The Paradox of Democracy: Why Everyone Lost the Midterms

How is democracy supposed to work? Well, there are many views.

Some people take a very crude view of democracy: there are things called votes, and whoever has more of them gets to decide things. I’ll call this the power-politics view of democracy. Other people take a richer view of things. For deliberative democrats, democracy is an outlook on politics that tries to put persuasion over force. In the end, the majority is entitled to make the laws -- that much is required for a functioning government -- but the goal of democracy should not be simply to discover which policies are supported by more people, ballots, and money, but rather to create a consensus by argument, research, and explanation.

The Founding Fathers saw the importance of both faces of democracy when they created our constitutional system. Here’s a small example: The House is allowed to bring impeachment proceedings against the president and the Senate can vote to “convict” under those charges. So, the legislative branch can completely nullify the president’s power with enough votes. That is the power-politics side of democracy. However, the House and Senate have other powers against the president that are deliberative, such as the power to investigate the executive branch and to issue reports. The power of investigation does not limit the president’s power (it leaves in place all presidential policies) but aims to influence the president by exposing his policies more thoroughly or by generating new evidence against them. These powers, in a word, aim at understanding.

An ongoing threat to our democracy is that our public institutions are no longer helping this nation enact democracy’s richer, deliberative side.

Take the midterms. People get really worked up about who got more votes, and that’s important because more votes means more power. That’s power politics. What’s getting lost, though, is the deliberative side. Did the midterms clarify any issues? Does anyone understand, better than before, where we need to go and what we need to do? Almost certainly not, but the whole reason we have elections and debates is partly to enrich the public’s understanding of complicated issues. The midterms failed at this task.

A paradox is being exposed by the collapse of deliberative institutions: people have opinions, and that’s good. We want citizens to be engaged in politics. At the same time though, people’s opinions are pretty bad, especially in an age where the complexity of all spheres of life is growing astronomically. Take something like monetary policy. Many people have opinions, but few people have an coherent, high-level understanding of the issues. Thus the paradox. We don’t want to turn our government over to an elite class of technocrats, but we all have to try to work beyond the raw opinions of every uninformed person shouting on the street. When we’re thinking well as a country, the problem doesn’t come up. Citizens are both opinionated and educated.

In short, we have to teach people to be attached to their political commitments without welding themselves to them. This will require a small amount of skepticism, flexibility, and provisionality. On that front, it could be rightly said that no one won the midterms.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons

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Jordan Wolf

My training is partially in philosophy and I'm interested in democratic theory, but more practically, I like thinking about media sophistication, data in politics, and ways to curb partisanship.

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