This Is What Democracy Looks Like

And it's not pretty.

The first time I heard the chant “This is what democracy looks like!” was during the WTO shutdown of 1999. It made an impression on me because it was a cool chant, but also because it left me scratching my head a bit. I remember hearing it and looking at the crowd around me shouting it, and noticing how uniformly middle class, educated, and urban we all were. Ideologically, we were practically a monolith, ranging from far-liberal to far-left. Was this really what democracy looked like?

The hard core of the anti-globalization movement was anarchist. I got to know this milieux a bit in the years following Seattle, in San Francisco, where I lived at the time. The class background of the anarchist scene there was actually fairly mixed, with a lot of young people from middle class backgrounds, but also a fair amount from working class backgrounds, and then the occasional class traitor, like me, from an upper-middle class background. Racially it was predominantly white but hardly uniformly so. Ideologically, though, it was a monoculture.

Anarchist self-governance is an exercise in incredibly tedious consensus decision making. It can take hours to cross a single action item off your agenda. Formally, it was easily the most direct form of democracy I’d ever seen exercised, which was an inspiration. But it was obvious this could never scale. Even in a room full of people who shared almost precisely the same politics, who had a strong mutual interest in sustaining solidarity, and who had many personal bonds between them, the smallest controversies still tended to be drawn out into interminable debates. It was precarious as fuck. That’s why it was so easy for bad faith actors to come in and deliberately hijack it, which happened all the time. All you had to do was come in with no respect for the process and you could split the group into pieces overnight. I used to joke that if the FBI really wanted to shut down the anarchist left they could just send in a bunch of Trotskyists to sow chaos. But of course they didn’t need to, because the left would always do it to ourselves.

This was not, in fact, what democracy looked like. This was what decision making among a small clique of highly committed ideologues committed to the same goals looked like. Democracy looked like something entirely more chaotic.

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This is what democracy looks like: vaccine skeptics posting breathlessly on Facebook about nebulizing hydrogen peroxide, vaccine zealots wishing aloud that ERs would turn away the unvaccinated, MAGA weirdos dressing up as Q Shaman and taking selfies for Instagram, pasty-faced neck beards with hammer-and-sickle t-shirts calling for violent revolution, gender fluid TikTok tweens bragging about their neurodiversity, Young Republican nerds LARPing as edgelords at Turning Point USA conventions, QAnon conspiracy theorists, Russiagate conspiracy theorists, wine moms, Jesus freaks, wokelords, cat ladies, incels, gamers and furries, all under the same circus tent. Democracy is the process by which all of these tribes and a thousand more manage to co-exist. Getting a small group of people who agree with each other to pursue a common course of action might come with its challenges, but it’s hardly remarkable. Dragging millions of people who barely agree on anything kicking and screaming to a compromise they can live with — that’s extraordinary.

Despite what certain professional fear mongers would have you believe, the political mayhem we’re experiencing right now is not in fact a groundswell of long-suppressed authoritarianism finally erupting out of the toxic bowels of our body politic. This fantasy that the masses are a simmering cauldron of hatred and bigotry has been a conceit of educated liberals ever since Richard Hofstadter wrote his seminal essay in Harper’s, and probably well before. It’s not hard to see the idea’s appeal. It gives those who espouse it a reason to consolidate power under the pretext of public safety like any tin pot tyrant, while still maintaining their self-image as heroic protectors of society’s weakest and most vulnerable. It has the added benefit of allowing you to indulge in fire-breathing hatred for the out-group just like everyone else, but to claim that your particular brand of chauvinism is actually the highest form of moral virtue. It’s McCarthyism for liberal arts grads.

The churning storm we’re seeing is, in fact, the opposite of authoritarianism: it’s democracy. But not just any democracy; it’s feral democracy, unconstrained by the institutions that traditionally temper and contain it. Those institutions have been eroding for decades, while the radicalizing, anti-institutional influence of the internet has been, as we all know, exploding like a malignant tumor. Put all those factors together, and you get this hot mess.

To be clear, by calling it “democracy,” I don’t mean to elevate the polarizing, vitriolic, violent form of politics we’ve inherited. My point is the reverse — to wipe the luster off the word. Democracy can be ugly, even hideous. It’s also inherently unstable. That’s why we’ve been domesticating it for centuries, channeling and tempering its impulses through the tedium of the legislative process, through the conforming influence of the media, and through the steady expansion of the executive branch, where political decisions are plucked from the fingers of voters and put into the hands of technocrats.

In a sense, the history of the modern world has been the history of coaxing this tempest to life, and then building up the vessels that contain its chaos. Before the modern age, those with power (which is to say those with armies) simply didn’t allow the vast majority of the population to participate in the political process at all. They didn’t need to: the livelihood of the tsar was only crudely dependent on the livelihood of a serf. The former had no reason to account for the latter’s interests in any way. As society became more complex, though, each of its constituent factions — workers, artisans, farmers, merchants, clergy — became more dependent on the other ones. Suddenly the artisans had the opportunity to sell their wares to overseas markets, but only with the help of the merchants. The farmers, now operating in a crude market economy rather than merely subsisting on their crops and animals, could become landlords, employ tenants, extract rents, amass large surpluses and secure bargaining power over the merchants. The king couldn’t raise an army without the merchants, the richer artisans and the landlords complying with wartime taxes. People had to bargain with each other; rulers had to make concessions; political power had to be shared. In England, the House of Lords, which had long existed for the aristocracy to negotiate terms with the crown, was joined by the newly founded House of Commons, which enabled large landholders and, later, the bourgeoisie to do the same. This laid the basis, if entirely inadvertently, for democratic systems still centuries away.

The process by which the formal structures of the state — legislative assemblies, courts of law, administrative bureaucracies — evolved to manage the ever more complex network of relations within modern societies is a familiar story. Less familiar is how the emergence of the administrative state transformed us, the governed, into a population conducive to this new mode of governance. Beginning with the Enlightenment, new philosophies and sciences and schools of thought emerged that inculcated in us new ways of thinking. These include our modern, legalistic conceptions of fairness and justice, which shape our willingness to obey rules imposed on us by governments and other institutions. They include our trust in technocratic expertise, which determines the degree to which we defer our own judgments to those who ostensibly know better than us. They include our very perceptions of reality — our belief in invisible things like “the economy,” which have such profound control over our daily lives even though we can’t see them or touch them, and which didn’t exist even as social constructions until just a few hundred years ago. They include our acceptance of classifications of medical categories and psychological disorders, of the conception of people as subjects of “human resource management,” and of the social fiction of “biological” race. These, too, are instruments of government, or at least tools through which we sustain a social order. They’re the operating system of the state, undergirding everything, always running in the background even as we’re oblivious to them. None of them belong to nature, or even to human nature; they were all constructed, along with courts and legislatures and government agencies, over the course of the modern era.

This shared epistemological basis for democratic life is eroding along with the tangible institutions of modern society. As the media, which once manufactured consent and now manufactures division, has fractured into a thousand niche markets, stoking political polarization that undercuts the legitimacy of our democratic system, as the internet has flattened knowledge and balkanized our shared reality, dragging the insular world of experts into the muck with the rest of us and turning technocratic knowledge into just another weapon in the hands of cynical political actors, the operating system of the state has shattered and become incoherent. We’ve begun to take for granted that the news is propaganda. Scientific guidance has become just as tumultuous and subject to opinion as any political issue. In some cases we’ve begun to rebel against the validity of the most basic epistemological classifications of our social order; in others we’ve policed them jealously as we see them slipping away. All of this has occurred in tandem with a steady waning of participation in unions, political parties, local philanthropic groups and other associations that constitute civil society — even churches. Alongside this loss of community, we’ve begun to lose the sense of a common reality. We’re nowhere close to being in Hobbes’ State of Nature, “the war of all against all,” but the idea pops up in our more sardonic jokes, looms in our imaginations as a vague, somewhat distant possibility, and sets the stage for some of our most popular movie and TV franchises.

The institutions we’re seeing wither away are the containers of democracy; they sustain democracy by constraining its energies, like an internal combustion engine contains the explosions it creates in order to convert them into productive mechanical power. Legislatures make our political wills actionable, but only by usurping our power and vesting it in representatives. Government agencies represent the interests of the people and derive their power from us, but delegate it to technocrats and bureaucrats who then exercise that power over us. Or take media: at its worst, the media is (or was; it no longer has the ability) a massive brainwashing apparatus. Two decades ago, all of its propagandistic powers were mobilized to manufacture the consent to allow the Iraq War to proceed. In collusion with the government, the media created conditions in which dissent was not tolerated, democratic deliberation was severely restricted and the conditions were created for the White House to act without checks on its power. This was an abridgment of democracy if there ever was one. At its best, though, that same vast influence was able to bring us together and affirm our common values and our common popular culture. Treacly as they sometimes could be, these moments happened with some regularity — when the President was assassinated, when we landed a man on the moon, when a baby girl fell down a well, when Princess Diana died in a car crash, and when the last episode of Seinfeld aired. The days after 9/11 exhibited both the best and the worst tendencies of the mass media’s power to unite the country at the same time.

Remove the legitimacy of all of these institutions — the media, politicians, the technocratic establishment — and you’re left with just the explosions, with none of the mechanical power. You’re left, in other words, with the volatile, fractious, incoherent politics we have today. And that legitimacy has been fading for decades, accelerated by the three biggest disasters of the twenty-first century: the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic. The disastrous legacy of the Iraq War did irreparable harm to the credibility of both the media and the political class as a whole; the 2008 financial crisis annihilated our faith in the financial technocrats in both the private and public sectors who, for decades, had jammed through the project of removing markets from democratic control via deregulation; and now, the Covid-19 pandemic is exposing once again the ineptitude of the state as well as the political interests and petty parochialism of the expert class. Each of these occurred against the backdrop of the explosion of the inherently destabilizing and anti-hierarchical technologies of digital communications.

Rather than the war of all against all, what remains is the central political division that characterizes the West today: what Martin Gurri calls “the center” and “the periphery.” The center is the political and intellectual establishment, the natural servants and champions of the great institutions that have been under attack for two decades. The periphery is the rabble — the loosely networked masses, spontaneously mobilized by the internet — besieging those institutions. This dichotomy has replaced “left” vs. “right” as the defining line of fracture of the 21st century. The issue splitting the country today — vaxx vs. anti-vaxx — is a proxy war between these two sides.

Ever perplexed by the periphery’s indifference or outright disdain for it, the center screams for order — for masking rules, for deference to expertise (“Follow the science!”) — spewing contempt for the “horse paste” eating public that dares to defy it. The periphery meets this hostility with its own, rejecting anything and everything proclaimed by the center, no matter how reasonable, evidence-based, and aligned with the public’s clear interests. Whether the issue is Trump or vaccines or “disinformation,” the battle lines conform to the balance of these forces, one centripetal, the other centrifugal. But democracy can survive neither perpetual chaos nor authoritarian control. A sustainable democracy is found in the balance between center and periphery — a balance we’ve lost, for now, and hopefully not forever.