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Fr. 427

November 1, 2013

In the second chapter of Theories of Democracy, Frank Cunningham briefly enumerates the kinds of problems facing contemporary democratic societies both at the level of practice and theory. We shall content ourselves here with briefly exposing and expanding on the problems that he highlights.

If, in the past, tyranny was typically an affair of the minority taking advantage of or persecuting some victim majority, with the onset of democracy, the problematic shifts as it is now the tyranny of the majority that poses a major threat to society. Insofar as the majority can be seen as simply another individual with its own set of preferences, beliefs and reasons for action, albeit without the easily identifiable characteristics of a person, it is not hard to see how the tyranny might be preserved even with the inversion of roles here. Although, on certain radical libertarian picture, one might be tempted to speak of any government intrusion into the lives of its citizens as necessarily tyrannical, what is typically mean here is the unjustified, majority mistreatment and neglect of a minority. While not always instantiated in a particular society, such a worry owes to certain structural deficiencies of democratic governance itself and thus remains a valid concern.

The second issue, the massification of culture and morals, dovetails with that of the tyranny of the majority as one could reasonably hold that “the cultural standards of the majority will be the dominant ones and that these standards will be culturally debased” (Theories of Democracy, p. 16). In other words, the preferences of the majority will come to crowd out minority preferences as a conformism sets in throughout society, stifling innovation and breaks from the norm. In a similar (rather elitist) line of thought, the majority qua majority would be unable of attaining cultural refinement or excellence precisely because these can only ever be the property of the few. The majority would thus be unable to obtain a cultural status beyond that of the vulgar mass.

Ineffective government happens to be the third concern addressed. Cunningham means by this that democratic governance has reached the point where it can no longer effectively prescribe norms and common goals for the members of society that can reasonably be expected to be fulfilled. This owes to a variety of factors foremost among which are: the seemingly endless debates that democracy supplies in plenty; the disappearance from society of widely held authority figures, e.g. the church, the state, the military, etc., capable of imposing and enforcing common standards; the inability both to produce and elect strong leaders to positions of power; the increasingly diverse and fickle public unwilling to lend its leaders the time to solve the problems plaguing society and electing opposed leadership in the following elections, thus being able to see any project through to its end. Although this recalls certain claims made about hyperpluralism in contemporary society (such as in Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation), it is important to remember that, even in the absence of a so-called “hard consensus” on questions and values of importance, a soft consensus at the level of general values, goals or orientations remains conceivable.

Cunningham then evokes the nature of (violent) conflict with which democracies are sometimes faced. Indeed, if democratic society tends to dissolve into mere debating societies, then the means of remedying this problem must be radical, in the sense of getting to the root of the problem of unity. To this end, Cunningham mentions the work of Carl Schmitt and his writings on the conditions for democracy to be an effective form of governance. More specifically, Schmidt holds that either the society must be deeply harmonious or that its leaders must unify the people through organizing them against some internal or external threat endangering their very existence. Yet these same directives encourage attitudes of national or ethnic purity and thus bring with them the danger of violence, conflict or war. The situation is no less grim on René Girard’s view of things, for, in that human society is threatened continually by cycles revenge-oriented violence, its only means of securing itself against these in democratic society is, on one hand, through the rule of law and, on the other, through victimizing scapegoats of one sort of another. That said, laws may fail to stave off violence in the first case, and the violence perpertrated towards victims in the second might well spiral out of the strict limits within which this sacrifice would ordinarily take place.

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