Sunday, November 09, 2008

Democracy Means All Things

One problem with working on democracy is that the term has become so widely used that it's descriptive meaning has been almost completely erased. In popular discourse, it is now used as little more than a term of commendation, so it is no wonder that almost all regimes claim to be democratic (properly understood).

Obviously, this is not a new trend. Last Monday I saw Bonnie Honig give a paper on mourning and membership in Sophocles' Antigone - which is certainly not my normal kind of political theory - but it raised interesting questions about the nature of Athenian democracy. Although Pericles celebrated Athens for permitting individuality and freedom - the very features Plato condemned - her claim was that Creon represented an equalizing and collectivizing democratic tradition going back to Solon.

Athenian democracy, of course, operated by lot rather than election - so it is important not to conflate democracy with elections. There are still some present writers who would advocate sortition; while deliberative democrats sometimes aspire to 'talk as a decision procedure', hoping that we can reach unanimous consensus and thereby avoid the need for voting.

This BBC article focuses on elections, and correspondingly seems to adopt a minimalist understanding of democracy as the power to 'throw the rascals out': Any election that can actually depose a government fulfils the minimum requirement of democracy, by which no oligarchy can count on maintaining itself in power because the electorate might decide otherwise... A government should be certain that it has been elected, but never certain that it will be elected again. All kinds of benefits flow from that uncertainty. (As Adam Przeworski notes, these benefits could actually be achieved by a lottery).

Interestingly, however, it then goes on to make a number of rather inflated claims about the connection between democracy and openness, freedom, equal opportunity and justice. For example: In 1995 a young right-wing zealot called Yigal Amir murdered [Israeli] Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin... In a non-democratic country he would have been quickly dealt with, but in democratic Israel he is still alive. If democracies cannot have the death penalty, then the US (despite widespread coverage of their recent election) is no democracy.

The article goes on to talk about how democracy allows men of colour - such as Martin Luther King Jr, Lewis Hamilton and Barack Obama, to come to prominence. I'm actually writing a response to a paper on citizen leadership for the Public Reason Podcast Symposium that touches on this - to which I'll link in due course.

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