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Fr. 428

November 2, 2013

Yet the foregoing problems are not the only difficulties that any given democracy is bound to face. Indeed, to these first four are joined a further four.

The first of these concerns the risk of demagogy, a problem linked to the so-called “empty space of democracy” (ibid., p. 19). Although this empty space can be interpreted in different ways, Cunningham’s interpretation follows that of Claude Lefort for whom the ruling majority in a democracy or the “people” differs significantly from the ruling minority in non-democratic forms of governance. Whereas the ruling minority is often a monarchy or an aristocracy, both of which can be identified with real, determinate persons, the ruling, democratic majority is the “people”, an abstraction that can hold no fixed, determinate content as it is little more than a shifting mass of individuals who pass in and out of that majority. In short, there is no parallel personality to whom the decisions, preferences, will and actions of the “people” may be ascribed. Accordingly, the “people” suffers none of the consequences that a monarch might in reason of his or her actions. Thus, at the locus of rule or power in democracy, there is nought to be found but an empty place, a vacuum that is filled at times by those persuasive enough to appeal to the will of the vague entity that is the people. In the end, on this view, democracy in and itself tends toward this abusive use of this “contentless and unstable” notion that does not, of necessity, correspond to any factual majority (ibid., p. 20).

Appearing after the preceding problem is the view on which democracy can serve as a legitimizing mask of oppressive rule. If, at the level of law, unjustified mistreatment or neglect of the minority (or even the majority) is precluded by laws targeting such overt exclusions from power, there are more insidious ways in which these same individuals remain, practically speaking, excluded by systemic oppression and structural obstacles. Although such rights are open in principle to people of different classes, genders and races, the system operates in such a way that power most usually goes to the upper and upper-middle classes of the dominant race without the need for overt policies of exclusion. As Cunningham puts it: “These and other such criticisms contrast the public realm of formal government and election of officials who conduct it with private realms such as the workplace, the family, and the media to argue that disparities of wealth, power, access to appropriate knowledge and skills, perpetuation of prejudicial attitudes, and the like in the latter realm ensure exclusion of effective representation of people from subordinated groups in the public realm” (ibid., p. 21). Such everyday oppression or discrimination can be brought to the fore in asking, with Cunningham, “who does not govern?” and “why?” (idem.).

Apart from the structural inequalities that democracy might conceal, still other theorists worry that democratic governance is necessarily irrational in the sense, not that the masses are uncultivated, ignorant and thus unlikely to know what is in their best interest, but, rather, that majority will can not be understood on the model of the choice of a rational agent. More specifically, this problem tends to identify two broad types of irrationality: “when people adopt measures that they can reasonably be expected to know will fail to achieve their preferred goals and when an individual’s preference rankings are incoherent” (ibid., p. 22). The first of these types comes out in examples where the individual is to weigh the advantages or disadvantages to expect from taking part in a concerted, collective action or decision within the community. Insofar as all members of a democratic society accrue the benefits secured by the action of political activists and movements, the individual might deem it not worth his or her time to engage in that action. After all, if it does come to pass, he or she will reap the rewards regardless of not having acted.

The second of these types is manifest in such situations where rational preference rankings are incoherent. In the example given by Cunningham, a question is put to the public of how a specific measure is to be funded by the government. In discussing the question, the public is found to be divided amongst itself on whether to raise taxes, borrow from a lender or cut domestic programs. If no measure has a majority, then each measure in turn will be unable to assert itself over the others as the best option (as the majority favors one of two other actions), and, accordingly, on a rational choice model, the public in consideration can only cycle between preferences without ever coming to a final decision. In the end, measured against the will of a rational individual, democratic majority will taken on the model of the individual will cannot help but be found wanting.

The final problem facing democracy is not one besetting its everyday institutions but rather its theoretical foundations (or lack thereof). This perspective holds that democracy’s problem is not one of articulating the right theory of itself. Quite the contrary: democrats should instead look to those “pregovernmental, social or economic conditions that make well-functioning democracy possible”  (ibid., p. 23). More concretely, on this view, democrats should focus on questions of how to foster active participation in public affairs, local associations, clubs and social organizations so as to pave the way for later coordinated and collective action in the area of policy. Hence, according to this position, the question is eminently practical, a matter of finding the best concrete arrangements for fostering that kind of activity and participation.

Yet this manner of cutting theory out of the picture and replacing it with a focus on praxis is itself based on a sort of fallacy. For, in being able to name the preconditions for democracy, it is first necessary that such this perspective be able to identify those features characteristic of democratic society and governance, an identification that cannot take place without having some criteria at hand by which to pick out those features. An empirical outlook of this kind must, in spite of itself, make implicit appeal to analytic process only available to theory. Indeed, this recalls a parallel issue from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue where, in an early chapter, MacIntyre underscores the extent to which there can be no mere characterization of a state of facts in describing one’s action for such characterization or description will always inevitably draw on some theoretical perspective from which the onlooker observes the scene. In short, this last objection encounters a parallel difficulty in that it must necessarily set out what democracy is before being able to list its necessary and sufficient preconditions.

All in all, the list of issues raised by Cunningham is daunting, and it falls to the various theories under consideration in the work to respond in better or worse fashion to all, or at least some, of the problems sketched above.

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