The Future of Democracy?

Fresno Bee, March 7, 2021

Democracy appears to be in decline around the world. Freedom House, a think tank founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, recently warned of an ongoing “recession” of democracy. China, Russia, and countries in the Middle East remain unfree. Major democracies such as India and the United States have stumbled. Freedom House claims that when exemplary democracies falter, anti-democratic forces are emboldened.

Authoritarianism was on the rise prior to COVID-19. Threats to freedom of the press predate the pandemic. Religious liberty and other human rights have never existed in some places. But the pandemic created new opportunities for disinformation and democratic dysfunction.

There was some good news. Across the world, protesters clamored for equality and human rights. Unfortunately, these protests were often met with governmental repression.

And, as we’ve seen in the U.S., there is growing distrust. Recent opinion polls paint a worrying picture. An Associated Press poll concluded that nearly half of Americans think our democracy is not working well. Such conclusions reflect our polarization. That poll concluded that 75% of Democrats think the country is on the right track, while almost 80% of Republicans think it is not. A related AP poll found that 65% of Republicans do not believe that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate.

These differences of opinion are troubling. Democracy depends upon trust and common ground.

But let’s not be surprised. History shows that democracy is rare, unstable, and imperfect.

The Roman republic lasted about 500 years. The Athenian democracy lasted about 200. And ancient “democracies” were not all that democratic. Slavery was allowed and women were subordinated. Athens and Rome were also aggressive colonizers. And we should not forget that the Athenian assembly voted to execute Socrates.

This is one of the reasons that Plato distrusted democracy. He thought it was foolish to put the uneducated masses in charge. Plato worried that liberty would be abused. He warned that the masses would fall for the seductive lies of a tyrant. He described democracy as a ship of fools, where the drunken passengers stage a mutiny and throw the expert navigators overboard.

Modern democracies have, of course, made improvements and learned from ancient failures. We have institutionalized human rights that protect freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Socrates would not be sentenced to death in the United States. We have also abolished slavery and advanced women’s suffrage.

Modern innovations may help to stabilize and preserve democracy. But challenges and opportunities remain.

An important question is who is included among “we, the people.” Should there be voting rights for people in prison or even non-citizens? Some states allow felons and ex-cons to vote. Others do not. In the U.S. we link voting to citizenship. But in New Zealand some permanent residents can vote.

We can also ask about the size, stability, and longevity of democratic nations. The United States did not always include 50 states. Could more be added or some allowed to secede? The Constitution is not written in stone. Should it be amended in ways that make it more responsive to the will of the people?

We should also consider the role of global institutions and international law. Should we seek a more global democracy that involves trans-national unions? Or does democracy require small, local, and decentralized communities?

In a polarized era, rational conversations about these things are difficult. It seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to talk reasonably about all of this. This may be our undoing.

A significant question is how peaceful and reasonable we expect democracy to be. Some philosophers dream of “deliberative democracy” in which rational people engage in sincere and civil debate. But democracy is also a field of conflict and struggle, what scholars call “agonistic democracy.” In the United States, our democracy has become much more agonistic of late. This damages civic institutions. But “people power” may in fact be more like anarchy than law and order.

As we consider the future of democracy, we should remember that democracies have not always existed. Irrationality, self-interest, and conflict are part of the human condition. Authoritarians are waiting to exploit those weakness. And without rational consensus about shared values, democracies will continue to fail.

Liberalism and the Legacy of John Rawls

Fresno Bee, February 21, 2021

Republicans, Democrats can find common ground over concern for reason and truth.

Feb. 21, 2021 is the 100th birthday of the American political philosopher John Rawls. He was a famous proponent of liberalism. He imagined a tolerant secular society in which reason produced consensus.

Rawls died in 2002. Liberalism was a common ideal in the United States in the 20th century. Things have unraveled since then into fundamental disagreements about truth, justice and the American way.

Liberty matters in Rawls’ vision. But society also ought to concern itself with the well-being of the underprivileged. Liberalism allows people to pursue their own interests, while also setting up a safety net. This system encourages people to develop their dreams. But it also takes care of what Rawls calls “the least advantaged.”

Rawls gives us a useful tool called “the veil of ignorance.” You ought to pretend, Rawls suggests, that you do not know who you are. You should disregard your race, gender, and net worth. What kind of social system would you imagine was fair, if you didn’t know whether you were rich or poor, white or black, male or female?

This thought experiment encourages us to ignore biased self-interest. This should lead us to see the injustice of sexist, racist and elitist systems. Reasonable and unbiased people should want a system that helps those with special needs and hard luck, because that could be you (or someone you love).

This ends up looking something like the economic and political structure we have in the United States. Entrepreneurs are free to get rich here. But they pay taxes that help the needy. There are details to be debated, including how much the rich should be taxed and how much social support is needed by the poor. Those details are to be sorted out by balancing liberty with concern for the least advantaged.

We can use Rawls’ method to think about a variety of issues. Imagine if you did not know if you were old or young, rich or poor, sick or healthy. You might then agree that those who are most likely to die from COVID-19 (old people and people with medical conditions) should get the vaccine first. Or imagine that you don’t know for the moment whether you are safely housed or not. You might then agree that everyone should have access to shelter, toilets and the security of walls and doors.

And so on.

The liberal idea has been criticized. Libertarians think liberty trumps other values. Socialists want more equality than Rawls provides. Feminists claim Rawls ignores the historical oppression of women. Critics focused on race say he ignores the history of slavery and segregation. And Christian critics claim that secular justice is empty in comparison with the command to love God and your neighbor as yourself.

But liberalism imagines a big tent. Rawls defended a vision of toleration that would allow diverse people to find common ground despite their differences. He called this “overlapping consensus.” That place of reasonable consensus would be where we would debate the historical details and balance equality with liberty.

Overlapping consensus depends upon the basic good will, fairness, and reasonableness of people. Diverse religious people should be able to find consensus because of their basic sense of fairness. Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground because they share a common concern for reason and the truth.

As polarization and distrust grow, this idea seems untenable. Conspiracy theories, fake news, identity politics, and growing authoritarianism all serve to undermine the dream of a tolerant, reasonable consensus.

The risk of devolution stems from growing irrationality. Rawls explained in a comment on Hobbes that “so far as people are rational, they will want to avoid having things collapse back into a state of nature.” The state of nature, on this account, is a state of war. Rawls did not mean this as a prophecy. But the risk is there. If people are not rational, we won’t be able to find common ground and society risks collapse.

As we continue to struggle with polarization, we would do well to revisit the liberal idea of a just and tolerant secular society. Rawls gives us reason to hope that we might ignore our differences long enough to find common ground.