Can we do better than democracy? Or, more precisely, can we do democracy better than the way it is currently done in much of the world? Winston Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” I think he would have emphasized the “worst form” part of the aphorism today, what with the UK (primarily England) voting to leave the EU to avoid sending £800 million a month to Brussels (not unremunerated, mind you) and finding its market assets plunge $350 billion dollars (roughly 36 years worth of EU payments at current rates). Plus the Bank of England will have to dump a lot of its reserves to shore up sterling in foreign exchange markets. Of course, Churchill was also an unabashed imperialist, life-long member of the upper crust, and Peer of England, so one might expect him to be somewhat skeptical of popular sovereignty. But his ambivalence should remind us of two things: democracy in any form is not an unalloyed good, and our current understanding of what counts as “democracy” has not been the prevailing view at all times and places.
The framers of the US Constitution, particularly the Federalists, were not particularly democratic by modern standards. This is true even if you ignore those pesky slavery and “three-fifths of a person” parts of the Constitution—which, by the way, a disturbingly large number of Americans would prefer you to forget. Behold the byzantine, anti-majoritarian Electoral College that chooses presidents, an institutional form that was also present in the Holy Roman Empire (and it had empire right in the name, for Pete’s sake). The electoral college isn’t what the vast majority of us would consider democratic, and that is after the 12th Amendment got rid of bizarre outcomes that matched nobody’s preferences, namely the occupation of the office of Vice President by whoever got the second-most electoral college votes (can you imagine President Clinton and VP Trump, or vice versa?). States also started assigning the electors in the College to candidates according to their respective popular votes rather than the will of state legislatures (absent any binding constitutional amendment. And Maine and Nebraska are weird–don’t ask). State legislatures, as you will remember, also used to elect US senators until the 17th Amendment made that go bye-bye. Basically, the framers didn’t trust us plebes enough to give us a hand in selecting the highest statesmen (at the time, definitely men) in the land.
The framers’ lack of modern democratic bona fides was due to their status as lower-case “r” republicans, not liberals (liberal in the classical sense, not the modern US understanding). They were much more concerned with constructing political institutions that would check the ambitions of politicians and prevent tyranny, more than the democratic representation of the wider population. They did not conceive of freedom so much as a property of individuals, as is the case today, but rather the political community. This is what the notion of “civic virtue” is partially about. In this tradition, freedom is conceived not as individuals being able to entertain whatever preference has momentarily flittered into their minds (as with classical liberalism), but the moderation of one’s self-interest in light of the interests and principles of the body politic. In this tradition, allowing individuals to be in thrall to their personal passions and transient whims while isolating themselves from the public sphere is not thought of as freedom, but practically its opposite. And clearly, republicans often don’t share liberals’ faith in humanity’s rationality and ability to better itself. Per James Madison (or possibly Alexander Hamilton), people aren’t angels, and we’re not likely to achieve some facsimile of heaven on earth.
What is more, modern research has shown that the founders weren’t that far off in their skepticism of the electorate to make wise decisions. Part of the reason that people elect representatives is that we don’t have the time or interest in politics necessary to gather the relevant information necessary to make reasonable policy decisions. People in the US and elsewhere know strikingly little about politics or policy, even as the number of people receiving higher education has multiplied. You could call this “rational ignorance” in that, in a country of millions who have a lot of shit to do other than scour outlets for political information, it makes little sense to stay highly informed. You could also argue that people are good at using “heuristics”, or mental shortcuts, to figure out whether a candidate will effectively represent their interests or not (e.g. “she’s a Democrat/Republican, and I identify with the Democratic/Republican Party, so I don’t need to read her specific policy proposals to know that I’d agree with her on most things.”) The problem is that our heuristics can often lead us astray; many people (including “experts”) are bad at learning from mistakes; we’re not particularly good at predicting our future preferences and feelings; fear and a sense of threat make us intolerant, take big and typically foolish risks, and embrace charismatic con artists; and politicians are adept at manipulating us.
This ideology coincided with the political disenfranchisement and oppression of more than half the US population, though frankly that was more a function of racist, sexist, and classist beliefs than a necessary outcome of republicanism, which actually emphasizes non-domination as its over-arching theme. And while republicanism was the prevailing ideology, the US rose to be an economic and foreign policy superpower while gradually—painfully so—undoing some of the original sins present at the country’s founding. Not too shabby.
If you went back to the ancient Greeks in Athens, they would have thought the American framers’ idea of democracy was nothing of the sort. Athenians would likely have balked at the idea that democracy could exist in a political entity with millions of citizens, something Madison knew. These ancients’ idea of democracy was to throw on your toga and sandals, pack yourself a knapsack of olive oil and wine, check to make sure you had some land and a penis, and go hash things out through direct deliberation in the square. This direct style of politics meant there were no representatives save the ekklesia that set the political agenda for debate, and the dudes on that body were selected by lottery. Imagine if instead of getting randomly called for jury duty, you got a call out of the blue saying it was your turn to be the head congressional parliamentarian or chairman of the House Rules Committee (“Bad news Ted. We got a letter saying you have to report for Rules Committee duty next week. No closed amendments, bro.”) The idea of relying on people who wanted to be politicians to run our collective political affairs after a vote would have sounded to the Athenians like a recipe for disaster, and they were on to something. A person who wants to be in political office is often one of the last people you would want to be there. To wit, the US Congress has regularly received single-digit approval ratings over the last half-decade or so.
At this point you are probably thinking, “OK Debbie Downer, what’s your solution for all this?” Two points: first, I am probably deluding myself that most people have the patience to put up with this much of my soap-boxing (TL;DR version: “Democracy’s flawed, dead people would have laughed at our concept of what democracy is, and the electorate is kinda dumb”). Second, I intend to write a briefer conclusion, but at the moment my final chemo session for the foreseeable future (yeah, that happened) and the events of the past 24 hours have made me fatigued and nauseated, so that will wait for another day.