The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The events of the last few years have focused new attention on widespread voter ignorance, partisan bias, unethical and misguided politicians, and other shortcomings of democracy. But some worry that airing the weaknesses of democracy provides ammunition for authoritarians, who can use such criticism to justify their own depredations.
Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan, author of the important recent book Against Democracy (which I reviewed and criticized here), has an excellent rebuttal to such concerns. As he points out, "it's implausible that just because other people react badly to what you write or say, you therefore have a duty not to write it or say it. Otherwise, we're saying that other people get to veto our permission to write and speak because they misbehave."
The claim that we should avoid making arguments that might be misused by evil political movements has dangerous implications. During the Cold War, for example, Soviet propaganda extensive use of domestic American criticism of Jim Crow segregation, in order to promote communism. Does that mean that the civil rights movement had an obligation to keep quiet about the subject, lest they inadvertently aid the rulers of a brutal totalitarian state?
In addition, as Brennan emphasizes, oppressive regimes and the political movements that support them also make extensive use of pro-democratic tropes. If criticisms of democracy can be used by bad people, the same is true of defenses:
All around the world, for well over a hundred years, dictators, fascists, communist totalitarian states, oligarchs, rent-seekers, and others have already been misusing democratic theory to justify their abuses. They hold sham elections. They name their countries the Democratic People's Republic of this and that. They claim to represent true democracy. They quote liberally from democratic theorists to justify their anti-democratic activity. They sometimes even pay democratic theorists… to consult for them, and sometimes even get those theorists… to shill for them. Sometimes the theorists even do it for free, as they celebrate a Mugabe as a democratic revolutionary for a while, until it becomes too obvious that the democratic revolutionary is actually just another dictator.
Pro-democracy arguments are at least as easily co-opted by evil regimes and movements, as criticisms. It is no accident that North Korea, probably the most repressive government in the world, calls itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea."
In recent years, the biggest new threat to liberal democratic values in many Western nations has been the rise of right-wing populist nationalism. Far from embracing political theory critiques of democracy, the Trumps and le Pens of the world portray themselves as battling out of touch elitists in order to implement the true will of the people. Much of their political success is the result of exploiting the very sort of political ignorance that scholars like Jason Brennan have warned us against.
If we want to protect ourselves against authoritarian and illiberal movements of both the right and the left, keeping quiet about the flaws of democracy is the last thing we should do. It is those very flaws—including, but not limited to political ignorance—that often enable such movements to flourish. To combat those movements effectively, we must do more to curb the flaws of democracy, and reduce the danger they pose.
Sadly, some of the worst weaknesses of democracy are not unique to a particular election or candidate, but are deeply embedded within the underlying structure of the democratic process. For example, widespread voter ignorance and biased thinking about political issues are largely rational reactions to the immense size and scope of the modern state, and the insignificance of any one vote to electoral outcomes. If we want to reduce the risk posed by ignorance, we may need to limit and decentralize the power of the modern state.
There are also a variety of other possible solutions to the problem, including Brennan's theory of "epistocracy." While I have significant reservations about his ideas, they deserve serious consideration.
In assessing the flaws of democracy, it is important to keep in mind that democratic governments still generally perform better than dictatorships. For example, the latter have a vastly higher incidence of mass murder and other human rights violations than the former. In my own work on political ignorance, I emphasize that point, and explain why even a highly ignorant electorate is usually less dangerous than a despot. But the fact that democracy performs better than dictatorship should not lead us to ignore the very serious flaws of the former.
While relatively unconstrained democracy is better than despotism, a democracy with greater decentralization and strict constitutional limits on government power could well outperform both. The enormous size, scope, and complexity, of the modern state is a greater concentration of power than can safely be trusted to any government, whether democratic or authoritarian. In addition, it makes it impossible for the electorate to effectively monitor more than a small fraction of the government's activities. If we want government to be genuinely democratic—in the sense of informed public oversight of government policy—it may be we need to entrust fewer issues to the democratic process in the first place. When it comes to democratic government, there is likely to be a trade-off between quantity and quality.
At the very least, we should not ignore that possibility, for fear of giving ammunition to authoritarians. Doing so only makes it more difficult to address those flaws of democracy that authoritarians are especially likely to exploit.