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The power of judgment in the citizen body prerequisite for stable democracies Withering Starts at the Bottom

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Some lack the willingness to judge because they are afraid of being wrong. Hence, they express their views only after the fact, if at all. Others lack the ability to evaluate complex developments; consequently, they tend to reach overhasty and one-sided judgments. Normally, we assign the first group to the »silent majority.« The second group offers a rich recruiting ground for populism in all of its variants.

A democracy can be called firmly established only if neither of those two groups constitutes a majority. Still, democracies should not count as truly stable unless and until both factions, taken together, are in the minority. That explains why democratic orders that citizens can expect to last over a longer period of time tend to be rather rare. When we talk about threats to democracy, we usually have in mind the enemies of a democratic order, whether external or internal.

The existence of foes is not a unique identifying marker of democracy.

Such an assumption is certainly not wrong, but it falls short as a way to pinpoint the more demanding preconditions that must be met for democracy to survive and thrive. All political orders have both internal and external enemies; the existence of such foes is not a unique identifying marker of democracy. The latter is endangered by yet another factor: It sets higher standards and expectations and therefore is more vulnerable than other political systems, since it insists upon the requirement that the citizen body in its entirety and not just the elites (whoever they might be) should exercise powers of political judgment.

For ages, the repertoire of arguments critical of democracy (if not downright hostile to it) has featured the claim that the citizenry of a democracy most likely would lack the requisite powers of judgment unless the right of citizenship were limited to a few prosperous and educated people. In that case we really would be talking about an aristocracy rather than a democracy. This dismissive verdict holds that the common people decide based on their momentary moods or follow the instructions of their leaders who care nothing about the common good but instead want to promote their partisan or class interests.

In the mid-nineteenth century Alexis de Tocqueville warned against a »tyranny of the majority.« During his journey to America, he studied the mechanisms that had been built into the U.S. constitution by the founding fathers of the United States to forestall just such political dominance by non-elite citizens. Of course, the observation that the broad masses were in no position to make well-founded political judgments and should therefore be kept away from the levers of politics mainly reflected worries about the continuing pre-eminence of the wealthier classes. But obviously that bias is no reason for us to assume that the broad citizen body does in fact possess the power of political judgment.

The political left sometimes assumes that, once one identifies the conservative structural interests behind the insistence that citizens should know how to exercise political judgment, the problem would thereby be solved. However, that was and is short-sighted—and everybody secretly realizes it, because otherwise they would not have worried so much about associations devoted to workers‹ education or »apron organizations« designed to advance political learning, all of which were supposed to foster political knowledge and the capacity for judgment. Of course, for the radical left this was a fairly simple matter, since for them the requisite powers of judgment were identical with class consciousness. Without hesitation they contrasted proletarian class consciousness to its bourgeois counterpart, and portrayed the former as the basis for powers of political judgment.

However, that equation rather quickly gave rise to an intra-party hierarchy, with the eventual outcome that debates within the party were prohibited and participation in them, at any rate in Bolshevik organizations, meant risking one’s life. The power to make political judgments was monopolized by party elites who alone decided what »the correct line« should be. For everyone else, political judgment was reduced to the unswerving willingness to follow orders. Under those circumstances, intra-party democracy had as little chance of prevailing as did democracy at the level of the entire society.

This form of intra-party centralism never had a chance to take hold in the Social Democratic Party, whose representatives soon entered municipal councils on the heels of the party’s electoral success. There they had to hold their own against critics which inevitably led the party to take a nuanced view of its tasks and challenges. Class consciousness was of little help, and top party officials were unable to offer detailed guidelines for the plethora of problems they faced. As a result, a form of stubborn political self-will emerged from below, at the grass roots, that soon found itself at odds with instructions issued from the top and refused to allow itself to be marginalized.

Ultimately, the independent-minded party members at the local level made decisions as they saw fit. When they were successful, they ascended the party hierarchy, ending up as deputies in provincial parliaments or even in the Reichstag. Wherever local governments had vital constitutions, the path to an intra-party dictatorship was blocked. The reformist current in German Social Democracy was reinforced by powers of political judgment that competed with the dogmatic guidelines of the party’s elites.

Participation in local self-government assumes a crucial role in cultivating powers of political judgment.

In modern democracies, as they arose in the late 18th century beginning in the USA, participation in local self-government acquired a crucial role in cultivating powers of political judgment in the broad citizen body. The fact that, in the framework of local government, deliberation and decision, consultation and resolution were so closely aligned also proved useful as a way to refine and bolster powers of judgment. Local problems are not that difficult to understand; moreover, the decision about a project and its eventual execution are not far apart in time.
Those involved in decision-making can readily observe the ramifications of their decisions, gauge their immediate and long-term costs, and then finally take note of the reactions of both the winners and the losers of their projects. In a broad sense, they can learn from their experiences. Then again, the voters can judge political actors not merely on the basis of their promises, but also by looking at how projects are implemented and at their actual outcomes. Moreover, parties in which politically engaged individuals are organized, become collection centers for political knowledge that arises from successful action, while simultaneously providing the basis for future success. In this way powers of political judgment bubble up from the bottom, proliferate, and get diffused into the broader citizenry instead of being monopolized by small groups.

At any rate, this is the way the process is described in textbooks on politics. Those also underscore the point that, at first, middle-class notables were the ones to play decisive roles in municipal politics, but then they were gradually displaced by people from lower-class backgrounds. Furthermore, it was men who first bore the main political responsibility at this level until, during the second half of the twentieth century, more and more women gained entrée into the municipal political arena. In short, political engagement underwent a process in which social barriers to entry were being dismantled at an increasing rate. Consequently, the power of political judgment was less and less likely to be the privilege of small social groups.

Although all of this may sound like textbook wisdom, it is still worth remembering that judgment is a basic prerequisite for the functioning of democracy in its ideal form. By doing so we gain a clear conception of how and to what degree problems in this regard have come to light during the last few decades, and how they have reached proportions that by now endanger democracy.
Those problems begin as citizens increasingly tend to think of politics in the same way they do about the consumer choices they make, a trend expressed by formulas such as »delivery« or »non-delivery.« However, they also extend into the changed world of people’s working and everyday lives. For example, as the number of two-earner families grows, the marriage partners find that both their available time and willingness to engage in public affairs have decreased. In addition, career advancement now often requires regional mobility. Finally, it is becoming rarer for political engagement to enhance one’s reputation; in fact, it is more likely associated with making enemies.

The continuing decline in voter turnout at all levels of politics, dwindling membership in political parties, and, finally, the fact that there are barely enough candidates for office in local government to fill the open positions all illustrate the danger that democracy may wither from the bottom up. Among other things, growing populism is yet another indicator that momentary moods are coming to overshadow longer-term concerns about problems and solutions, Moreover, populism is one of the forms through which political consumers vent their frustrations. In both senses, populism epitomizes the changes that are jeopardizing democracy. To the list we also should add the outsourcing of professional know-how to expert panels in the course of political consultations as well as the tendency for political debates to become ever more superficial. The »arguments‹ with which the parties make their respective cases are not aimed at the citizens‹ powers of political judgment; instead, those appeals trigger citizens‹ moods and irascible dispositions.

Participation is an instrument to generate the power to make political judgments.

How can we reverse or at least put a stop to this trend? Generally, most proposals for adapting democracy to altered parameters and challenges call for more direct citizen involvement in the form of plebiscites or else they would complement elections by a lottery procedure to select some officeholders. But of course, little would be gained by those reforms if those who take part in the plebiscites lack powers of political judgment and the candidates thus chosen by lot have little interest in the tasks for which they are responsible. Certainly, participation is a value in itself, but above all it is an instrument meant to generate the power to make political judgments.

Taken in isolation, plebiscites have been and continue to be an instrument by means of which authoritarian and dictatorial regimes create legitimacy for themselves. They stabilize and secure democracy only if they are so arranged that they encourage—in fact even require--powers of political judgment. Even the leveling, egalitarian effect of chance in the form of lotteries and dice works to strengthen democracy only if and when it calls into question a consumer-style, passive attitude, reinforces the will to political participation, while also developing the citizenry’s competence to render political judgments. None of this is a matter of the progressive expansion of democracy; it is instead about securing its most elementary prerequisites. Anyone who reflects on ways to enhance democracy should assign top priority to the requirement that the citizen body should exercise the power of political judgment.

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