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The Hollow Promises of Democracy

A Folklore of Democracy

There are two contemporary understandings of democracy that are predominant in all countries of the world. The two understandings of democracy, merely through their premises, assume a seemingly invincible moral foundation that most nations around the globe view them as an ethically defensible form of government so that an acquirement of a label of democracy is not only desirable but almost a necessity. It is no exaggeration to say that democracy, as a political ideology, has become a civic religion of our time; popular sovereignty, as a political concept emerged in modernity, is the newest divine king in human history. However, as shall be revealed, the everyday wisdoms about democracy are but a delusion; the privilege to vote Yes or No delivers no more than hollow promises.

One theory may be called the populist democracy that assumes “political equality, popular sovereignty, and rule by majorities” (in Robert Dahl’s words) and claims the leading role of ordinary citizens in leadership selection and policy making.  The spirit and appeal of the populist democracy are best captured in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address that states the democratic government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Hence, “we the people” is (presumably) the source of power and authority of government.

Exactly how are “we the people” supposed to govern under the framework of a populist democracy? What has been put into practice, though relatively rare among democratic nations, is direct democracy which functions through such mechanisms as initiative, referendum, or recall. As one can imagine, in a large-sized modern state such as the U.S., those practices are cumbersome bordering on impracticality.

Hence, comes the representative democracy. Joseph Schumpeter famously noted that “democracy does not mean and cannot mean that the people actually rule in any obvious sense of the terms ‘people’ and ‘rule.’ Democracy means only that the people have the opportunity of accepting or refusing the men who are to rule them.” Democracy is, and perhaps ought to be, the public elect officials who are to “carry out its will.” For better or worse, elections and voting have become the primal expression of democracy – or indeed, the very embodiment of democracy.

The left-right political spectrum that appears frequently in today’s parlance emanated from a spatial model economist Anthony Downs constructed in the 1950s. Downs compresses all policy alternatives into a single ideological dimension. Each voter is represented by an ideal point that is normally distributed along the ideological line and votes for the party that is closest to them. In a two-party regime such as the U.S., both parties will end up adopting identical platforms that correspond to the median of the ideological distribution. Hence, merely through the electoral competition, an “invisible hand” creates a majoritarian equilibrium that maximizes voters’ preferences as satisfactorily as possible in the utilitarian sense, according to the Downsian framework. It seems that this free-market solution not only respects independent voters’ equal footing in politics but preserves freedom and meanwhile brings about “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number.” Thus, the election outcome – an aggregation of preferences in the majority – becomes a public policy that is supposed to be morally defensible.

This neat formula offers a highly attractive vista suggesting that democratic people are the rulers; government acts only when “we the people” consent; the majoritarian equilibrium gives a tangible incarnation to popular sovereignty; and the public policy a responsible answer to the public will.  It is therefore no surprise that the elegant and normatively appealing but theoretically flawed model has evolved into a folklore of democracy, passing through generations. Not only is voting the best means available for “political equality, popular sovereignty, and rule by majorities,” it also happens to be a convenient way for ordinary citizens to participate in politics who are (perhaps ought to be) preoccupied with their private lives, and expected to be the mechanism through which “we the people” can hold elected officials accountable, as the retrospective theory of voting suggests.

Only, the vista has proven to be a mirage. The remainder of this essay attempts to show that the veneer glossed over public sovereignty is not so prestigious or morally justifiable, and the revealed public opinion is, at best, a hodgepodge of “bumper stickers” encapsulating favorite quotations of thought leaders or online influencers, or, at worst, a sheer product of manipulation and indoctrination of the ruling elites. Elections and voting might be an efficient means to aggregate individual preferences (however understood), but they are far from an effective tool to hold politicians accountable.

The Unrealizable Assumptions of Democracy

In the early decades of the 20th century, Walter Lippmann acutely points out that the modern world is so complex that it far outstrips anyone’s comprehension of it. Consequently, voters cannot possibly understand a world that exceeds their immediate experiences. What constitute the map of the world in their heads are instead stereotypes and simplifications. Other than the irrevocable limitation of voters’ cognitive ability in politics that calls into question the foundation of election politics, Reinhold Niebuhr notes that the democratic practice serves only too well to provide opportunities for those who profit from prejudices, impulses, biases, rather than rationality, that too often crowd the decision-making process.

Suffice to say, those early thinkers raised a serious intellectual challenge to an implicit but crucial assumption of the folklore of democracy – for it to acquire its ethical defense, a well-informed and engaged citizenry is needed to steer the vehicle of democracy by casting their votes out of sound judgment and consistency with one’s self-interests while attentive to larger societal purposes.

Sadly, that has never been the case.

From the mid-twentieth century onward, survey tools were developed to equip political scientists with a systematic research paradigm that has yielded a vast amount of data presenting an appalling spectacle of democracy in practice.  The empirical literature depicts a far more disturbing portrait of the public than what those critical thinkers (who are often accused of being elitist or cynical) once imagined. The great majority of citizens are remarkably apathetic towards, ill-informed of, or poorly educated in politics and public affairs. Decades of public opinion studies have shown that the masses cannot engage in ideological reasoning, unlike the political elites who presumably do, as their belief systems are largely loose, disorganized, and incoherent. The implications of those studies are profound and can be dispiriting – unlike what the folk theory of democracy romanticized, not only the democratic voters do not have elaborate and thought-out preferences based on rigorous reasoning, they are not even knowledgeable enough to accurately understand their preferences. If voters do not have an ideological conviction, the myth that electoral competition, as demonstrated by the Downsian model, ensures the responsiveness of political elites to the public will is essentially vanquished. This further negates the conventional understanding of electoral democracy as a faithful translation of “the will of the people” into public policy. If there is no such a thing as popular sovereignty, then we are left with little assurance that all derivative endorsements of the democratic processes are tenable.

Individuals or Groups?

The folktale of democracy that the individual preferences of ordinary citizens ought to be the foundation of good government rests heavily on two Enlightenment doctrines. First, human rationality is viewed as the predominant driving force of human behavior and the most important and reliable way to obtain knowledge – and yet another folktale, this time, of human psychology. Rationalism has enjoyed a very long history of worship in Western philosophy. Running through writings from Plato to Descartes to Immanuel Kant and to John Rawls, reason is esteemed as the highest deity, as culminated in the dispassionate philosopher-kings who embody a rationalist fantasy that humans perfect in pure reasoning. The idol of reason did not get knocked off its pedestal until David Hume came along in 1739 with his sacrilegious claim that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Hume’s insight was not properly appreciated by modern scientists until moral psychologist Johnathan Haidt (2012) validated his theory with two decades of scientific rigor, drawing extensively on latest research in neuroscience, genetics, social psychology, and evolutionary modeling. As revealed in one of Haidt’s aphorisms, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second,” reasoning is a tool utilized post hoc to rationalize gut feelings and it is not for the purpose of searching for truth but to justify the emotional reactions. Rather than reflecting universally-shared human reasoning, moral thinking and its most potent expressions – politics and religion – are culturally contextualized.

The second Enlightenment doctrine is best preserved in liberalism that emerged in Scotland and England in the 17th and 18th century, concerning on what foundations society is organized. Liberalism conceives humans as discrete individuals, a pre-political animal who was unencumbered by pre-existing associations and bore natural rights, initially living in “the state of nature” before entering society through some imaginary social contract. In contrast, group theory sees humans everywhere live, feel, and reason in groups, forming powerful subcultures within the larger society. As the most influential modern group theorist Arthur Bentley formulated in his 1908 book The Process of Government, social life is essentially group life. Feelings or ideas are but reflections of the conflict of groups that is constant and eternal. Hence, not individual preferences, either crude (as in populist democracy) or enlightened (as in deliberative democracy), but conflict of group interests is the starting point and foundation for all social and political activities. A brilliant sociologist (though not by training), Bentley’s account of human nature and society is highly technical and analytical while remains deeply philosophical. He is so firmly committed to facts of life, something we can observe and study, which safeguards his thinking with scientific rigor that is often lost in liberal thinkers. Bentley constructs human society fundamentally in group activities. Contrary to the liberal tradition which views individual behavior as the primary measuring unit, group activities, says Bentley, are the “raw material of political life.” Bentley views group interest or activity as the foundation for all interpretations. According to Bentley, there is no such thing as political attitudes or public opinion or ideology but only the final position one assumed upon the end of the clash of groups to which one simultaneously belonged.

Group theory about human nature has a long intellectual history, no shorter than that of its rationalism rival, dating back to Aristotle and Thucydides. Its implication for political psychology and domestic politics is recognized as early as in Federalist Paper 10: “A zeal for different opinions…divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for the common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into animosities that where no substantial occasion presents itself the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

So, seeing human nature in this vein, then it makes much sense why political scientists consistently find that the masses’ voting behavior is anything but rational – on the election day, many of them are swayed not by facts or issues but party loyalties they acquire from childhood or social identities that transcend logic or random forces that happen to take control at moments of emotion or convenience.

We have thus far accumulated decades of data from multiple fields of social sciences demonstrating that the liberal view of democracy amounts to fairy tales. In the real world of politics, hardly we see judicious and unprejudiced individual citizens attuned to the common good; instead, wrestling in the political arena are groups so attached to irrational sentiments and disposed to conflicts and even violence. Rousseau is wrong, the people themselves are most of the time corrupted. As Hannah Arendt point out, the abuse of public power by private individuals is more likely in an egalitarian democracy where private interests keep expanding, invading the public domain.



Habi Zhang

Habi Zhang is a doctoral student in Political Science at Purdue University. She holds a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University. Her main research interests are political thought, political culture, and quantitative methods. She is currently researching totalitarianism, political tolerance, and public opinion.

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