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Stop Calling Everything You Disagree With ‘Anti-Democratic’

Every wrong or foolish decision taken by a democratically chosen government is not the fault of democracy.

The overuse of the phrase “anti-democratic” in modern discourse is one of the most unsettling trends. It has evolved into a sort of universal term that is used to discredit political and intellectual rivals. This technique is not only intellectually lazy, but it also runs the risk of distorting the essence and worth of democracy.

At least to me, democracy offers several benefits that should be emphasized more:

  • Higher rates of prosperity and economic growth are a result of democracy.
  • Human rights and fundamental civil liberties are more likely to be protected by democratic regimes.
  • Karl Popper, a philosopher, emphasized that by allowing people to vote out the worst rulers and enforcing checks and balances in the meantime, democracy helps society avoid them.

Democracies are certainly imperfect. First, many democratic judgments made at the individual level are poor. (In truth, most democratic decisions are not very good in comparison to scientific or technocratic principles, but I would argue that technocrats cannot be totally trusted either.) Second, even while democracy is generally superior, there are times when some nations may function better as non-democracies.

These nuances are ignored by a lot of commentary. For instance, the headline of a recent editorial piece in the New York Times was “Modi’s India Is Where Global Democracy Dies.” Although the regime is not pro-democracy, many of its criticisms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are justified. Modi is expected to win reelection because he was duly elected twice with wide margins. Instead, as is frequently the case, a democracy is making the incorrect decisions.

Or think about the criticisms leveled against Poland at the time that government restricted the authority of its independent court. That was a mistake because it weakens the checks and balances system that supports democracy.

However, contrary to what some critics at the time claimed, the action was not part of a “anti-democratic” plan. As it did in Poland, restricting the judiciary often makes a government more democratic. (By the way, there are elections in Poland scheduled for 2023; I don’t see any indications that these will be postponed.)

The risk is that people will increasingly refer to “stuff I agree with” as “democratic,” while whatever they disagree with will be referred to as “anti-democratic.” Democracy is afterwards perceived as a means of enacting a number of personal choices rather than a (mostly) advantageous impersonal technique for reaching consensus.

More directly applicable and contentious is the claim that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was “anti-democratic” by many on the political left in the US. It is OK to call Dobbs a poor decision, but in reality, the decision gives state legislators control over abortion law. Simply said, aliens would not perceive that action as being anti-democratic.

Yes, there are several non-democratic (or insufficiently democratic) components of the American political system at its core, such as the Supreme Court itself and the Senate, which gives less populous states disproportionate influence. However, both the court that sustained Roe v. Wade and the court that overturned the decision were subject to the same descriptions.

It is also harmful to call the Dobbs decision anti-democratic when what you’re really arguing for is greater involvement by the federal government in abortion policy — a defensible view. Because so many decisions are delegated to the cantons in Switzerland (for better or worse), no one accuses the government of being “anti-democratic.” It does not refute this logic to point out that many US state governments are not as democratic as you might desire.

Simply stating that you disagree with the judgments made by the (inadequately) democratic state governments and that the court left the matter in their hands would be more truthful and factual.

You risk deluding yourself about the acceptance of your own opinions if you confuse “what’s right” with “what’s democratic.” If you blame “non-democratic” or “anti-democratic” forces for your viewpoints failing to win out, you can come to the conclusion that the world just needs more majoritarianism, more referendums, and more voting.

Those conclusions could or might not be accurate. But rather than relying on people’s peculiar definitions of what they understand by “democracy” and, by extension, “anti-democratic,” they should be evaluated scientifically.

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