Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest book is Singular Creatures: Robots, Rights, and the Politics of Posthumanism.
If you’ve been following the news these past weeks, you’ll know that democracy is under attack everywhere. I don’t mean in obviously autocratic places such as election-skewing China, where anger at draconian COVID-19 measures boiled over into angry protests, or in the familiar repressive regimes that stifle dissent and criminalize free thought. Closer to home the picture is just as dark.
We’re told that Justin Trudeau’s arrogant response to the self-described freedom convoy inquiry was a threat to democracy – but the convoy itself was likewise a form of anti-democratic presumption. So was Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s expansion of so-called “strong mayor” powers in big cities, as was Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s Sovereignty Act, a creative revision of the country’s Constitution. Facebook is, as ever, a democratic peril. Ditto other social media, but also the regulation of social media, the King Charles monarchy, “wokeism,” sneaky TikTok data-gathering, and the Taliban’s objectively evil suppression of female higher education. The singular persons of Vladimir Putin, Elon Musk, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) might represent varying threats to democracy all by themselves.
The perception is no simple function of our relentless news cycle, either. Or a mark of scattershot hysteria. The Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) notes in its 2022 report that: “Half of democratic governments around the world are in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections.” This includes the United States, among other putative democracies. “This decline comes as elected leaders face unprecedented challenges from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, cost of living crises, a looming global recession and climate change.”
And yet, we must wonder what, in fact, is meant by democracy, an ideal apparently visible only in its absence. Recent reflections on systems of representation and constitutionality, not to mention minority government and allocation of powers, have opened up visible cracks in the usually assumed belief in an alignment, if not identification, between elected governments and democracy.
Democracy, as well as we know, comes us from Greek demos kratos: rule by the people. But we also all know that there have been doubts and suspicions about this objectively crazy idea from the start. Rule by the people? But who are these people? And what, exactly, makes them people? Which people get to decide who counts as the people, and why? (Pet concern of mine: Will sentient artificial people, assuming they come into the world, be considered people in the relevant senses? What about adolescents? Non-human animals?) Rule by the people? Okay, but how, precisely? By asking each one what they want? But having some speak for others?
Even assuming a stable political population (a fiction) and an agreed-upon method of choosing which minority will speak for the majority (an unstable platform), there is a spectral mystery in the very idea of political representation. How, say, can a member of Parliament speak for me, especially if I didn’t vote for him or her? What if, worse, that same member of Parliament is forced by party discipline to vote a particular way. They don’t call them “whips” for nothing.
But trying to tweak the system of representation doesn’t solve the basic problem. There are better and worse electoral schemes, agreed. First past the post is frankly bizarre, but rank-ordered ballots and popular-vote tallies seem to make precious little difference. Many people won’t even vote unless forced or fined. At the heart of it all is the black hole that lies between myself and whoever ends up being my official representative, claiming a valid mandate while behaving with the bozo entitlement sadly evident during Question Period.
No wonder, as the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has argued, that democracy is forever suffused with a hatred of itself. This is more than mere distrust of government. Our awareness of its shortcomings manifests as anxiety, or demands for transparency, or a confused convoy going nowhere. Politics is many things: media spectacle, procedural distraction, blame-trading sweepstakes, grandstanding, pork-barrelling and shadowing the incumbency. We hope it is a state monopoly on the use of deadly force and incarceration not too obviously or comprehensively abused. It means tolerable measures of marginal corruption and human perfidy. That’s the best we can hope for. Electoral politics have virtually nothing to do with democracy, if we mean by that a genuine translation of majority human wishes into public policy.
But here’s the thing: We shouldn’t mean that. Far too much of the routine celebration of democracy reveals itself as sentimental, performative, or cynical: eyewash, preaching to the choir. The same Greek thinkers who gave us the concept of democracy viewed it with justified wariness. This was not because it was conceptually unstable, though it is. It was, rather, because democracy is, as Plato suggests in The Republic, a kind of madness, a surrender to the mass of individual desire over reason. You don’t have to be an advocate of philosopher kings to wonder whether this state is not, in fact, ripe for takeover by a tyrant – or, in recent real-world democratic politics, a slimy charlatan with a talent for gaslighting an entire population. (Hello, word of the year 2022.)
The tyrant and the gaslighter are alike in understanding desire very well. Reason is their enemy, and their only curb. But we make a catastrophic mistake if we assume that political institutions will do the work of citizenship for us. Our representatives do not represent. Stop looking at them for answers and virtues they do not possess.
I’m a political philosopher. I get paid to twiddle the knobs of justificatory schemes and theories of justice. This has its value. But at heart I remain an existentialist. The only true democracy is the one of shared vulnerability, the democracy of suffering. Citizenship is a gift, not a transaction. You can’t represent that; you can only try to feel it.