Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016). 304 pp. $29.95.
I will begin with a short prefatory comment about the occasion for this discussion at this particular moment in the intellectual history of the US. I will then outline four points in criticism of Brennan’s argument as presented in his book, whose title — Against Democracy — he is obliged, I submit, to own: first, on the rhetoric of the book; second, on the rhetoric of democracy; third, on the argumentative limits of his account of “epistocracy”; and fourth, on the reasons why the only sensible and legitimate solution to the problems of actually existing liberal democracy is the improvement of liberal democracy.
It is rare that academic political theory receives much attention in the broader public sphere. Brennan is to be congratulated for the attention his book has received, an attention that is clearly due, at least in part, to the quality of his writing. It is also due to the nature of his argument, which is both provocative and relevant, and at the same time is consistent with a broader tendency, on the right and center-right, to critique liberal democracy for being supposedly in thrall to a malign radical egalitarianism. Mark Lilla’s recent The Once and Future Liberal, and Aurelian Craiutu’s recent Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes, are other titles of this kind that have received public acclaim. If those books are literary critical in approach, and broadly communitarian in argument, Brennan’s is analytic in approach and libertarian in argument. Like the other efforts to correct the failings of actually existing liberal democracy by “reigning it in,” it is surely written in the spirit of Tocqueville, the most famous modern thinker to seek to tame the beast of democratic egalitarianism.
It is worth attending to the sociology of knowledge in play here, as well as to the ways that these ideas are institutionally nurtured and circulated. I am not a fan of the reductive, almost conspiracy-mongering approach to the sociology of knowledge presented in Nancy McLean’s much-discussed book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. And I am agnostic in particular about her interpretation of James M. Buchanan. But our intellectual engagements and theoretical arguments do take place in an institutional context. And while the three books in question — by Lilla, Craiutu, and Brennan — each have their own distinctive arguments and genuine intellectual virtues, it is also the case that we are having this conversation at an interesting moment in American history, characterized not just by the empowerment of a horrifying demagogic idiot-narcissist as President of the US, but by a broad transformation of the university system. Higher education has become increasingly corporate, business-oriented, and averse to the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This has occurred through the increasing reliance of public universities on outside sources of funding, and through the importance of a wide, deep, and wealthy network of conservative and libertarian foundations founded by very rich people such as the Koch brothers. Such foundations, as McLean rightly notes, play an important role in promoting certain kinds of ideas that can be characterized as market-friendly and broadly anti-democratic. (In a more empirical vein, the political scientist Alex Hertel-Fernandez has published powerful analyses of the way that the Koch-funded ALEC — American Legislative Exchange Council — has actively promoted and lobbied for state voter ID legislation intended to limit the franchise.)
And here we are today, discussing a book called Against Democracy written by a political theorist who holds the Flanagan Family Chair of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
To be clear: we all occupy “subject positions” in the current institutional setting of the academy and, as intellectuals, I believe it is our responsibility to inhabit these positions as intellectuals, which means primarily to engage the ideas in play. I am not seeking to cast aspersions on others mentioned here, or to claim, even rhetorically, any “advantage” from my comment about how and why we are here. The above comments have no dispositive epistemic force. But none of us are, or even have, pure Cartesian minds. If we have learned anything from the last century of world history and its social theory, we should know that contexts matter immensely, and there are no “innocent” ideas. Our ideas have sources, they have consequences, and they articulate interests. This is a point that is relevant to the critique of Brennan’s arguments for epistocracy. And it is to these arguments that I now turn.
1. How Brennan is against democracy
Brennan is against democracy. In the many interviews that he has given, in print, online, and on video, he has said as much. It is the point of his book.
But he develops this point in a way that is clever, ambiguous, and in a way disingenuous. This can be disarming; but we should not be disarmed by this.
In his new Preface to the paperback edition, Brennan states, “I’m a critic of democracy, but I’m also a fan.” He notes that existing democracies are positively correlated with well-being, that democracies “do a better job of protecting economic and civil liberties than non-democracies,” and that “right now, the best places to live in the world are generally quite democratic.” That’s actually quite a set of concessions — but they are offered only in passing, for these concessions do not for a second cause him to reconsider his grandiose claims in the book. He then continues: “But given that we know that democracy has systematic flaws, we should be open to investigating and possibly experimenting with other alternatives.” Again, this is quite rhetorically modest. Who could be against investigating and possibly experimenting? And yet is he really agnostic?
In his original Preface, Brennan is similarly cagey: “At the very least, democratic theory needs someone to play devil’s advocate. Although I’m happy to play that role, in true devilish fashion I now doubt whether I am defending the devil, and philosophers and political theorists are defending the angels.”
At the very least? One sentence later he implies that he is indeed “defending” an alternative to democracy, and that he doubts whether this anti-democratic position is “devilish.”
The almost 300 pages of Brennan’s book are devoted entirely to a critique of democracy, which is presented as deeply flawed because it fosters and is in turn fueled by a “rationally ignorant” and often malign citizenry.
Further, what Brennan says about (all?) other philosophers and political theorists is disingenuous. For he implies that they — we — are naïve or misinformed defenders of democracy, that we have not already developed a critical literature about the defects of existing democracy and the need to remedy them, and that we imagine ourselves to be “angelic” and pure in our defense. (I speak of “we” because I have been teaching and writing about these issues for decades, and in 1998 published a book entitled Democracy in Dark Times.) This positioning is rhetorically powerful. But it rests on a misrepresentation of much contemporary theorizing about democracy, and on a refusal to take this theorizing seriously
Further, elsewhere in his new Preface Brennan is quite explicit that he is hardly a simple skeptic: “While Against Democracy focuses on epistocracy as an alternative to democracy, it’s certainly not the only alternative. My deeper view is that because democracy is not inherently just, we should look for better functioning alternatives.”
“Democracy is not inherently just.” In other words, the political rule by some over others is not inherently unjust. That is about as fundamental an opposition to democracy as one can imagine, protestations of “fandom” notwithstanding.
2. How Brennan’s critique of democracy is both historically resonant and historically tone deaf.
Brennan’s critique is historically resonant and even timely in two ways.
First, while neither Trump nor Brexit were the occasions for his book, he writes at a time when liberal democracy truly is in serious crisis, and faces serious challenges from right-wing populists, some of whom do subscribe to a fairly simplistic, and anti-liberal, “folk theory” of democracy and some of whom are simply Volkish. The dangerous failings of existing liberal democracy are real — as serious supporters of liberal democracy well know. And so Brennan is not wrong to claim that the supporters of democracy are now called upon to defend it — though he is very wrong to claim that what most warrants attention in the face of this crisis are analytic arguments about “epistocracy.”
Second, Brennan, being both smart and libertarian, is not a reactionary writer, and he acknowledges repeatedly that the forms of exclusion against which modern democracy movements struggled were unjust, and that the historic struggle of democrats to refuse these ascriptive exclusions — of race, class, gender, etc. — was both just and meritorious.
Brennan’s argument centers on the defense of a new form of exclusion — exclusion based on irrationality. And he defends a new and actually never-before-tried form of rulership — “epistocracy” — that claims to empower those who know more and better, who are in possession of a fully developed epistemic rationality, and who are best placed to decide which policies truly work best and generate the most advantage for the demos. This might be a form of aristocracy or rule of the best, inspired by Plato, John Stuart Mill, and others. But Brennan claims that his “best” is an epistemic-cognitive elite whose “superiority” can fairly and rather straightforwardly be demonstrated on some kind of “test.” He is no defender of monarchy, or feudalism, or economic or racial oligarchy. He is in favor of us all being governed by those who truly know what is best for us and can thus best give us what we want or at least need.
In these ways, Brennan is mindful of the historical moment.
But in another, more fundamental way, he is historically tone deaf. Brennan fails to give sufficient weight to the historical legacies of the earlier struggles against exclusion, their sedimentation in constitutional and statutory law, in social movements, in historical memories, their symbolic and cognitive and thus mobilizing power — and their inextricable connection to the right to vote.
And so he is completely unserious about the possibility of ending universal adult suffrage and the principle of one person, one vote. Because of this, Brennan fails to reckon with the continuing power of the democratic idea. Writing in 1835, even Tocqueville himself, hardly a democracy enthusiast, acknowledged this power. In the almost two centuries since, millions of men and women have fought and died to democratize their societies. This effort is both advanced and symbolized by the right to vote, even if it is not reducible to the right to vote — because participating in democracy is not reducible to voting. In many parts of the world men and women still fight, and die, for the right to vote in free and fair elections, because they know that in other times and places this right has proven valuable to other excluded groups, and because they know from their own experience that this right is one important means of the recognition and the justice that they seek. Brennan’s book offers no discussion, much less analytic or ethical appreciation, of this. While it claims to reject “ideal theory” in favor of “realism,” the book is written in blithe disregard for the actual historical, flesh and blood politics of democracy and democratization, in the manner of a clever exercise appropriate for a journal of analytic moral philosophy, but not of a serious political analysis.
In this regard, Against Democracy can be usefully contrasted with John Dunn’s recent book, Breaking Democracy’s Spell (2013). Dunn acknowledges that liberal democracy faces fundamental challenges. He argues that the democratic idea has in many ways become a “spell” that has deluded us into imagining that invocations of “democracy” can solve our problems. Dunn — who is perhaps the most prominent scholar of democracy to have treated it, in integrated fashion, as a question of intellectual history, social history, and political science — acknowledges that democracy is a cognitive invention, linked to certain practices of decision, rule, and especially critique and contestation (the work of Josh Ober, particularly in his new book Demopolis, similarly develops this idea.) It has evolved, historically, as a means of addressing particular forms of injustice, by incorporating the concerns, and the voices, of previously excluded groups. Democracy is a way of resolving differences and of arriving at relatively useful and broadly legitimate and acceptable public solutions to public problems. But it guarantees nothing, and is not itself the uber-solution to public problems, and for two reasons: because there are no permanent solutions, and all solutions are provisional and contestable; and because what democracy itself means, institutionally and even normatively, is itself provisional, contestable, and evolving.
But for these very reasons, democracy is also something that cannot in any simple way be discarded or surpassed. This is because it has proven its worth over time; because it has acquired, and earned, a symbolic and rhetorical force that is grounded in its practical achievements and their legacies, and is thus widely considered legitimate, even if only in a vague way; and because we have learned to regard it as legitimate because the alternatives against which it might be compared have proven disastrous. This is a historical learning experience, in the Habermassian sense. Indeed, it is a kind of learning that has been widely shared by scholars and intellectuals, except for some ideologists on the far right and the far left, and for some Jacobin-like libertarians who think it would be interesting to speculate about clever alternatives or to just start over from scratch.
3. Why Brennan’s “epistocracy” is a bad idea
Brennan’s advocacy of “epistocracy” rests on two claims.
The first is that voters in actually existing democracies, and in any democracies, are rationally ignorant. The very form of democratic collective decision, Brennan maintains, produces ignorant voters, because each individual voter has no incentive to become knowledgeable, and has every incentive to become either a simple ignoramus or a self-aggrandizing ignoramus — in Brennan’s terms, a “Hobbit” or a “Hooligan.” As a result, democracy produces bad leaders and bad decisions that cater to the irrational whims of rationally ignorant voters, in much the same way that Plato forecasted in his famous “Parable of the Navigator” in The Republic. Here Brennan draws heavily on literature in cognitive and behavioral psychology about “bias” and “identity,” and even more heavily on the tradition of public opinion research in American political science pioneered by Philip Converse and most recently extended by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in their recent book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (2017). As Brennan blithely states in an interview at the Princeton University Press blog: “Empirical work generally shows that participating in politics makes us worse: meaner, more biased, more angry.” This would appear to be very bad.
Thus Brennan’s second claim: that we would be better off with some version of an “epistocracy.” As he writes: “Epistocracy means the rule of the knowledgeable. More precisely, a political regime is epistocratic to the extent that political power is formally distributed according to competence, skill, and the good faith to act on that skill.” (14)
Here the argument becomes complicated. For Brennan is no unreconstructed supporter of Platonic Guardianship. The epistocratic system he endorses has a number of distinctive features:
- it is a form of collective decision by the knowledgeable that abandons the principle of one person, one vote, but does not abandon the idea that every individual ought to have certain basic private rights;
- the principle of epistocracy does not mandate a specific decision rule, it simply discards equal suffrage, and is consistent with a number of possible ways that votes can be distributed and/or weighted so as to heavily favor the perspectives of the supposedly knowledgeable elite;
- it requires that the composition of this elite be determined by some kind of test that is fair, publicly accessible, and open to all. Brennan’s epistocracy, in short, is a kind of meritocracy of the most knowledgeable.
Brennan argues that while democracy is a deeply and irreparably flawed system that rests on the priority of rationally ignorant voters, epistocracy is a sensible and compelling idea that ought to be attempted, and eventually scaled up, because it is a more rational form of governance. He furnishes little institutional or political analysis of the actual processes whereby this system might come to replace democracy and universal suffrage. Perhaps a Noble Lie might be invoked to persuade otherwise foolish citizens to free themselves from the burdens of self-government; perhaps a Rousseaun Legislator might appear in the manner of a Deux Ex Machina; or perhaps a more dirigist or even “Leninist” strategy of radical change might be enacted by a knowledgeable vanguard. (Indeed, the form of governance that most closely approximates Brennan’s “epistocracy” is the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, whose “meritocratic” claims to legitimacy are neatly explained, and promoted, by Daniel Bell in his recent book The Chinese Model). But he makes clear that these practical questions are secondary to the fundamental question of principle: democracy is nothing more than a problematic, irrational, and unjust arrangement, and epistocracy presents the possibility of something far superior, because it is more rational.
This is summed up in the “antiauthority tenet” outlined by Brennan on p. 17: “When some citizens are morally unreasonable, ignorant, or incompetent about politics, this justifies not permitting them to exercise political authority over others. It justifies either forbidding them from holding power or reducing the power they have in order to protect innocent people from their incompetence.”
I submit that this is a bad idea for a number of reasons.
The first is because it is ill-defined, and under-specified, in fatal ways. Brennan claims to be practicing a version of “nonideal theory.” He does a creditable job of poking holes in some of the more heroic and rationalist epistemic assumptions advanced by certain theorists of deliberative democracy. But in the end, he cannot furnish a clear or convincing account of exactly how it is to be determined who actually possesses a wisdom that exceeds the rational ignorance of the masses. Plato believed that there were metaphysical Ideal Forms, and that true philosophers were capable of almost mystically intuiting them (whether he really thought such Philosophers could be politically recruited is another matter). Mill believed that some kind of university exam or educational certification could determine whose votes should count more heavily and by how much; but Mill’s naïve belief in the obvious virtues of an Oxbridge Education is widely regarded as quaint, and Brennan furnishes no justification for it.
At least since the work of Bob Dahl, whose 1989 Democracy and its Critics — the reiteration of the Yale course he taught for over 40 years — is referenced in the bibliography but undiscussed in the book, it has been well understood that there is simply no way that is either epistemologically grounded or morally fair to determine categorically that certain political opinions, dispositions, or attitudes are more politically worthy than others, and that the holders of certain opinions, dispositions, or attitudes ought therefore to be politically privileged. Brennan offers nothing to make us think otherwise. Even if it is true, as he maintains, that the best empirical research demonstrates that most ordinary citizens are uninformed about many political facts and processes, inconsistent and biased in their opinions, and moved by symbolic gestures and promises rather than by a careful assessment of policy outcomes, this simply means that according to a rationalist set of epistemic criteria, many citizens have cognitive dispositions that do not privilege formal consistency or knowledge of the “approved” facts.
This is a cognitive-epistemic disability only from the vantage point of the criteria in question, which are not legislated by God, nor, at least not yet, by Brennan. Are these criteria functional for governing? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Who is to decide this? Who is authorized to make such determinations? There is a circularity here, for only those who assert the ethical priority of these modes of thinking are in a position to believe and thus claim that these modes of thinking ought to confer ethical-political advantages. What makes them right? How confident can we be in any particular epistemic standards in an age of epistemological post-foundationalism? Most importantly, can even the most confident epistemic stance reasonably warrant, much less persuasively enforce — or perhaps coercively enforce? — the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of citizens?
Here Brennan resorts to political vagueness and deceptive common-sense examples. We don’t allow people to practice medicine or even plumbing without demonstrating competence through some examination, so how can we allow people to vote on the weightiest of political decisions without their demonstrating appropriate competence? But of course, in the first instance, the question at issue is a very particular service, and the “we” is the citizenry recognizing a law that is authorized by principles of democratic legitimacy, while in the second instance the question at issue is who gets to be a juridically full and equal member of the “we” who can thereby participate in the determination of law and public policy.
Indeed it is not only the actual legitimation of “epistocracy,” but its very premise regarding civic ignorance, that is problematic.
Here, for the sake of time, I would simply note some reasons to doubt the premise:
- Because it relies on a very selective and one-sided reading of contemporary behavioralist political science. Here I will cite the just-published The Democratic Faith: Essays on Democratic Citizenship (2017), in which Paul Sniderman, one of the most distinguished empirical scholars of public opinion, and a pioneer in survey research, offers a critique of the “rational ignorance” model, and of Achen and Bartels in particular.
- Because there is no reason to treat behavioralist opinion research as the only form of insightful research, and a great deal of ethnographic research undermines a simple thesis of voter ignorance. Here I would mention another recently-published book that has indeed received extraordinary public and media attention: Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker which offers a thickly descriptive, account of the richness of the experiences and beliefs of ordinary citizens who strongly feel left behind by economic change and ignored by structures of power. Behind this widely-acclaimed account is a very serious critique of simplistic models of civic ignorance, developed by Cramer in a recently published Perspectives on Politics article, “The Fact of Experience: Rethinking Political Knowledge and Civic Competence.”
- Because, beyond these streams of research on US public opinion, there is a broader stream of research in political science that challenges the thesis of rational ignorance by taking institutions seriously. Perhaps the most notable scholar working in this vein was Nobel Prize-winner Lin Ostrom, whose Governing the Commons furnishes another interesting counterpoint to the rational ignorance theme.
Of course, I cannot prove that the rational ignorance thesis is wrong. Indeed, that is my more fundamental point: the thesis is much more precarious, and scientifically contested, than Brennan’s simple adversions to it might imply, but precisely because every important thesis in the social sciences is manifestly contested and contestable, and indeed — if one is serious about epistemology and philosophy of science in the wake of Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, and Rorty — perhaps essentially contested.
There are no unproblematic standards of “proof,” and no knock-down arguments, in social science. Shifting authority to the “epistemically advanced” solves nothing. It simply reproduces the same arguments and contests in a different venue. Consider this stunning statement from Brennan’s new Preface, in the context of the claim that both the Trump and Sanders campaigns have symbolized the dangerous power of ignorance:
“The economic ideas Trump and Sanders pushed do not simply fly against hundreds of years of economic research and mountains of empirical evidence. In addition, those economic ideas that support protectionism and promote antagonism toward immigrants are negatively correlated with political information” (ix).
The implication is clear: a proper epistocracy would rule out such scenarios. But the requirements of Pure Reason are much less clear than this comment suggests.
The first reason: because Brennan’s very description of the similarities between Trump and Sanders is not simply contestable but manifestly wrong. For while both articulated criticisms of neoliberalism, everything about these criticisms differs: while Trump is a protectionist, Sanders supports a new trade policy linked to a Tobin Tax and to efforts to support labor rights in the US and globally; while Trump is a xenophobic racist who plays to the white supremacist far-right, Sanders is a strong supporter of universal human rights, and his positions on immigration policy are shaped by this; and while Trump is an anti-liberal demagogue hostile to liberal democracy, Sanders is a conventional social democrat who has spent decades working through the parliamentary processes of liberal democracy. To simply assert their essential similarity as if it is obvious is stunningly simplistic, though it is true that in the dead of night all cows look black. And it testifies to the fact that very smart, highly educated, and clever people can be surprisingly ignorant in ways that would seem to promote very bad political judgment.
The second reason: because Brennan’s account of “hundreds of years of economic research” is equally simplistic, as mere mention of the names Marx, Weber, Schumpeter, Keynes, Kalecki, Robinson, Polanyi, Galbraith, and Stiglitz should indicate. It is perhaps true that in the hallowed halls of most American university economics departments these names are rarely heard — though this is in the process of being challenged. But regardless, there are substantial traditions of scholarship on political economy that depart from the free market nostrums that Brennan simply takes for granted.
These considerations drive two devastating holes through the center of Brennan’s argument.
They undermine the way he confidently draws on one particular approach to civic competence, and social science more generally, to imperiously declare Against Democracy.
They also undermine his blithe assumption that things would be so much less messy, incoherent, and contentious if only the truly knowledgeable could be identified and then empowered.
And this leads me to my final point: that there is no solution to the messiness, incoherence, contentious, rancor, and currently serious crisis of liberal democracy except the ongoing effort to work through the institutions of liberal democracy with the goal of improving them, a challenging, agonizing, and uncertain process that has no end.
4. Why the deficiencies of liberal democracy can only be solved through improvements of democracy
There are a number of reasons why there is no legitimate alternative to liberal democracy and no solution to its problems other than its improvement. But the main one is political and, true to the respected tradition of “political realism” to which they appeal, it is nicely stated by Achen and Bartels themselves in their book, the same book on which Brennan relies for much of his “scientific” ammunition:
“Elections that ‘throw the bums out’ typically do not produce genuine policy mandates, even when they are landslides. They simply put a different elite coalition in charge. This bloodless change of government is a great deal better than bloody revolution, but it is not deliberate policy change.” (312)
In their Conclusion, Achen and Bartels put this in a more affirmative way:
“Having argued that the most prominent popular and scholarly intellectual defenses of democracy are incompatible with the empirical evidence, we can easily imagine . . . some irritated readers asking pointedly, ‘Well, would you rather live in a dictatorship?’ The answer, for the record, is no. We, too, are inspired and heartened when a government of torturers collapses, when the Berlin Wall comes down, or when an unarmed young man faces down a tank during the Tiananmen demonstrations in China. But that does not make our argument any less persuasive. It merely demonstrates that actual democratic processes have quite real practical virtues unrelated to the idealistic virtues ascribed to them in the folk theory of democracy.” (316)
In other words, even if actually existing liberal democracies are not characterized by a simple congruence of public opinion and public policy, and even if it is political parties who supply the policy ideas that individual voters can then prefer in gross and often inconsistent ways, it is still the case that the differences between dictatorship and democracy are substantial; that on some level this is the relevant choice; and that “actual democratic processes have quite real practical virtues.”
For Achen and Bartels recognize two fundamental things that Brennan leaves out of account. One is that actual history matters enormously for both our practical and our theoretical judgments, and the historical and contemporaneous struggles in favor of democratization manifest a clear refusal of injustice, but also a general notion of inclusive self-government that is linked to the symbolism, rhetoric, and ideation of democracy, and this is very powerful.
The second is that “actually existing liberal democracies” are historically evolved forms of state that involve much more than the extension of voting rights to masses of individuals. Such democracies are characterized by an interrelated web of institutions that together provide all citizens with legally enforced opportunities to contest political authority, and render all political power in need of chronic legitimation. Democratic elections are one important means of furnishing spaces of opposition and requiring regular revalidation. In conjunction with civil liberties, a pluralistic civil society, and numerous practices of political contestation involving citizen groups, social movements, and political parties, democratic elections make possible real opposition to government, and real alternations of government, through peaceful means. Such alternations rarely if ever produce what we might call “deliberate policy change.” Policy change in liberal democracies, when it occurs, is discontinuous, punctuated, contradictory, etc. But it does sometimes occur. (The New Deal, for example, was not a “random event,” even if it cannot be simplistically explained as a consequence of articulated voter preferences.) And even when it doesn’t, “this bloodless change of government is a great deal better than bloody revolutions.”
There is, of course, a substantial body of theorizing about democracy — empirical theory, normative theory, theory that blends empirics and ethics — that has elaborated on how and why it is “a great deal better,” and how and why it has evolved and proliferated over the past seventy or so years. To note this is not to deny the real legitimation crises facing liberal democracies. But it is to insist that there is a resilience to liberal democratic institutions that has proven superior to every effort to organize political power on a more authentic or rational foundation. Brennan’s disregard for this intellectual history, and the political history with which it is linked, is unfortunate, and it goes far to explain the lack of political seriousness of his overall argument.
In the face of its relative and historical successes, the notion that democracy ought to be challenged, and replaced, by something else that has never been tried and cannot even be clearly delineated is Manichean, irresponsible, and indeed brings to mind the existentialist arguments of Carl Schmitt during the interwar period, that because liberalism and democracy did not fit together neatly as ideas, it is necessary to explode their union in the name of something more authentic. Brennan’s “epistocracy” is something very different than Schmitt’s authentic, populist “democracy.” But it shares in common a disposition to throw caution to the wind in the name of “what seems better.”
That said, it must also be said that the institutions of actually existing liberal democracies are in serious crisis, and the ability of demagogic populists to appeal to the fears and resentments of insecure, low information voters is one important effect of this crisis that is also a cause of its intensification. The sources of this crisis are complicated, and there is no consensus about them among scholars, organized political society, or citizens. Many very smart people argue that one major source is the insecurity and inequality caused by forms of capital accumulation and globalization sometimes called “neoliberalism.” I happen to agree with this diagnosis, though what follows from such a diagnosis is much less clear.
What is clear is that it is incredibly reductive, and rather simplistic, to believe that these real challenges can be explained as the results of voter ignorance. They are institutional challenges, and they require institutional analysis and institutional remedies. There is much serious discussion among political scientists and political theorists about remedies. I am myself very pessimistic, about the short-term and long-term prospects of liberal democracy. But I am certain that the solution does not lie in the disenfranchisement of ordinary citizens and the elevation of an epistocratic elite bound together by a commitment to the rationality purveyed by the Harvard Economics Department and the Georgetown McDonough School of Business.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University – Bloomington.