hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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democracy as intercession

When our political system does not seem to deliver, there is always someone who will quote Winston Churchill: “… democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Quoting it is I think mostly done with a bit of dangerous wittiness. Jan-Werner Müller argued in Contesting Democracy (2011) that the moment people start to relativize or denounce democracy, declaring it as such as just being not up to its task, authoritarian even fascist leaders offer themselves to solve the ‘problem’ with democracy.

This ‘problem’ of democracy is thought to be that people do not feel represented by those in parliament or government – ‘our concerns, i.e., the real concerns, are not the concerns of the politicians who are in power’ is the recurrent complaint. Alternatives for the parliamentary system, such as deliberative democracy or forms of direct democracy, try to solve this shortcoming.

The freedom in a democracy is the freedom of obeying the laws we have written ourselves. Obviously, we are not all co-authors of the actual laws, nor we do we all agree to the laws under which we live. But holding majority decision to be the essence of democracy, leads to ruthless dictatorship. ‘The winner takes it all’: if it is only that the majority or the ‘50%+1’ decide what the law is, this majority will force compliance by the group that did not win the vote, under penalty of, eventually, expulsion from the country. That is the grim reality at the end of the tunnels in which Poland and especially Hungary have entered, and the USA under Trump was going to enter. That’s democracy, isn’t it?

No, it is not. Democracy is not the winner takes it all, but the process with which minorities time and again can become majorities so that their legitimate and reasonable claims can be addressed one day. Or even sooner, as the majority should realize that everyone has to live under the laws that will be made, preferably without unnecessary and unjust frustrations. Democracy is not about the majority, but about the perspective we offer to the minority in our society who did not win the, this, vote. John Stuart Mill already warned that the majority could hold captive the minority. John Dewey explicitly drew attention to the minority in his The Public and its Problems.

In a recent article, Jan-Werner Müller points out that this is a blind spot in proposals for deliberative democracy as a fix to the perceived problems with democratic legitimacy. Essentially, in a properly working democracy it is important that the ‘losers’ in an election accept that they were outnumbered, and they can do this because there is the hope that they can gain more support in the next round. That is more hope than offered by proposals of forming citizens assemblies based on a lottery, for those who were not drawn in are also not heard, and will not be heard, in the rest of the process.

Not all citizens who can, will participate in the democratic process – because they cannot vote, because they do not want to vote, because they were not drawn in, because whatever. Interestingly, and I think rightly, Jan-Werner Müller thinks this blind spot of some proponents of deliberative democracy stems from the idea that “political conflict and partisanship are irrational, or at least vaguely illegitimate, phenomena.” I think that is what connects some advocates of deliberative democracy with the authoritarian critics of democracy, the refusal to accept that society and political community inherently contain conflict, and thrive because of this conflict.

A citizen in a democratic society knows that there is no unified public that presents itself in the democratic bodies, and that this very lack of unity calls him or her to action, for the sake of those who dissent. Even more, I think the most fundamental virtue of a democracy is ‘intercession’: we do not bring in just our own interests and concerns, but always also speak for those who cannot voice their concerns in the meeting hall. We are all citizens, but not everyone has the skills or the time or the opportunity to participate in political deliberation, however much we think deliberation about public affairs to be the one central hallmark of citizenship. People who do not participate in what we think belongs to citizenship, should not be seen as a problem for that sheer fact.

Political deliberation would then not be primarily about how we are represented, our interests and needs, but about advocacy for those who in some ways are counting on our intercession. Democracy is an ongoing project. Finding better ways of representation as a response to social changes is important. Finding better ways of interceding for those who lack a voice is essential for its legitimacy. Not all citizens will participate in deliberation about public affairs. For whatever reasons they have to do not participate, they should not feel excluded by their fellow citizens. It is a precious calling for those who are participating to intercede for those citizens.

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