“Let us transport ourselves into a hypotethical country that, in a democratic way, practices the persecution of Christians, the burning of witches, and the slaughtering of Jews. We should certainly not approve of these practices on the ground that they have been decided on according to the rules of democratic procedure. But the crucial question is: would we approve of the democratic constitution itself that produced such results in preference to anon-democratic one that would avoid them?”
The above mentioned relatively short paragraph by the Austrian US philosopher, Joseph Schumpeter, includes a huge content, and paves way for severe debate and conflict. It covers the topic mostly argued about in the last century: democracy and its definition. With an extreme anecdote, he portrays his point of view of the democratic political system, urging us to think twice of what we were told to believe or to revise our perception of the ideology. In order to better understand, and consequently take a stand on the topic, we should interpret and come up with the inclinations and connotations of what the author is stating.
Schumpeter chose three harsh, barbaric and cruel ‘decisions’ (“…the persecution of Christians, the burning of witches, and the slaughtering of Jews”) all related to force and violence, something that most of us, in theory, are against. Thus, there is some sort of a common will, where ignoring the details, we generally agree upon. In this case, that the activities of brutality, discrimination and injustice are not acceptable. This common will, in one way or another defines good and bad. However all can disagree on what is best for society. Even if we could agree on a common good, that is the ‘end’, we would be unable to agree on the means. If the inhabitants of the text’s country agree that Christians, Witches or Jews threaten their safety and stability, they have the right to decide so (their common will-end). Yet, the means may change: burning, persecution, slaughtering, or even peaceful ways of bargain and negotiation.
The highlight of the sentence is “…in a democratic way”. Democracy has always been portrayed in positive contexts, given an added value, described as the ultimate political system that states must aim towards. Conversely, he twisted the meaning and played with the language to make his stand about democracy clear, which he succeeded in doing. As noticed, Joseph Schumpeter, contends the classical doctrine of democracy viewed as the process by which the people through their common will elect representatives to realize the common good. As if he advocates a Weberian minimalist model. Furthermore, one can argue that he may be partly correct.
Democracy was always listed as a 21th century criteria for stability, security and peace, and now, although virtually, it has been proven otherwise. His stand reminds us a bit of the Athenian view of democracy. Collective decision making is always better than an authoritarian rule; however the issue is: are the citizens aware of what they want? And if they are, is it necessarily the right thing if the majority desires it? It is of no secret that the people are highly influenced by the media – which the elite and political leaders control. They are the gatekeepers of all the information we get as input and even the outlet if we want to make our voice heard. United States’ ‘Big Five’ is a perfect example of the concentrated ownership of the entire nation’s media. This fact truly undermines ‘the rule of the people’ making it the rule of the elite politicians.
After making it clear that ‘individual will’ is not independent in politics, Schumpeter raises a significant question whether “…we approve the democratic constitution itself that produced such results…” Of what benefit is it if we embrace democracy, where in fact we only have a saying on what politicians have allowed us to. Is this what democracy is about? Is it about the legitimate use of force, violence, discrimination, brutality and injustice just because the majority has spoken? Are the means justified, since they are now decided upon through ‘democratic’ chambers? Is our voice insured in the decisions of our representatives? The answers of these questions are a quite hard to attain and largely ambiguous. It’s always a matter of how you look at the issue.
At the end, the author was bold enough to ask whether the democratic constitution was at a status of less “…preference to a non-democratic one”. To be on the fair side, it is a very reasonable question, given the upper supporting points. At the same time, an affirmative answer would mean accepting dictatorship, rule of few, no freedom of speech and assembly. How is it different, at the end, from Democracy? In both cases, in one way or another, we as citizens are bound and limited to certain directions, to which we have no escape of. However, I still refuse to lose my faith on humanity. We cannot generalize that all of us are ‘uneducated’ and unaware of the common good, or are selfless in spirit, or are so mesmerized that can not differentiate between what is portrayed, and what is hidden away. We can read between the lines, and pinpoint subliminal messages. Our democratic right shall not be traded with any other system. Not because it is the best and ultimate system, but simply because it is the less out of the evils. One thing for sure, our understanding of Democracy needs a review.