Democracy and the Crisis of Legitimacy

The crisis of democracy today, with accusations that certain election outcomes are “populist” rather than “truly democratic” (assuming that the distinction is intelligible in the first place), raises the question of what exactly is a “democracy”. For better or for worse, almost every modern government on earth will need to acquire its legitimacy from “democratic” processes. There are some authoritarian governments, e.g. China, and to a certain extent, Singapore, where the ruling class acquires its legitimacy from sheer Weberian bureaucratic efficiency, that is, the sheer capacity of the ruling class to deliver the material goods.


There are no doubt many members of the intelligentsia in the West, horrified at the “populist” revolt against the intelligentsia,  who would gaze upon the entrenched authority of the elite in China and Singapore with secret envy. Notwithstanding a dramatic restructuring of Western societies to make them more pliant to the Chinese mindset, Western governments in general will need to grapple with the crisis of legitimacy which they are currently going through, and to enunciate in a consistent and much more exact manner what constitutes a “democracy”.

The Metaphors Associated with the idea of a Democracy

Before we begin with a positive account as to how we are to understand a democracy, we will need first to dispel some misleading connotations behind the metaphors commonly associated with a “democracy”.

Democracy is commonly spoken of as the “rule of the people” or rule according to the “people’s will”. But this is obviously a mere metaphor for individual people have wills and consent, but it is a bit hard to say whether a society has anything like an individual person who can “deliberate”, “decide” and have a “will”. A “body politic” a nation may be, but to say that it has a “mind” or “will” is a metaphor which needs to be cashed in much more concrete terms.

Philosophers themselves aren’t even sure if individual peoples do have unified wills or singular decisions or desires, e.g. Daniel Dennett’s “multiple drafts” model of consciousness where at any given point there are multiple mental contents going on in the brain without privileging any one of them as something which we are “conscious” of. How much more the difficulty of speaking of a populace consisting of many different individuals or groups with conflicting interests, convictions and ideologies as having a singular unified will. On what basis are to to elevate one particular conviction as the “will of the people” as opposed to the rest? One will need a substantive political account for such a choice.

The Problem which a Democracy Process is Supposed to Address

As I have explained in a previous post of mine, in a sufficiently large and complex society, it would be impractical to hold a referendum or a vote to decide every possible public issue or civic question. We can’t possibly have a referendum for example to determine how much a parking fine should be. Furthermore there are many areas of government which will involve specialised knowledge and technical expertise which would not be widely shared. For example, whether or not we should build a nuclear power plant of a certain type at a certain location is not one which can appropriately be determined by a referendum.

If this is so then what is the point of a democracy? The problems which a large and complex society will face is that it will inevitably contain persons of conflicting ideas as to the principles which constitutes the common good or its application. Every commonwealth should have means or methods to settle such disagreements peacefully rather than through war. This was an insight known to older political philosophers like Hobbes, Mozi, and the Chinese Legalists, and expertly articulated by Lord Sumption, one of the sitting judges in the Supreme Court of the UK, in his lecture The Limits of Law which critiques the idea of judges settling substantive political questions on their own:

…I would like to suggest to you that politics is quite simply a better way of resolving questions of social policy than judge-made law. The public law questions which come before the courts are commonly presented as issues between the state and the individual. But most of them are in reality issues between different groups of citizens. This applies particularly to major social or moral issues, and more generally to issues on which people hold strong and divergent positions.  The essential function of politics in a democracy, is to reconcile inconsistent interests and opinions, by producing a result which it may be that few people would have chosen as their preferred option, but which the majority can live with.


I have already mentioned Professor Ronald Dworkin, whose death last year deprived us of one of the most formidable defenders of rights-based law defined by judges. He defended it against those who would leave this to the legislature, by arguing that judges were at more likely to get the answer right. “I cannot imagine”, he wrote, “what argument might be thought to show that legislative decisions about rights are inherently more likely to be right than judicial decisions.” The problem is that this assumes a definition of “rightness” which is hard to justify in a political community. How do we decide what is the “right” answer to a question about which people strongly disagree, without resorting to a political process to mediate that disagreement? Rights are claims against the claimant’s own community. In a democracy, they depend for their legitimacy on a measure of recognition by that community. To be effective, they require a large measure of public acceptance through an active civil society. This is something which no purely judicial decision-making process can deliver.

As such, one of the key, if not the main, function of democratic processes is to provide a means of settling disputes concerning civic policies which would be acceptable to the “people” upon whom they would be enforced.

Democracy as Rule of Public Rationality

The logic of democracy therefore is premised upon a substantive practical understanding of the objectives of democratic processes which leads to “the people’s will”. If a social policy or law is to be implemented, its enforcibility is clearly dependent on a sufficiently large number of people acquiescencing to it. It would be difficult to enforce a policy which is strongly objected to by the vast majority of the people. Note that I very carefully use the word “acquiesce” rather than “agree” or even “support”. A policy cannot be enforced, or can only be enforced with the greatest difficulty, if a large number of them are strongly or violently opposed to it. However a policy doesn’t need the enthusiastic support of everyone, or even a majority, to be enforced efficaciously. As long as a certain number support it, and a vast majority is willing to go along with it, then a policy can be effectively enforced.

This naturally has particular relevance to polities with voluntary voting. The point is not that a certain number of the total populace supports a policy. The point is that as long as the people who are opposed to a policy is lesser than the people who are overtly in favour of it, such a policy can be enforced because the vast majority of the people who choose not to vote or participate will simply accept whatever the outcome is. Furthermore, the First Past the Post system would make sense on this logic as the biggest party, even if it does not command an overall majority of the population, would still be the biggest bloc, a bloc which cannot be effectually opposed by a fragmented and divided opposition.

As such democratic processes, ideally at least, is set up to give contenders on both sides of an issue an arena or chance to persuade or convince those who disagree or who are ambivalent to their point of view. Again this isn’t about some magic number being the will of the people, but of public rationality, a vote of confidence, as it is, in the ability of the populace at large to debate, discuss, and reason about civic or political questions, and ultimately to persuade others of one’s cause. The vote is simply the outcome of this process. Legitimacy derives from the process itself rather than from the fact that a certain number of people voted for it, and it is upon that that the label “people’s will” becomes attached.

[Addendum: I would further go on to argue that this has particular relevance to the logic of electoral colleges in America. The question again isn’t some magical number or proportion of the total population of the US supporting a particular candidate, the question is whether the decision can be effectively enforced upon the whole nation. Thus the fact that there are more voters for Hilary than Trump doesn’t change the fact that if the vast majority of non-voters are going to acquiesce to the results, then the decision is enforceable. Furthermore, since is the United States of America, and not the “People’s Republic of America”, the political legitimacy of a federal official is mediated by the states and it is difficult to enforce a particular federal policy or law if it is objected to strongly by the majority of the states and the state’s government.]


But, it maybe legitimately asked, are not such public discourse and deliberations fraught with all kinds of rabble-rousing, misinformation, appeals to worse instincts of mankind, compromises, cynical deal making, etc, etc? How can we have confidence in the process of such public deliberations when it is shot through with such imperfections? Lord Sumption addresses these points in the same lecture mentioned above:

It is true that the political process is often characterised by opacity, fudge, or irrationality, and who is going to defend those? Well, at the risk of sounding paradoxical, I am going to defend them. They are tools of compromise, enabling divergent views and interests to be accommodated. The result may be intellectually impure, but it is frequently in the public interest. Unfortunately, few people recognise this. They expect their politicians to be not just useful but attractive. They demand principle, transparency and consistency from them. And when they do not get these things, they are inclined to turn to courts of law instead. The attraction of judge-made law is that it appears to have many of the virtues which the political process inevitably lacks. It is transparent. It is public. Above all, it is animated by a combination of abstract reasoning and moral value judgment, which at first sight appears to embody a higher model of decision-making than the messy compromises required to build a political consensus in a Parliamentary system. There is, however, a price to be paid for these virtues. The judicial resolution of major policy issues undermines our ability to live together in harmony by depriving us of a method of mediating compromises among ourselves. Politics is a method of mediating compromises in which we can all participate, albeit indirectly, and which we are therefore more likely to recognise as legitimate.

To be sure the average voter does not possess the same elevated deliberative capacities or command of facts as the Oxford don, but unless we want to live in a commonwealth ruled by philosopher-kings enforced by force, we need to affirm our ability to persuade or convince a person of average rationality of one’s case no matter how imperfect or fraught with errors such a task maybe. Such persuasion may involve gross simplification of the facts, a lack of nuance and qualification in one’s claims, even rhetorical appeals to emotion  or sentiment as a shortcut for more torturous and nit-picky argumentation. Such however are the means whereby consensus maybe built throughout the commonwealth to render a particular policy sufficiently acceptable to be implemented upon them.

Furthermore, and I think this is also an important point, sometimes not every issue is a matter of rationality in an abstract maximising utility sense. Sometimes there are such things as disagreements on the fundamental character and principles of the commonwealth itself, questions of ends and values which cannot be reduced to an economic calculus. People should be allowed to argue for a certain ordering of objectives and ends and to build consensus upon what those objectives are.

Conclusion: The Preconditions of a Democratic Society and the Rule of Common Sense

The concept of democratic rule and processes sketched out above however are contingent upon certain cultural preconditions and apolitical institutions for it to work. As Lord Sumption pointed out: “Democracy requires a minimum degree of social cohesion and tolerance of internal differences in order to function properly.” For example, an apolitical civil service is normally needed to implement such political decisions after the fact, or an impartial press to report both sides of a dispute fairly, or a form of life sufficiently robust and secure for people to engage comfortably with people of differing political convictions. As we have seen with the recent US presidential elections, when the press openly abandons all impartiality and begins openly gunning for one particular side, the basis for democratic deliberation collapses and the other side simply votes out of sheer preservation from what is an existential threat. (I have articulated at some length the apolitical conditions of a commonwealth in this post.)


Finally, I think one of the most important points of a democracy is that it forces political discourse to engage and involve concrete persons “on the ground”; a vote of confidence in the “common sense” of the people, a general intuitive sense for what is reasonable or workable for their immediate situation in harmony with varied other situations throughout the other parts of the commonwealth. Naturally such intuitions are not infallible, nor is common sense sometimes all that common. Democracy does not entail universal suffrage, there is a good case to be made for something like the 1832 Reform Act where voting is by household or only given to people who possess property or have a material substantive stake in the commonwealth.

If democratic deliberation is reduced to more concrete immediate common sensical grounds, I believe that, contra Hans Hermann Hoppe and more recent libertarian skeptics of democracies (see here), democratic deliberation can also be a control on the size of and scope of government, whereby too abstract, distant, or complicated policies will simply fail to obtain legitimacy because it is too alien from the concrete life of the populace.

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