Two Cheers for Democracy

POLITICS & POLICY

I am pleased and a little amused that my new book, The Smallest Minority, which will be published tomorrow, is currently the No. 1 new release in the “Democracy” category at Amazon. And it is a book that is about democracy—but it is not a celebration of it. A snippet:

Democracy, properly understood and properly deployed, is an almost exclusively procedural consideration. It is in the Kingdom of Means. It has procedural value not because we believe in equality—the American concept of “equality before the law” describes the functioning of American institutions, not the character of the American people—and not because we believe that everyone deserves to have his say, that all voices must be heard. There are plenty of people out there who have nothing useful or interesting to say, whose exercise of the franchise is only a great infantile “I want!” endlessly reiterated every four years or so. There is no special virtue in consulting morons and cretins simply because they exist.

We rely on procedural democracy as a substitute for violence. It is how we ensure a minimum of accountability in our government: If we do not like how our lawmakers and representatives are behaving, we can relieve them of their duties and choose new ones. Procedural democracy is a convenience. It pacifies the chimps in the electorate and gives us an alternative to ritual combatfor the chimps in office. It is an important convenience, to be sure, but if there were a better way of ensuring basic political accountability, then all intelligent people would prefer it. But there isn’t.

Its value is most easily appreciated in its absence, as we see as this moment in history with the transnational bureaucratic and political efforts to frustrate the British decision to part company with the European Union. But its moral value consists almost exclusively in its utility as a substitute for violence. Without being situated in the frame of liberalism and the rule of law, democracy is only another instrument for aggregating hatred and grievances and organizing them into repression. The example of Venezuela, which has descended into political violence even as it maintained democratic forms, illustrates that well enough.

Democracy as a social ethic is something else entirely. The implicit proposal that human beings have more value in corporation, that masses grow more valuable and more legitimate the larger they are and the more demanding they grow, and that the individual must always in the end be answerable to the collective, is pure barbarism—it is might-makes-right thinking metathesized from authoritarian political principle to authoritarian cult. It is a virtual guarantee of social and cultural stagnation, ugliness, stupidity, repression, bigotry, illiberalism, narrow-mindedness—and, inevitably, violence. That kind of democracy is the cult of the modern primitive, whose object of veneration is the modern primitive himself.

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