Democracy Still Matters

John Shook

Democracy is rarely so successful as when skeptics can openly question whether it is working and when critics can freely debate antidemocratic alternatives. Like science, democracy works best when its own processes are subject to the same practical evaluation it would give everything else. So democracy evolves like science does: basic methods of free inquiry, deliberation, and decision are gradually modified over time, mutated by creative criticism and tentative trial. So much prolonged effort to sustain a political system demands serious commitment; it cannot simply be sustained by blind inertia inherited from wise founders. Sometimes friends, skeptics, and enemies of democracy alike speak of a “faith in democracy”—as if they can’t quite see how a people can keep working so hard at something so miraculous.

Democracy’s friends only speak of “faith” in order to highlight how the practical confidence of a people in democracy’s utility suffices to explain why that people keep democracy functioning. Democracy’s skeptics speak of “faith” because they can’t really believe that the people themselves are doing all the work; they try to uncover the hidden mechanisms behind the illusory performance. Citizen activism, grassroots organizing, popular movements—such dazzling shows must be mere epiphenomena responsible for nothing but sound and fury. Some conservative economists are adept at looking under the hood: “Good thing that the economic engine purrs along, despite all the antics at the wheel,” they seem to say. Some conservative political theorists are relieved to find the unruly behavior confined to the back seat, while wiser adult hands calmly do the steering. When democracies perform well, delivering justice and progress, squabbling over who deserves the credit only grows louder. Since World War II, as democracy has spread across the globe, uniform congratulations for such victory have been speedily matched by discordant complaints. What are powerful democracies really doing? And will the next rising powers be as democratic? Antidemocrats—theocrats, fascists, communists, and the like—now wonder if they can enjoy the benefits of progress without the foolish expense of a popular government and an open society.

Friends, skeptics, and enemies of democracy can now, at the start of the twenty-first century, survey a wide global stage and judge the performances of democracies of various kinds in all corners of the planet. This is an entirely novel and unprecedented situation, only roughly analogous to the eighteenth century when monarchical nation-states were arrayed all across Eurasia. Will democracies resist the temptation, as would-be empires could not, to employ nondemocratic means of coercion and war for supposedly democratic aims? Can democracies long resist the lure of unilateral domination? Can democracies maintain the prioritization of their vaunted rights and liberties? Which democracies shall volunteer to answer these questions? America wanted to go first, and so it shall.

So desperately eager for its long-deserved starring role, America will teach the world about democracy whichever way it goes. America is once more in the throes of a tortuous experiment to see whether it may long endure—and whether the world can long endure it. True friends of democracy everywhere, devoted to both its peaceful methods and its just results, are dismayed by such Orwellian ideas as “fighting for peace” and “torturing for truth.” E.L. Doctorow’s essay “The White Whale” roots such self-contradictory notions in the ultimate Manichaean logic of absolute good and evil. Stefan Halper adds his hypothesis that American elites cannot help but react to external threats with righteous faith in pure American values. What happened to consultation, collaboration, and compromise? Do Americans really put their faith in democracy when the chips are down? And if Americans can’t, why should anyone else?

Perhaps the skeptics and the enemies of democracy of democracy have something deeply in common: neither can quite believe that “the people” can be strong and wise enough to lead the world, much less their own countries. On the other hand, if democracy has been tried and found lacking, then why do so many societies seek to implement democracy in some form or degree? It is not as if modern, Western democracy is the only possible type. Austin Dacey’s question “Whose Democracy?” is answered by his demonstration that there have been many kinds of democratic forums across history and world cultures. There is something smart and resilient about democratic deliberation. Even so, skeptics and enemies of democracy still insist that democracy’s work is beyond the capacity of the masses.

Once again, the people themselves must rise to the challenge; their governments will not do it for them. If skeptics justly complain that the people are too ignorant to judge great matters, then the people must respond by demanding more adequate education, as Larry Hickman’s essay “Citizen Participation” explains. If skeptics complain that the people are too rigid to tolerate cultural diversity, then they must respond by adapting, as Susana de Castro recommends in “Contemporary Ethics and Liberal Democracy,” more flexible moral attitudes. If skeptics point out that democracies still need representative elites, Jeff Shantz’s article, “The Trouble with Democracy: An Anarchist View,” holds out hope for a locally participatory and community-oriented democracy.

Does democracy still matter? Yes, if the people themselves gather the will and determination to make themselves matter. The most potent argument for antidemocratic government still remains the observation that the people simply can’t or won’t lead. This argument remains, thankfully, a proposition that each successive generation can put to the empirical test.

John Shook

John Shook is an associate editor of FREE INQUIRY and director of education and senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is coeditor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.


Democracy is rarely so successful as when skeptics can openly question whether it is working and when critics can freely debate antidemocratic alternatives. Like science, democracy works best when its own processes are subject to the same practical evaluation it would give everything else. So democracy evolves like science does: basic methods of free inquiry, …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.