The Ongoing Debate About Democracy

Debate About Democracy

By Justin Kempf

The Debate About Democracy

Far too often we take the meaning of democracy for granted. It’s a complex idea with many different interpretations. However, we frequently label actions as undemocratic without any pause or hesitation. Even when we cannot clearly define democracy, we believe we can easily recognize what is undemocratic. What we rarely care to admit is we do not always agree about what we consider as either democratic or undemocratic. Michael Ignatieff puts it like this, “Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be.”

Ignatieff provides us a novel prism to think about democracy. He anticipates spirited disagreements over the meaning and purpose of democracy. Of course, many view democracy as the institutionalization of political uncertainty. However, Ignatieff elevates this uncertainty to another level. He accepts its participants will not just question their leaders, but even challenge the system itself. Moreover, a lack of debate over the meaning and purpose of democracy is often a sign of its absence or at least its decay.

Theorists will struggle to accept a notion of democracy with so much uncertainty. However, history provides many examples where democratization involved difficult questions about the meaning and purpose of democratic governance. Indeed, nearly every generation in the United States finds disagreements with different aspects of democracy. Moreover, some questions remain unresolved for multiple generations. It took seventy years to abolish slavery and another hundred years to bring an end to racial segregation. Along the way the debate evolved as we clarified our understanding of democracy over time.

Democracy in America

Nonetheless, as we look back into American history, we tend to take sides in the debates. Until recently, nearly all Americans sided with Thomas Jefferson in his rivalry with Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson embraced many liberal values particularly those around freedom of speech and the press. He famously kept copies of opposition newspapers in the White House when he was President. When visitors commented on them, he used the opportunity to explain the importance of a free press. Moreover, Jefferson had greater faith in popular opinion than Hamilton and the Federalists. Hamilton, on the other hand, favored more technocratic solutions to governance. To many he came across as more aristocratic in his temperament. So, many have portrayed Hamilton and the Federalists as opponents of democratization in the early Republic.

However, Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans had their own authoritarian impulses. For starters Jefferson was a slaveowner. He may have come across as more democratic in his political persona, but he was aristocratic in his personal life. Moreover, the Federalists had many redeeming qualities. New England became the Federalist stronghold where strong local governance traditions shaped Alexis de Tocqueville’s impressions of democracy in America. The abolition movement also evolved out of the descendants of the Federalist Party. Meanwhile, the descendants from Jefferson’s home state of Virginia made far less progress towards democratization as they came to embody slaveholding culture.

Democracy as Dialogue

So while Jeffersonian populism was not as democratic as some portray, it’s a mistake to dismiss its role in America’s ongoing process of democratization. For example, New England likely benefited from the Jeffersonian critique. It may never have developed its own unique style of local governance without the influence of Jeffersonian populism. Indeed, New Englander John Quincy Adams, the son of Federalist President John Adams, became a Democratic-Republican and served as secretary of state in the Monroe administration.

Political traditions in America are never static. They intersect with one another in unanticipated ways. Moreover, divergent political traditions often have disparate demands for democracy. Too often we emphasize where politicians and political movements fall short as vanguards of democratization. Yet even our most undemocratic movements do not entirely abandon their democratic foundations. They often raise uncomfortable questions about our own democratic shortcomings.

Our current era of political crisis is really just another debate about the meaning and purpose of democracy. Some of those issues involve the increasing power of the administrative state, the outsized role of the courts, and the diminished role of local governance. Moreover, those debates about democracy exist in different forms in many countries around the world. The danger is we may advance a narrow conception of democracy that rolls back a more expansive notion. How we resolve those debates has significance. It will shape the meaning and purpose of democracy for future generations.

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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