It’s become commonplace to bemoan the lack of civility in American public discourse. Whether or not political coarseness is at an all-time high is debatable—much of the campaign material from, say, the Election of 1800 is certainly no-holds-barred—but the perception matters more than the substance. Certainly, for those in the political fray, compromise is far less feasible than it used to be.
But what is the fight actually about? The Right and the Left are really contesting over irreconcilable visions of self-government, but they don’t realize this is so because they use that word to mean different things. Both sides champion democracy and uncritically assume that in fighting for democracy they are preserving a society free of domination by political institutions. The problem is that Left and Right treat democracy as synonymous with self-government; it thus follows that the only way to preserve self-government from the barbarians at the gate is further democratization.
Whether or not democracy is the same as self-government is not merely a linguistic quibble. As the great political scientist Vincent Ostrom argued in his Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerability of Democracies, the language we use in public discourse shapes our ability to act collectively. Corruption of language means corruption of concepts, which imperils our ability to govern ourselves by reflection and choice rather than brute force.
The word “democracy” derives from the Greek demos (“people”) and kratos (“power” or “rule”). At its simplest, it means that the people exercise power. This is obviously too broad a definition for any sociopolitical blueprint, except perhaps as a starting point. What does it mean for “the people” (whoever they are) to “rule” (whatever that means)? What sorts of institutions are conducive to popular government while simultaneously guarding against popular government’s darker tendencies?
To the Left, democracy finds its expression in the primacy of public policy. This is something scientific and value-free, except in the minimal and surely understandable sense that it’s what all right-thinking people prefer. It’s not an exaggeration to say that by “democracy,” the Left means “consensual apoliticism.” The vision is of a benevolent and far-reaching state, validated by popular assent, with a mandate to improve society from the top-down. The mindset underlying this vision of democracy is summed up by President Obama’s famous remark “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.” Society is democratic to the extent that it regularly allows the state to manage its affairs, for the former’s own good. Any resistance to this process is not democracy; it is populism, which in contrast to democracy is parochial, reactionary, and dangerous.
To the Right, democracy finds its expression in the primacy of the popular will. It may seem strange that the Right has embraced a definition of democracy that traces directly to Rousseau, the arch-profit of revolutionary liberalism and a chief antecedent of Progressivism. In fact, it’s a perfectly understandable response to the perceived snobbery and condescension of the Left: in contrast to the egghead policy wonks who want to regulate every aspect of your life and tax you back to the Bronze Age, we just want a government made up of “our guys” who reflect “our values.” The mindset underlying this vision of democracy is President Trump’s boast “We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning.” The rhetoric is sharp, direct, and incredibly effective. It’s a call to embrace tribal politics, which for the Left is a repudiation of democracy, but for the Right is its apotheosis.
Both of these views have some claim to be democratic. The Left’s conception emphasizes reasoned public discourse. The Right’s conception emphasizes actual popular control of government. But neither of these, by themselves, constitutes self-government. Both sides are sacrificing civility on an altar to a false god.
Both sides have forgotten that genuine self-government rests on the additional pillars of liberalism and republicanism. We need liberalism to protect the rights of citizens, which they possess not by the beneficence of their governments but by their nature as human beings. We need republicanism to maintain the political architecture where power can check power, forestalling the possibility of both bureaucratic and majoritarian tyranny, by creating a shared space for mannered dialogue and civil compromise.
The irony is that, despite their surface differences, the political visions of the Left and Right aren’t so different. Unconstrained by the finer graces of liberalism and republicanism, the Left’s program results in bureausclerotic oligarchy. Similarly unconstrained, the Right’s program results in the arbitrary whim of whatever strongman currently holds power. In neither case is there any robust responsibility mechanism holding the governors accountable to the governed. And in neither case do the original conceptions of democracy find expression: we have neither reasoned discourse nor rule by the people, but a Frankenstein-like amalgamation of the worst traits of each.
The only way out is to renew the unique aspect of the American project: a people who govern themselves. Self-government means reasoned discourse, and the legitimacy of the popular will, and liberal commitments to the protection of minority rights, and republican commitments to the protection of the political institutions that make this all possible. There is simply no way forward—other than lowering the stakes of politics by giving place to civility and compromise—that results in anything other than mutually assured destruction.
American politics has become an arms race. Everyone has an incentive to ratchet up their capacity to inflict overwhelming force on their political enemies. But we’ve reached the point where stocking the armory requires depleting the political and cultural capital that makes the American experiment worth continuing. As always, the only way to win an arms race is not to play. Self-government—necessarily reasonable, popular, liberal, and republican—is the only way we know to make politics anything other than a war of all against all.
Alexander William Salter is an assistant professor in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University. He is also the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute.