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Against Sentimental Democracy

It’s time to get past meaningless terms like “the will of the people.” With a less sentimental, more precise view of why democracy is so important, we can become better democratic citizens.

By Ned Resnikoff


Defend Democracy! Pro-Brexit supporters demonstrating outside Downing street in central London on July 13, 2016. (Photo: Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images)

“Democracy” is the watchword of the contemporary American Left. It was certainly foremost among the political virtues touted by Bernie Sanders, the left wing’s standard-bearer in the 2016 Democratic primary. Throughout the campaign, Sanders repeatedly positioned himself at the forefront of a “political revolution” that would “restore democracy” through mass action.

When Sanders speaks of democracy, he usually means direct democracy: a mass intervention in the policymaking process conducted by ordinary Americans, whether through voting or other means. His mission, as he told the New York Daily News in April, “is to mobilize the American people to demand that Congress listen to them and their needs rather than just the big-money interests.” This view shares much in common with the underlying philosophy of Occupy Wall Street, where decisions were often made by popular consensus and thousands of protesters marched to the refrain, “This is what democracy looks like!” To both the democratic socialist candidate and the Occupy Wall Street anarchist, true democracy is all about expressing the unalloyed will and wisdom of the people. That’s the source of its value.

If democracy is little more than a conduit for the will of the people (which is good), then anything that obstructs the popular will is anti-democratic (and therefore bad). That’s why Sanders backers have lobbied so aggressively for reforms to the Democratic Party’s nominating process. In Sanders’ view, the superdelegate system is fundamentally anti-democratic because it weights the preferences of Democratic officials over those of the average voter. Similarly, closed primaries are an affront to democracy because they restrict voting based on party membership.

That position might seem a little self-serving at first glance. After all, there was never any doubt that Hillary Clinton would enjoy the backing of most superdelegates. And more open primaries might have favored Sanders, who performed well among independent voters. This sort of embrace of the popular will, though, is about more than just convenience. Even when majoritarian decision-making leads to perverse outcomes, there are plenty on the left who will continue to defend it. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi put it in an article about Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump: “My admittedly primitive understanding of democracy is that we’re supposed to move toward it, not away from it, in a moment of crisis.”

Like most fantasies, the popular will becomes more elusive the longer you try to find it. The people may have spoken, but they didn’t enunciate clearly.

But a sentimental attachment to the popular will isn’t just primitive; it’s dangerous. Even in a democratic system, the will of the people is not a sound guide for political decision-making. The truth is, there is no “will of the people,” at least not in the way that Sanders and Taibbi seem to think of it. It’s a fantasy, and democracy is better off without it.

Like most fantasies, the popular will becomes more elusive the longer you try to find it. Take the Brexit referendum. Both Taibbi and his detractors — including center-right critics of “too much democracy,” such as Kenneth Rogoff and Daniel Drezner — take it for granted that the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union was a clear expression of the country’s majority sentiment. But that’s not a reasonable assumption.

The tricky thing about referendums is that somebody needs to frame a question before the public can answer it. The somebodies in question tend to be political elites — the same elites who allegedly lose their power when policy decisions get decided by majority vote.

Framing the question isn’t just a matter of deciding what language appears on the ballot. Euroskeptic elites also engaged in a long campaign of misinformation to turn out the vote for Leave. Nigel Farage, head of the U.K. Independence Party, promised that the country’s National Health Service would be able to collect an additional £350 million per week if the Leave campaign succeeded. He abandoned that pledge within hours of victory.

Would the vote have gone a different way if Farage hadn’t made that promise? What if Leave advocates hadn’t grossly exaggerated the effect Brexit would have in reducing immigration? Would English voters have thought twice if more of them had anticipated that a victory for Leave would breathe new life into the Scottish independence movement, or that the E.U. would stop subsidizing economically struggling areas like Cornwall?

Maybe not. It’s impossible to say. But even if the result might have been the same, it’s clear that a non-trivial percentage of the British electorate cast their vote without fully understanding what it was they were voting for. The people may have spoken, but they didn’t enunciate clearly. And when both the meaning and consequences of a popular vote have been deliberately obscured, it’s hard to say with confidence that the vote was legitimately democratic.

There’s also the problem of representation. When the electorate is a very small subsection of the actual public, it can be tough to see the link between electoral outcomes and the popular will. This is a big issue in party primaries, where the people doing the voting are likelier to be committed partisans.

For Sanders and many of his backers, the solution is to open up primaries to anyone who wants to participate, regardless of whether they are registered party members. But that would make the system less representative, not more so. Introducing countless non-Democrats into the Democratic primary is self-defeating because it makes it harder for members of the organization to select their own leadership. It’s tantamount to making a union election more “democratic” by inviting votes from non-members.

Open primaries could also make the general election less democratic. A Democratic primary where independent and Republican voters constitute a significant percentage of the electorate would likely generate a candidate who has little in common with his fellow party members. If the same thing happens on the Republican side, the two candidates in a general election could be closer to each other than to the parties they nominally represent. For people who did not vote in the primaries, the election would not offer a real choice between competing visions.

The Democratic Party actually has introduced reforms to make its primary system more representative, but they’re not the sort of reforms that appeal to democratic sentimentalists. When the party’s Hunt Commission first drafted the superdelegate rules in 1982, commission members reasoned that superdelegates could represent the interests of those Democrats who didn’t vote in the primaries.

In the event of neck-and-neck race for the nomination, “there is no better group of people in the United States than the elected Democrats, elected by the people, to in fact cast the deciding vote and make the decision,” said Elaine Kamarck, a member of the commission’s technical advisory committee, according to a transcript of the Hunt Commission’s internal deliberations. “Like them or not, our U.S. House of Representatives is representative of Democrats who vote out there.”

Because superdelegates can legitimately claim to represent a large portion of “the people” — and because, as Kamarck says elsewhere in the transcript, the other major actors in a party primary tend to be “self-selected candidate activists” — we’re left with no solid criteria for determining the best way to embody the people’s will. When it is impossible to define success or evaluate different proposals for how to achieve it, that’s a strong indication that your goals are effectively worthless.

The good news is we can discard the romantic view of direct democracy without abandoning democracy itself. There are plenty of reasons to prefer democratic government that don’t hinge on specious, quasi-metaphysical totems like “the will of the people.” And with a less sentimental, more precise view of why democracy is so important, we can become better democratic citizens.

A good share of democracy’s value comes from its ability to resolve political disputes non-violently. Democratic institutions also provide a check on the ability of one faction to arbitrarily dominate another. (Political theorists in the republican tradition embrace the notion that “non-domination” is the central aim of a just government.) Of course, it is entirely possible for a majority to dominate a minority through popular vote — which is part of why so many democratic governments have institutions designed to thwart pure majoritarianism.

The good news is we can discard the romantic view of direct democracy without abandoning democracy itself.

There is also good reason to believe that democracy is better than other systems of government at ensuring an equitable distribution of public goods. Because leaders in a democracy need to win the support of majorities in order to retain power, they need to act in a way that satisfies large portions of the electorate. Autocrats, because they rely on much smaller coalitions to maintain and exercise power, need only wield the state’s power on behalf of a small coterie.

That’s all very abstract, but there’s empirical data to back it up. Political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith have shown that democratic leaders, because they rely on larger coalitions to remain in charge, are likelier to provide effective infrastructure and high-quality public goods.

“For such leaders the desire to stay in office dictates that they must satisfy the large coalition’s desire for access to good education at all levels; to quality health care at all levels; and, most importantly, to the means to make the wishes of the coalition easily known by the government at all levels,” Bueno de Mesquita and Smith write in their book, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics. “It is surely no coincidence that all but one (Singapore) of the 25 countries in the contemporary world with the highest per capita incomes are liberal democracies.”

Smith and Bueno de Mesquita even found that death tolls from natural disasters tend to be higher in dictatorships than in democracies, in large part because “big-coalition leaders know that if they don’t protect their ordinary citizens they’ll be turned out of office in favor of someone who will.”

Democracy matters, but not because it acts as a medium for the public’s collective consciousness. It matters because it is the best system we’ve invented for distributing wealth, maintaining peace, and preventing one portion of society from falling beneath the yoke of another. Cheap romanticism doesn’t just obscure these other, more vital ends; it can actively work against them, lending unearned legitimacy to disasters like the Brexit referendum. Or it can lead self-styled democrats to embrace imprudent political reforms, such as the campaign to force open party primaries.

The left should work to protect democracy, but not as a pseudo-mystical abstraction. The real objective should always be to improve lives in tangible, perceptible ways. Actual existing democracy is what is truly under attack, and it is what genuinely deserves to be saved.