How Much Democracy Is Too Much?

Democracy is not merely the “power of, by, and for the people.” It is not enough just to claim that, in democracy, the will and the interests (the two in no way automatically coincide) of the large majority determine state decisions. Democracy—in the way the term is used today—concerns, above all, formal legalism. Its minimal definition is the unconditional adherence to a certain set of formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the “rules of the game.”

“Democracy” means that, whatever electoral manipulation actually takes place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 were effectively “democratic.” Despite obvious and patent electoral manipulations in Florida, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. In the weeks of uncertainty after the elections, Bill Clinton made an appropriately acerbic comment: “The American people have spoken. We just don’t know what they said.” This comment should have been taken more seriously than it was meant, for it revealed how the present machinery of democracy can be problematic, to say the least. Why should the left always and unconditionally respect the formal “rules of the game”? Why should it not, in some circumstances, put in question the legitimacy of the outcome of a formal democratic procedure?

Alternatively, there is at least one case in which formal democrats themselves (or, at least, a substantial portion of them) would tolerate the suspension of democracy: What if formally free elections are won by an anti-democratic party whose platform promises the abolition of formal democracy? (This did happen, among other places, in Algeria a few years ago.) In such a case, many a democrat would concede that the people were not yet “mature” enough to be allowed democracy, and that some kind of enlightened despotism whose aim is to educate the majority to become proper democrats is preferable.

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on May 19th, 2003. (full text).]