There is a wonderful moment in Bonnie Honig’s magical book, Democracy and the Foreigner, when she compares the way that many of us think about politics to the way we read different genres of fiction. Most of us, she suggests, think about democracy ‘according to the genre conventions of a popular or modern romance, as a happy-ending love story. Indeed, some explicitly invoke marriage – happy marriage – as a key metaphor for social contract or social unity. From their perspective, the problem of democratic theory is how to find the right match between a people and its law, as state and its institutions. Obstacles are met and overcome, eventually the right match is made and the newly-wed couple is sent on its way to try to live happily ever after.’
I think you will agree that romance, of that sort, is a pretty poor guide to the ‘reality’ of love, never mind politics. Certainly our democratic life is no ‘happy-ever-after’ tale. So how should we read and write our democratic theory if not as such a romance?
Putting it most simply, any genre that is dependent on the possibility of ‘perfection’ is not going to capture what we can be like in our democratic life together. The whole point of a democracy is to live together despite our deep disagreements, in a life full of compromise, mutual negotiation, with moments of excitement – even joy – always set against moments of disappointment, loss and the biting feeling of unfairness that comes of unequal sacrifice.
In this essay I want to answer this question: what does an ideal of democracy look like that responds to these realities? To start I identify three of the core features of our real democratic life that much of our orthodox democratic theory currently does surprisingly little to describe.
Before I do, however, I want to take you to a particular place that shapes my thinking on all of this – the South Bank of the Thames, in central London. Now home to a vast arts complex, it is and always has been a place where people of all ages meet, mingle, eat, fall in love, argue, entertain and are entertained. It is a place where what I have elsewhere called ‘everyday democracy’ happens, and happens every day.
The South Bank as we know it today was created towards the end of Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government, as the centrepiece of the Festival of Britain in 1951, with this purpose very much in mind. It was to be a site that represented all that was good about Britain, a space where democratic citizens could come together to learn about the value of a free, democratic life; a life that was lived in common with others with whom they otherwise disagreed and about whom they often knew very little. It was self-consciously designed as a space in common, in sharp contrast to the kinds of space being created at the same time in Eastern Europe.
I use the South Bank as a reference point in this essay, not because I think that the South Bank is the ‘perfect’ model of democracy, but because I think it helps us see things in a democracy that we all too often overlook and about which we need to be much more fully aware. And thinking about them helps us to bring our ideals and our realities closer together in a way that should benefit us all.
There is a group of political theorists who already claim to be ‘realists’ about democracy. When they think about democracy, though, they often do it in the gloomiest of ways. From Max Weber to Raymond Geuss, their emphasis is only on power and its distribution. For them, democracy is the ‘least bad’ system for deciding who gets to tell whom what to do. It is a mechanism for ensuring that elites transfer authority to each other peacefully, through the ballot box, without the need for civil war, although with the tensions always threatening to come simmering to the surface. For these self-described ‘realists’, the crucial democratic moment is the moment when one leader surveys the political landscape and decides that the odds are stacked against him and it is time to cede power and authority to the next generation.
We see these moments in politics from time to time. For example, it happened in 2000, when Al Gore conceded defeat in the fight for the presidency of the United States. He did so just because he believed, somehow or other, that he had lost to George W Bush. The process, despite all of its moral imperfections, had determined Gore’s sense of his own fate. Even though he indisputably had a higher number of votes, he moved over for Bush. For the self-described ‘realists’, moments like that are what ‘real democracy’ looks like.
There is something in this description, of course. Democracy is a mechanism for the distribution of power. And it is deserving of all of the seriousness and fearfulness that comes with that. It has its elements of the bleak, the dark and the dangerous. Idealistic liberals too often forget these dimensions to our political life and they do so, literally, at their peril.
But this self-described ‘realism’ obscures as much as it enlightens. When the people of Britain celebrated the triumph of democratic systems over totalitarian ones at the end of the Second World War, they did not do so simply because they had secured a political system that distributed internal power peacefully between elites. There was more passion to it than that.
And it is that passion that is the key to understanding where self-described ‘realism’ goes wrong.
For the thinkers who follow Geuss, passion is something to be dismissed or even feared. It is the naivety of illusion or, worse, the danger of excessive enthusiasm. People who think that democracy can achieve great things, who think that it can help us overcome injustice or strive towards a common good, are, on the realist account, always labouring under a misconception. Those who actually enjoy the processes of democratic life are said to be more worrisome still. According to the self-described ‘realists’, they are looking from political life for something that they should properly seek in another realm. They are searching for personal fulfilment or meaningful expression or romantic love in a part of life that can only really offer power, dislocation and eventual disappointment.
But that is where self-described ‘realism’ is simply wrong. It is part of the reality of democratic politics that it can enable us to achieve good things, at least temporarily. As Michael Sandel has it, it can help us discover a ‘good in common that we cannot know alone’. Or as generations of American presidents have put it, it can help us secure ‘a more perfect union’. I will return to all of that later. But, now, and perhaps more importantly, I would like to remind us that even when understood merely as a mechanism, democracy depends, often entirely depends, on passion and real, full-throated, emotional commitment.
Even in a currently desiccated, quasi-representative system such as our own democracy would entirely cease to function without its genuine enthusiasts. Only those who love their country, their cause or the process itself, will organise, mobilise, campaign and – most of all – act as democracy demands. It is a process that requires constant courage, not just from leaders (as some self-described ‘realists’ would recognise) but from all of its participants. And that requires a kind of emotional dedication that would be impossible without deep-seated enthusiasm. Making a case in public; arguing with others; sitting and listening; knocking on doors: none of these come easily or straightforwardly to most of us. And none of them would come at all without some kind of belief that it all really matters and a sense that we can garner enjoyment and satisfaction from the engagement itself.
That is why festival is an integral part of democratic life. It is the ritual in our life that reminds us of the possibility of passion. In the nineteenth century, the American poet, Walt Whitman, celebrated the emotional power of people pouring collectively onto the streets, waving banners and singing songs in celebration of their democracy, leaving behind both the rules of hierarchical elites that sought to bind them and the isolation and solitude that would leave them impotent. But we do need to return to the American sublime to see democracy as a festival. For back in 1951, the architects of London’s South Bank sought to do the same. Hugh Casson, the head of design at the original Festival of Britain spoke always of democracy as involving an ‘inexplicable lift of heart’, and it was for that reason that his park – the place where Britain came together to celebrate its democratic life – was created not as a site of solemnity or constitutional propriety, but as a mass explosion of dynamism, creativity and expressive life. Our democracy, Casson said, needs not a dusty museum to remind us of its merits, but a ‘giant toyshop for adults’, somewhere where each of us can be ‘even a little mad’.
A real democracy, then, whatever else it is, is a site of passionate enthusiasm. It is somewhere where people lose their narrow-minded, self-control, and act with energy and dedication, emotion and commitment. For all of rational choice theory’s baleful influence on our political imagination, democracy is not somewhere where we must constantly calculate our costs and benefits. It is somewhere where we must, at least at times, forget our more resource-constrained selves and our anxieties in the moment. Real democrats, as Walt Whitman had it, are not calculators. They are those ‘of earth-born passion, simple, never-constrained, never obedient’.
Passion, then, is the first dimension of our real democratic life that I want to place at the centre of our thinking. But as both Bonnie Honig and Walt Whitman would be at pains to point out, passion alone does not capture the picture. For the reality of passion does have to be combined with the reality of power. The self-described realists were, after all, right about something. They were right that democracy is a form of politics. And whatever else it involves, politics is an arena in which domination occurs. It is somewhere, in other words, where there is a struggle for the control of the coercive apparatus that is the state. It is for that reason that we need to remind ourselves of a second key characteristic of democratic life. And that is doubt.
Doubt is the sense that not everything is right; that we need to keep an eye on things; that we cannot ever quite take people at their word. It generates a belief in the need to question, to criticise, to be cautious, even in the midst of our enthusiasms. Distinctly democratic doubt comes, I believe, in three forms.
First, and most predictably, there is doubt about our leaders, or doubt about those who occupy positions of political power, prestige and authority. This is crucial to democratic life because without it we are in the realm of demagoguery or dictatorship. We would not live in a democracy if people were unwilling to question those to whom they were, in some ways, subject. Nothing eats away at the sustainability of our democratic life together more than an unwillingness to question those who enjoy power, those who structure our lives by threatening, cajoling or employing coercive force.
But doubt about the powerful is not enough. For sometimes, it is not our masters or opponents but the objects of our passion that we need to hold at bay. All of us can get swept up in our enthusiasms. We can become overly certain that the causes, people or countries to which we excitedly swear allegiance are the right ones, either for us or for others.
Doubt here is what saves us from forgetting to ask whether these commitments should be as secure as they are. If we neglect to doubt this, then we not only risk becoming cannon fodder for some actually unworthy cause, but we also risk failing to develop the critical capacities that enable us effectively to make our own way in the world, choosing our dedications rather than having them chosen for us.
So democracy needs us to doubt our leaders, opponents and, at least occasionally, the objects of our own passion. It also needs still more than that, though. For it needs us also to doubt ourselves. Sometimes we need to question the motivations we have for engaging with the political world in the way that we do. We have to ask, why are we getting passionate? What are we doing it for? Is it, indeed, for the noble cause that we have convinced ourselves of? Is it the result of some deep, ‘authentic’ desire for a good that will improve both our lives and the lives of others? Or is the passion simply for the excitement, the drama, the chaos that brings energy to what could otherwise be a disappointingly stable life? Or, even worse, is it merely in the service of some narrow self-interest dressed up as something nobler and more worthy of congratulation?
There is often no answer to these questions. And, as the philosopher Bernard Williams did so much to remind us, there is nothing necessarily wrong with political passion that emanates from mixed motives. Slavery was abolished as much by those who served their own narrow material purposes as by those who believed in human equality. But it is clearly better to be aware of the dangers that can result from self-deception. A democracy that was all passion and no doubt would indeed be a dangerous place, the kind that we should all wish to avoid.
Likewise, though, we need also to be aware of the dangers of doubt itself. Excessive doubt – what we might call political scepticism – threatens death to democratic politics, just as it does with much of life besides. It can paralyze us and prevent us from taking the imaginative leaps that we need always to make in order to dedicate ourselves to any kind of cause, any kind of better future.
Because democratic politics is about building something for tomorrow not for today or yesterday, we always have to have faith – what can look like irrational belief – in order to dedicate ourselves to it properly. And as we all know, doubt can dissolve faith all too easily. A proper democratic politics must, therefore, find a way of combining passion and doubt, belief and criticism. And that is no easy task.
As we think on how that might best be achieved, though, we can again take inspiration from the idea of ‘festival’, and the reality that is and was the South Bank. When the Festival of Britain was designed it was not only intended as a celebration of all things passionately democratic, it was also intended gently to mock them. It did so across the whole of the South Bank. There were carefully placed fountains which fitfully obscured the otherwise stately view of the Houses of Parliament across on the north side of the river; there was a huge sculpture made of corn which showed the unicorn of the royal coat of arms running away from the lion; there were displays of English eccentricities placed next to models of the great moments of history; and there was even a recreation of an English seaside resort – a genuinely old-fashioned resort, not the kind of ‘shabby chic’ we know today – designed to remind people that even the solemn British took time away from work to indulge their less noble natures.
This was an example of what theorists call ‘jocular distancing’ or ‘studious play’. It was an attempt to remind people that they were able to be both passionate and doubtful of something at the same time. Playfulness was a way of showing that we should not take things too seriously at the very same time as we realize that nothing is more important. In designing a site like the South Bank – that both celebrated and poked fun – it was as if the organisers had understood what the great American novelist Ralph Ellison would later suggest: that democracy depends on three things: ‘hope, perception and entertainment’.
Hope here corresponds to passion; perception to a realistic sense of doubt; and entertainment to the playfulness that softens the doubt to allow the passion back in without allowing it to overwhelm us once again. It is only if we combine all three, Ellison explained, that we are about to strike the right, democratic, balance. ‘Mockery’, he continued, ‘reminds us of the inadequacies of our myths, legends, conduct and standards’. But it doesn’t only do that. If done properly, a playful twist on our democratic passions also ‘offers us something better, more creative and hopeful, than we’ve attained while seeking other standards’. It is only by reminding ourselves not to be too serious that we can achieve serious ends.
Passion and doubt, commitment and uncertainty, faith and ambivalence, all held temporarily together by mockery and play: these are the paradoxical elements of democratic politics. Without a combination of them, I suggest, we quite simply would never be able to live together in a democratic society. But as that formulation demonstrates, they are never by themselves enough. For it is not just passion and doubt that we need, but passion and doubt about something in particular: about the lives that we lead together. The ‘together’ is vital. For democratic politics is always the politics of our common life. The third key characteristic of any realistic account of democracy must, therefore, be an insistence on our capacity of relationship.
There are two obvious ways in which relationship is integral to democratic politics.
First, and most straightforwardly, our passion would be inert, or at least pointless, without the force that comes from what used to be called ‘combination’. It is the power of collective action -- of people coming together to drive something on – that enables passionate people to achieve their goals in democratic politics. No matter how sly or sophisticated an individual political actor is, it is only when we move with others that change of any serious sort can be achieved. The capacity to relate effectively to others is thus the precondition of serious democratic agency.
Second, and more profoundly, though, truly democratic political action is always focused on building something common, something relational, out of the material of disconnection. We live in a society where people are constantly divided from one another, yet where we all need to live together. That is the primary difficulty facing all politics. What distinguishes democracy from other solutions to this difficulty is that it focuses on the potential we have to create genuinely common goods out of our diverse material.
We act democratically when we seek relationship not just with allies but with enemies. We act democratically when we seek to convert differences which threaten to spill over into animosities into the everyday experience of a shared common life, a life of mutual concern. Both kinds of democratic relationship far transcend the cold, calculating deal-making that is far too often associated with the idea of politics in the popular imagination today. They both involve a far deeper, more emotional, commitment to other people other than the idea of a ‘contract' can ever allow. It is the kind of relationship the philosopher Martin Buber called ‘I-You’, in distinction to those he called ‘I-It’.
Such relationships also require far more than standard democratic theory models do. Political theory has given us many accounts of late, such as those which celebrate ‘public reason’ or ‘deliberation’. But those far too often demand that people leave the majority of their actual selves entirely out of the democratic story. They focus on finding commonality only in some hypothetical and hyper-rational sense. That’s why they can suggest that our common life can somehow be ‘freestanding’ of our other commitments; that it can be modelled by some ‘original position’; or that we can ‘reach overlapping consensus’ only if we reduce our rich, fulsome human lives into some kind of dry technicality. That is politics lived as a Venn diagram.
The spirit of relationship that our democracies realistically need is not of this sort. Real, sustainable relationship requires acknowledgement of our whole emotional lives. A relationship can transform our lives only if it responds to a wide range of our passions and our doubts, our loves and our hatreds, our commitments and our caution, however uncomfortable that may be.
Once again, we are reminded of this if we think about the South Bank. Wanting to create a relational space of shared, common life, the designers of the Festival of Britain did not create a sterile environment or one with strict rules. They did not seek to reflect things which could easily be shared, or already simply were. They invited people to come in as they were – in the fullness of their persona if you like – and then encouraged them to create a new life in common there and then, by enabling them to interact in a particular way.
This idea was absolutely essential to the designers of the Festival. Britain had been divided by class, by the experience of war, by gender and by age, for far too long. A new relational politics of the common good could not be imposed from above or provided by technocrats. It would have to be built by people themselves, drawing on their own life experiences, their own emotions, they own hopes and their own fears. The idea of a Festival site was to provide them with the opportunity to begin doing so. This is why the Festival organizers loved the idea of people arriving at the site with all of their idiosyncrasies and eccentricities intact and then to go through the exhibitions making their own relationships. This allowed the British people in all of their multiple diversities to shape personal experiences against the backdrop of grandiose celebration, and to reconcile the stories they were being told, the myths they were being sold, with the structure, the rhythms, and the register of their own lives. It was their capacity of relationship that made it a common story and not the story itself.
In 2001, the Daily Telegraph printed a sniffy retrospective of the Festival of Britain. The Festival only appeared successful, the paper insisted, because so many people visited it. But the visiting figures were distorted by the South Bank’s reputation as somewhere people could go to take time off work to conduct an illicit affair or at least speak to others with whom they would not usually be allowed to converse. What the Telegraph missed, of course, was that this was entirely the point. The South Bank was not a glorious reminder of what already existed. It was a place where a life lived in common could be begun.
Passion, doubt and relationship: these are the three characteristics of any real democracy. Without citizens who are able and willing to feel passion, to be doubtful and to generate new relationships with diverse others, we cannot live in a democracy. But how does this relate to the question of ‘ideals’ and ‘realities’ in modern politics? Is my definition of democracy more ‘ideal’ or more ‘realistic’?
Well, it can’t be completely unrealistic in the sense of some abstract perfection. We all know that we have moments in our collective lives when we display these three qualities. They are parts of our already existing life. But it is not fully reality either, as there also elements that are not as fully present as we would like. It has been a standard complaint about British politics of late that it lacks the passion of previous generations. There is little sense of purpose, vision or even strategy in much of our political life, whether national or local, Conservative or Labour.
Paradoxically, if there has been too little vision, we might also accept that there has been too little doubt. Not only have economic orthodoxies remained shockingly unquestioned despite the crash, but governing orthodoxies have largely survived too. All too often, our politics remains the politics of confident technocracy: the politics where self-certified experts seek power on the basis that their understanding of the ‘evidence’ demands it. Occasionally, also, our democracy descends into the politics of angry assertion; the politics which closes down options on the bases of prejudice and doubt-free determination.
It is also the case that our democracy is not as relational as we would hope. The skills our professional politicians display are too often those of the well-named machine rather than the skills of the community organiser. To them, the politics of division often seems to reap more short-term rewards than the politics of the common good.
So where we live at the moment, we have a democracy that is neither straightforwardly ideal nor straightforwardly non-ideal. We have passion, doubt and relationship. But we probably don’t have enough of any of them. And we probably all know that we could each individually do better.
How do we make sense of that? How do we know what to make of where we currently are? What should we think when we reflect on what we have, what we need and what we want of our democratic life?
My own thoughts come most clearly to me as I walk on the South Bank. Watching the people there and enjoying moments of my own life lived in common with others, all I can really conclude is that we live in a democracy which is lived by real human beings, with all of their great strengths and their great faults. And that we are fortunate for that. We are all, each of us, capable of being better and capable of being worse, and we must remember that fact. But ultimately we are destined always actually to live in between the two. We are each of us caught, that is, constantly between the ideal and the rotten, the perfect and the tragic. And that, ultimately, is the point about politics.
Real democracy, then, is as close to an ideal as we are going to get. Each of us, working together in relationship, just has to make sure that we live up to its demands as well as we can: that we are as passionate, as doubtful and as full of relational commitment as we can muster in the circumstances of our own lives. That’s ultimately what I think it means to be a democrat. That’s really what it means to live the democratic ideal.
This essay is based on a lecture called 'Real Democracy as an Ideal' given by Marc Stears at the ‘Ideals and Reality’ conference, held at the University of Oxford, April 2012.