The Way We Think About Democracy is Completely Wrong

Thinking about Democracy
Pericles Gives the Funeral Speech (Perikles hält die Leichenrede), by painter Philipp von Foltz (1852)

By Zak Schneider

Some Fundamentally New and Radical Assumptions

On a blustery day in late June of 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke in front of a rapturous crowd in the streets of the American quarter of the partitioned city of Berlin. With American flags billowing in the background, he said, “freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect, but we never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” These triumphant words reverberate across eras.

However, this conception of governance is a huge jump in social organization compared to the rest of human history, as the American founders were aware. Put simply, modern democracy was built to house internal disagreements about one’s differing comprehensive doctrines (systems of religion, political assumptions, or morality) instead of letting conflict draw the victor out of sheer force. David Brooks, writing with inspiration from Robert Kagan, wrote that for most of human history, normal was people who “despise cultural outsiders, ruled by fierce leaders,” and abided by “laws of the jungle.” Liberal democracy as a system cut out a patch of the jungle that was safe, and allowed for prosperity and flourishing, never before seen in human history over the past few centuries. But, this system rests on fundamentally new and radical assumptions about politics. The assumption that grounds liberal democratic politics isn’t of grand, noble glory toward the divine, like most societies before us. Instead, it sought to “lower the aspirations of politics” and only promised (at the governance level) to ensure that diverse societies can live together peacefully. Instead of fighting to the death to ensure that one’s morality structure or grand vision prevailed, the advent of democracy allowed for the management of multiple morality structures sustained within a system. Democracy laid the groundwork to allow for vicious ideological combat to take place not on the battlefield, but in the courtroom or halls of the legislature. This revolutionary idea demonstrably led to the flourishing of human beings relative to most of our prior existence here on earth.

As nice as this conceptual story of democratic politics is, realizing it fully is more challenging. As societies expanded and grew more diverse and complex compared to the time of the American founders, democracy gradually became harder to sustain. Since the height of the third wave of democratization in the 1990s, there has been a slippage of democratic nations. Why, if democracy is so self-evidently better at avoiding large-scale conflict, did this happen? What specifically makes freedom and democracy so difficult and imperfect across societies?

To make any progress on these weighty questions, we need to go back to the roots of democracy described above. While democracy sounds good in theory, what does it actually require of the individual citizens in order to realize at a broad level?

 It requires seeing democracy not merely as a set of structures and institutions that can be tweaked to manage this conflict, but as deep individual, civically minded affect or cognition pattern of citizens that naturally work against the normatively desirable democratic arrangements. This cognition pattern in social situations scales up and impacts political behavior in the polity at large, thus impacting voting decisions and institution building, and even global affairs.

There has not been a shortage of scholars who present rubric-like answers to these questions of democratic decline. The introspective look into the individual provides a departure from the methodological orthodoxy of prior political science aimed at understanding democracy. Prominent books like How Democracies Die by Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the erosion of norms, procedures, and institutions leads to the eventual death of democracy in the United States, among other nations. Scholars like Adam Przeworski, argue the minimalist conception of democracy: leaders must be simply selected by “competitive elections,” that’s it. This conception is echoed by the public. They cite the imposing congressional buildings in Washington, D.C., or similarly to Przeworski, casting their vote every two years (or less), as the hallmarks of American democracy. This conception of democracy is simply not powerful enough to properly encapsulate the immense burden of democratic governance on the individual citizen.

From Philosophy to Biology

Let’s be honest, simply “voting,” or the existence of “structural institutions” is not enough to sustain democracy. What is enough to sustain democracy? To start, you must have some conception of the political legitimacy of hostile social groups. One could theoretically support free and fair elections, but if they only deem the election legitimate if their favored candidate wins, that’s not democracy. (see Russia, United States) But, principally, how do we get individuals to a psychological state where they can view other social factions as legitimate political and social actors? In order to get that shared legitimacy, one must have some minimal undergirding sense of equality among fellow citizens of the nation. Scholar James Wilson refers to this emerging social equality undergirding political legitimacy as a “bedrock of relation” leading to a “civic friendship” or the “reciprocity, attentiveness, and mutual goodwill even in the absence of a particular emotional connection.” If the basic requirements of a democratic citizen depend on these aforementioned ‘thicker’ notions of democracy–equality, and acceptance of outgroup members–then simply reinforcing existing structural institutions without addressing the individual disposition is doomed to fail.

In a complex, diverse, multi-ethnic society, building this rich social equality requires cognitive effort. Social equality requires an extensive and demanding process of tolerance. This task is cognitively taxing. Integral to this understanding of democracy is the acceptance of “thems.” This is fundamentally a rephrase of the term “social equality.” Therefore, the cognitive load of democratic politics is the acceptance and approval of those who share different values and the incorporation of those people into a mutually legitimized system. Human beings certainly evolved in a quite contrary environment to anything described above. Without any premeditation, our brains subconsciously form “us/them” dichotomies that have caustic impacts on democracy. This occurs before we have time to even process the social stimuli presented before us.

When people decide between a certain social behavior (like accepting members of an outgroup), there are adverse biological reactions and neural pathways that are triggered well before the conscious, strategic parts of our brain can process the information. Human moral judgment is analogous, reacting intuitively to everything we perceive and basing their responses on those actions while coming up with a post-hoc justification for moral intuitions. To illustrate this empirically, the subconscious considerations drawing from prior attitudes about outside groups occur 500 milliseconds before conscious deliberation is physically possible. This deep-seated intuition that exists on a biological level thus guides how individuals come to social judgments about competing groups in complex social environments. This ingrained natural cognition pattern is one of the reasons that true democracy is so difficult. The types of large-scale, out-group social interactions that democracy requires cause people to psychologically recoil. In sum, understanding the primitive biology of certain behavior patterns is thus vital to finish the puzzle of realizing the normative values that we began with.

The manifestation of this in our polity is multifold. People turn to “philosophical absolutism,” and morally satisfying, simplistic politics that washes away the responsibility of toleration. With pernicious social polarization, these absolutist approaches to politics exploit our underlying “groupishness” and tendency to sort ourselves, breeding even greater extremism. We already know this about human nature, but have been lukewarm in applying these (among other) psychological and biological insights to the realm of democratic theory.

The American Example

Democracy requires citizens to carry this immense, subconscious, social understanding that stretches from certain philosophical points to the very neurological structure of the brain. One way to grasp and apply this novel understanding of what democracy is, and what it entails, is by looking at the effects of political polarization on the American electorate.

Tocqueville wrote in 1835, long before the fMRI machines could measure human subterranean intuitions, “the only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed is through the reciprocal influence of men upon other men.” This wisdom has gone overlooked in contemporary American society. Instead of reducing prejudice and friction between majority and minority groups in a polity through regular contact, Americans have moved further away from each other spatially and ideologically. Though a divided political system is certainly nothing new in the history of the American political experiment; recently, these trends have been amplified, leading to pervasive divisions that straddle every aspect of American life while wreaking havoc on American institutions. So, how does this story of broad society-level polarization impact democracy in relation to this new understanding of democracy as a set of individual cognition patterns?

While not all overtly political, the decisions Americans have made to separate themselves into distinct tribes have implications that stretch far beyond coffee or job preference. As all of our cultural and political identities stack on top of each other and all of the cross-cutting identities that bind us as Americans dissolve, we are left with an ever-widening polarity between the two opposing “mega-identities”. As our political divisions become sorted on a variety of axes, polarization acts as an affective grouping heuristic that gives citizens valuable cognitive shortcuts in order to determine if people are the in-group or out-group. In and of itself, this polarization can be benign. But, principally, under the right social conditions, political systems can supercharge the saliency of these social cleavages, engaging our emotive decision-making and strangling our ability to use more complex cognitive skills to think about conflict.

No longer is the other side a group with whom you simply disagree or live far away; the other side represents a fundamental threat to your values. This minute sleight of hand in our evolved American politics instantly raises the stakes of political warfare. Fear is one of the strongest psychological motivations—and has a way of bypassing our more evolutionary advanced, “rational” parts of our brain to spur an emotional reaction. As Klein writes, “once all of our disparate identities merge, the “visceral, emotional stakes [rise]–and with them, our willingness to do anything to make sure our side wins” ensues. The consequences of social polarization can thus not be understated.

This process spurs a lot of the political turbulence we see in American politics today. Using a fundamentally new understanding of the cognitive requirements of democratic behavior, we can begin to build systems that prioritize understanding human behavior, rather than outdated, lofty, assumptions and simplistic criteria about what democracy is.

Is it Worth the Price?

Reading this, one may wonder, is democracy physically impossible–is the whole democratic project out of reach? Democracy is, in fact, possible; but we must approach democracy differently if we want to save it. We must approach democracy from the individual, rather than the institutions, in order to make it physically palatable and more resilient.

To be clear, this level of ‘cognitive load’ that democracy demands cannot be confused with raw intelligence. Democratic society is relatively new, evolutionarily speaking. Our brains are simply not good at expending such cognitive effort to simply live together. These natural intuitions served us well for thousands of years, but in a very short amount of time, we are expecting people to work against their psychology. But we can do it; we just need a clearer understanding of what is required of us. We must talk about the political reforms necessary in institutions; but also put energy into cultivating the individual affects, cognition patterns, and dispositions that democracy demands of its citizens. We must also fight the grander narrative, explaining why democracy is deeply appealing compared to autocratic alternatives.

 Ways of prioritizing individual cognition in diverse democracies are numerous. Small “d” democrats must fortify the base commitments to certain cultural cues and heuristics that make intense socio-cultural differences more bearable using inventions like classical liberalism that dull the sharp edges of social intolerance at an individual level. They must focus on educating children not just on the morally absolutist dogmas and mantras of a particular in-group, but teach them how to think holistically and make self-aware judgments and abstractions about social conditions in society. Finally, we must rebuild civil society organizations that once forced Americans of different social classes to comingle–an empirically backed approach to reducing polarization.

None of this should be earth-shattering. The preeminent French statesman, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in his early-1800s discussion of American democracy: “the health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” His words still ring clear to this day.

The Future of Democracy

The idea that democracy is a delicate set of learned cognitive attributes rather than structural, physical institutions is difficult to grasp. However, we must remind ourselves why this complicated, imperfect, and sometimes unsatisfying system needs to be propagated and bolstered. We will see a strong commitment to civic democracy resurface because of its demonstrable superiority to all other systems of social organization. While this work was entirely devoted to the difficulties (and benefits) of democratic systems, the rest of the world void of democratic systems—the jungle—is harsher. Autocracy may produce short-term economic gains, like in China and Russia. However, China is waning as an economic power with clouds on the horizon, and Russia is increasingly being thrown into social chaos as a mass exodus of its citizens flee an irrational, suicidal regime.

Using this new way of thinking about democracy, my prediction is that autocracy will continue to make short-term gains as a morally satisfying, simplistic alternative to pressing problems. Though, eventually, upon realizing the chaos and dearth of material prosperity this cruel system imparts, people will come flocking back to the negotiation table—choosing institutionalized peace over perpetual violence.

On the front lines of this contemporary battle for democracy, our modern political science approaches seem stagnant; they discount deep psychological traits of human nature in favor of strictly structural explanations of democratic decline. Democratic political theory still rests largely on the antiquated columns of the Ancients to explain the complexities of human behavior.

As Dalibor Rohac wrote in American Purpose this July, “liberal democracy, religious and social toleration, and market relations are in many ways unsatisfying…Our fundamental moral intuition rarely resonates with the messiness and unwieldy nature of a pluralistic society based on incompletely shared rules.” Yet, in the words of Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government–except for all the others that have been tried.” We must renew our commitment to this system even in the face of its genuine weaknesses. Defending this ideal requires a new way of thinking about democracy.

About the Author

Zak Schneider is a 2022 graduate of Boston University with majors in Political Science and International Relations with a regional track of Europe and a fundamental track of Cultural Anthropology. His 2022 Senior Honors thesis was selected for the Midwestern Political Science Association National conference (MPSA 2023) and for the 2023 National Political Science Honors Society Conference. In February 2023, he will begin as an intern in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania in Vilnius working on multilateral democracy policy.

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