by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Democracy is many things: a form of constitutional republic, a system of government, a procedure for collective decision, a method for electing public officials, a collection of processes by which conflicts among competing preferences are domesticated, a means for creating social stability, and so on. But underneath all of these common ways of understanding democracy lies a commitment to the distinctively moral ideal of collective self-government among political equals. And this commitment to the political equality of citizens is what explains the familiar mechanisms of democratic government. Our elections, representative bodies, constitution, and system of law and rights of redress are intended to preserve individual political equality in the midst of large-scale government. Absent the presumption of political equality, much of what goes on in a democracy would be difficult to explain. Why else would we bother with the institutional inefficiency, the collective irrationality, and the noise of democracy, but for the commitment to the idea that government must be of, for, and by the People, understood as political equals?
To be clear, the democrat’s commitment to the political equality of the citizens does not amount to the idea that all citizens are the same, or equally good and admirable, or equal in every respect. Political equality is the commitment to the idea that in politics, no one is another’s subordinate. Put differently, among political equals, all political power is accountable to those over whom it is exercised. Accordingly, although in a democracy there are laws and rules of other kinds that all citizens are obligated to obey, no one is ever reduced to being a mere subject of legislation. In a democracy, even when a law has been produced by impeccably democratic processes, citizens who nonetheless oppose it may still enact various forms of protest, critique, and resistance. Under certain conditions, citizens may also be permitted to engage in civil disobedience. Once again, the democratic thought is that where citizens have rights to object, oppose, and criticize exercises of political power under conditions where government is accountable to its citizens, they retain their status as political equals even while being subject to the law. In this way, democracy is commonly thought to be the only viable response to the moral problem of reconciling the political power with the fundamental equality of those over whom power is exercised.
Notice, however, that democracy is built on the premise that conflicts and disputes over how political power should be deployed will be ongoing among democratic citizens. In fact, as many conceptions of democracy explicitly call for citizens to be perpetually engaged in the processes of self-government, ongoing political disputation is not merely tolerated in a democracy; it is celebrated as a duty of citizenship. This is why democracy holds frequent elections, referenda, and various other forums where citizens can confront and instruct a government that is accountable to them. And yet this condition of enduring political contention presents a difficulty of its own. To wit: according to the democrat, political power is legitimated by the fact that democracy provides a range of channels by which equal citizens can hold those who wield power accountable. But we have also seen that in a democracy one should expect the citizens themselves to disagree about political power should be employed.
The difficulty that emerges is evident. Democracy depends on the capacity of citizens to sustain their commitment to the political equality of even those who they regard as their most benighted, vicious, and depraved political opponents. That is, in a democracy, citizens must regard each other as political equals, even when they disagree bitterly about things that matter most. They must sustain a commitment to recognizing one another as entitled to an equal say in directing politics, even when they are vehemently opposed on political issues.
Maintaining this stance is not easy. After all, in a democracy the stakes often are high. Citizens recognize that everyday political struggles over taxation, privacy, immigration, military spending, and healthcare invoke deeper commitments concerning the most fundamental values of justice, liberty, autonomy, and dignity. Hence we cannot help but regard at least some of those with whom we disagree about political policy as ipso facto committed to derelict conceptions of the values that matter most. Indeed, in certain cases, we are bound to take some of our political rivals are positively committed to injustice, oppression, and the degradation of persons. Hence one might wonder whether it is even possible to sustain a commitment to the political equality of citizens when we are inclined to take so grim a view of those with whom we most severely disagree. One might ask: In virtue of what are those who are committed to what I am bound to regard as injustice nonetheless my political equals? What entitles them to an equal say when they are so consistently wrong?
The difficulty just identified hence takes on the character of a vulnerability to which democracy is subject. Democracy is the solution to the moral problem of rendering political power consistent with political equality. In order to establish the envisioned consistency, democracy appeals to the ability of citizens to hold political power accountable, and thus to play a role in directing it. But when the citizens themselves disagree sharply about how power should be directed in the cases that matter most, they will come to regard one another as obstacles and obstructions rather than as fellow citizens who are entitled to an equal political say. The result is civic enmity – a condition where one acknowledges that one’s political rivals have an equal say, but can no longer understand why they are entitled to it. Thus the vulnerability: when high-stakes political decisions are the focus of large-scale political participation among citizens who are disposed to regard their opponents as depraved rather than merely mistaken, democracy becomes an engine for producing civic enmity. Those who feel the pull of such enmity also feel the pull of the thought that perhaps political equality is overrated, or at least is an impediment to things that matter more. Democracy thereby threatens its own legitimacy.
Our democracy has devolved into a brawl among political factions that can no longer discern a basis for the political equality of their opponents. The result is a politics driven by the aspiration to humiliate and denigrate those with whom one disagrees in the hope that, once adequately dispirited, they will quietly disengage and simply submit to the power of one’s own faction. Thus democracy is transmogrified into a cold civil war. The trouble is that once we acknowledge that we are now engaged in a cold civil war rather than a program of collective self-government among equals, we must also jettison the idea that political power is being exercised legitimately. Hence there is nothing to prevent our cold civil war from erupting into a hot one.
Consider a curious phenomenon particularly prevalent among professed conservatives – that of reveling in ‘liberal tears’. We have the ‘coal rolling‘ phenomenon – that of converting one’s pickup truck so that it can release black exhaust into the windshields of Priuses. There is the fact that Ross Delingpole of Breitbart wrote a book titled, 365 Ways to Drive a Liberal Crazy. Or the simple animus of a bumper sticker with the invocation of Trump’s re-election being something to cheer for, if only for the sake of causing pain to progressives. It seems the height of civic vice to propose policies or adopt a mode of life for the sake of expressing one’s contempt of another group. But this is the contempt that the familiarity of political recognition breeds. Indeed, it is the contempt that democratic norms of equality, precisely because of the fact of disagreement and reasonable pluralism, fosters. And the great irony, of course, is that for as anti-democratic as these expressive gestures seem, they are the products of democracy’s call to engagement and recognition. The problem, of course, is that if we do not have a culture of productive engagement, cold civil war perhaps is the best we can hope for.