Democratic Realism

By Matthew Flinders


Politics is messy. Period. It revolves around squeezing collective decisions out of a multitude of competing interests, demands, and opinions. In this regard democratic politics is, as Gerry Stoker has argued, “almost destined to disappoint.” And yet instead of simply defining Obamacare as a good illustration of what is wrong with democracy in the United States it’s possible to reject ‘the politics of pessimism’ that seems to surround contemporary politics and instead see the splendor and triumph of what Obama has achieved.

Stèle dite de la Démocratie: loi contre la tyrannie vers 336 a. C. Le bas-relief au sommet de la stèle représente la personnification du Démos couronné par la Démocratie. Musée de l'Agora antique d'Athènes. Photo by Marsyas, 2005. Creative Commons License.

Such an interpretation would take us back not to the ancient history of Pericles but to the modern political history and writing of Sir Bernard Crick and notably his Defence of Politics (1962). For Crick the fact that democratic politics was imperfect, that it tended to grind rather than flow and that it often produced sub-optimal decisions was not a failing of politics but its beauty. Democratic politics was a civilizing activity that allowed an increasingly wide and diverse array of social groups to live together without resorting to violence or intimidation. I’m not for one moment arguing that democratic politics is perfect or that all politicians are angels, but I’m suggesting that to define the complex outcomes of political deliberations in such pejorative terms risks spreading the cynicism and misunderstanding that weighs so heavily on those who have at least ‘stepped into the arena’ (to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech).

The creation of an alternative arena in the vein of a ‘government-by-lot’ as Pericles may well suggest will do little to address the underlying paradoxes, tensions, and frustrations of democratic politics. Pericles was no god; he was a manipulative demagogue and a hawkish populist who ruled through a faux democracy in which the majority had no stake. I’ll take no lessons from Pericles but instead bring the debate full-circle and back to a focus not on democracy per se but on American democracy as it currently exists.

Politics in American has mutated into a shallow and ultimately unsatisfying form of market democracy. Citizens have therefore become customers, political parties little more than companies and everything is available at a price. The problem, however, is that ‘democracy.com’ can never be like ‘amazon.com’. You don’t vote for your candidate and wait for the goods you have chosen to arrive like a book, DVD, or pizza. Democratic politics is about ‘we’ and ‘us’ not ‘me’ and ‘I’. Could it be that that ‘disaffected democrats’ who appear to inhabit the United States in such numbers have become so dazzled by materialism that they fail to see what really matters? Could it be that the public actually gets the politicians it deserves?

I’m actually quite glad that Obama turned out not to be Superman as too many people expect politicians to be able to deliver simple solutions to complex social problems without contributing to the solutions themselves. There are no simple answers to complex questions, no easy-wins, no magic-bullets, or technological fixes to the challenges that will define the twenty-first century (climate change, over-population, resource depletion, etc.). The public should be wary of the man or women — or ancient Greek statesman — who suggest otherwise. Now what would Pericles say to that?

Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. His latest book, Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century, has just been published by Oxford University Press. His book Delegated Governance and the British State was awarded the W.J.M. Mackenzie Prize in 2009 for the best book in political science. He is also the author of Democratic Drift and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of British Politics. Read his previous blog posts: “It’s just a joke!” on political satire, “Attack ads and American presidential politics,” and “Democracy as concentration.”

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One Response to “Democratic Realism”
  1. Paul Woodruff says:

    I quite agree with Finders that politics in democracy are messy; that was very true of ancient Greece. And I also agree that we should be grateful to Obama for obamacare. And that we should not give up cynically on democracy. Still, our system has major flaws that could be fixed. The lottery is extreme and unlikely to win many adherents. But we can act to reduce the influence of money. And we can mitigate the awkwardness of the two-party system by moving towards proportional representation. There are many forms of this, which prevails in most modern (post WW II) democracies and works well in them

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