Claire Berlinski: “Is Democracy Doomed?”

Claire Berlinski has been posting an ongoing series called “Is Democracy Doomed?” to her E-mail distribution list, with copies archived at her blog at Substack.com.  The posts are an extended riff on a paper [DOCX] by political scientist Shawn Rosenberg, which purports to demonstrate that democratic governance is destined to self-destruct.  From the abstract:

Drawing on a wide range of research in political science and psychology, I argue that citizens typically do not have the cognitive or emotional capacities required [for democratic governance]. Thus they are typically left to navigate in political reality that is ill-understood and frightening. Populism offers an alternative view of politics and society which is more readily understood and more emotionally satisfying. In this context, I suggest that as practices in countries such as the United States become increasingly democratic, this structural weakness is more clearly exposed and consequential, and the vulnerability of democratic governance to populism becomes greater. The conclusion is that democracy is likely to devour itself.

Rosenberg contends that democratic governance has worked reasonably well in the U.S. up until recently due to the presence of an élite which filters ideas and presents the ignorant unwashed masses with a palette of selections which cover a fairly narrow range of policy options.  Thus, it doesn’t matter what the electorate decides, as their betters have already chosen alternatives any of which are acceptable to them.

In part, this is accomplished through control of the institutions which orchestrate how individuals interact with one another. These include political institutions like the Congress, the courts and the law, state and city administrations, and the police, and economic institutions like banks and corporations. Via these institutions and the rewards and punishments that are administered by them, elites can manage citizen action so that it approximates, even if inadequately, democratic practices. Elites also exercise ‘democratic control’ by managing the discourses that dominate the public sphere. They can thus affect the pool of socially-approved knowledges and preferences that are available to individuals draw upon as they seek to understand, evaluate and react to the circumstances of daily life. This cultural domination is secured through the control of the means by which these discourses are dispersed. This includes the mass media and the institutions of socialization, such as schools and universities. Through these vehicles, the elite can disseminate the orienting beliefs and values of democratic culture. Even if these are transformed into mere slogans rehearsed by citizenry that does not fully understand what they are saying, they are nonetheless reified and accepted as true and right.

At the same time, this cultural control also allows elites to exclude and delegitimize contrary or system threatening discourses (as stupid or evil) and derogate those who advocate them (as fanatics, ignorant, unbalanced and generally ‘deplorable’).

Again, the citizenry may not understand why these alternative discourses are misguided or wrong, but they will nonetheless reject them. In these ways, democratic elites can manipulate the mass of citizens so that they mimic, even if inadequately, democratic understandings and practices. Thus even though democracy is burdened by an inadequate citizenry, the elite’s exercise of power can sustain the democratic system and hold potentially attractive alternatives, such as right wing populism, at bay.

But the revolution in communications technology which has “democratised” the flow of information has sabotaged the élite’s control over the public discourse.

Partly, the diminution of elite cultural power is a practical matter of dismantling of the centralized technologies of mass communication that facilitated the elite control of the messages that circulated in the public sphere. Structured by capitalist and democratic forces, the internet, the computer and the smartphone have been developed in ways that give individuals both an increasing range of choices and a greater ability to express preferences in a very public way.  Now an alienated, uneducated, working class ranch hand living in east Texas has access not only to the information disseminated by the major television channels or the national newspapers controlled by elites, but also to a myriad of smaller, more varied and less culturally sanctioned sources. Consequently, he or she [sic] is now able to choose which messages he or she wants to receive.  … With this democratization of the public sphere, elites have become less able to control the messages that are disseminated and therefore they are less able to assert the dominance of democratic views and to exclude of anti-democratic alternatives.

The institutionally conferred authority of political leaders, experts, employers and even parents has been undermined. In the process, expression has become increasingly free and all voices have been increasingly equalized.  Thus not only is our east Texan able to broadcast his beliefs as widely as those of senior journalists and professors, his views have an equal claim to validity as his more ‘institutionally advantaged’ counterparts.

Here are Claire Berlinski’s thoughts so far on Rosenberg’s analysis.

What are your thoughts?

What strikes me is that there is relatively little discussion about why the élites are increasingly held in disdain.  Rosenberg notes the effects of:

… economic decline, growing economic inequality and changing demographics as trends that have, in the eyes of the people, undermined the legitimacy of elites and with them, the institutions they run and the vision of economic, social and political life they advocate.

but then concludes,

I think these factors are influential, but their effects must be understood as symptoms of the underlying structural condition I have described. Emerging in the context of a structurally strong system of governance, these destabilizing fluctuations in its ability to deliver specific outcomes would not produce threats to the system itself. A truly democratic citizenry would naturally regard the aforementioned developments as important problems to be addressed, but in a manner that is consistent with democratic understandings and practices.

But what is a “truly democratic citizenry” supposed to do after decades of watching bumbling, folly, and sleepwalking toward the abyss by their “betters” in Socialist Party D and Socialist Party R?  Perhaps their opting for (gasp!) populism, or even (shudder!) right-wing populism, is a rational decision based upon the observation that the policies proposed and the results delivered by the entrenched élites don’t work.

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Author: John Walker

Founder of Ratburger.org, Autodesk, Inc., and Marinchip Systems. Author of The Hacker's Diet. Creator of www.fourmilab.ch.

33 thoughts on “Claire Berlinski: “Is Democracy Doomed?””

  1. The elites are aghast at the thought that the people might want what is in the best interests of their own nations, rather than what benefits a coterie of transnational progressives.

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  2. Is Liberty doomed?  No?  Then Democracy is not doomed.  Perhaps the Elites are doomed?

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  3. John Walker:   [quoting Shawn Rosenberg]:
    Emerging in the context of a structurally strong system of governance, these destabilizing fluctuations in its ability to deliver specific outcomes would not produce threats to the system itself.

    So the failure of a system of governance to deliver specific outcomes is not necessarily a threat to the system itself?  Then all this angst is simply because the specific outcomes were not approved by the voters.

    Am I mistaken to think this is all just an extension of the “Resist!” tantrum?   Rosenberg and Berlinski are meditating on a failure of Democracy because D. Trump is President and B. Johnson is Prime Minister?

    (If that is all that is going on, then I don’t need to waste any more time on this.)

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  4. Apparently Claire has not read the comments of the “great unwashed” in the Founding times, the average education level of which was 7th grade.

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  5. I think they are confusing democracy for empire. It’s not that democracy is failing so much as it is that a large plurality of Americans—as much as this subject is about the US—no longer believes the excuses for this or that imperial adventure. One of Trumps biggest selling points was his taking on the non stop war mentality of the elites. I think this aspect of what is going on has the elites tremendously distraught and seeking to use ideas such as “democracy failing” to explain their own failure to keep up the charade of never ending war, bubble dependent economic growth, and leeching large fortunes off of public and private debt. The people are no longer fooled. Now it’s just a matter of which way they will go: enslavement in socialism or liberty.

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  6. I agree that most people are neither informed nor well suited to exercising sovereignty.  That is why the Framers made a republic, not a democracy.  The Constitutional system was designed to work in the context of responsible voters.  What I mean by that: the voters have skin in the game.  Nobody should be able to vote for new spending without also being personally responsible for the heavy burden of paying for it in tax.

    Thus, the real downfall of the US is universal suffrage.  The vote should only be available to the responsible, not to all comers.   One way of accomplishing this: limit the vote to citizens who on net have contributed tax to the government in a given year.

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  7. Democracy is two wolves sitting down with a sheep deciding what is for dinner. That’s why our brilliant founders made a  representative  Republic . To the extent the Republic is doomed is in relationship to the quality of our representatives.

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  8. John Walker:
    What strikes me is that there is relatively little discussion about why the élites are increasingly held in disdain.

    My old boss summed it up like this in 1984: “Educated beyond their intelligence.”

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  9. I don’t like Trump.

    Democracy gave us Trump.

    Thus, democracy is bad.

    (Add in a bunch of other words for filler)

    Do I have that formula down or is there more to it?

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  10. Dave:
    I agree that most people are neither informed nor well suited to exercising sovereignty.  That is why the Framers made a republic, not a democracy.  The Constitutional system was designed to work in the context of responsible voters.  What I mean by that: the voters have skin in the game.  Nobody should be able to vote for new spending without also being personally responsible for the heavy burden of paying for it in tax.

    Thus, the real downfall of the US is universal suffrage.  The vote should only be available to the responsible, not to all comers.   One way of accomplishing this: limit the vote to citizens who on net have contributed tax to the government in a given year.

    If only we were still operating under a constitutional system!! We are no more a Constitutional Republic than England is a Catholic Monarchy.

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  11. Damocles:

    John Walker:
    What strikes me is that there is relatively little discussion about why the élites are increasingly held in disdain.

    My old boss summed it up like this in 1984: “Educated beyond their intelligence.”

    I have sort of an updated version of this: the credentialed moron.

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  12. I do not look back at the former community other than as a failure to adapt to new information. It was a triumph of emotion over fact, of abstract over reality. This particular author remains one of those too immature to grow up when  their cherished beliefs turn out to be the tooth fairy.

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  13. Vance:

    I don’t like Trump.

    Democracy gave us Trump.

    Thus, democracy is bad.

    (Add in a bunch of other words for filler)

    Do I have that formula down or is there more to it?

    I think you left out “I voted for Hillary.”

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  14. Does anyone doubt that Claire would not be so pessimistic if Hillary has won? She was part of the elite that she wanted. Hillary as president would have cause the irreparable damage she thinks happened.

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  15. 10 Cents:
    Does anyone doubt that Claire would not be so pessimistic if Hillary has won? She was part of the elite that she wanted. Hillary as president would have cause the irreparable damage she thinks happened.

    Considering Claire willingly lives in France and does so comfortably, Clinton would be like having John Tyler in the Oval. This is what so infuriated me with these people, they never have to fear getting burned by the fires they start. And then they tell the great unwashed that they were wrong for voting to put the fire out in a method unapproved by the elite. Claire can stay her ass in France for all I care. She should turn in her passport and just become French.

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  16. Robert A. McReynolds:

    10 Cents:
    Does anyone doubt that Claire would not be so pessimistic if Hillary has won? She was part of the elite that she wanted. Hillary as president would have cause the irreparable damage she thinks happened.

    Considering Claire willingly lives in France and does so comfortably, Clinton would be like having John Tyler in the Oval. This is what so infuriated me with these people, they never have to fear getting burned by the fires they start. And then they tell the great unwashed that they were wrong for voting to put the fire out in a method unapproved by the elite. Claire can stay her ass in France for all I care. She should turn in her passport and just become French.

    Her father is in France and is up in age. I don’t know her father wound up in France.

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  17. Claire may be wrong but I don’t think she is malevolent.  I think she is honest and intelligent within her framework/experience/assumptions.

    She wrote a good book on Margaret Thatcher.

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  18. Jojo:
    Claire may be wrong but I don’t think she is malevolent.  I think she is honest and intelligent within her framework/experience/assumptions.

    She wrote a good book on Margaret Thatcher.

    I think she thinks the Deplorables are malevolent. I think she saw Trump as anti-Semitic before the election and racist. I wonder what she thought later of the embassy being moved to Jerusalem.

    I really don’t know how a conservative could vote for Hillary. Can anyone think of good reason?

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  19. 10 Cents:
    I really don’t know how a conservative could vote for Hillary. Can anyone think of good reason?

    I have not read her Thatcher book, but I find little in her writing, starting with 2006’s Menace in Europe, which I would consider conservative.  She seems completely at home with the administrative, regulatory state as embodied by the European Union, considers it folly to leave or oppose it, supported Macron, a globalist Davos man if there ever was one, and gets all aflutter with each successive panic engineered by the slavers: “right wing populists” in Eastern Europe, the need to admit millions of “refugees” from Syria, burning in the rain forests of Brazil, etc.

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  20. Jojo:
    Claire may be wrong but I don’t think she is malevolent.  I think she is honest and intelligent within her framework/experience/assumptions.

    She wrote a good book on Margaret Thatcher.

    I have no idea if her book is any good, but she’s been 100% wrong about everything of consequence she’s written about since then.  Arab Spring, Turkey, the alt-right, Trump (the American Caesar!), and seemingly getting more unhinged as time goes by.

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  21. Claire Berlinski has just posted another in the series, “The Dear Abby of Liberal Democracy”.

    Responding to an E-mail message from a reader in the Czech Republic, she writes,

    Liberal democrats throughout the West need to be in close contact with each other. We must learn from each others’ experiences, and we must meaningfully support each other. It’s especially important for ordinary American citizens to be in personal contact with citizens of what I call the laboratory countries, countries like yours—the countries where the New Caesars are experimenting with and perfecting their techniques. Citizens of these countries have a great deal more insight into what is now happening in America than we do.

    and,

    You have the European Union on your side. They’re inefficient, they’re slow, they’re bureaucratic, and they’re maddenly [sic] politically correct, but they are, basically, on the right side. Keep them as engaged as you can.

    Yup, the European Union, that paragon of democracy, transparency, and respect for the rights of individuals to govern themselves.

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  22. John Walker:
    Claire Berlinski has just posted another in the series, “The Dear Abby of Liberal Democracy”.

    Responding to an E-mail message from a reader in the Czech Republic, she writes,

    Liberal democrats throughout the West need to be in close contact with each other. We must learn from each others’ experiences, and we must meaningfully support each other. It’s especially important for ordinary American citizens to be in personal contact with citizens of what I call the laboratory countries, countries like yours—the countries where the New Caesars are experimenting with and perfecting their techniques. Citizens of these countries have a great deal more insight into what is now happening in America than we do.

    and,

    You have the European Union on your side. They’re inefficient, they’re slow, they’re bureaucratic, and they’re maddenly [sic] politically correct, but they are, basically, on the right side. Keep them as engaged as you can.

    Yup, the European Union, that paragon of democracy, transparency, and respect for the rights of individuals to govern themselves.

    Does Claire have a good idea what is happening in America? She totally missed the 2016 Election. I took the quote to mean except for having many many faults the European Union is a fellow traveler of the undemocratic elites.

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  23. 10 Cents:
    I took the quote to mean except for having many many faults the European Union is a fellow traveler of the undemocratic elites.

    I think that Dr Berlinski has imbibed the language of the European élite and uses it without being aware of how foreign it is to those not marinated in that culture and its jargon.

    After World War II, the horrors of the fascist regimes which, if not exactly democratically elected, were at least, until the war started to go badly, supported by a substantial majority of the population in their countries, couldn’t be attributed to “democracy” because that was a sacred word before which all must bow.  So, they invoked the demon of “populism” and preached the dangers of rulers who came from and received their mandate from the broad population (which most non-marinated people would call “democracy”).  Instead, “liberal democracy” meant rule by an élite, usually educated in highly-selective schools and groomed for leadership, whose policies would be implemented by a large, un-elected, professional administrative state which provided continuity across the whims of the electorate and whichever elected “leaders” they chose from the menu of interchangeable options screened and presented to them.

    An example of how this works is the British sitcom Yes, Minister, which I understand was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite television programme.  The European Union is the quintessential implementation of this scheme.  Its “parliament” cannot even originate legislation: it can only vote on options presented to it by the un-elected bureaucracy.  As I have remarked before, the EU institutions are not all that different from those of the Soviet Union: a “democratic” veneer on top of rule by a bureaucracy.  The main difference is that there are multiple parties in the “parliament” instead of a single party in the Supreme Soviet, but in both cases actual policy is made by the Party (USSR) or the European Commission (EUSSR), which is rubber-stamped by the “people’s representatives”.

    So, when she speaks of defending “liberal democracy”, this is what is meant.  Actual democracy, where, for example, citizens of the United Kingdom are allowed to vote on whether they wish to live under laws enacted by their own parliament at Westminster or imposed by un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels is, you see, “populism”, and, well, that ends up with Hitler and Mussolini, don’t you know?  When citizens of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and other countries which have direct experience, in the memory of a substantial fraction of their living population, with actual tyranny, imposed from the outside by a hegemonic power, decide that preserving the traditions and ethnic composition of their centuries-old nations against an invasion by “migrants” alien and, often, overtly hostile to them, and elect leaders to implement such policies, this is “right-wing, authoritarian populism” which threatens everything for which the Enlightenment stands, since those populations who survived Nazi and Soviet tyranny must now bow before an onslaught of savages from the Near East.  Far better to see the spires of their magnificent cathedrals be lost among a forest of minarets than vote to preserve their ancient culture and the Blessings of Liberty for themselves and their Posterity because, Hitler, you know.

    During World War II in Nazi Germany, Victor Klemperer, author of the magnificent memoir I Will Bear Witness, compiled a lexicon of the language of the Third Reich which he called LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii, in which he catalogued the euphemisms and re-definitions of words by the regime in the interest of manipulating its subjects.  Doubtless, should a similar volume be written after the inevitable and unlamented demise of the European Union, “populism” and “liberal democracy” will be prominent entries.

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