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The Anti-Democratic Ethos of Pro-Democracy Academics

Summary:
Democracy Let’s start by describing the democratic ideal: Citizens have different world views, attitudes, beliefs, and values. Nevertheless, through fair, open-minded, and reasoned deliberation, we can come to understand each other and appreciate the force of each others’ reasons. We can learn from one another and find mutually beneficial solutions, or at least good compromise solutions, to our disputes and problems. I think this is an attractive ideal, even though most democracies don’t and can’t come close to realizing it. One thing I find odd, though, about so many people who claim to defend democracy is how blatantly they violate the democratic ethos. They are, in a real sense,

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Democracy

Let’s start by describing the democratic ideal:

Citizens have different world views, attitudes, beliefs, and values. Nevertheless, through fair, open-minded, and reasoned deliberation, we can come to understand each other and appreciate the force of each others’ reasons. We can learn from one another and find mutually beneficial solutions, or at least good compromise solutions, to our disputes and problems.

I think this is an attractive ideal, even though most democracies don’t and can’t come close to realizing it.

One thing I find odd, though, about so many people who claim to defend democracy is how blatantly they violate the democratic ethos. They are, in a real sense, anti-democratic democrats. Consider some examples:

  1. Corey Robin poisons the well against and straw mans conservatives and F. A. Hayek.
  2. Nancy MacLean modifies other’s quotations to change the meaning of their words, and then lies about or at least culpably misrepresents James Buchanan’s influences and beliefs.
  3. Jason Stanley writes a book about the dangers of propaganda, but the book is itself an instance of what he calls “undermining propaganda”. Stanley cartoonishly misrepresents to readers what various conservative pundits and politicians have said in order to paint them as racist reactionaries whose ideas are unworthy of engagement. (In Stanley’s case, unlike Robin or MacLean, I suspect he is sincere, but is so encumbered with bias that he reads hidden evil meaning into everything the other side says.
  4. Student protesters and the ironically-named Antifa block debate on campus, disrupt public forums, or simply protest on the basis of false accusations.

And so on. What these academics and groups have in common are two things: 1. They believe themselves to have strong commitments to democracy. 2. Their commitments to democrat ends are apparently so strong that they license themselves to blatantly violate the democratic ethos. They reject the spirit of free, open-minded, and fair debate, and show little willingness to engage with and reach understanding with contrary points of view. Instead, they straw man and attack others, misrepresent what others believe and why, use epithets like “racist” or “fascist” unfairly and inaccurately, and use violence, power, and discrimination to silence others, often while clutching their pearls and complaining that they are the real victims. The lack of self-awareness is stunning–assuming, of course, that they don’t know what they’re doing.

Over the past two years, I learned something odd. Even though I wrote a book called Against Democracy, I apparently have a stronger faith in democratic and liberal institutions, and in the democratic ethos, than many of my most seemingly pro-democratic colleagues. (For instance, my reaction to Trump was that this sucks but it’s not the end of the world, while they wrote apocalyptic Facebook posts complaining that World War III is just around the corner and that Roe v. Wade will be overturned any minute now.) They tend to believe that democracy is easily sabotaged or ruined by bad people with bad motives, and they think they see bad people with bad motives among everyone outside their immediate ideological peers. Accordingly, they think they must violate the norms of democracy to save it, or they somehow rationalize that they are acting in the spirit of democracy. I tend to think democratic institutions in the US and Europe are sufficiently robust that they largely mitigate the negative effects of badly motivated people. I also think the people I most disagree with–i.e., conservatives and radical leftists–genuinely mean well, have some good reasons for their beliefs and values, and are simply mistaken.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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