Saturday, January 8, 2022

Rectification of Names: "Democracy"


Speaker's platform on the hill known as Pnyx in western Athens, photo via Wikpedia.

I think I may be guilty of having an original idea without noticing it, which is one of the pitfalls of being an amateur. Specifically, I've started using the word "democracy" in a somewhat different way from the way it's usually used, and it may have gotten a little more different than I intended. But it could also be an interesting case for the Rectification of Names, as I think Confucius intended that concept, if I could argue that my way of using the word is more useful than the various traditional ways—

Zi Lu said: “The monarch of the state of Wei wants you to govern the country, what is the first thing you plan on doing?” Confucius said: “First, it is necessary to rectify the names” (Zhu Xi, 1998, p. 498). 

According to Confucius, in order for society to be stable, everyone needs to do with the right name. Zhu Xi (1998) states that: If names are not correct, one cannot speak smoothly and reasonably, and if one cannot speak smoothly and reasonably, affairs cannot be managed successfully. If affairs cannot be managed successfully, rites and music will not be conducted. If rites and music are not conducted, punishments will not be suitable. And if punishments are not suitable, the common people will not know what to do. So, when the gentleman uses names, it is necessary to be able to speak so that people understand. If one can say it, one can definitely do it. A gentleman should not be careless with words” (Zhu Xi, 1998, pp. 498-499)

Yesterday, it was with reference to the invariable American conservative response when you complain that something they like (like the Electoral College) is undemocratic: "We're not a democracy, we're a constitutional republic."  

I guess what is clearly stupid about this argument is fairly well known, certainly to Dr. Google (who led me here): it's a specific reference to the passage in Federalist 14, by Madison, in which he explains that North America is too big for a democracy:

“In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents. A democracy, consequently, will be confined to a small spot. A republic may be extended over a large region.”

That is, he is speaking only of a direct or "pure" democracy, something you could institute in a place the size of Athens, which had about 40,000 citizens, free adult males, who officially constituted the Athenian Assembly and were entitled to attend, speak at, and vote in its meetings on the Pnyx, which took place around 40 times a year, electing magistrates and making all the civic decisions (as in the young United States, the voices of women, children, and enslaved persons, between 150,000 and 400,000 in the last category, were unheard). The idea that he's prophetically denouncing the democratic aspirations of the 21st-century Democratic Party is idiotic.

Whereas he doesn't have any specific model in mind for what constitutes a republic: certainly not one of the places that called themselves republics at the end of the 18th century, Venice, Genoa, or the Dutch Republic, as he explains in Federalist 39:

Only England has a bit of republic in its constitution, in the form of the House of Commons, but it's spoiled by having to share power with a hereditary monarch and the Lords.

Elsewhere (in a letter of 1777 to Gouverneur Morris on Morris's proposal for a bicameral legislature), Hamilton actually uses the term "representative democracy" to describe his own preferred outcome,

a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated & the exercise of the legislative, executive and judiciary authorities, is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will in my opinion be most likely to be happy, regular and durable.

Except he's a little concerned about the concept of a Senate, which he fears could easily degenerate into another hereditary institution. 

It's worth noticing that when they started their own political party, Jefferson and Madison called it the "Democratic-Republicans". But in general, to communicate the founding vision, there's really no need for the word "republic" at all.

On the other hand, there's the picture Frank Wilhoit draws in comments

To me, the republic is a structure of institutions, and institutions are worth having if they are strong enough to enforce equality under the law: otherwise, not. Our institutions are corrupted, captured, worn out. It is impossible to answer the question of whether this is because their definitions were not strong enough at the outset (they weren't, but if they had been, would they have lasted any longer?).

To (again) me (no one else being home right now), democracy is the tyranny of the majority, full stop. It cannot be less or more or other. If you have institutions, laws, norms, anything that can, in practice and effectively, constrain the majority, then that is not democracy; it is something else, and it may as well be called by its name, it if had one. 

That idea of inevitable tyranny is drawn from his idea, later on in the thread, that there are always essentially just two parties, one bringing together the ill-educated and the rural, the other the well-educated with the urban, which I don't think I can go along with at all, especially if it's the former that's said to be the tyrannical majority, because if that means the Republicans, it's bad math: Republicans are certainly a minority, boosted into a trifecta of power in 2016 with the assistance of the institutional structure of the unrepresentative Senate and Electoral College (meant, we're always assured, to protect against the tyranny of the majority but in this case imposing a minority tyranny that was total for a couple of years).  

You might say instead that if the republic is a structure of institutions (as monarchy is another), the political process is what fills it, and it is the process, more or less influenced by the structure, that is or isn't democratic. That is part of the idea I came here with: that it's a mistake to talk about "a democracy" as a countable thing—rather, it's only "some democracy", a measurable quality of things like republics. And it's something more and other than the voting majorities that act within it—the degree of representativity, if I can call it that, the degree to which all the voices are included in the discourse. 

Patriarchy and slavery excluded voices from the decision-making polity, as do overly difficult laws for obtaining citizenship. Rules giving extra political weight to low-density states or counties diminish the voices of people in high-density places. Coalition-building of the kind practiced by Northern Democrats from the late 19th century onwards, starting with immigrants, amplifies the voices of those recruited; rules protecting the right to vote restore the voices of urban voters. 

That's the rest of the idea, that majority rule isn't the point. Majority rule is just a crude but inescapable vehicle for achieving the point of democracy, which is to involve everybody who wants to be heard—lift every voice and sing. Or at least that's how I've been using the word lately, but I haven't really formulated it until now.

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