Larry Alan Busk – Democracy in Spite of the Demos

Americans find it a challenge to reconcile their political idealism with the uncertainty of democracy. The resolution has been to make democracy itself into an ideal. Woodrow Wilson embodied this vision in his quest to make the world safe for democracy. But democracy can devolve into a sophism which is antithetical to any form of idealism. It has become fashionable to idealize the “purer” democracy of Ancient Athens, but this was the birthplace not just of democracy but the sophist philosophy which Plato challenged through his idealism. But Plato’s idealism did not direct him back toward democracy. Rather he was drawn toward a technocratic form of autocracy.

Larry Alan Busk is the first theorist in some time to focus on the people rather than the institutions or the process. He recognizes the people are the challenge to the preservation of democracy. He approaches his scholarship from the left. This offers a challenge but also gives him a critical insight. The ideals of liberalism or socialism proscribe specific policies and reforms which are largely assumed the people would want if they had more power. But Busk recognizes the electorate accepts some of these ideas but rejects others. There is a fundamental uncertainty within democratic governance. Indeed, there are even potentially terrifying outcomes which can emerge out of the opinions of the demos such as xenophobia and racism. Too many theorists simply write off these challenges as undemocratic but Busk explores the notion of democracy into its darker depths.

Democracy in Spite of the Demos is written as a work of political philosophy. This gives Busk a very different tradition of writers and theorists to draw from than I have written about so far. I must admit I was aware of the philosophies of Arendt, Mouffe and Adorno, but I have not read their writings. My readings have focused on political scientists like Fukuyama, Lipset and Huntington. These are political scientists rather than philosophers. It seems like such a minor difference. Political philosophy and political science are similar disciplines with a common origin but there is a wall of separation between their writings.

The approach of political philosophy has evolved in isolation from political science. Those who are familiar with modern writers like Yascha Mounk, Larry Diamond and Ivan Krastev will feel as though they have missed an aspect of the debate on democracy. And indeed, they have. Busk’s style requires the reader to take their time with his work. He writes clearly but it is dense. He writes in abstractions and rarely references political events or experiences, so it becomes important to follow his thought process from beginning to end. He describes the ideas of philosophers as a political ontology where elements of psychology and epistemology merge into a coherent philosophy of politics.

The practical problem within democracy which Busk wants to resolve is the phenomenon of climate skepticism. It is an indisputable fact that climate change is a reality. Moreover, its consequences are significant and demand a clear and concerted response. But there is a persistent presence among the public that chooses to deny this reality. The political consequences of this denialism are a significant obstacle to the formation of a coherent response to this global challenge. The denial of climate change is a modern form of sophistry. People believe what they want to believe because it fits their own interests or world view. Moreover, politicians and writers facilitate this denial through the politicization of a scientific phenomenon.

Consequently, Busk believes in democracy but believes there are moments where elites are necessary to avoid catastrophic or immoral outcomes. He refers to a concept of a “false demos” where the demands of the people do not reflect their own interests. In these moments, elites are necessary to intervene. But there is no clear answer as to how anyone can recognize when the people are “incompetent” to make their own decisions or when it is possible to “trust” their judgement. Busk recognizes his inability to resolve the issue between political content and political process. He refers to the categorical imperative of democracy where it is interpreted as an end in itself. But ultimately rejects it because it opens the door to sophism.

There is a reluctant acquiescence to elitism in this book. Busk ultimately views governance as an intellectual or philosophical activity. This is the underlying foundation for technocracy. But democratic theory interprets governance as a social activity. Leaders are never selected solely for their technical abilities. A common mistake in business is to promote great sales reps into management. The skills necessary to lead and manage are different from the ones necessary to sell. The best engineers are not necessarily the best managers or CEOs. The best scientists do not necessarily become the best administrators. Leadership relies on social skills rather than technical acumen.

Yet intellectuals continue to believe education is the key attribute for governance. It is reminiscent of the scenario in a Heinlein book where voters had to solve a quadratic equation before they could vote. The implication is education and intelligence are necessary for participation within governance. But there is a failure to explain how mathematical skills have anything to do with governance. It may make more sense to test for emotional rather than intellectual intelligence because governance is ultimately a social activity. It requires the ability to work with others to resolve collective problems. It depends on the ability to listen and understand the perspectives of others before offering a solution.

Polarization complicates democratic governance. It becomes difficult to find compromise when so many are unwilling to accept any outcome that does not match their own sense of righteousness. In the past I have dealt with compromises which undermine democracy through exclusion. But Busk offers a unique challenge in the example of climate skepticism. There is a right answer. Moreover, compromise may threaten the survival of the community. Athens faced a similar fate in the Peloponnesian War when it chose to invade Sicily. This ill-fated choice threatened the survival of its democracy after Syracuse defeated its navy. Indeed, history has shown how democracy can sow the seeds of its own destruction.

Nevertheless, the ultimate solution to save democracy depends on the people. Busk recognizes the people are a threat to democratic governance. But they also represent its ultimate solution. The problem with elitism is it fails to understand the perspectives of those who are excluded from governance. Climate skeptics do not really care about science. They are worried about the consequences of the policies necessary to combat climate change. The left misunderstands the foundations of these beliefs. They believe it is solely a sense of economic insecurity which has led to the emergence of populism. They blame the policies of neoliberalism. But they fail to recognize how their solutions embody the same cosmopolitan values as the neoliberals they challenge. The left continues to diminish the importance of place and the importance not just of work but the type of work which gives each person a sense of identity.

The current era of polarization is not between the left and the right. It has shifted toward a debate between cosmopolitan and parochial values. Democracy is necessary to resolve these competing world views. Any system which simply relies on elites to resolve issues too important to leave to the people simply gives cosmopolitan value systems an inherent preeminence. I have written before how democracy is not a right but an obligation. Ultimately, people must deal with problems like climate change. But democracy forces people to find solutions that work to consider the concerns of others. It requires people to work together. This is a different form of idealism which may ultimately become utopian. But there is a hope and expectation that democracy can ultimately overcome its temptations to sophism and resolve its problems so long as people focus on their responsibility to govern.

Busk has offered a short philosophical analysis of some contemporary giants in the realm of political philosophy. He outlines his own journey to new insights on democratic governance. But he ultimately falls into a faith in elites to rectify the challenges of democratic governance. It is a controversial conclusion which I reject. But it offers a powerful reflection on important ideas for all theorists of democracy. Moreover, it offers an introduction into some ideas of political philosophy of the past seventy-five years. He begins with the philosophy of Arendt which moves his philosophical meditations far beyond the ideas of Locke, Hobbes and Rousseau which the typical undergraduate may struggle to move beyond. And he offers a paradox of his own for the reader to consider. Is it truly democratic for a democracy to pursue policies which represent an existential threat to its future?

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