Theories of Democracy Part 4 and Excursus: Democratic Pragmatism

[Continuing Series on Frank Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy: A Critical Introduction (2002)]

Democratic Pragmatism is not so much another theory of democracy, according to Cunningham who is drawing primarily on Dewey, but more so an orientation towards the problems that arise within democracies. In particular, it pays attention to the scope, context and differing degrees of existing democratic institutions. This conforms well with the pollyty inasmuch as the pragmatic approach sees democratic possibilities in a wide range of institutions such as guilds, unions, associations, corporations and, of course, governments at all levels. Democracy will also look and behave differently depending on the cultural, social or economic situation in which people find themselves. Like a pollyty, also, such a pragmatic approach is not concerned with understanding perfectly democratic institutions, but merely how to make existing institutions a bit more democratic than they currently are.

This brings me to a tangent. Why are we striving for democratic solutions in the first place? All theories Cunningham has so far brought forth are concerned with justifying the desirability of democratic institutions, and doing so from the perspective of the (lone) individual. I do not believe the best form of government is democratic, though i could not exactly describe a better form of government. However, i would argue that we needn’t settle on a theory of justice or democracy only then to tweak our institutions into such a format. To channel Rawls, the first virtue of social institutions is not justice but malleability. If we can ensure that our institutions are flexible and respond well to their members’ desires, then they will naturally move towards something like justice, liberty and equality — though perhaps nothing that would exactly fit those three ideals.

Democracy is hard and requires much involvement on the part of citizens. Moreover, it never can quite be entirely fair, at least inasmuch as children never vote, nor currently do immigrants or inmates. And many offices are restricted based upon one’s age or place of birth. Not having to go as far as endorsing Aristotle’s anti-democratic preferences, one can clearly imagine possible societies that are not democratic, but in which one might nevertheless prefer to live. This is why a pollyty places greater emphasis on the malleability of its basic structure (by making all rules changeable) than on the justice or equality of its initial arrangements.

Pollyties have this advantage over nation states or local governments that they are not bound to a chunk of land, and hence needn’t force inhabitants to join them. They needn’t legitimate themselves, because anyone can exit at any point. Hence, one can expect that unfair arrangements will more likely die out from adverse natural selection than in the case of landlocked governments. Also, pollyties needn’t pay as much attention to individual equality and liberty: pollyties can require or favor certain character traits, can allow strongly weighted voting or even less democratic (though rule-bound) arrangement, if they are attractive to members.

Finally, none of the theories of democracy Cunningham has put forward pay any attention at all to the fact that individuals never begin as free and equal as their democracies require. Children are all carefully inculcated with the values and virtues of their elders and society at large. In that specific sense, they are not free in their beliefs or desires, and there is no reason why we should change that practice. Nor upon turning 18 do (or should) people stop being influenced by their surroundings. Even democratic societies are allowed to decide upon “which kinds of brains” they prefer. This implies that justifying or architecting democratic proposals on the assumption of entirely free and equal adult citizens a gross simplification. A pollyty might begin with such a blindly egalitarian assumption built into its rules and voting system, but hopefully it will quickly outgrow it.


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