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Malfunctioning democracies?

‘We must stop indulging them,’ is the message of one columnist in a self-identifying liberal broadsheet (I’ve heard enough of the white male rage narrative is the title). This is in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Indulging ‘them’ must stop because when ‘we’ indulge ‘them’, they do things like vote for Trump. Who knows what form of non-indulgence the writer is advocating (sending enraged white males to bed without supper?), but I note both the assumption of superiority and the dismay at events in a major western electorate.

This particular article captured the mood of much response not just to Trump’s election but also to Britain’s Brexit vote, and there are fears that worse may follow given the apparent progress of right-wing groups in other west European electorates. Democratic elections are getting it wrong, it seems. How can that be?

Some more astute commentators are reverting to a more nuanced way of talking about majoritarian government: they distinguish between democratic parties and ‘populist’ parties. This distinction prevents critiques of majority positions being short-circuited on the grounds that those positions are ‘democratic’ and thus automatically beyond reproach. But what makes a party or leader ‘populist’ in this negative sense, other than a particular commentator’s dislike?

Here, older traditions of political analysis help us. Thus Polybius, synthesising both Plato and Aristotle, speaks of six species of government in his work, The Histories: three ‘good’ (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) and three corruptions of those good forms (tyranny, oligarchy and ochlocracy, or mob rule). Polybius envisages a cycle in which each good form mutates into its degenerate form, to be replaced by another good form, which then degenerates, and so on. In effect, soi-disant liberal commentators are asking whether ‘democracy’ is degenerating into ‘ochlocracy’, as Polybius’ model predicts.

Polybius charts the degeneration into ochlocracy as a loss of virtue. A class of political leaders arise who simply desire their own (popular) rule. He writes: When, ‘in their senseless mania for reputation, they have made the populace ready and greedy to receive bribes, the virtue of democracy is destroyed, and it is transformed into a government of violence and the strong hand.’

For Polybius, virtue disappears not least because the population has become so venal. This contrasts with Polybius’ earlier presentation of genuine democracy: ‘But where reverence to the gods, succour of parents, respect to elders, obedience to laws, are traditional and habitual, in such communities, if the will of the majority prevail, we may speak of the form of government as a democracy.’

So, for Polybius, religious and social ethos and commitment to the application of law to oneself as well as to others are all important in maintaining a state as democracy rather than ochlocracy. Polybius suggests that citizens must be virtuous. Similarly, Montesquieu, so influential on the framers of the US constitution, speaks in his work, The Spirit of the Laws, of the distinctive principle of democracy as virtue. Here the idea is civic virtue – a personal commitment to the equality and freedoms for others as well as oneself that democracies engender.

Now, some would argue that such civic virtue is unnecessary for ‘healthy’ democracy: enlightened self-interest does the same job. But is this possible in current western cultures deeply marked by consumption-hedonism, where the rule is that the one with the most consumables wins? When I am encouraged to think in such consumption terms, why work to preserve other people’s liberties at the sacrifice of my own comfort? Sure, I will want my liberties, but my most enlightened self-interest will be for everyone else to work to preserve the liberties of all, including mine, while I focus exclusively on pursuing mine. This is the classic ‘free-loader’ problem of neo-classical economics.

But older traditions of civic virtue speak of commitments that are bigger than me and to which I may have to sacrifice my self-interest and my consumption-hedonism. Very strikingly for current western democracies, so emphatic on secularist approaches, it becomes very hard to ask for self-sacrifice. Not the least disadvantage of the increasing exclusion of Christianity from the public square is that it does model and encourage self-sacrifice, for it speaks of the Son of God who sacrificed himself for us. How about that as a model for civic virtue? And without it, how does a consumption-obsessed democracy avoid becoming an ochlocracy?

Mike Ovey

Mike Ovey
05 December 2016

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