Liberal Democracy Yields Public Stupidity: Defending Politics Book Review

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Last May, well before I started reviewing books for PolicyMic, Oxford University Press published Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the Twenty-First Century by Matthew Flinders, a politics professor at the University of Sheffield. I only discovered it last Saturday while browsing the shelves at B&N, and I ended up buying it on impulse. I just had to.

Though it may be more accurate in designating it a treatise, Defending Politics is nonetheless a scholarly monograph, one in which Flinders makes a thoroughly reasoned case for the legitimacy and necessity of the politics within liberal democratic government, which may not always be to the public’s liking (I mean liberal democracy in the traditional sense — i.e. representative government). He goes further to emphasize the dangers of the “bad faith model of politics” typically adopted by the public: the negative, prevailing perception and attitude that renders politicians impotent (probably in more ways than one).

“The expectations and demands,” writes Flinders, “placed upon the political system and politicians by the public have become so intense, immediate, and unrealistic that democracy is almost guaranteed to fail.” He reminds us of the aim of democratic politics, that it is “not perfection, but a workable and more modest version of an integrated, mutually respectful, and above all stable system of rule.” He also reminds us that “no politics has the magic to satisfy a world of greater and greater expectations,” and that “democracy in its true and active form, rests upon the existence of active citizens, not passive critics” — people with (and I love this part) “a highly developed sense of their rights but an underdeveloped sense of their responsibilities” (emphasis mine).

In defending democratic politics, he takes aim at the general public (“a selfish and fickle master to serve”), remarking on how “it is always easier to follow the path of least resistance and blame the wrongs of the world, our failings, or our situation on those loathsome politicians instead of acknowledging our own share of responsibility and acting accordingly. Political cynicism, disengagement, democratic decadence […] is too often an excuse for physical and intellectual laziness.” He pulls no punches when it comes to people.

Nor does he pull any punches when it comes to describing liberal democracy; it’s astonishing to me how honest Flinders is about the flaws of a system he’s trying to defend — something I’ve yet to see out of proponents of neo-conservatism and something I feel like I’ll never see out of proponents of libertarianism (I was tempted to swap “libertarianism” with “take a wild guess”). There’s a certain grace, practicality, and, better yet, credibility that comes with admitting your faults and flaws, and democracy indeed has many that lead to problems.

For example, democratic politics seeks to enable the pursuit of “individual wants and desires,” or allow individuals to put “self-interest before the public interest,” and yet admittedly it’s also charged with goal serving collective interests. “A stable democracy must impose some form of limits on public engagement in politics and resist the insatiable growth of public demands,” and therefore it can’t “satisfy every person all of the time because it lacks the resources.” Another flaw of democratic politics is that it (seemingly intentionally and naturally) facilitates the “existence of competing and frequently diametrically opposed demands, and the role of a politician is therefore inherently invidious.”

“The nature of a system in which politicians depend upon popular support makes it very difficult for them to make unpopular decisions, no matter how necessary they might be.”

It’s so shameful that books like this fly completely under the radar.

After reading and reflecting on Defending Politics (and nodding along to most of it), among my most immediate realizations was that I’d never read an academic book quite like it. What sets it apart from all the other Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard books I’ve read since college is that it has a soul.

About the only books I ever read outside of what I typically read for PolicyMic are serious academic books, mostly non-art humanities; if it’s not a treasure chest of knowledge, I have no business reading it. And while all the dense books I’ve stuck my nose in since late high school are rife with impressive facts, groundswells of arresting illuminations, virtually all of them exist without any explicit purpose (beyond that of establishing theses, eloquently interpreting supporting research, and providing hundreds of citations).

None of these authors have told me what they want me to do with their work—until now.

“Not everyone will agree with me,” Flinders writes, “but I can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch a noble profession—public service interwoven with a belief in the capacity of collective endeavor—be the constant focus of ridicule and derision.”

You never get this sort of activism — declarations, more or less, of noble, morally grounded intentions — out of your typical lofty monograph. Amen, I thought upon reading that. Amen.

I am officially this man’s disciple.

Excerpt

Accusations of authoritarianism, bullying, discrimination, or harassment generally accompany any attempt by politicians or the state to introduce plans that would oblige the public to, for example, […] adopt a healthier lifestyle prior to medical treatment, seek to encourage parents to make sure their children have a good night’s sleep and an appropriate breakfast before school, or the introduction of penalties for those who fail to recycle. Policies may well be ‘good’ in the sense of being sensible and being based upon clear evidence or obviously necessary due to changing demographics but they may at the same time be ‘bad’ in the sense of not being well received by those members of the public they affect directly. What makes ‘good policy’ and what makes ‘good politics’ are therefore frequently two quite different things. As a result, the rationalities of electoral competition generally make it very difficult for any political party to emphasize the need to change the nature of citizenship from being based around the individual as a passive recipient of public goods to being an active citizen in a more balanced political relationship.

—Matthew Flinders