Disinforming democracy

December 4, 2007

The standard dogma about democracy is usually taken for granted in public discussion, and therefore it is often hard to find explicit statement of central elements of the dogma, simply because, I believe, those ideas are usually considered self-evident. The book “Understanding Democracy” by John J. Patrick is thus very useful.

This little book, which by its format, its subtitle – “a hip pocket guide”, and mostly by its tone seems to aspire to be a tutorial and a reference for the masses, is a pure and concise presentation of democratic dogma. The book starts with an introduction which purports to give a definition of democracy and a historical sketch of its origins. The rest of the book is a lexicon of sorts where a set of terms (from accountability to virtue, civic) are discussed.

As he hammers on the standard talking points (limited government, minority rights, judicial review, etc.), the author (an emeritus professor of education from Indiana University) never loses his confidence and moralistic attitude, even when making the most clichéd, logically unsubstantiated and sometimes simply factually false claims. For example, the following is an excerpt from the entry about Authority:

In a democracy, the source of authority or legitimacy for government is the consent of the people, who believe that their rulers have the right to exercise certain powers over them.

It is interesting to note that the author does not propose either the virtue-based or the rewards-based theories of electoral delegation of power. It seems that to him, competitive elections have some innate power to confer legitimacy on government and it is that legitimacy (together with a hodge-podge of other elements) that defines democracy.

If attention and patience permit, I will go over some of the material in “Understanding Democracy” and examine it critically.


2 Responses to “Disinforming democracy”

  1. Harald Korneliussen Says:

    I think you’re comparing apples and oranges here. The reward-based and virtue based theories concern why and when elected representatives will accurately implement the will of the people, represent their interest faithfully, or whatever we shall call it.

    This is a separate question from legitimacy. One can imagine a dictator who happened to do everything in a way that pleased everybody, but if he came to power with violence or deception, and unconditionally refused to let go of it, I’d still say he was an illegitimate ruler.

    Similarly, a poor ruler could be legitimate if he was wanted. “Yeah, he’s an incompetent crook, but no one else wants the job”.

    Surely you agree that if the opinions of the subjects in these cases were unanimous, then it would be legitimate?

    There was an interesting discussion on legitimacy of collective decisions in a book I read, “Collective decisions and Voting” by Nicolaus Tideman.

  2. yoramgat Says:

    I agree that we have here (to some extent) apples and oranges, but I was not really comparing them, only noting that Patrick offered us some apples but no oranges.

    Of course, the fact that Patrick is in the apple business (legitimizing existing government) rather than in the orange business (finding out which government serves the interests of the people) is a large part of the problem with his book.

    As for the substance of his claim that competitive elections legitimize government – that could be seen as a factual claim, or as a normative claim.

    The factual claim appears to be true to a large extent, but that does not prove that elections are democratic – it merely proves that elections a useful technique for whoever is able to gain power through elections. On the other hand, an examination of the normative claim shows that it runs contrary to democratic ideas.

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