Democracy Versus Liberalism

By Roslyn FullerJanuary 26, 2018

Democracy Versus Liberalism

Demopolis by Josiah Ober

MY FEAR IS that contemporary liberalism lacks the resources necessary to take on the most pressing political, economic, and environmental problems of our times […] If liberalism and self-government are so entangled that they must stand or fall together, what happens is that democracy will collapse.

Thus Josiah Ober, a self-identified liberal and professor of political science and classics at Stanford University, wraps up a new book that aims to separate the idea of liberalism from that of “basic democracy.”

Although the author is one of the world’s foremost experts on classical Greece, Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice is a lot more theory than practice, conceived and executed more as a work of political philosophy than history or current affairs. As a result, the book can, at times, seem like a tedious exercise in the usage of multi-syllable words and the name-checking of peers. Ober’s concept of “relevant expertise aggregation” in decision-making, later abbreviated REA, for example, is typical of the language used throughout and, I think we can agree, doesn’t exactly slide off the tongue. It would seem that the book was written primarily for use in the classroom, where students may be asked to dissect the idea of “relevant expertise aggregation,” and, as such, is perhaps a reflection on the fact that for most intellectuals the academic audience, delivering as it does a new cadre of elites every year, is the one before whom new ideas need to be floated. Considering the level of anti-democratic thought circulating from third-level institutions (Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter, for example, or Daniel Bell’s The China Model), this approach is not wholly without merit, and the academic writing style does enable Ober to deliver a level of nuance and complexity on many topics that would be impossible in a work more dependent on keeping its readers entertained.

Nonetheless, while Demopolis may at times be a slog, the ideas presented are too important to be confined to an Ivory Tower. In a society where it has become increasingly normalized to judge the utility of democracy on one’s personal satisfaction with its immediate outcomes, Ober takes up the important task of reminding us that democracy as a basic concept is fairly value-neutral, and capable of accommodating both liberal and illiberal mores. A lack of liberalism or liberal outcomes, therefore, does not necessarily equate to a lack of democracy.

Ober’s argument here is twofold. First, he demonstrates that in ancient Greece, less-than-liberal democracies not only managed to exist, but also flourished for generations. The argument that any democracy must conform to modern liberal values in order to survive is thus void.

As a second step, Ober presents a thought experiment based on the fictitious society of Demopolis, a community founded by individuals who want to be secure and prosperous, and to live without “tyranny,” that is to live free from rule by a third party. The bulk of the book is, as the title suggests, devoted to exploring how such a theoretical “Demopolis” could function in the here and now.

Ober’s approach is more conceptual-abstract than detail-oriented, but it does contain captivating insights. His lengthy treatment of the Athenian experience of civic dignity is particularly engrossing. Although the ancient Greeks did not elaborate civic dignity as a formal concept, they nonetheless lived a reality in which paternalism and dependency between members of their community was avoided. Among its many virtues, civic dignity de facto prevented the ancients from passing policy that was either extremely libertarian or egalitarian, as doing so would have created dependencies between citizens and the State (in extreme egalitarian modes) or between citizens and more powerful citizens (in the extreme libertarian mode). In turn, this centered democracy between the two goods of liberty and equality that it was meant to deliver, bringing about a remarkably well-balanced and stable political environment.

Ober contrasts the idea of civic dignity with what he terms the infantilization of citizens in modern democracies and the futility of attempting to establish a risk-free form of democratic politics.

“Democracy,” Ober persuasively argues,

is a sham if, when I speak in public, my speech is treated as childish babble, if the information and arguments I advance are accorded no respect despite their salience to the topic of public discussion, or if I am denied access to the information necessary to form a reasoned opinion. Democracy is illusory when citizens are kept in a condition of tutelage, such that their votes are limited to choices among options that have been judged risk-free or have been preapproved by a paternalistic elite.

Ober cites the 1960s Civil Rights movement slogan “I am a man!” as a modern example of a group of people tapping into the idea of civic dignity to fight back against a perception of themselves as minors in need of guidance. (In racially segregated regimes, it has been a common feature to institutionalize a practice of referring to adults of the oppressed race as “boy” as a means of infantilizing them and negating their agency.) Applying this general idea to wider society, Ober argues that democracy cannot be properly exercised by people who are viewed, or who view themselves, as dependent on a higher decision-maker. Furthermore, democracy is, like any other form of politics, not infallible and should not be measured on its ability to infinitely deliver a “perfect” set of results. Although Ober doesn’t quite say it, the impression is that demanding perfection in democratic politics — an impossible standard to meet — merely serves to justify infantilization of “the people” as a whole.

In Ober’s fictitious Demopolis, of course, things would be much different.

While citizens would ordinarily delegate legislative decision-making to a body of representatives (possibly elected in the same manner as they are at present), they would retain the power to step in and legislate directly should the need arise. In Ober’s view, this threat of direct action would keep representatives on the straight and narrow, as they would seek to avoid a situation in which “the people” became so dissatisfied as to exercise their prerogative to legislate directly. Ober does not elaborate on how precisely such a process of direct decision-making would be initiated. In Athens, citizens were periodically asked whether they were satisfied with the actions of state officials, and perhaps a similar mechanism could be adapted to modernity. Or perhaps, Ober was thinking of a petition process. This is unclear.

The absolute need for delegation to representatives in a large-scale democracy is also unexplained. Ober points out that Athens was, by today’s standards, a small State with approximately 250,000 residents, and that thus, communication and decision-making could take place face-to-face. Newspapers, Morse code, and even universal literacy, were all far in the future. As a result, it is hard to know whether face-to-face decision-making was the preferred option of ancient democrats, because, as it happened, it was also their only option. By contrast, today nearly anything, including deliberation and voting, can be accomplished at scale without the necessity for face-to-face contact. Unfortunately, Demopolis does not touch on this point.

However, while we shouldn’t be putting impossible standards on decision-making in democracies, we should also not be putting impossible standards on people writing books, either. In a society which, in Ober’s words, “is challenged, by political polarization, racial strife, and the rise of virulent forms of technopopulism that seek to rebrand liberalism as a viciously self-indulgent ‘political correctness,’” very few people have been willing to stick their necks out and try to bridge the divide between liberal and traditionalist values. Ober attempts to do so by elaborating a historically tested theory of “basic democracy” that is not inherently intertwined with either liberal or illiberal values, and thus has real potential to serve as a set of decision-making rules going forward. That is no small feat.

“Basic democracy” also has enormous value in regards to “democracy-building” in autocratic or failed States. As Ober points out, too often it has been assumed that if a nation were to adopt certain values, say more women’s rights or free market principles, it would magically turn into a democracy. These assumptions have proven disastrous, because most of the liberal package of values isn’t actually necessary for democracy and thus, per se, doesn’t do anything particular to further it. Those who would “bring” democracy to other parts of the world, have thus been trying to build democratic states with the wrong tools. Worse, according to Ober, while “basic democracy” is a fairly stable state, liberalism does not seem to have a natural equilibrium point. Thus, piling liberalism on top of liberalism does not, of itself, resolve basic stability problems. If nothing else, the implications of this theory for foreign policy alone are hard to overstate.

The idea that liberalism and democracy are not inherently intertwined will probably be a difficult pill to swallow for many people who consider themselves liberals. This may be part of the reason why Demopolis hasn’t received the red carpet treatment that similar titles excoriating the stupidity of voters or extolling the virtues of liberal elite rule have. With Demopolis, Ober seems to be trying to deliver a message that no one wants to hear. That just makes it all the more important.


Roslyn Fuller is the author, most recently, of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose.

LARB Contributor

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a research associate at Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland. Her latest book, Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose, was published by Zed Books in November 2015.


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