Democracy and the Flag Debate

Charleston and its aftermath are a reminder of why democracy is valuable.

By Nathan Pippenger

Mass shootings seem to have become a new commonplace in American life, and in the reaction of stupefied horror it produced, the Charleston attack resembled its predecessors. But in this case, the killings were suffused with a history and symbolism that produced an unusual result: a frank and consequential debate surrounding the display of the Confederate flag. The shock of the events seems to have generated widespread public reflection on basic questions of history, identity, and memory, topics that are seldom so explicit in the day-to-day news.

In that respect, this is a good time to consider Jonathan Bernstein’s reflections on a basic question: “Why is democracy a good system of government?” This is a question worth asking as we tear down, again after 150 years, the Confederate battle flag. The Civil War was a fight for union and for democracy, and it forever linked the two ideas in American politics.

The question, Bernstein says, is why we prefer democracy to the alternatives. Is it because it produces better overall outcomes? That it reduces the likelihood of war, that it boosts economic prosperity, that it constrains the rich from running things for themselves? Each of these has been proffered as a reason to favor democracy, but they make Bernstein uneasy—since they all suggest that, if democracy starts to produce bad outcomes, we have reason to cast it aside. There does, after all, seem to be a problem here: we feel a deep, even moral, commitment to democracy, one that doesn’t seem compatible with a perpetually-recast, outcome-driven evaluation of it. Or, as Bernstein writes: “Justifying democracy because one likes the outcomes leaves democracy vulnerable to the next election results.” Rather, he suggests, our justification rests in our belief that participation is valuable. He elaborates:

This isn’t just theoretical vapor. If we think democracy is valuable because it produces results we like, then we’re apt to constrain political action when it threatens to produce unpleasant outcomes. We might, as liberals propose right now, restrict some forms of political participation (such as contributions to candidates or lobbying) if we suspect they favor the “rich and powerful.” We might be tempted, as some conservatives currently advocate, to restrict the franchise to only the “best” voters. […] However, if we support democracy because it will allow everyone to participate, we’ll be more inclined to decide in favor of participation and popular control, even if it entails the risk of foolish or otherwise unfortunate policies.

I think this gets at something important, but I’d suggest a still deeper reason for the value of democracy: it’s the political expression of our moral belief in human equality. That’s why the benefit-calculus approach to democracy seems somehow mistaken—“all men are created equal” is an uneasy partner to “so what have you done for me lately?” People who are equal deserve a political system that respects them as such, and which gives them the opportunity to realize their moral equality by autonomously directing their own lives. On this logic, participation is a good thing, but it’s not the core value of democracy—since a universal right to participation can still be compatible with unacceptable forms of inequality (not unlike the situation we now face).

Indeed, focusing on equality shows why the examples Bernstein proposes aren’t really in tension at all. There’s nothing inconsistent or anti-democratic, as he suggests, in constraining some forms of participation and not others. From the perspective of equality, the unfettered influence of the rich is anti-democratic, and so are Republican attempts at voter suppression. In fact, strict limits on campaign finance and opposition to voter ID laws would further, rather than limit, the goal of “participation and popular control.”

Democracy has meant different things to different observers. It was seen by some ancient thinkers as self-interested domination by the poor. It has been analyzed as a bulwark against war and celebrated as a social leveler. Some have praised its policy outcomes; others have taken a far more dim view. But the contemporary American understanding of democracy is indebted to Lincoln, perhaps more than any other figure, and it was Lincoln who refashioned Jefferson’s words to show that the preservation of the Union was also the enactment of a long-deferred proposition, a “new birth of freedom.” To say that “all men are created equal” committed one to government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” which in turn linked the preservation of the Union to the destruction of the Slave Power. That’s one lesson of the war, and of the past week, and it’s another reason why the flag should never have gone up in the first place.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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