Arguing Against Democracy
National Review's Kevin D. Williamson advocates for less democracy in America.
Kevin D. Williamson has a piece in National Review which asks in its title, Why Not Fewer Voters?
Much of the discussion about proposed changes to voting laws backed by many Republicans and generally opposed by Democrats begs the question and simply asserts that having more people vote is, ceteris paribus, a good thing.
Why should we believe that?
Why shouldn’t we believe the opposite? That the republic would be better served by having fewer — but better — voters?
Many Americans, being devout egalitarians, recoil from the very notion of better voters as a matter of rhetoric, even as they accept qualifications as a matter of fact.
On one level, this isn’t especially difficult. If you are going to have a democratic government that respects the idea of popular sovereignty, that the right and power to govern derives from the people (the core tenet of republicanism), then you have to treat citizens equally. It is not a matter of being “devout egalitarians” (which is actually a whole other discussion). It is about a basic level of adhering to the notion that citizens are “created equal” (to quote some old document Williamson might have read at some point in his life).
All of this is pretty basic political theory. The ancients, most notably Aristotle, talked about regime types in terms of whether power was controlled by the one, the few, or the many, as I discussed in a post some years ago.
In that post I also noted:
If we skip to modern political theory, we can pretty much carve regimes into two broad categories: democratic and authoritarian. Democratic governments are (in simple terms) those which derive their power and legitimacy from the population in such a way that allows regular and significant input from the population about who governs. This takes the form of either republics (where popular sovereignty derives directly from the people) or constitutional monarchies wherein their may still be a hereditary figurehead, but where the government is selected by the population through the vote.
In a follow-up to that post, I noted
If, however, we assert that each human being has inherent and equal value, other forms of government become hard to justify. If, the people (the “demos” in Greek) are to have the power (“kratos“), then democracy is the logical, and just, form of government that should be pursued.
This entire discussion boils down to age-old questions of who governs. Once you start stating that some people are “better” than others you start to range away from democracy (government by the people, the demos) to aristocracy (which literally means government by the best, the aristos).
Once you start talking about “better voters” you are saying that some people are more worthy of participation than others. This not only undercuts a foundational principle of basic democratic governance, but it also requires creating tests for who is better than whom.
As I snarked on Twitter yesterday, does Williamson’s “better voter” scheme mean that all of us Ph.D.s in Political Science should have bigger, better votes than, say, mere commentators? After all, we have spent a lot more time seriously considering politics than the mere plebes, yes?
Let’s go back to Plato and bring on the Philosopher-Kings!
But, of course, as most people who talk about “better” voters, Williamson is certain that he is a member of the right club. To use categories from his column, he isn’t a convicted felon, he has a driver’s license. He, after all, is not an “average American voter.”
One argument for encouraging bigger turnout is that if more eligible voters go to the polls then the outcome will more closely reflect what the average American voter wants. That sounds like a wonderful thing . . . if you haven’t met the average American voter.
Voters — individually and in majorities — are as apt to be wrong about things as right about them, often vote from low motives such as bigotry and spite, and very often are contentedly ignorant.
the fact is that voters got us into this mess. Maybe the answer isn’t more voters.
Williamson thinks himself clever, but he is eliding that representative democracy is not about the voters directly making decisions, it is about having a) power derive from the people and not some special source (like blood line, wealth, or religion), and b) to create a government wherein the interest of society are reflected.
(And can I make a side-point that since the US government is poorly representative, trying to blame US governmental outcomes on the voters is problematic–see, e.g., almost every post I have written on the flaw of US governing institutions and/or about reform questions).
As Political Scientist Hand Noel noted on Twitter earlier today:
What Williamson is arguing for is a less representative electorate. It is an inherently anti-democratic, authoritarian position that suggests that some voters are worthy of voting while others are not.
Of the myriad problems with the construction “better voters” are 1) who gets to determine who is good enough to vote? (put another way: who gets to decide who is worthy of a basic right of citizenship in a democratic state?); and 2) the historical fact that whenever a society goes down this road of determining worthiness, it has been the case the already disempowered are the ones who are seen as not meeting the standard.
Williamson’s follow-up in face of criticism (Fewer Voters, Continued) does not further his argument in any substantial way, but instead just doubles down.
The emotional incontinence of the responses and the accompanying lack of anything that might be considered a genuine argument is further confirmation that what we are dealing with here is not a political idea at all but instead that very American form of idolatry: democracy as a religion — the supernatural belief that “voting is sacred,” as Deb Haaland and many others have put it. But we should not allow that kind of figurative hyperbole to lead us astray: Voting is not sacred — it is, at best, useful, a way of organizing government that is, for all of its many faults, more convenient than bonking one another on the head.
All of that rather misses the point as it pretends like the concern about his position is the vote for the sake of the vote. His original argument was in favor of treating citizens unequally. Apart from the fact that he is comfortable with that position, he doesn’t actually provide any argument for why any specific American citizen ought to be treated differently from another, save that he clearly feels like he and people he prefers will be considered in the “better voter” category and that he can’t really be bothered to care about those who are worse for some reason.
And the genuine argument that he is looking for is made above and it boils down to the following elements.
- Basic political equality is an essential characteristic of representative democracy.
- The most fundamental manifestation of political equality in such a context is that everyone’s vote counts the same.
- The goal of representative democracy is to have broader societal interests represented in government.
- The best pathway to that representativeness is via voting.
And yes, as I write about frequently, there is more to representation than merely the vote, but you have to start somewhere (and the place to start is full access to the ballot box by all citizens).
Let me underscore #2 above: that everyone’s vote counts the same. It really is the most fundamental manifestation of democratic citizenship. A simple illustration: Bill Gates’ freedom of speech and mine are not utterly co-equal. His access to broadcast and print media well outstrips mine. And he can spend whatever he wants to get his message out even if media outlets won’t invite him on for free. But my freedom of speech is greater than a lot of citizens who don’t even have a modest blog readership or the occasional appearance on TV or radio or in print. But my vote counts the same as Bill Gates as a random person’s.*
The vote of the rich and the poor are the same. The ballot does not know if you are white, Black, Hispanic, male, female, straight, gay, or anything else. A vote is a vote. And the only way to make that not true is to make it harder for some people to vote than it is for others.
Calling for “better” voters in a way that is linked to rules and laws that make voting harder is simply saying you believe some Americans are not worthy of full citizenship.
It is also incredibly presumptuous to assume that someone convicted of a felony and having served their time or someone unable to acquire a driver’s license is necessarily worse than some other citizen, in either knowledge or decision-making capability.
And that doesn’t even get into the question of whether some citizens are unjustly more likely to be convicted or to have difficulties in obtaining ID.
Let’s not ignore history. Property requirements, gender limitations, poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like where about making sure we had “better” voters.
When it comes to fundamental rights you either believe them to truly be fundamental, or you believe that your group is deserving and those “other” people aren’t. But once you have decided that those others aren’t worthy, you have to admit to yourself that you don’t believe in democracy, but at a minimum want some kind of limited (or not so limited) authoritarianism with privileged classes who are allowed access to power and underclasses that aren’t.
Let me conclude on a simple point, but one that is a bit of a pet peeve of mine: arguments framed as “we need better X” (regardless of what X is) are lazy and unhelpful. Better is always better–it is tautological. Yes, if I can have better than what I have now, that is an improvement. But the real issue is not “is better a good thing?” (of course it is) it is “what would it take to make things better?” or “is better even possible?” It is also “at what cost do we get to better?”
*Of course, once we start talking about the Electoral College or the Senate, this gets messy–which is one of the reason I am a fan of neither).
Crazy solution for ‘better’ voters:
Fully fund public education for all that includes civics, critical thinking, and rhetorical skills rather than rote standardized tests.
I’m sure that will go over great with the ‘better’ minds at the National Review. 😉
Best thing I have read in 2021.
I note in passing that essentially every state admitted to the Union since the Civil War has thought it necessary to include some form of state-level direct democracy — referendums, initiatives — in their constitutions. Also, national-level direct democracy in a country as large by population and geography as the US is almost certainly a really bad idea.
You beat me to it.
Anyone who is arguing for “better voters” at the same time that they are fighting against improvements in general education has tipped their hand. Rather like people who claim to be trying to prevent abortions, but oppose cheap and easy access to birth control…
Williamson’s argument isn’t about better voters or better government (or better anything, for that matter).
It’s about justifying minority rule. Plain and simple.
It’s about making explicit the implications of “Real Americans” vs. anybody else.
The fact that this even gets published means that American democracy is in grave danger (if that wasn’t abundantly clear already), because one of the two parties is about ready to abandon its pretense that the US even should be a democracy. The Williamson piece is about testing the waters for the wider acceptance of that idea on the Right.
Get ready for even more vote suppression and gerrymandering in the red states.
Jason Brennan laid out the case for epistocracy in a book a few years ago titled Against Democracy. It’s not a new idea, but I found his presentation worth a read.
When considering epistocracy, people often protest that it is elitist, that society shouldn’t be in the business of determining who gets to vote, etc. But there are various forms that epistocracy might take.
One that Brennan discusses involves a random draw from the population. For the sake of example, 1 million people are randomly selected. They then participate in a series of educational activities focused on the pressing issues of the day. Voting occurs after they demonstrate a competent understanding of the issues.
Note, this is a terribly simplified version, and it ignores various value judgments inherent to the process (eg, what are the issues, define competent), but it does show that epistocracy can be more than merely anointing the special people who get to vote.
Note x2, I am not advocating for this approach. Rather I am hoping that people will think more deeply about it than the Williamson posts inspire. For those who are unfamiliar with Brennan’s arguments, and who don’t want to read his book, you might listen to his podcast with Julia Galef.
This is what any disenfrasement argument, current and historical, from either side, has ALWAYS been about.
It’s always worth seeing when they are enacted and the moral panic that they are responding to. Scratch the surface and it’s always about advancing minority control.
Steve, I believe that you are making a mistake at the start. Every single right-winger making this argument is lying. They want to keep the other side from voting.
Please don’t engage bad faith people as if they had good faith.
In Missouri now, state legislator Rs are trying to subvert the stated will of the people expressed by referendum on Medicaid expansion.
It would allow ~230,000 people granted eligibility of which the federal govt covers 90% of that cost thanks to the ACA.
The main argument against presented was that it passed because of “urban” voters.
The referendum passed with 53%.
That is shameful behavior. Real life example of some votes count more than others.
How about a test all voters must pass before voting. One question, multiple choice:
C is included for those who don’t understand the legal definition of privilege, which seems like an entirely reasonable thing to not understand. Anyone who answers B doesn’t get a ballot.
Fine, two questions:
(Add in a few questions on apostrophes and the Oxford comma, just for funsies, but don’t score them.)
This is simply Jim Crow governance. Government is to assist the powerful in keeping the masses under control. Keeping actual power from the masses is a desirable outcome. At least Buckley was honest: It is okay to lie and cheat in order to keep the powerful in their positions:
Where’s the lie? Where are the bad faith arguments?
They are clearly, earnestly and succinctly stating that some people shouldn’t vote.
That’s not a bad faith argument, it’s a bad person rejecting democracy.
The lie is that “bad” voters shouldn’t vote. In truth, this is about Democrats getting fewer votes in the future. That’s all.
I felt I should read the subject Williamson piece before commenting. That four minutes wasted, three if it weren’t for their pop-up ads. Typical of so much conservative writing he never quite gets to a clear conclusion, because he knows he can’t say what he’s thinking. He’s arguing that the Republican proposed restrictions would be good because they’d favor Republicans. But he can’t say that openly. But he got a lot of clicks and a lot of free publicity.
The only qualifications he actually mentions are lack of a felony conviction and possessing a driver’s license. I wonder if Williamson has considered that if we imposed some objective requirements to select actual better voters, they might not favor the GOP base.
Whiteocracy just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as more misleading words and phrases like “better voters.”
Since we’re not likely to get the downvote button back in the foreseeable future, how about a double upvote button instead?
This is all very easy to respond to:
Mr Williamson wants a different country and a different political system than the one that has been designed and that we have. I recommend that he go and find that country and move there.
I shouldn’t speak for someone else, but I believe the point @Gustopher was making was that Rs are being honest about their strategy.
A bad-faith argument means you say one thing publicly but intend / wish for the opposite outcome.
In this instance, it is not bad-faith, it is a bald-faced assertion that some votes should count more. Refreshingly honest.
A bad-faith argument would be that voter ID makes elections more fair and safer: you are on the surface arguing for election integrity, but, in fact, you want to discourage and diminish voters who will likely vote against you.
I think you missed @Gustopher’s point.
Admittedly, Williamson is getting there. Still, he doesn’t quite say what his true aim is.
If convicted felons reliably broke Republican, he sure wouldn’t argue for “better” voters. Trust me.
He wants more Republican votes and fewer Democratic ones. It’s the word “better” (with its connotations of objectivity) that is the lie.
@Barry and @Gustopher: As I noted yesterday in my comment on the specious comparison between the CO and GA voting laws, I‘m actually glad read this kind of post from K. Williamson over the pure gaslighting and misdirection that has characterized all other rightist public commentary on this latest round of voting laws coming from the Republicans. Taking a reality based position is a least the beginning of a debate that is impossible when one side insists on lying (“these laws don‘t suppress the vote”; “fraud is so rampant these laws will lead to a more legitimate result”).
As Steven notes, Williamson’s position is only marginally better than the liars, because he does so little to define “better” voters. But, since he has proposed this framework, I can now propose my definition to further the discussion. I’d start with his own words:
I’d be happy to try to craft a pre-voting check against low motives and ignorance. I don’t expect Williamson would be able to pass it.
I will *humbly* note I highlighted Williamson’s post and my disgust at the premise and the logical conclusion two days ago on another thread.
It’s worse than presumptuous. It’s a confirmation that for many (and in this case right wing folks) our criminal legal system exists only to punish versus rehabilitate* and an entrenched belief that a (potentially) single act in a person’s should define them going forward.
(That’s before we get to topics like overcriminalization and the growth of what counts as felonies.)
* – Also, there is an argument that if you want to prevent recidivism, the best way to do that is to encourage easy reintegration into the community after release. If you see voting as a fundamental action connecting one back to the community, then felony disenfranchisement** is a prime example of what not to do.
** – Also, to Steven’s point about taking a historical perspective into account, let’s not pretend that felony disenfranchisement wasn’t always already a tool to suppress black and POC votes.
@mattbernius: Excellent points, as usual. Essentialist thinking about legal matters is pervasive and consequential. It predicts people’s views on a host of things related to crime and punishment. And that’s before you even take into account essentialist thinking about social groups.
He clearly means that we should not vote, and leave such matters to our betters.
We all know who our betters are — it’s the wealthy job creators.
It’s not a race thing. He suffers the poor white male Republican voters as only a means to an end, to balance out the even worse brown Democrat voters and the deluded Socialists.
I don’t know how he could have made it clearer, short of advocating a return the the roots of western democracy, the House of Lords.
Universal suffrage is a very recent phenomenon, pretty much of the XX Century, and in America I would dare say from the last fifth of the century, given how late the voting rights act got passed.
Look at the nascent democracies in Europe and the Americas which followed the example of the US. Most of them restricted suffrage to a relative few. Even universal manhood suffrage was considered extreme for several decades.
This tracks with the trend of extending or recognizing universal rights as time went on, a process that’s not finished anywhere in the world.
Yes, well that’s a rather big component of this scheme isn’t it? If your scheme relies on educational curricula followed by an evaluation, it’s really the only component that matters.
@Neil Hudelson: To clarify, I am to blame for the terribly simplified version of his presentation. He does go into more detail…..though you may still find it unsatisfying.
Also, because I didn’t make this point in my original comment, I will note that despite the title, he is not staunchly advocating for a specific system to replace democracy. Rather, he highlights the problems with democracy as practiced, presents possible alternatives, and then encourages experimentation at the local level.
No, that’s not right. That’s just hypocrisy, or perhaps concern trolling.
A bad-faith argument is when your reasons for supporting the position are not the reasons you publicly state for that conclusion, and you know it. If you oppose abortion because you think recreational sex should be punished, but argue publicly that fetuses are people and abortion is murder, that is bad-faith argument.
I seriously do not get the difference between mine and yours.
@Gustopher: I pretty much agree with MarkedMan’s assessment of Williamson’s argument. Essentially, he’s making the argument Buckley made in the 50s, only leaving out the word “negroes”–although I’m confident that POC play pretty much the same role now in Williamson’s thinking as they did back then in Buckley’s.
ETA: Though, I will agree that Buckley’s original argument might well have had the aristocratic underpinnings that you see in Williamson’s if he had not intended the National Review as a mass market magazine. Can’t afford to alienate potential working/lower middle class subscribers.
It’s the difference between arguing for the outcome you want (but lying about your reasons) versus claiming to support an outcome you don’t actually want.
Okay. I see the distinction.
Aren’t both bad faith, though?
These ideas are directly connected to the suffrage debates of the 18th century. I posted about this recently. The concern, even among the reformers in England, was manipulation via monetary compensation or coercion.
Among people concerned about undue influence of the rich, extending suffrage to those with dependencies created an avenue for the rich to manipulate votes.
I will look into Brennan’s particular argument. But from what I’ve read of it, he makes a similar manipulation argument about ideology. (Rich coming from a Libertarian.)
Because I haven’t read a detailed explanation, at this time I don’t wish to comment much more on the mechanics of his ideas. I will look into it, because it I’ll admit a curiosity here.
@DrDaveT: @Gromitt Gunn:
Several RW outlets have published lists of the most harmful/dangerous books from the 19th and 20th centuries. Dewey’s Democracy and Education usually slots in right below Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto.
The thing makes democracy a preferable form of government is not the idea that the people get what they want. The people would burn the Bill of Rights in a heartbeat. It’s that the government is *accountable* to the people. When you say we should restrict the franchise, you’re saying we should restrict who the government is accountable to.
I am so confused right now. I thought we were conversing on the internet. Up is down, down is up.
More seriously, I appreciate you engaging on this and am keen to hear your thoughts.
Actually, reading it a second time, I think it’s being unfairly maligned. I disagree with his conclusion he make some very good points:
1) the majority is not always right; this is why we have a Constitution.
2) voting is only part of our civic responsibility
3) expanding the vote is not a panacea that’s going to cure what’s wrong with our political class.
I agree with his points. And I think those should be engaged.
I’m gonna be contrary here and agree with Williamson that some people should never be allowed to vote. Let’s start with banning that asshole from the polling booth.
I’m not so sure. Voting on specific issues might have the salutary effect of improving voter turn out.
But it’s not like 1 million people are easier to manipulate than 150 million, right? It’s not like “educating” them on “pressing issues” of the day could ever be used to manipulate anyone, right? And it’s not like people can’t be persuaded to “demonstrate a competent understanding,” right?
You may have oversimplified his arguments but all I see is Brennan is a fascist POS.
Speaking tongue in cheek, fewer voters might be a good thing, if the pro-Trump ignoramuses (a respectable number of whom had no history of voting for president) were kept out of the polls. Purely a hypothetical, alas. Having taught American history and government in college, I could write a 100-question multiple choice exam most of our legislators couldn’t pass.
@OzarkHillbilly: Come on, that’s unfair. You’re better than that. I gave an overly simplified example and labeled it as such. I did this to highlight that there are alternatives to democracy that go beyond merely saying “you special people can vote, you not special people can sit and spin.” And to hopefully engage people in a more productive discussion on the broader topic as opposed to the Williamson article per se.
Of course, no one is obligated to engage in that discussion (indeed, the data indicate clearly that I was an outlier on this day….not an uncommon occurrence in my world). But to use my simplified example to label Brennan a “fascist POS” is unfair to Brennan, unfair to me (I now feel a twinge of responsibility), and unfair to our hosts.
@de stijl: Thanks!
@Hal_10000: I haven’t read the book, but this point is raised enough in these conversations (here and everywhere) that I wanted to comment:
The issue is not whether majorities are right or not (and they can certainly be wrong) but the question is whether there is a better way to choose government.
And there is no national government on Earth where pure majority rule is in place. Every country has some level of restrictions on how majorities exercise power and constitutional restrictions on what governemnt can do.
I am not saying you are saying otherwise, but I think it is worth stating: advocating for democratic governance is not advocating for pure, simplistic majority rule.
@OzarkHillbilly: I think that in practice it is highly problematic to reduce specific, yet complex policy issues to a singular vote.
It is an idea that I think sounds better in theory than in practice.
The best example of this truth off the top of my head: Brexit.
And if you read through the ensuing comments, it won’t take long to see that the rank & file Right are all in on the concept.
Funny, because all this time, I’ve been thinking I have to leave the country to escape an anti-democratic White supremacist regime. It never occurred to me that THEY should leave if they don’t like the current governing structure. That must be some serious psychological baggage I’m carrying around. Geezus.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Sure. What democracy confers, however, is not the wisdom of crowds. What it confers is accountability and legitimacy.