities for reflection and collective deliberation.
But democracy also matters as a “fantasy,” if you will—as a form of shared faith. As the Czech writer and former president, Vaclav Havel, remarked near the end of his life, “we will never build a democratic state based on the rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is—regardless of how unscientific this may sound to the ears of a political scientist—humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural.”
Under a democratic government animated by such shared values, and with a justly regulated economy—the aspiration of most liberal democrats and social democrats—citizens would not only have equal civil and political rights; they would also know that those who are lucky enough to be born with greater natural talents are not going to get rich at the expense of those less fortunate. In such a democratic community, we agree to share one another’s fate, as did the citizens of ancient Athens.
The Economist: Around the world, some see “authoritarian capitalism” as preferable to democracy as a system of governance to meet people’s needs. Are they wrong? Is there some sacrosanct reason why democracy should be the apex of human governance for all peoples at all places?
There is obviously nothing sacrosanct, nor historically inevitable, about democracy as a form of popular self-government, or as a shared faith in the dignity and wisdom of ordinary people. Democracy before the French Revolution was generally held to be a fool’s paradise—or (even worse, in the eyes of the rich) a tyranny of the poor.
Even today, regimes and avowedly democratic movements that promote popular solidarity through shared lines of descent and a shared religious culture—I am thinking here of Hungary and Poland, but also of white supremacists in America—form a standing threat to other core values of a decent society, like pluralism and tolerance.
If a robust form of democracy is really to work in our own time, in a world of many cultures, I believe it will have to take a self-limiting, and properly “liberal” form. But at the end of the day, I am an American by birth and a small “d” democrat at heart, so I cannot help but uphold Abraham Lincoln’s characteristically American hope, even in the darkest of times, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
*The psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman explored a range of failures of reason and biases in making decisions. They demonstrated cases in which “cognitive illusions” affect judgement, and highlighted the conditions in which humans tend to make irrational decisions. (The “anchoring” bias, for example, is the tendency to rely heavily on the first piece of information one hears when making a decision.)
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A Hall of Mirrors
Excerpt from “Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World” by James Miller (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).
In a series of essays published in 1920 as a book, Liberty and the News, [Walter] Lippmann highlighted the increasingly critical role played by the news media in modern societies, by disseminating reliable information to ordinary citizens. As a veteran reporter, presidential memo writer, and propagandist for the U.S. military, Lippmann knew from the inside what it was like to filter, select, and simplify complicated facts in a form that people could quickly absorb. He had become a critic of Wilson after the president turned to censorship and the suppression of civil liberties, in conjunction with what Lippmann regarded as crudely jingoistic propaganda. Liberty and the News grew out of a lengthy analysis of The New York Times’s coverage of the Russian Revolution, which led Lippmann to conclude that “the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see . . . The chief censor and the chief protagonist were hope and fear in the minds of reporters and editors.”
This was a disheartening conclusion for anyone who believed, as Lippmann still did in 1920, that “the reliability of the news is the premise on which democracy proceeds.” But reporters and editors were only human. As a consequence of the efforts of newsmen like Lippmann himself, who summarized and simplified the events of the day, “all news comes at second-hand.” At the same time, utterly uninformed opinions were circulated as well, in the media and in face-to-face conversations. As a result, “all the testimony is uncertain, men cease to respond to truths, and respond simply to opinions. The environment in which they act is not the realities themselves, but the pseudo-environment of reports, rumors, and guesses.”
Indeed, it was just as hard for America’s elected representatives to grasp “the realities themselves,” one reason Lippmann applauded the “establishment of more or less semi-official institutes of government research.” (The American Bureau of Labor Statistics founded in 1884, the National Institute of Standards and Technology created in 1901, the reorganized Public Health Services expanded under Wilson in 1912, and the National Science Foundation launched in 1950 are all good examples of what Lippmann envisioned.)
But to imply that a bevy of objective facts, if faithfully relayed to the general public, or even to its elected representatives, would solve the problem of public opinion was profoundly misleading—and Lippmann knew it.
For the defects of public opinion were caused not just by biased newspapers, or blinkered reporters, or a lack of government-sponsored research institutes, or even by the growing number of secrets being kept by the American administrative state—the deepest problems were caused by the way people, all people, selected what they wanted to see and hear, filtering information through unavoidable “stereotypes,” a word that Lippmann introduced into the lexicon of American social science. […]
In Public Opinion, published in 1922, Lippmann explored the implications of these limits to human rationality for what Woodrow Wilson had called “government by popular opinion.” Unlike Robert Michels, who focused on the institutional limits of modern democracy, Lippmann analyzed its psychological limits. In a complex environment, where only disconnected bits of information are available to the average citizen, it was almost impossible for the public’s opinion on any matter of moment to be either cogent or coherent.
The book’s epigraph is Plato’s famous image, in the Republic, of inhabitants in a cave bewitched by shadows and unaware of the real world outside. What follows suggests that the great majority of modern men are inescapably prisoners of shadowy and unexamined assumptions, immersed in private lives involving the pursuit of various personal interests, with limited time, and even less attention to give to public affairs. This bleak account renders moot the dreams of Enlightenment democrats like Condorcet, who had hoped that citizens in the future would “approach a condition in which everyone will have the knowledge necessary to conduct himself in the ordinary affairs of life, according to the light of his own reason, to preserve his mind free from prejudice, to understand his rights and to exercise them in accordance with his conscience and his creed.”
Lippmann concedes that in a simple, self-contained community it might be plausible to assume that one man was as competent as another to manage “simple and self-contained affairs”—he seems to have in mind New England towns with their annual town meetings. But the evolution of modern society turns that “democratic stereotype” into a dangerous cliché, insofar as men now “looked at a complicated civilization and saw an enclosed village.” And insofar as modern American democracy under the direction of figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had evolved into a centralized administrative state designed, in part, to regulate and curtail the semi-sovereign powers of modern corporations and banks, the facts of governance had grown ever more remote from the simple interactions of a few individuals in a small rural community.
Lippmann’s conclusion is most bluntly stated in The Phantom Public, his sequel to the opinion book: “The individual man does not have opinions on all public affairs. He does not know how to direct public affairs. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. I cannot imagine how he could know, and there is not the least reason for thinking, as mystical democrats have thought, that the compounding of individual ignorances in masses of people can produce a continuous directing force in public affairs.” As a result, the common interests, he concludes, “can be managed only by a specialized class”—informed commentators like Lippmann himself, and trained civil servants with an in-depth knowledge of the facts pertinent to formulating reasonable public policies.
Excerpted from “Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, from Ancient Athens to Our World” by James Miller. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by James Miller. All rights reserved.
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