Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
Democracy is under attack in many countries. Its main opponents are of two very different kinds: those who express genuine skepticism about democracy and those who damage democracy by having a completely distorted understanding of it. These latter are the most dangerous for democracy, especially because of their great number and because of the ease with which they spread their simplistic views.
In this letter I will assume that democracy is a fundamental value for human political well being. Hence, I will try to defend it from what could be called the “populist understanding of democracy” (PUD).
According to PUD, democracy equals the power of the people. So far, nothing to object. The problems start as soon as we try to understand what “power” and “people” mean from this perspective. In fact, PUD holds that (1) “power” equals the possibility to enact the will of the people, and (2) “people” equals a given majority within the population of a country.
I think that both (1) and (2) are problematic, even if taken independently from one another.
Let’s start with (1), which is already based on the controversial assumption that there is anything to be called a unified will of the people. It is plain to see that the will of the people might be ill-guided and led to bad decisions, as the will of anyone.
If democracy equals such will, however, how could there be any possibility to criticize a wrong decision, if the ruled are those making the rules? There could be no resistance, no parliamentary discussion: the will of the people would decide once and for all, even if it were to deliberate about jumping off a cliff altogether.
Democracy is about the conditions to allow people to exercise their power, starting from freedom. Hence, it can’t surrender to whatever the people decides for itself, for that might be crazy, and no one could stop a bad decision which is the expression of the will of the people as a whole.
The first half of the 20th century has shown the paradox which PUD incurs: the will of the people might be anti-democratic sometimes. If we want to avoid this paradox, democracy can’t allow for authoritarian drifts, even if it were to go against the will of its people.
It is true of course, that a democracy should defend the interests of its people, and do so by listening carefully to the voice of everyone. Still, the modality and the forms must be democratic.
With “democratic” I mean subject to free parliamentary discussions, based on rational argumentation, representation of as many relevant perspectives as possible and well-balanced mediation between conflicting valuable interests. Nothing is further from this conception than the arbitrariness of the people’s will.
Now I come to point (2) of PUD, according to which the power of the people is the expression of the power of the majority. This assumption clashes directly with any sensible conception of democracy, for democracy is about the inclusion of everyone belonging to the democratic system, and not about the dominion of a part of the population over the rest.
The favorite tool for a conception of democracy like PUD’s is the referendum, which is supposed to directly enact the will of a majority.
Although a referendum can be helpful in settling certain matters where a majority is required and relevant, to equal democracy to a practice of deliberating by means of referenda is unacceptable.
As Ireland has unfortunately shown in the last few years, referenda can easily fall into the following paradox: a majority deliberates about matters concerning a minority or about fundamental human rights. The former case was that of the Irish referendum about “same-sex marriages” in 2015; the latter that of last week’s Irish referendum about abortion.
Both matters can’t be held hostages of a majority of individual voters, for they affect only the lives of people belonging to minorities (e.g. lgbt people) or are about fundamental human rights (e.g. the right to abort), which come before the “preferences of the mass”.
Taken together, conditions (1) and (2) do not produce democracy at all. What they produce are demagogy and tyranny, that is political systems orchestrating the will of the majority, which could very easily go astray and give rise to the most horrible forms of oppression, domination and violation of fundamental rights.
Democracy is a political system that reliably protects us from such dangerous degenerations. We need to defend it in turn at all costs, especially from those who attempt to distort its meaning.