Democracy, those on the losing side of elections last year say, has failed. The tendency of electoral majorities to no longer vote according to received opinion has unleashed a torrent of anti-democratic thinking and writing. Academics are writing books with titles such as Against Democracy and Against Elections. Commentators are fretting over supposedly "low information" voters and the advent of "post-truth" politics and fake news.
Democracy, we are told, is failing because of people's stupidity or lack of education. People, they say, just aren't smart, educated or knowledgeable enough to participate in politics, or at least when it comes to such important issues as Brexit. This sentiment, of course, is not new. From Plato to Burke to Walter Lippman, democracy's critics have usually denounced electorates, or potential electorates, as too stupid or uneducated.
In this current climate, then, it is worth remembering some of the arguments put forward by Christopher Lasch in his 1994 book The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Lasch, ever an original thinker, turns the whole argument about people being too stupid for democracy on its head. Rather than democracy failing due to people's supposed stupidity, democracy actively works to create a more knowledgeable and educated citizenry.
According to Lasch, drawing upon the work of the American philosopher John Dewey, debate or argument is the foundation of learning and becoming educated. Lasch writes: "our search for reliable information is itself guided by the questions that arise during arguments about a given course of action." Only by "subjecting our preferences and projects to the test of debate," he continues, "we come to understand what we know and what we still need to learn."
From this, Lasch concludes, democracy is itself educational to those who partake in it. "If we insist on argument as the essence of education," he writes, "we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government."
Democracy opens up the arena of political debate to everyone. It "extends the circle of debate as widely as possible," and therefore forces citizens to "articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment."
This process of debate within a democracy forces all, or at least those wishing to participate, to discuss their ideas with each other. This most clearly played out during the EU referendum. The countless pub debates and office kitchen discussions that took place across the country forced people to rethink what they thought or clarify what they believed. By June 23rd 2016, people in Britain were a whole lot more familiar with the history of parliamentary sovereignty, the workings of the European Commission, and rules around global trade.
Of course, democracy's ability to encourage a more educated population is not the only, or even primary, reason to support it. Even if democracy did not encourage a more educated citizenry, it would still be the only morally defensible way to decide the laws that govern society, and would still be the best guarantor of liberty and rights. Lasch's argument, however, is worth remembering the next time someone wheels out ancient platitudes about people being too stupid for democracy to work.Suggest a correction