Democracy: Uncertain or Unfinished?

Updated: May 24

An addendum to Section 7 of Democracy STRUGGLES!

If it were ever firmly established that discouraging certain segments of the population from civic participation would be best for promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty for everyone, it would effectively endorse conditions as they today exist in the US where we have a somewhat democratic federal republic.

Though it’s rare to hear it brazenly expressed, many influential Americans still do not believe it would be optimal if all US citizens exercised their right to vote. This has always been true, but since at least the last world war, people holding such sentiments have been somewhat reticent about expressing them.

Still, would it truly be ideal if all citizens participated equally in deciding state policy or even in choosing the officials qualified to do so? It may even not be possible to ask this in a non-argumentative way because the question still cannot be separated from issues of race and economic class. If the US were ever to wholeheartedly subscribe to our self-proclaimed ideals, race would be forever excluded as a factor. Economic stratification, however, would remain a different story.

A non-ironic concept of “meritocracy” would probably be acceptable to most American citizens. Most versions would acknowledge that some people, because of their recognized abilities and accomplishments, are more suitable than others for shouldering certain responsibilities in an effective disciplined way. But no matter how “merit” was defined, it would not necessarily exclude inherited wealth and the political advantages it makes possible.

But what about voting? If considerations of race were abolished, and disadvantages of parental wealth were compensated for by education, who could reasonably regret near universal participation in elections?

Here is how Karl Popper, in his “The Open Society and Its Enemies” quotes Pericles:

Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it.

Were Pericles words actually intended to endorse a fully participatory democracy? Couldn’t they today also justify a certain satisfaction that, in the world’s “leading democracy”, so few people actually translate their judgment into the action of voting? It’s appropriate to consider such questions in light of US history and its Constitution whose checks and balances impose certain “safeguards” against democracy. This is appropriate because anyone who prefers having large numbers of citizens refrain from voting could reasonably be called “anti-democratic” but could not reasonably be called “un-American”. The Powell Memorandum and the Trilateral Commission’s report on the governability of democracies” demonstrate that respected and well established leaders still feel justified in worrying about possible “excesses of democracy”.

Discouraging certain people from voting would not even necessarily imply they are inferior. Rather, it might acknowledge that their talents would be better employed elsewhere, and as Plato believed, everyone would be more happy and prosperous if left to do what they did best. Discouraging is, after all, not the same as “preventing”. But there are other questions also worth considering, especially when it comes to circumstances palpable in the real world.

The Powell Memorandum was explicit in advocating for business interests to reassert a dominance somewhat shaken by the participatory tumult of the sixties and seventies. Of course, it was merely an updated formulation of positions taken in reaction to the New Deal, the Progressive Era, back to the aftermath of the Civil War - and even to the original purpose of the Republic as it was understood by northern Federalists. This line of reason, if accepted, forces us to consider whether the primacy of business interests is actually best for society as a whole - and, if so, whether some checks against the influence of business would safeguard the interests of everyone else, as well as those of the business sector as a whole. This, fairly comprehensively, describes the dominant US political system today with those calling themselves “Conservatives” convinced that constraints on business freedom have gone too far. Liberals in positions of power tend to believe the existing balance is basically sound but are more or less aware that a failure to regularly update protections for workers, consumers, and the environment could endanger political stability to a potential tipping point where the interests of business would be severely disrupted.

There’s a great deal of population survey data indicating a majority of US citizens are in favor of a much different balance between the interests of business and those of the rest of us. This remains true even in light of powerful strains of racism and a visceral abhorrence of the commonly used terms for economic democracy so carefully induced and manipulated by the public relations industry and the mainstream limits on political debate.

It may be that human nature will forever preclude the types of skills, responsibilities, and inclinations necessary for the self-determining collective efforts required for economic democracy. It may also be that fearful urgencies to protect increasing income and wealth inequality will motivate effective measures to quell an excessive desire for more democracy. It may be that we are already experiencing the latter scenario.