Democracy as ritualized civil war: A metaphor I like
This is just a small little thing, not really worthy of an essay of its own, but interesting enough to me that I wanted to put it out there. For a long time I’ve had a metaphor in my head. It’s an imperfect metaphor, but so is every metaphor- otherwise it wouldn’t be a metaphor. Since I’ve never seen it talked about in exactly these terms before, I thought I’d put it on the internet for discussion.
Imagine a contentious nation. Every time they had to make a decision they had a civil war, and then did what the winners said. Now imagine they got tired of the bloody costs of this and decided on way of ritualizing the process. For each question, each person would be given a piece of paper. They would put this piece of paper in a pile for yes or no. Since the bigger pile represented the side with more people, it would probably win if the civil war went ahead, hence they cut the civil war out and just went with the bigger pile.
But this process is just another way of describing the simplest form of democracy (and we could easily generalize it to more complex forms of democracy). Hence democracy can be seen as a kind of ritual which substitutes for having a civil war.
Of course, this description abstracts from some of the parts of democracy most beloved by democratic theorists- deliberation, but I still think it’s a nice metaphor.
As a metaphor, it reminds us of parts of democracy that are often forgotten about in more idealistic discussions. It focuses our attention on contradictory needs and desires and forming powerful coalitions, rather than the more kindly faces democracy- for example, the search for what is good for everyone. Personally, I think we should uphold democracy “beauty, warts and all” because as far as methods of balancing contradictory needs go, it’s a good one.
Addendum: Normative implications (or lack thereof)
Some commenters have responded by conceiving this in a way I didn’t intend, as a normative claim about what democracy should be. I don’t begrudge them their right to this interpretation, that’s always the way with political dialogue, we slip back and forth between the normative and the positive very easily.
But I don’t think it works in this case. I don’t it would be wise, at all, to try to read a theory of who should be allowed to vote off this. And because I don’t want to be misunderstood I need to write this addendum.
One commenter responded that if this metaphor is right, voting should be weighted by wealth. Well maybe so, although it’s not necessarily going to be a huge factor. Instead, if we took this metaphor seriously- as a guide to how democracy should be we’d give extra votes to healthy young people- especially, but not only, men. The left will hate it because it disenfranchises women and the disabled, the right will hate because they’ll lose every time. The right’s voter base is too old to fight and is outnumbered 2-1 under 30.
It’s better to think of this as one of the costs that is avoided by not having a civil war and having this ritual reenactment instead. We manage to avoid giving extra power to people just because they’re better at fighting.
This is a metaphor I find cute. A slanted way of seeing an odd, partial, truth. It’s not a guidebook.