Liberalism and Democracy

This will be the penultimate entry in the series on liberalism.  I do want, in the final installment, to say something about liberalism and violence—which gets us back to Dustin Howes’s book, Freedom without Violence.

But today I want to talk about liberalism and solidarity (which leads onto democracy).  In one of the more confusing developments in the tangled history of liberalism, the extreme individualism that critics of liberalism usually ascribe to it as one of its chief sins has actually become a hallmark of conservatives.  It is liberals—as the term is used in common parlance—who are now the communitarians.  That explains why liberals, not conservatives, look to the social determinants of behavior—and it explains why liberals, not conservatives, advocate for “public goods,” for various social insurance schemes, and for the general responsibilities captured in a term like “social justice.”  Liberals, in short, try to inculcate a sense of the social whole that calls for attention to the needs of the most vulnerable.  And liberals have not been shy to use the vocabulary of “rights” as the lever by which to push states and societies to provide medical care, housing, food, minimum wages and other workplace protections, etc. etc.

Basically, the liberal sensibility, it seems to me, is that we are all in this together—and that human life can be made less terrible, more palatable, if we work together for providing, as far as is possible, the means for flourishing of all.  That’s why I value Martha Nussbaum’s (and Amartya Sen’s work) on capabilities so highly.  I think the effort to articulate what people require to live a good life is extremely important.  It tells us what, as a society, we should be aiming towards.

There are problems, of course.  I want to just suggest two of them here.  The first is the boundary problem.  Back to Rorty’s wish to expand the circle of concern.  Conservatives are communitarians insofar as they are nationalist.  They are willing to have the circle of concern extend to those like me.  Liberals usually shun nationalism because it functions as a mechanism of exclusion—telling us which people are not entitled to health care, social security etc.  (Of course, in the current American version of conservatism, a white nationalism co-exists uneasily with a meritocracy based notion that the poor deserve their fate.  It is far from clear that today’s ascendant conservatives are going to offer any protections against poverty for their poorer white supporters.)

Still, even if liberals manage to eschew nationalism, there is still the border problem because there is not one world society, but multiple societies.  By what mechanism or principle are we going to decide which people qualify for benefits and which do not?  How far, in practice, can we expand the circle as Rorry wishes us to do?  (And expanding the circle could also mean reaching out toward non-human life and its needs—something that seems more and more ecologically necessary and not just some act of moral grandeur.)  There are no easy answers here, just pragmatic makeshifts, all of which are, to some extent, unsatisfactory.  We are in area of trade-offs and compromises that Berlin’s value pluralism–married to a sense of what is currently possible–tells us is our fated habitation.  Liberals are routinely condemned for not occupying—either theoretically or in practice—the land of perfection.

The second issue is the vexed relationship of liberalism with democracy.  Leftist critics of liberalism have, especially in the last 25 years, liked to use appeals to democracy as their weapon of choice against liberalism.  Liberals, they charge, fear the demos because liberals are, in the final analysis, on the side of the status quo and of order.  Liberals fear the wide-sweeping changes that giving democracy its full head would bring into the world.  I guess it is a sign of my liberalism that I think the leftist proponents of democracy are far too sanguine.  They seem to assume to a fully unleashed demos would vote into place their leftist vision of how the world should be.  But the liberal is always haunted by the thought that one “should never put rights to a vote.”  Liberalism wants democracy tempered by a bill of rights that places certain guarantees beyond the simple will of the majority.  Some things are established as changeable only through a more arduous process of amendment.

My state, North Carolina, voted in 2011 (by a 60 to 40 % margin) to install as a constitutional provision the illegality of any marriage not between a man and a woman.  Installing discrimination into the state constitution is the exact opposite of how liberals desire constitutions to function.  But it is absolutely right to claim that constitutions are not democratic—if by democracy we mean that all social arrangements are decided by the vote of the demos.  A constitution establishes some basic rights and some basic procedures (rules of the game) that are meant to be immune to “normal” democratic processes.  So, yes, liberals can be accurately accused of not being fully democratic.  But, to the extent that a constitution prevents those currently in power from completely shutting the opposition out from competing in the political sphere, a non-democratic constitution is required to keep the partial democracy—its contested elections, its non-censored public sphere discussions–afloat.

Which circles us around to solidarity.  A sustainable democracy requires a baseline solidarity that acknowledges the equal right of every single one of us to be here and to be full participants in the agonistic contests that characterize democracy.  Suppression of anyone’s right to equal participation is antithetical to democracy–and the point is that you cannot count on the good will of today’s majority to keep them from stacking the deck in their favor as time moves forward.  You need to have some institutions, some agreements (constitutionally established, often in the form of prescribed rights) in place.  So it can’t be democracy all the way down.  Not a neat–or even especially happy–conclusion, but the neater idea of all democracy all the time is a recipe for the fairly swift end of democracy.

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