In the wake of disappointment that the “red wave” never materialized after the 2022 midterm elections, some prominent conservatives expressed skepticism about democracy, citing historical failures to end slavery and abortion, suggesting that the culture war has been lost due to the electorate’s embrace of the tenets of the left, and even attacking universal suffrage.
Frustration at the midterm results is understandable, but critiques of democracy tend to be shortsighted. After all, the alternative to democracy is always some form of elitism—which hardly has an unblemished historical record. Furthermore, I doubt that the midterm results really mean that the average American now believes in the values of the hard left (abortion on demand, open borders, CRT, gender ideology, queer theory, anti-Americanism and all the rest). For example, Alexandra DeSanctis has persuasively argued in these pages that pro-life legislation fared poorly in the states not because voters are actually pro-choice, but because conservative leaders have failed to articulate a clear, coherent, commonsensical pro-life program that they could get behind. I suspect that a similar case can be made for the other issues mentioned above. So the problem isn’t that voters have pernicious views and can’t be trusted; rather, elected officials have offered them poor choices.
Therefore, it would be foolhardy to discard democracy for elitism. In fact, democracy is superior to elitism, however bad the results of any given election may seem. Democracy, construed properly, safeguards against tyranny, and it recognizes the fact that most voters’ moral sense can be trusted.
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The Spirit of Democracy
Wallace Mendelson, a late friend and mentor, was fond of saying that “no man is really fit to govern another.” Every human being is endowed with reason, and knows his circumstances and needs better than anyone else does—and most people tend to have sound moral judgment (more on that later). Mendelson’s simple statement contains the moral basis of democracy: people ought to have a say in the decisions that shape their lives. In a similar spirit, Abraham Kuyper declared: “No man has the right to rule over another man, otherwise such a right necessarily, and immediately, becomes the right of the strongest. … Authority over men cannot arise from men.” Democracy, when it’s working properly, allows men to rule themselves.
Our democracy in particular—which perhaps is more accurately called a constitutional republic—keeps total power from falling into any one person’s hands. And Lord Acton told us why when declaring that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Fallen human nature ensures that those who wield power will almost always succumb to pride. Democracy helps keep a check on the pride that elite rule fosters in people.
Elites have always argued that ordinary people are incapable of governing themselves. But this argument about capability misses the moral basis for democracy mentioned above: however much of a mess ordinary people may make of self-government, the fact remains that “entitlement to rule cannot be taken from one on the basis of the IQ, experience, knowledge or expertise of another.” Again, every person is rational by nature and should have a say in the laws and rules that govern his life.
Epistemic Democracy and Condorcet’s Jury Theorem
One political thinker, Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet, offers a compelling defense of democracy that can instruct those today who are becoming increasingly disillusioned with democracy. Condorcet was a distinguished mathematician, inspector general of the Paris Mint under Louis XVI, member of the Legislative Assembly and National Convention, and leading critic of the French Constitution of 1793—for which he was branded a traitor and lost his life. In 1785, he published his Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Majority Decisions. The Essay put forward the “Jury Theorem,” which examines how increasing electorate (“jury”) sizes affects democratic decision making.
Condorcet was an “epistemic democrat.” That is, he believed that democracy cannot be justified on purely procedural grounds. Epistemic democracy presupposes that there are truths in politics, and that social rules are justified based on the likelihood that their application can be trusted to produce good (“true”) policies or outcomes. Another way of putting it is to say that democratic rules are not (and cannot be) neutral with respect to competing conceptions of the good, as contemporary liberal ideology holds. For Condorcet, both moral relativism and proceduralism are unworkable.
In a nutshell, the Condorcet Jury Theorem states that the probability of a group of voters reaching a decision that is in accord with the truth (the “right” decision) is derived from the probability that each voter in that group reaches the right decision. So if the probability of each voter reaching the right decision is greater than 1/2, then increasing the size of the group will increase the probability that the group will choose rightly. The more the group grows, the larger this probability becomes. On the other hand, if the odds of each voter picking the right decision are smaller than 1/2, then the larger the electorate becomes, the lower the chances the group will decide rightly.
Recently, Condorcet’s result has been generalized beyond majority rule to plurality voting and to situations in which most—not necessarily all—voters are likely to choose “true” policies. So it is not necessary that every voter’s individual probability of choosing rightly be greater than 1/2, only that the average voter’s is. The math still works. The probability of a correct choice increases dramatically as the size of the electorate increases.
Condorcet’s Result and Human Nature
Condorcet’s theory suggests that what you think about democracy probably comes down to what you think about the nature of your fellow citizens. What are they like? Are they children of God, made in the image of their Creator and thus in possession of common sense and common reason? Do they have enough sense to distinguish between truth and falsehood on the issues that drive our current political conflicts? Or are they ignorant bumpkins “clinging to their guns and religion,” in Barack Obama’s infamous phrase? What is their competence to make good judgments on candidates and/or policies? And on what kinds of issues?
DeSanctis’s survey of American opinions on the abortion issue—perhaps the most bitterly contested of all current issues—strongly suggests that the views of most Americans on the issue are imperfect but very reasonable. I suspect that this is the case with most of the other issues driving the culture war. Conservative leaders need to be more effective at providing clear-headed messaging addressed to the common sense of the American people.
But a significant source of our mistrust of voters is that moral and philosophical subjects are misrepresented as scientific and technical ones, which need training in order to be understood. Mortimer Adler offers a helpful way of thinking about the differences between the scientific and philosophical domains. Philosophy—especially moral philosophy—unlike scientific expertise, is based largely on common sense and common experience. Scientific knowledge, on the other hand, requires extensive training and observational tools.
Moral judgment is available to everyone, and many of the issues that matter to voters are not scientific or technical. Elites on both sides of the aisle often pretend they are, perhaps to befuddle people into thinking that only “experts” can speak authoritatively on them. But these issues really are moral or philosophical, on which an ordinary person with common sense and good judgment has as much authority to speak as a Stephen Hawking. For example, most of the controversial issues driving the “culture wars” are moral or philosophical in nature: issues of sexual morality (the sexualization of children, the morality of homosexual behavior, same-sex marriage, abortion as birth control), of the respective roles of parents versus the state in the raising and education of children, of the place of critical race and gender theory in schools, of the role of religion in public life, of immigration policy, to name just a few. Such issues have little if anything to do with science. They do, however, require sound moral judgment—something our elites have provided precious little of lately. And again, despite the rhetoric of the culture wars, Americans historically tend to have good sense about moral issues, even the most controversial ones.
Democracy is not the problem. Giving up on democracy because a couple of elections didn’t turn out right is not the answer. Conserving American democracy requires that conservative leaders trust American voters to hear the truth if it is spoken plainly and strongly. Then they must speak it plainly and strongly. They must become better at effectively communicating the moral stakes of the issues at hand. Above all, conservative leaders must resist succumbing to the age-old elitist temptation: the belief that superior intelligence, education, wealth, or social status constitutes entitlement to rule.