Democracy as Failure
Forthcoming in Nomos, Vol. 60, 2020
24 Pages Posted: 8 May 2019 Last revised: 29 May 2020
Date Written: April 25, 2019
The theory and the practice of democracy alike are entangled with the prospect of failure. This is so in the sense that a failure of one kind or another is almost always to be found at democracy’s inception. Further, different kinds of shortfalls dog its implementation. No escape is found in theory, which precipitates internal contradictions that can only be resolved by compromising important democratic values. A stable democratic equilibrium proves elusive because of the tendency of discrete lapses to catalyze wider, systemically disruption. Worse, the very pervasiveness of local failure also obscures the tipping point at which systemic change occurs. Social coordination in defense of democracy is therefore very difficult, and its failure correspondingly more likely. This thicket of intimate entanglements has implications for both the proper description and normative analysis of democracy. At a minimum, the nexus of democracy and failure elucidates the difficulty of dichotomizing democracies into the healthy and the ailing. It illuminates the sound design of democratic institutions by gesturing toward resources usefully deployed to mitigate the costs of inevitable failure. Finally, it casts light on the public psychology best adapted to persisting democracy. To grasp the proximity of democracy’s entanglements with failure is thus to temper the aspiration for popular self-government as a steady-state equilibrium, to open new questions about the appropriate political psychology for a sound democracy, and to limn new questions about democracy’s optimal institutional specification.
Keywords: Democracy; democratic failure; democratic decline
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