Rethinking democracy

This blog will present a philosophical discussion so that we may better think from a different and deeper perspective about this commonly thought of but little understood notion.

Philosophers have always spoken of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy. Arguments for its strength go back to Aristotle or maybe even before. These include the the idea that

  1. Democracies rely on the knowledge base of the many to make decisions and because collective knowledge for a large population will always be larger than any individual in it, democracies can make more informed and accurate decisions.
  2. There is also the argument that a government’s primary role is to benefit its people and the people themselves are the best experts at knowing what are in their best interests.
  3. Some philosophical arguments suggests that only a democracy is a legitimate kind of government for it has the consent of the people thereby gaining right to rule over them.

I will talk more about benefits as well as potential hazards of democracy below but first a definitional point.

Many people in the west and probably in China as well take for granted what democracy is. They have a view and think it is unproblematic and go from there in arguing the benefits or ills of this kind of government. However, the very notion of democracy is itself problematic. I think once we think more carefully on what democracy means, we will have new appreciation of not only the nuanced philosophical depth of the idea but also have a better appreciation of how modern China is run. The upshot is that China is far more democratic than many people think and that the US and many self-proclaimed western nations are far less so.

I will call the basic, common conception of democracy the “naive view.” This view, as I take it, sees democracy simply as a form of government with formal institutions of voting. The system of voting is to either elect officials who make all the policies and rules thereby ruling the country or it is a system of “direct” governance where the votes are for the policies and rules themselves. The votes work by what is called “simple majoritarianism.” That is, when a majority (absolute or plural) percentage of votes are for some measure, the measure gets passed.

That is obviously not how the US government works (unless in a few select states with a few select “referendums”) nor is it for other major “democracies.” These democracies work like the former system of rule by elected officials.

But a system of voting is neither necessary nor sufficient for a democracy. That is because the fundamental idea of democracy has to do with collective decision making. Democracy on this philosophical foundational idea seeks to make more explicit just what it means for a collection (two or more) people to decide on something.

I know what it is like, from self-reflection, what it is for me to decide in favor of some action. By analogy, I know what it is like for someone else to decide in favor of some action. But the problem is, what does it even mean for a collection of people to decide?

Simple majoritarianism is one solution. The people vote and whatever is the majority choice is the decision for the group. So the majority’s choice simply is made the group’s decision.

However, there are severe difficulties with this conception because it sometimes do not capture well what we would consider the decisions of the group even when the majority chooses it.

Why simple majoritarianist voting is not sufficient for democracy

This is most consistently seen in society where effective propaganda or implicit or explicit threats  propagated by a small group of powerful individuals influences public behavior. Often small groups can coerce or influence the masses using threat of force or other threats. In that case, even though the majority votes in some way, it may not be their choice because it is really the choice of a select powerful few who had used coercive tactics to sway the vote. Often many, self-proclaimed “democracies” in very corrupt and poor countries resemble this scenario.

A small group may also wield disproportionate power by influencing the masses and manipulating their choices using less heavy-handed means. Consider effective propaganda. In this case, propaganda, that is, false information, misleading information and effective concealment of relevant alternative information is used in place of coercion to influence the vote. People think they are voting for their and their fellow citizen’s best interests but in reality, they are voting for the interests of a small minority of powerful individuals who control the media. They have been misled in doing so. In this case, the majority may think they are voting for some measure but is it really their decision if the rationale they use to make their decisions are based on lies fed to them by a small minority? I think you can make a good case that it is not really their decision at all but the decision of that small group (does this hypothetical “democracy” sound familiar?).

So it would seem that voting either directly or indirectly for a representative is not sufficient for a true democracy. But I now argue, it may not even be necessary.

Why simple majoritarianist voting is not even necessary for a democracy

Consider a society where the rulers are a small minority of the population. They are perhaps philosopher kings, or maybe gods or maybe even very advanced computers. They are benevolent dictators, let’s say. And imagine that this group of enlightened beings often surveys the population for their opinions and needs and makes a sincere effort at investigating their welfare.

They then institute what that population most desire and what satisfies their welfare. Policies and rules are designed by those individuals in power not so as to benefit themselves specifically but to benefit the society as a whole. Their decisions are made with the welfare of everyone in mind. Sounds far-fetched? Well, in most dictatorships, this is not how things go so people have some right to incredulity. Most dictators are not benevolent, of course, but some may be.

Now the question is, how democratic is the society I just described that did involve elite decision makers who are benevolent? Remember that the basic intuitive notion of democracy is collective decision making. So if the minority of elite rulers make their decisions based on the needs, wishes and welfare of the masses and the masses agree with the major decisions of the elites, why are not those decisions as much a decision by the masses as it is by the elites? In this case, there is no formal vote but the decisions reflect the needs, wishes and welfare of the masses (does this sound familiar?).

Some people may object and say that despite the fact that the decisions reflect the views or choices of the public and responds to their welfare in this scenario, because it is the ultimate decision of the elite few and not the public, it is not the collective that is making the decision and ergo not a democracy.

But one only needs to reflect that in a representative democracy, the kind we have in almost all known democratic governments in the world today, it is the elite few that makes the decisions and not the public as well. So whatever kind of objection that is, it also must be applied to representative democracies as well but few are willing to bite the bullet and say that representative democracies are not really democracies based on the same reasoning.

I, however, think that so long as the people informatively endorse or consent to the decisions of the elites without being swayed by propaganda and the decisions from the elites are an extension of the people’s own interests and out their demands, it doesn’t matter to the democracy whether those elites are elected or gain power through some other means (meritocratic selection processes, etc).

I’ve given arguments that seems to show that voting and simple majoritarianism is not necessary nor sufficient for a democracy. But what is then a democracy?

Throughout the last 50 years and especially the last 30, many political philosophers have focused on a conception of democracy that seems to model itself on the scientific process. Science, as we are all taught from a young age, is a community-based method to gain knowledge. It works by hypothesis formation, empirical theory testing, and most relevantly, building off the knowledge of previous science and discussing findings in a public scientific forum. That way, evidence becomes objective. There is no such thing as private evidence. What is evidence for me ought to be replicable for you. Scientists do their jobs essentially by giving each other reasons. Controversies are resolved this way. Hence also why there is so much consensus on core issues in science.

In other words, the scientific community comes to have consensus through rational discourse. Hence, science is often called a discursive discipline.

Philosophers have seen this as a model for how democratic society ought ideally to work as well. Granted most people will never be scientists or mathematicians or philosophers. They simply do not have the ability or desire but it is an ideal to which to build the conceptual foundations of democracy because many philosophers realized that it is through this method that society as a whole can best avoid being coerced by propaganda from a few powerful interests groups, for example, or not doing what is in society’s best interests because of biases and misinformation. It is also through this method that we have our best chances at arriving at consensus for what to do as a society.

A society that best institutes practices most conducive to rational discourse and collective decision making is a more democratic society. Thus this makes democracy a multifaceted affair, a property of the whole society rather than some one (formal) element such as voting. It is dependent on many things such as the quality and availability of good education, how well the society protects freedom of expression and information availability, how well the actual decision-makers respond to the discourse in favor of the choices of the public, etc.

There may be many ways to institute such a conception of democracy. There is no one “right way” because this kind of democracy is so multifaceted; there are many ways to skin a discursive democratic cat. The responsibility to institute such a society is up to all the people in it applying the heuristics of critical thinking, creative problem solving, mediation and so forth.

But now we may also see some problems with this conception of a discursive democracy. First objection may be: This conception of democracy aligns itself with a method that is common among scientists. But the problems scientists deal with are often much simpler and more conducive to being resolved wholly or mostly and thus consensus better easily achieved. Society’s problems are often much more complex and difficult to resolve conclusively. Thus consensus is often very difficult if not impossible to achieve.

This much is true. But political philosophers see discursive democracy as an ideal, a point at the limit. They may argue that this conception which focuses on rational discourse is the best method we have at resolving the difficult issues that face us. Human rationality, in all its finiteness and frailty, is still better than none at all. We should also be aware that often issues in society seem intractable not because the issues are intractable but because the people discussing them are intractable. That is, they are simply not reasonable, not conducive to rational debate and evidence.

There are general ways that may make a discursive democracy more functionally efficient. One is mediation. When consensus cannot be reached, a society may engage in collective brain storming to find a middle point in which there is some degree of consensus, a modus vivendi, until a more agreeable solution is foundA unanimous agreement will never be reached in any large society but it is through the process of coming ever more closer to complete consensus in larger and larger representative group that a discursive democracy is to be understood. In that way also, it mimics the scientific ideal.

Furthermore, in a discursive democracy, we may only wish to focus on an “overlapping consensus.” That is, some have argued that in our society, we focus too much on where everyone disagrees. This causes tensions. But we do not notice all the views we have in common. Society may best be ruled if we focus on the aspects we can agree on (the overlap). Differences are “put off until a wiser generation” to resolve in the words of Deng Xiaoping when he spoke of how territorial disputes between China and its neighbors are to be resolved.

These differences are put off but then applied the same discursive methods again at some later time to be collectively discussed and reasoned. Repeat cycle if necessary. Some of the most pressing issues, of course, will require quick and decisive action and thus the cycle of discourse must be ended with a vote or some other decision procedure.

This is also a conception of democracy that is optimistic about human potential. It also sees that with education and a nurturing society, human beings are capable of achieving much more.

The second major problem I see with the discursive model is the fact that it may, in the words of the philosopher Francois Lyotard, “privilege the articulate” (as opposed to the truly wise). I take this problem to be the most serious and I do not have fast and easy answers to how it, if at all, it may be resolved or at least made less problematic other than perhaps instituting better education systems that makes better communicators and people better at critical thinking (so that they may distinguish the wise discourse from the merely persuasive and articulate).

A discursive democracy also requires a certain kind of society. One that has a highly developed education system that inculcates especially critical thinking skills and reasonableness across its population. Additionally, the culture of that society would need to be highly conducive to debate, mediation and dialogue, a culture that is tractable and reasonable and is sensible to taking responsibility for the actions and aims of themselves and their society. But such as society is rare and may only come after significant economic and cultural development.

Other deficiencies of democracies widely known also apply to this model. Democracies can often be slower than other forms of government in coming to decisive action. Again, there are ways to make this less problematic but it still remains a serious problem.

What this means for China’s future

China’s development politically and culturally seems to suggest that it is a candidate for this kind of democracy or some version of it. In fact, China may already be on its way as some of the most exciting democratic experiments in the world employing discursive procedures are now employed at both ends of society: namely at the local village, township, county levels through town-hall style meetings and elections as well as the CCP’s politburo.

I will relay a story I have heard by a western journalist telling of a Chinese village’s democratic experiment that illustrates almost perfectly how discursive democracy may work.

He told of a village that gave citizens cameras and video recorders. Whenever there was an election, if the roads the local politicians promised to fix were not fixed, if the lights in town were still broken, if there were any evidence of corruption documented, the citizens would show the tape to the town hall where the election was conducted and where the candidate is selling his or her qualifications to win their votes. The officials would be humiliated in front of his family and friends if such evidence were exposed in front of everyone.

Even his supporters may lose face as well if they had publicly supported such a candidate or is the candidates kin or friend. In such a way, in this town, there are almost always good roads, competent financial management, low corruption and solid infrastructure development. That is because politicians will go out of their way not to lose face because they know they will eventually be held accountable by the citizens.

Citizens know they will be required to take active responsibility for discussing, showing evidence and reasoning about how worthy a candidate is for election or reelection. Citizens also know they will be held responsible for their own votes so they had better make informed decisions. In this way, everyone is holding everyone else responsible. These kinds of villages will likely pop up more frequently across China’s rural and maybe even metropolitan areas in the near future.

At the other end of society is the powerful politburo. This is the body that determines how China is to be run in its major economic, social and political policies. It has 24 members. There is surprising equality in the politburo with the president (Hu) and premier (Wen) having roughly equal standing among the rest. They are all elected by other communist officials based on merit.

Any top government official is expected to go to the country’s top college designed specifically to train future leaders. The classes are described as training them for the open, rational discussion and creative problem solving they will encounter when they are elected to power.

Decisions are made not based on simple majoritarian vote but through building of consensus (see here for an interesting first-hand account of how this discursive process works in the politburo). Stubborn issues that are divisive are put off until a better solution that all can agree on is found. Only those issues that are within the overlapping consensus are agreed to be finalized as decisions for the country unless there is a pressing need to institute some decision quickly. In that case a decision is made by vote but the issue is considered “open” and may be revised later when there is more room for discussion. The Central Committee (300-400 members) is also run by this essentially democratic/discursive/consensus-building method.

I see the CCP as continuing to enlarge this political philosophy or something like it for other aspects of the Chinese political structure in the near future.

Conclusion

I hope to have shown that there are both good and bad properties of democracies and more specifically, a certain conception of democracy. Ultimately what determines how well it functions is the more nuanced aspects of the society. Its education, culture, economic development as well as its formal legal and political institutions make it a democracy. The weighing of the potential for good vs bad is up to the citizens to decide if they are worth it in the end (I happen to think that this form of democracy is). But in so deciding, they are engaging in a kind of public democratic discourse.

There is no fast and easy conception of democracy. Democracy is not a simple byproduct of voting booths but a complex property of the society as a whole. There are many criteria that determines how democratic a society is on a spectrum. Dichotomous thinking pitting a naïve conception vs the political Other is not only harmful for the development of democracy elsewhere but for our own development along democratic lines. China is instituting many measures that may well be democratic on a very fundamental level. That sort of democratic expansion from two opposite ends of society is in the direction towards the middle, bridging the gap.

No society is ever totally democratic. But there is legitimate movement towards that direction in China.

The future is bright for a truly vibrant and responsible society where more and more Chinese citizens have more power, say and accountability in their lives. Through better education and due to its particular culture that emphasis tolerance for plurality and Confucian rational dialogue without dogmatism I believe that China can institute a truly democratic society based on sound philosophical principles (democracy with Chinese characteristics) and not mere superficial democratic packaging. It will develop according to its own pace and according to its own route. China does not need to be lectured about democracy by a country that is ruled not by “The People” but by soulless entities: multigazillion dollar corporations and bought politicians who are looking out only for the top .1%.

Addendum: It may also be interesting to note that it may be fruitful to employ “scientific” methods in democratic theory or practice such as game theory. Such methods have already been applied by political philosophers to illuminate formal collective decision problems such as Condorcet problems and Arrow’s impossibility theorem. See the work of Christian List and Philip Pettit (both advocates of the discursive democratic model) for example.

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