Saving Democracy from Itself

Kyong-Min Son’s recently published The Eclipse of the Demos is a refreshing but imperfect analysis of Cold War-era democratic theory, exploring all the ways in which the terms of our current debates about what a democracy is and what it requires in order to flourish were shaped in the middle of last century largely as a response to the threat of totalitarianism. There are numerous ways to explain the ideological shift which happened between the Great Depression and the rise of what many people call Neoliberalism, or from, as Son writes, “an awareness that unbridled capitalism weakens citizens’ moral fibre, erodes their allegiance to democratic institutions, and ultimately threatens democracy’s integrity…” and “presenting freedom of enterprise as a safeguard of individual freedom…,” and perhaps as its bedrock. As intellectual history, Son’s book is fascinating and engaging, but it falls short as a polemic for that very reason. In hewing so cleanly to an explication of certain 20th century thinkers, Son leaves his own arguments underdeveloped.

Put simply, Eclipse of the Demos is a critique of what Son calls “instrumental democracy.” He writes that “[d]emocracy cannot sustain itself without citizens committed to the primacy of the (contested) notion of the common good and political equality in their collective life. It is that commitment that secures their allegiance to democracy even when they are inevitably disappointed by specific political outcomes.” Democracy must mean more to people than simply a way to satisfy private ends. In order for democracy to exist in any true sense, there must be a shared sense of “the common good,” or at least an agreement that we act in good faith towards that end. But as Son shows, the prevailing attitude of what we might call “elites” had been so tainted by the experiences of totalitarianism, and the notion that fascism and communism both rose to prominence because average people were too easily manipulated by vast metaphysical claims which democracy is unable to safely address. It was too dangerous, according to Son’s mid-century theorists, to let the average person decide what the common good might be.

Son’s alternative to a crimped, truncated, sense of democracy comes in the form of a jargon-y term: “democratic subjectivity.” What that really means is a kind of cultural orientation towards the common good. In real terms, this means that citizens are not only empowered, but take on the responsibility, of transcending “never fully and always temporarily, their private selves, either by aligning themselves with public claims or by eliciting responses from their peers.” So what “democratic subjectivity” really entails are setting the terms of the debate in such a way that empowers individuals to become citizens. The purpose of appealing to the common good, then, “is not so much dictating a particular outcome as creating an environment in which citizens negotiate disagreements and reach temporary decisions.”

As appealing as that might sound, it’s also a bit solipsistic, in that it describes the outcome of a healthy democracy in the same terms in which it describes what the demos requires in order to be healthy. We’re never quite shown how a polis might achieve the transition from instrumental democracy to a full democratic subjectivity. And the “common good” which Son describes appears more like an El Dorado than an ideal end towards which to strive. Still, his critique of instrumental democracy remains, not just useful, but refreshingly so.

The problem, as Son describes how Cold War political scientists saw it, was that recent authoritarian movements in Europe were less antithetical to democracy as “a perversion of democracy.” It’s the old trope about Hitler being elected into office, a critique at least as old as Plato’s ideal city. And so Son quotes theorists such as Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, for instance, claimed that these movements “could have arisen only in the context of mass democracy and modern technology.” So any struggle against totalitarianism, Son writes, “also meant preventing democracy’s perversion, keeping it from falling into the traps of modernization.” Cold War theorists, reacting (Son would say overreacting, or incorrectly reacting) by reconfiguring democracy as an instrumental device used to secure private ends: vote your interests and let God sort out the rest. Of course, “God” in this instance would be the managerial class, technocratic elites which got busy organizing the larger ends to which each of these individual votes would be put.

We can infer through Son’s critiques of instrumental democracy what a fuller, richer, democratic culture might look like, and it whets our appetite for more.

Son’s critique of instrumental democracy being the means by which the administrative state came to power is convincing. But embedded within his descriptions of Cold War political science are descriptions of almost equally persuasive critiques of the “mass society” that certain thinkers (Hayek and Schumpeter among them) sought to protect from itself. Spanish philosopher Ortega Y Gasset is probably foremost among the people to which Son responds. In The Revolt of the Masses, Gasset argues that the material comfort of modern man has blinded him to the hard work and sacrifice necessary to maintain civilization. In a critique that would go a ways in influencing Christopher Lasch, Gasset argues that being, for all intents and purposes, spoiled, modern man experiences life merely as a series of desires either thwarted or fulfilled. Because of this crimped petulance, modern man’s ability to maintain a democratic polity suffers.

Of course, this argument doesn’t necessarily negate Son’s. In fact, if Gasset’s critique of mass man are taken at face value, it presents as much a case for a modern form of paideia as it does the empowering of a bureaucratic elite to steer the ship of state. But Son never quite gets around to describing the social mechanisms by which we might choose one path over another, much less sketching out some program which might embolden the citizenry to enter into the full weight of their moral and political responsibilities.

The most intriguing chapter of The Eclipse of the Demos is on cybernetics. David Easton, drawing on the cybernetic systems theories of Norbert Wiener, thought of the polity as an “information processing system,” a kind of prototype of nudge economics in which social control embedded within a system which responds to feedback but only in service of hidden goals ultimately formed by a centralized bureaucratic authority. The problems with this should be obvious. For one, as Son argues, it is meant to “eliminate the independent judgement of members at the lower levels of the system and to concentrate decision-making powers at the top.” So, it kills democracy in order to save it from itself. It also doesn’t really work all that well, as we saw in Vietnam. Son enlists as evidence the example of Robert McNamara, who brought cybernetics to the Department of Defense—and grossly misunderstood the war he was fighting. Cybernetics requires quantifiable data to measure as input, and it can only capture reality in terms of that data. But the number of bridges you destroy don’t matter if troops ford rivers on foot. The number of armored transports destroyed doesn’t matter if people move things on their backs. And body counts don’t matter if your enemy is more existentially invested than you. “The problem of input distortion,” Son writes, “points beyond the problems of centralized decision-making and overblown faith in systems management. It compels us to confront another imperative to which systems science is susceptible: that everything, including human behavior, must be turned into measurable and predictable units of a grand information-processing system. To operate, systems science had to reinvent the human.”

The strength of Son’s book is its earnest focus on what Cold War political scientists actually thought. But its intensity of focus is also its weakness. In dealing predominantly with theorists, we’re not really shown how these ideas translated into a tangible political reality. Perhaps the book is too loyal to its academic context to wander too far afield, but the result is an insightful and learned study which can feel at times cursed to never leave the confines of a campus. The text is so loyal to its context that thinkers outside of political science who might have had some interesting thoughts to bear on the subject are never mentioned. I’m left wondering what Son might have made of the work of Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, or Patrick Deneen. And I’m left wondering about the details of what exactly an ideal “democratic subjectivity” might look like. But since Son’s argument is that Cold War theorists didn’t develop the idea, his loyalty to keeping his critique in close conversation with their work means that he doesn’t elaborate on the notion either.

What we’re left with is something like a negative theology of democracy. We can infer through Son’s critiques of instrumental democracy what a fuller, richer, democratic culture might look like, and it whets our appetite for more. Those critiques and their implication alone make this a rich and powerful book which pushes hard against the vanity of our morally obtuse managerial elites.