Democracy Is Good, Actually

There are moments when even the most committed of democrats find themselves despairing of political democracy. But the system has proven again and again to be the last best hope of ordinary people in defending their pursuit of happiness against tyrants of all stripes — both public and private.

Democratic Socialists of America 2019 National Convention delegates vote overwhelmingly to endorse a Green New Deal priority campaign. (Paloma Nafarrate)

As a young student immersed in the Left, I could never fully grasp the socialist emphasis on small-democracy. To some extent, I think the experience of campus politics may have been the culprit. Involved in various groups and campaigns in my late teens and early twenties, “democracy” in the colloquial sense was something I associated with frustratingly brief conversations on the doorstep, packed rooms in which people shouted at each other, and tedious public meetings where little got done, more than with any grand vision of a better society.

Small-d democracy, as I then understood it, basically meant a show of hands — and, since the loudest and most well-funded voices usually prevail in such a situation, the concept struck me as imperfect at best. It also, frankly, smacked of left-wing naivete: the implication of demands for more democracy being that a majority of people agreed with us already, which was rarely my experience canvassing in elections. (If so many were already onside, after all, why did we always seem to be losing?) While working for a local member of Parliament I met many inspiring community leaders, but also more than a fair number of cranks peddling petitions and championing causes you might diplomatically call quixotic. Wherever the road to a better world ultimately lay, it seemed, it couldn’t possibly run through that.

In retrospect, I don’t think my instincts were all entirely wrong (though they were incomplete).

Mainstream political debate is often dumb and parochial. Most people, including those of us who think about politics for a living, are less than informed on the finer points of all kinds of things about which we nevertheless have opinions. Plenty of left-wing spaces and public townhalls are tedious, confrontational, and overly concerned with mundane detail. The ubiquity of focus groups and opinion polling does trivialize politics. The Right’s embrace of some aspects of direct democracy also shows how flimsy and easily manipulated the concept can be (California’s recent Prop 22 referendum, where tech monopolies engineered a coup against the state legislature under the guise of popular democracy being a good case in point). Perhaps most importantly of all, majority opinion in the democratic age has been on the wrong side of too many issues to count — as the history of the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, and the long march toward LGBTQ liberation forcefully remind us.

With the benefit of hindsight, however, I’ve come to understand why the Left’s emphasis on democracy is so integral to its overall project, and what was ultimately incomplete about the narrow idea of it I once held.

For one thing, the Left’s view of democracy has always been about a whole lot more than chasing opinion polls, having meetings, or asking for a show of hands. Contrary to some popular history, socialists were indeed at the forefront of struggles for many things now considered to be democracy’s nuts and bolts (voting rights, the extension of the franchise, and freedom of speech, to name but a few). But the socialist conception of democracy ultimately extends far beyond these basic features of liberal or parliamentary governance, implying a textured mix of freedom and equality that can never be realized through them alone. People are not free when circumstances force them into demeaning, alienating, and low-paid work, nor can any society be considered equal when its foundational economic model separates people into classes and distributes power accordingly.

The irony, though, is that the past several years have offered plenty of very good reasons to embrace a version of the far narrower conception of democracy I once found so incomplete. As I write these words, the new management of Britain’s Labour Party is opposing an increase in corporate taxes that is not only a no-brainer center-left-type policy, but is also resoundingly popular with the general public. Or consider the consistent majority of Americans who favor Medicare for All, despite its marginal position among elected officials and the stiff resistance it still receives from many powerful liberals. This week marks the one-year anniversary of the ultimately decisive Democratic primary in South Carolina, which found an electorate that overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden nevertheless favoring a “complete overhaul” of America’s economic system.

To be quite clear, none of these examples makes a comprehensive case for the infallible wisdom of the majority or government-by-opinion poll. What they do suggest is that major liberal democracies today are often very unrepresentative of their own electorates. In policymaking, lawmakers are far more likely to acquiesce to the demands of big lobbies and the imperatives of organized wealth than majority popular opinion. Political parties themselves, meanwhile, are generally over-professionalized and top-down organizations, which often give even highly motivated members little to do beyond ask their neighbors for money and sermonize the talking points handed down by partisan apparatchiks. Mainstream political media is first and foremost a profit-driven business and, as such, imposes strict constraints on even the most principled journalists and reporters — to the detriment of meaningful debate and the exclusion of perspectives that criticize institutional power.

Small-d democracy is no panacea. But against this backdrop, the basic assertion of majoritarianism and public opinion can often be a powerful weapon — both against the stifling conservatism of modern political culture and the deference paid by mainstream politicians to corporate and media elites. In the long run, of course, the Left must ultimately fight for a far richer and more nuanced conception of democracy than the one today represented by liberal institutions or echoed in the ephemera of opinion polling. In the short term, however, we can and should be loud and unapologetic in our embrace of both democracy and majoritarianism — precious values still tragically scarce in an age of mass suffrage and individual rights.