Rounding out a set of recent postings on democracy in America (here and here), I excerpt here a recently published essay that has appeared in the fine journal Critical Review. Critical Review is a theme-oriented quarterly journal of high-quality essays that are written by academics but generally accessible to an intelligent reader. I credit its editor - Jeffrey Friedman - in his judicious use of invitations and his refusal to adopt the deeply flawed "referee" system of journal publication. A good editor and editorial board can and should be able to publish top quality work that someone will actually read. Another excellent journal - Perspectives on Political Science, edited by Peter Augustine Lawler, follows the same model, and for that reason publishes work of high quality and wide interest. I am happy and honored to publish work in both places, and commend both journals to your attention.
My essay was written in response to an invitation to consider a series of previous articles on the findings of numerous social scientists (including Philip Converse, in a classic 1964 article) that the American citizenry demonstrates low levels of civic knowledge and competence. For some this is cause for despair over democracy's prospects and reason to believe that an elite-centered bureaucratic system is to be preferred. For others, it is a clarion call for civic education and increased levels of competence. These two responses were part of the theme of my last book, Democratic Faith, in which I explained that the responses to the data reflects less any empirical necessity than relative faith - or disbelief - in democracy as a system of government. In this essay I conclude with a reflection on the fact that we should not be surprised by this data - after all, given our system that was created to relieve us of the burden of civic activity and attentiveness, it should be no surprise that civic muscles have atrophied. The only mistake in the data is to assume that somehow this system should be called a "democracy." I argue that social scientists, and for that matter any number of elites with purported commitments to democracy, as well as a broad swath of the citizenry, need to broaden and deepen their definition of democracy.
A Different Kind of Democratic Competence:
Citizenship and Democratic Community
Patrick J. Deneen
Department of Government
Democracy Wrongly Understood
The persistence of calls for good government that require the circumvention of other commitments to popular participation has deep historic precedence dating back to the nation’s founding. For all of the differences between the Progressives and the Framers – and the differences are manifold, as many scholars eagerly point out (e.g., Pestritto, 2005) – there nevertheless exists this striking continuity: both the Founding and the Progressive Eras are dominated by thinkers who praise the rule of the electorate even as they seek to promote systemic governmental features that will minimize electoral influence in the name of good policy outcomes. Indeed, it is curious and perhaps erroneous to debate the “democratic competence” of the American public, given that the system of government explicitly designed by its Framers was not to be democratic. The authors and defenders of the Constitution argued on behalf of the basic law by explicitly rejecting the notion that the Constitution would result in a democracy. They sought to establish a republic, not a democracy. As Madison would famously write in Federalist 10, “hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to perfect equality in their political rights, they would at the same time be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions” (Madison, et. al., 126).
In Federalist 10, Madison argued in particular that the dangers of democracies – conceived as small-scale republics (in his mind, roughly corresponding to the size of the American states, or smaller still) with a high level of participation by the citizenry – could be avoided by two recourses: first, by “the representative principle” of the new science of politics; and second, by “extending the sphere,” that is, creating a large-scale political entity that would minimize the possibilities for civic combination (“faction”), increase the numbers of interests, and discourage political trust and activity amongst the citizenry. Even while retaining an electoral connection that would lodge ultimate sovereignty in the people, Madison was clear that representatives should not be overly guided by the will of the people: the desired effect of representation, he argued, is “to refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country…” (Madison, 126, emph. added). Furthermore, by enlarging the orbit, Madison sought to foster higher levels of mutual distrust amongst a citizenry inclined to advance particular interests, rendering them less likely to combine and communicate: “where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.” A portrait arises of citizens who each face a large mass of fellow citizens whom they are inclined to mistrust, and a class of representatives who – while elected by the citizenry – take it upon themselves to govern on the basis of their views of the best interest of the nation.
The very origins of mass democracy, then, appear to be bound up with efforts to minimize the creation of an engaged democratic citizenry. The dominant American political narrative – consistent from the time of the Founding to the Progressive era and even to the present day – is simultaneously one that valorizes democratic governance while devising structures that insulate government from excessive popular influence (more recent examples include “blue-ribbon commissions” and the growing influence of quasi-governmental but largely insulated agencies like the Federal Reserve).
What requires more reflection are the deeper presuppositions of what constitutes “good policy” [of the sort consistently called upon by social scientists who study civic competence]. Good policy for the Founders and Progressives alike were policies that promoted the economic and political strength of the American republic and the attendant expansion of power in its private and public forms. For all their differences, what is strikingly similar about the thinkers of the Founding era and leading thinkers of the Progressive era were similar efforts to increase the “orbit” or scope of the national government concomitant with increases in the scale of the American economic order. Only in the backdrop of such assumptions about the basic aims of politics could there be any base presupposition in advance of the existence of “good policy” – and that policy tended to be whatever increased national wealth and power. In this sense – again, for all their differences – the Progressives were as much heirs as the Founders to the modern project of seeing politics as the means of mastering nature and “the relief of man’s estate” (Bacon 2001  36).
The Founders and the Progressives alike sought to increase the influence of the central government over disparate parts of the nation, while increasing economic efficiency and activity by means of investment in infrastructure and communication. Just as the Founders could promote the “useful arts and sciences” as one of the main positive injunctions of the Constitution, so a Progressive like John Dewey would praise Francis Bacon as “the real founder of modern thought” for, among other things, his insistence that “knowledge is power” (Dewey, 1957 , 28) – or, implicitly, for maintaining that only discoveries or information that increase human power over nature are worthy of the name “knowledge.” For all of Dewey’s valorization of “democracy,” it should not be forgotten that his definition of democracy is bound up in whatever outcome would ultimately favor “growth.” For the Founders and the Progressives alike, the expansion of what Madison described as “the empire of reason” (Madison, 1999 , 500) should be paramount, and on that basis stated trust in popular government was to be tempered by structural limits upon popular influence over good public policy.
Democracy Rightly Understood
Debates over “democratic competence” such as those engendered by Philip E. Converse’s essay “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Democracies” thus take place in a context that can only at the outset be considered to be problematically or dubiously democratic, at best. Indeed, the American political system was designed explicitly to avoid being a democracy - at least one that sought the expansion of popular participation on the local scale - and it was, arguably, designed to foster the political, economic and cultural preconditions for the disengaged, politically disinterested citizenry that authors ranging from Lippmann to Converse to Friedman lament as deficient. While these authors lament insufficiently democratic capacities of a citizenry, they ignore the very political structures and context that undermine the kinds of competencies that otherwise expect. There is a self-fulfilling quality to the laments, with evidence being presented that was in fact itself the result of a set of political arrangements that have been intentionally designed to render just such outcomes.
What is lacking in all these laments is a conception of democracy that fosters and inculcates the very competencies that are deemed to be absent. Such an alternative conception of democracy must encourage democratic citizenship rather than accept the basic premises of institutional arrangements that aim to limit or restrict active citizenship. Thus, attention must be given to a conception of citizenship that is fostered within a more robustly democratic context. That one finds little evidence of civic competence in the midst of increasingly global polities and commerce is not only unsurprising, but to be expected – and indeed, from the viewpoint of proponents of such an outcome – even ultimately welcomed.
There is perhaps no better indication of the impoverished conception of democracy that dominates contemporary discussions than the near-exclusive emphasis upon elections as the main feature and indication of democracy. The Federalists would regard this particular belief as curious at best, since the occasional and periodic election of representatives was to be one of the features of the new Constitution that prevented the new constitutional order from becoming strictly democratic. While the Federalists had a firm understanding that the modern liberal state was to avoid high levels of political engagement by the citizenry – a condition that could only result in mob rule (Federalist, no. 55) – in the post-Progressive period, many social scientists and theorists alike remain in a state of internal conflict, at once seeking to advance the idea and instances of rule by the people, even as they continue to valorize good government and objectively desirable policy in accordance with deeper commitments to the growth of the modern political and economic system. Thus, contemporary debates about “democratic competence” center on participation levels and relevant electoral knowledge without raising questions whether those very outcomes – low participation and meager knowledge – are not in fact consonant with, rather than problematic for, this form of government.
By contrast, a different conception of democracy – one attendant to a host of other considerations beyond elections – suggests that the current debate is fundamentally misdirected. Other theorists – drawing on ancient theory and critical of the handiwork of the Framers in this regard – would argue on behalf of “an older, more comprehensive understanding that makes citizenship, rather than voting, the defining quality of democracy” (McWilliams, 1980, 79). In particular, by such an alternative conception, what becomes the object of concern are the necessary political grounds for a flourishing form of democratic citizenship, the practice of which is likely lead to a variety of habituated democratic “competencies.”
Rather than beginning within the unquestioned context of an emaciated form of representative democracy whose citizenry is acting just as the Founders intended — distant and under-involved with governance, and regarding fellow citizens with a considerable dose of mistrust — concerns for “democratic competency” ought rightly to begin by raising questions about our understanding of democracy. A different debate might arise if we began by entertaining the possibility – even likelihood – that we have the citizenry appropriate to the regime; and rather than beginning by damning (or excusing) the citizenry, we might question aspects of the regime instead.
If the liberal philosophy of the Founding begins by presuming every individual to be a discrete and separate entity according to nature, an Aristotelian understanding begins by assuming that the “city” is prior by nature to the “individual”: we begin not at the level of separated individuals, but even in our various parts as constituted by a larger whole. As Pierre Manent has expressed this view, “In a body, the whole is present in each part: the same life animates each part because it animates the whole…. In a political community, each element is both itself and the whole. In this sense, every political community is a body of sorts…: each member lives within it both its own life and the life of the community” (Manent, 2006, 136).
Still, our bodies and their longings show us to be irremediably separate: the base fact of our corporeal apartness that underlies the political philosophy of the moderns is a challenge to the assumptions of the ancients. For this reason, Aristotle (and after him, in a distinctively modern way, Tocqueville) argued that much of political life must occur on a small and local scale: because our senses are limited and our longings are often lodged in the body or extend only to a limited number of people close to us, our capacity to subordinate our private interests for the sake of the public tends to be limited to relatively small and palpable dimensions. A democracy composed of public-spirited citizens is possible (if only with difficulty) on a small scale where we are likely to know and care about our fellow citizens, where personal sacrifice is not too divorced or distant from our experience of public weal, and in which there is the possibility of practicing the arts of ruling and being ruled in turn. In such a setting, citizens are likely to be deeply invested in the outcome of political discussions; and their influence on the outcomes of those decisions is more evident, and the effects more immediate.
In a nation of the scale and complexity of our own – and in which important aspects of the nation are increasingly giving way to global politics and commerce – there can be little wonder that civic engagement and civic knowledge are both dismally low. What is curious is that government on such a scale and complexity, such a distance from the citizenry whose role in its guidance is necessarily limited, can be regarded in any significant respect as “democratic.” Until we are willing to acknowledge that debates over “democratic competence” within the context of the modern political and economic system are largely specious and based upon a flawed premise, there is little hope of engaging in an actual conversation either about what would constitute democracy or civic competence.
In the absence of forms of meaningful participation in self-governance based in civic practice; civic education in the habits of “ruling and being ruled in turn”; a cultivation in what Tocqueville called “the arts of association”; direct investment in outcomes of political decisions within the communities in which citizens live; and the prospect that one’s voice matters in arriving at those conclusions, we can expect that “democratic competence” and participation will remain dismally low. But while we should not be surprised by current measures of democratic competence, neither should we have any right to expect otherwise, or to suppose that this is an indictment of democracy. While possibilities to encourage truly democratic political possibilities are constrained by the Constitutional system, there is room to begin considering ways of strengthening local possibilities for meaningful self-governance.
One of the first requirements for such a consideration, however, is to challenge the notion that our current system can be meaningfully called a democracy. A second is to challenge the idea that a major aim of government is to ensure that “good policy” decisions can be reached by limiting democratic influence; rather, in a democratic setting, what constitutes “good policy” will be the determination of actual democratic deliberation among a wide swath of the citizenry and vested in local circumstance, not a largely pre-determined goal that accords with the broad presuppositions of the modern nation-state which, in turn, by definition diminish the conditions for democracy. A third requirement, then, is to entertain the possibility that democracy cannot be defended either as a good in itself or as an instrumental good, but rather as a form of government that properly accords with human nature (thus, in certain respects being both good in itself and instrumentally good, but not exclusively either of these).
This is, of course, a controversial claim, resting upon an understanding of human nature in which only through an active engagement in civic life can human flourishing within human communities occur. However, while some modern liberals claim to have liberated human beings from constraining conceptions of human nature – i.e., the conceptions that would demand greater involvement in the public life of communities – liberalism rests no less on a conception of human nature, one that is deeply premised upon the centrality of individual self-interest. If many of our contemporary political scientists and theorists alike find themselves anguished about the lack of political knowledge and competence in the public, then perhaps rather than indicting our fellow citizens, we ought first to question our deepest (but thereby largely unconscious) theoretical commitments, which may be fostering the very conditions that discomfit us.
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