How Democracy Actually Developed

How did democracy become a good thing? This might sound like a silly question to (most) contemporary American ears, but the coupling of a belief in the propriety of popular sovereignty with an inclusive definition of who qualifies as “the people” didn’t dominate the idea space until pretty recently. In a post on The Junto (here, H/T Adam Elkus), Tom Cutterham offers this explanation:

The story of modern democracy is one in which democracy lost its social and economic content at the very moment it gained political ascendancy.

What happened was the separation of the “economic” and the “political” into separate spheres. It was only under the conditions of this separation that a widely dispersed political power, through the universal suffrage, began to appear possible. Power relations, which had hitherto been fundamentally political issues, of lordship and so on—like who owed what to whom, and who could do what to whom, and who could make whom do what they wanted—were transformed into fundamentally economic issues, having to to do with ownership and contract. So if you want to know why democracy—defined basically as a diffusion of formal political power among the people—went from being bad to good, from being not only impossible but undesirable to not only desirable but possible, one way of answering the question is actually extremely straightforward: the real power wasn’t in politics any more; it was somewhere else, in the newly separate sphere of the economy.

This more jaundiced view of democracy’s ascendancy reminded me of a recent Monkey Cage guest post by Corrine McConnaughy about the path to women’s suffrage in the United States (here). Summarizing evidence from her recent book, McConnaughy argues that the suffrage movement had less influence on the expansion of women’s right to vote than the prevailing narrative implies. Instead,

Women’s voting rights were not a direct response to [suffrage] movement activism.  They were political concessions to the already enfranchised allies of the movement, delivered under partisan duress.

Put the two posts together, and you get a rather different take on American “progress” than the one we encounter in most social-studies curricula. What we call democracy today is not the product of a slow but steady awakening of virtue. Instead, it is the accumulation of many cynical ploys in the endless struggle over wealth and power, and the form that less virtuous process has produced is, in some crucial ways, a hollow one. In their influential 2006 book, Acemoglu and Robinson argued (p. xiii) that

Democracy then arises as a credible commitment to pro-citizen policies (e.g., high taxation) by transferring political power between groups (from the elite to the citizens)… The elite must democratize—create a credible commitment to future majoritarian policies—if it wishes to avoid more radical outcomes.

Cutterham’s and McConnaughy’s posts imply that this isn’t quite right. Expansions of democracy aren’t always motivated by threats of revolution, and they don’t automatically commit societies to majoritarian policies. By working to limit the scope of politics with one hand while conceding some formal political power with the other, incumbent elites and their descendants have often managed to retain a remarkable amount of their wealth and influence in spite of those concessions and the “people power” they supposedly produce.

This other understanding of democratic development will already be familiar to anyone who’s read Sean Wilentz’s The Rise of American Democracy (or, for that matter, watched the last season of Deadwood), but it bears repeating, in part because it helps explain how we got here.

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  1. On Twitter, political scientist Pedro Magalhães noted that in Europe, democracy is often understood to include both political and economic dimensions, and he pointed to these survey results as (compelling) evidence of that point: Assuming that the U.S. would look something like Holland if it were also on that chart, it raises the big and fascinating question: Why so much variation?


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