A Tale of Two Democracies: Republicans and Democrats Between Aristotle and Locke

In the fall of even-numbered years, I pretend to be a political scientist, that is, someone who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to electoral politics. I have to teach a class on campaigns and elections, and there are a couple of local reporters who want to talk to me about state and municipal elections.  So I pull my nose out of a book and pay more attention than usual to the political horse races.

Earlier this week that meant attending a Q&A session on campus with a Democrat seeking to unseat our current Republican state representative.

I suppose that it shouldn’t be surprising, given the attention “voter suppression” in Georgia has gotten in the national press, that our Democratic challenger spent some time discussing that issue.  As anyone who doesn’t live in a cave knows, Democrats are opposed to voter suppression and Republicans gleefully engage in it.  Our Democratic candidate said something that offered me a teachable moment, which I would have seized in a political philosophy class, but not (I hasten to add) in a candidate-centered Q&A.  In the course of arguing that we should always, always make voting easier, he took the opportunity to ridicule some Republican consultant who, in the course of defending a requirement that voters register a month before the election in which they plan to vote, insisted that voters should take the time to plan for and gain information about their participation.  Heaven forbid that we should want voters to be informed before they cast their ballots!  That’s undemocratic!

Whatever their ulterior motives (and both sides of course have them), the “Republicans” and “Democrats” here are articulating two different arguments for majority rule and “democracy.”  The Republican argument is Aristotelian and the Democratic, Lockian.

Aristotle’s Democracy

The Aristotelian argument for democracy (for which the locus classicus is Politics, Bk. III, ch. 11) relies on our deliberative capacity, that is, on our willingness to converse with and learn from one another.  Aristotle makes a nuanced case for gathering the collective judgment of a majority, to which each member contributes his or her particular expertise.  To be sure, he concedes that not every majority is capable of this; we don’t all modestly stick to what we actually know and take the advice of others who know what we don’t.  There are great difficulties here, some of which Aristotle explores and some of which he doesn’t.  He does, for example, take up the claims of genuine expertise as against the collective judgment of the majority, leaving us with two tentative conclusions.  The first points to the possibility of a kind of liberal education (the non-experts capable of comprehending and assessing the claims of experts).  The second raises the question of whether the big political questions are matters of genuine knowledge or of, for want of a better term, taste.  If you believe the former, the claims of liberal education and learning loom larger, requiring a well and liberally educated electorate to make democracy defensible.  If you take the latter, well, de gustibus non est disputandum.  The people’s choices rule, even if it means accepting the judgment that the best Mexican restaurant in the U.S. is Taco Bell.  (As I’ll suggest shortly, this would lead us in the direction of Locke.)

One of the questions Aristotle doesn’t raise in this context is how I as a part of a deliberative majority would know when to talk and when (and to whom) to listen.  Do I have to have knowledge of my ignorance (as Socrates claims in the Apology)?  That would seem, maximally, to require philosophy and minimally, a kind of virtue that limits our self-conceit.  And then there’s the issue of how the unwise would ever recognize the wise.  How do I know if the claims made that are beyond my expertise are actually true?  Do I just trust the self-proclaimed expert?  These sorts of questions strike at the heart of the adequacy of consent as a (or the sole) principle of political legitimacy.

Thus the Republican argument, even if it’s not made in altogether good faith, points to some very interesting questions about how and under what conditions democracy can be a good (because smart) form of government.  If the electorate is—within reasonable limits—knowledgeable and virtuous, democracy can earn the allegiance of those who care about the intelligent pursuit of genuine common goods.  To be sure, this is a high bar that Aristotle concedes is rarely, if ever, reached.

Locke’s Democracy

The Democratic argument seems not to gesture in the direction of these high expectations, insisting simply that the people should be heard, apparently regardless of how well- or ill-informed they are.  In one sense, the basis of this position is reminiscent of John Locke’s bottom-line argument for majority rule (see Second Treatise, ch. 8, sec. 96):  we have to have a decision, and the majority has greater force than the minority.  It’s not the wisdom or the virtue of the majority that carries the day, but its brute strength.  Effective government reflects, because it depends upon, the greater force of the community, which is found in the majority.  Before I tell them the whole story, I often provoke my students by telling them that Locke’s argument for democracy is that might makes right.

But there is a bit more to this argument, which we can see by considering the following passage from Hobbes’s Leviathan (ch. 8): “A plain husbandman is more prudent in affairs of his own house than a privy councilor in the affairs of another man.”  What Hobbes means is that each of us is the best judge of what’s good for himself or herself.  I’m better acquainted with my interests and my circumstances than is anyone else, and certainly care more about them than anyone else does.  If that’s really the only kind of political knowledge that matters—knowledge of how the meal tastes to me—then the people who want Taco Bell government should be able to get Taco Bell government.  Those of us who want a more sophisticated or authentic meal should recognize that we’re speaking only for ourselves, and cannot effectively substitute our tastes for those of the majority.  That is, as Hobbes reminds us in Leviathan, ch. 15, a losing proposition.  Not only are there “very few who are so foolish that they had not rather govern themselves than be governed by others,” but “when the wise in their own conceit contend by force with them who distrust their own wisdom, do they always, or often, or almost at any time get the victory.”

What we have here is not democracy as discursive deliberation about the common good, but rather the collective pursuit (or defense) of private goods.  The question is if there is any relationship between these private goods, which Hobbes and Locke say ordinary people understand so well, and any sort of genuinely common good such as Aristotle argues distinguishes a real city from its distorted simulacra.  It is certainly possible to argue that public provision of the basic conditions of prosperity, along with security (compare Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Bk. V with Aristotle, Politics, Bk. 3, ch. 9) secures the conditions for an essentially private (and hence privately judged) pursuit of happiness.  The people may not have the expertise to decide how to secure those conditions, but they’re certainly capable of judging soundly if they’re better off than they were four years ago.  If voting, as the real political scientists say, is retrospective, then there really is very little one has to learn before casting a ballot.  If I feel happy or angry enough to cast a ballot, I should be permitted to do so with as little fuss as possible.

Madison’s Democracy

We could now take a happy Madisonian turn, expressing confidence that the diversity of interests facilitated by our large commercial republic would help meliorate the potential “violence of faction.”  Anxious selfish minorities would leap at the opportunity to compromise, accepting half a loaf rather than none at all, thereby producing “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community,” a reasonable simulacrum of the common good.  While it might lack the elevated aspiration of Aristotle’s model, he might prefer it to the realistically available alternatives.

I wish I could stop here, but I can’t.  Our Democratic candidate isn’t waging a pocketbook campaign in our affluent suburban district, but one that opens with a “cultural’ gesture.  He cut his teeth in politics lobbying against religious liberty legislation.  There seems to be no room, in his view, for compromise on these issues.  His identity and dignity are at stake.  We have moved from the sobriety of Madison’s version of Lockian majoritarianism—coalitions of anxious minorities focused largely on material concerns –to something quite different—coalitions of triumphalist identity-based minorities convinced that they can marginalize their opponents without any serious fear of payback down the road.

I am loath to say that this outcome was inevitable once we moved from Aristotle’s vision of democratic deliberation to Locke’s prospect of essentially untutored and immediate majority interest.  But here we are, without enlightened statesmen at the helm and with passions giving great energy to an interest based in personal identity.  If the Republicans aren’t serious Aristotelians but merely oligarchs, they will deservedly lose.  The Democrats’ democracy is much scarier, much closer to Madison’s nightmare vision of factionalism and not all that far removed from the demagogic unity that Aristotle regarded as democracy at its worst.