The pressing political issues of today raise important political questions regarding the value of democratic decisions.
Following the most recent Democratic Party debate, the right-side of the internet broke out their “Come And Take It” flags, donned their Hawaiian shirts, and blew up the internet with memes, clips, and soundbites of Beto O’Rourke’s inflammatory comment: “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” Many people on the right have been outspoken about not complying with a mandatory buyback, and even using lethal force to resist such a policy; even if the decision is made through the legal democratic process. Fox News Host Tucker Carlson gave voice to these internet murmurs on his show, saying that if such a mandatory buyback was established that it would lead to “civil war”. Such people feel that such gun control measures would be morally wrong regardless of any political and legal process or decision.
Around the same time, the left-side of the internet has been spreading the face and words of the sixteen-year old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg across the web as much as possible. The general consensus strongly appears to be that climate change is such an important issue –an existential threat to humanity and almost all life on earth- that immediate action must be taken. President Trump’s constitutionally-legal but controversial 2017 decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement during the early months of his presidency is an example for many of our system’s inability to effectively deal with drastically important matters in both a correct and timely manner. For some people who feel strongly that dramatic top-down change must be implemented in order to save humanity and our planet, it seems that this issue is so important that the regular institutions and norms of the democratic process are too inefficient to properly solve the problem. Even for those who don’t feel this way, climate change is often presented as such an important and pressing issue, that if the democratic process were to continue to enforce policies which they see as detrimental to our survival, that they may consider such decisions to be wrong -perhaps even immoral- regardless of the democratic process.
Such issues seem to produce a question of fundamental importance for anyone concerned with the apparent erosion of democracy: “Can democracy be wrong?” Such a simple question needs specification. What does it mean for a democratic decision to “be wrong”? We could also ask: “Is a democratic decision valid because it is a result of democratic procedure, or is it valid if it is the right decision?” Or, to put it another way: “Is democracy good because/if its procedure tends to produce right decisions, or is democracy good because its procedure is how we determine if it is or is not the right decision?” The modern political philosopher Jason Brennan helps to further clarify such questions with a discussion found in his 2016 book Against Democracy, in which he draws a distinction between proceduralism, and instrumentalism, writing:
“Proceduralism is the thesis that some way (or ways) of distributing power or making decisions is intrinsically good, just, or legitimate… In contrast to proceduralism, instrumentalism about the distribution of power is the thesis that there are procedure-independent right answers to at least some political questions, and what justifies a distribution of power or a decision-making method is, at least in part, that this distribution or that method tend to select the right answer.” (Brennan, 11, 12, & 13).
The proceduralism or instrumentalism debate comes down to whether or not democracy is intrinsically good, or instrumentally good; a procedure, or merely a method; an end in itself, or merely a means to an end. According to the proceduralists, democracy is an end in itself in the sense that the very democratic process is a procedure for determining what the right political decision is. According to instrumentalists, democracy is a means towards the end that is right political decisions. Joseph Shumpeter’s definition of democracy as a method is an instrumentalist account.
So, we must now ask: “Is democracy a procedure or a method?” If it comes to it, can the importance of climate change justify some bending of democratic norms from those who are such politically inclined? If it comes to it, can the drastic federal gun control proposed by Beto O’Rourke justify opposition to such a democratic decision by those who see it as tyrannical? Most importantly: Are there any instances, such as those presently looming possibilities, where democratic decisions can be disregarded as the wrong ones; regardless of procedure? This is the relevant question in deciding between proceduralism and instrumentalism, since it seems apparent that if, as the instrumentalists would insist, there are cases where democratic decisions are wrong regardless of procedure, then proceduralism cannot be the case. Unfortunately for proceduralists, it does seem to be the case since there are numerous examples; both historical and theoretical
Take, for example, the former institutions of racial segregation, and its predecessor American slavery. When slavery ended following the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, and when the Jim Crow laws of the American south were ended in the 1960s, both institutions were popular. In both cases, it took the federal government to impose a moral ideal benefiting an oppressed minority (in this case, the same minority) over the will of an oppressive majority. Furthermore, and more importantly, most would agree that the democratically legitimate institutions of both slavery and segregation are, and were, both immoral. George Will commented on this uncomfortable juxtaposition between democracy and the immorality of slavery in his 2019 book The Conservative Sensibility, writing:
“The Kansas-Nebraska Act , introduced by Illinois Senator Stephan A. Douglas, empowered the residents of those two territories to decide whether or not to have the institution of slavery. The act’s premise was that the principle of ‘popular sovereignty’ is the distilled essence of democracy, and that therefore giving maximum scope to the principle of the majority is the essential point of the American project. Lincoln disagreed… [Lincoln’s career] took its bearings from the principle that there is more to the American purpose, and more to justice, than majorities having their way.” (Will, xx).
Also consider the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling which legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. This five to four ruling effectively allowed five U.S. citizens to determine the law of the land; at the time overruling the fifteen states which at the time still banned same-sex marriage, and circumventing the legislative branch which likely would not have made the same decision at the time since both houses of congress were controlled by a republican majority. At the time, the most recent study from the Pew Research Center showed that about 48% of Americans still opposed gay marriage. While this is a slight minority, it is certainly a significant enough portion of the population to make a hypothetical 2015 popular vote on the issue of same-sex marriage a toss-up when one considers the unpredictability derived by consistently low voter turnout rates. Furthermore, even if the majority, even a vast majority of the population did oppose same-sex marriage, as the Pew Research Center data from 2012 (48% support) and earlier years show, we would still want to call such a hypothetical democratic decision from a popular vote immoral on account of discrimination, regardless of procedure. The decision made by the five Supreme Court justices at the time seems right and just; regardless of their democratic authority.
The same-sex marriage example is so recent, that some likely disagree with same-sex marriage. Even for such people, this example still serves as one, alongside both those who believe O’Rourke’s gun control proposal is wrong or those who believe that government inaction on climate change is wrong, where one group may be inclined to not accept a democratic decision as being right based on its democratic procedure alone; disagree or not with their assessment of what is wrong.
While there are many more theoretical and actual examples, it seems evident that there are, in fact, cases where democratic decisions are wrong, regardless of procedure; and this seems to remain the case even if you disagree that one or both of the presented examples are wrong. Thus, proceduralism cannot be the case, and subsequently, the instrumentalists seem to be onto something: the procedure of democracy itself, is not a sufficient condition for making a political action or decision right. Whether the procedures of the democratic process are necessary (while not sufficient) conditions, and/or how one can soundly determine what is and is not right or wrong remains to be determined. Regardless of those still unanswered questions, the apparent instrumentalism of democracy raises important questions about how individuals, society, and the government should respond to such pressing political matters such as gun control and climate change, given the unwillingness of many to accept what they see as immoral regardless of a democratic decision.
Baragona, Justin. “Tucker Carlson: Gun Buybacks Would Lead to ‘Civil War’.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 4 Sept. 2019, www.thedailybeast.com/tucker-carlson-gun-buybacks-would-lead-to-civil-war?ref=scroll.
Brennan, Jason. Against Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Carter, Brandon. “O’Rourke Promises To ‘Take Your AR-15,’ But Americans Are Split On Buybacks.” NPR, NPR, 13 Sept. 2019, www.npr.org/2019/09/12/760386808/orourke-promises-to-take-your-ar-15-but-americans-are-split-on-buybacks.
“Changing Attitudes on Same-Sex Marriage.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 14 May 2019, www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/.
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Will, George F. The Conservative Sensibility. Hachette Books, 2019.