Talking Democracy

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Democracy, as everyone knows, is the only form of political organization that can effectively safeguard the three fundamental pillars on which our modern states depend: free exchange of goods, the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties.

If you caught yourself unthinkingly nodding your head while reading the above statement, I got you.  But you are hardly alone.  Indeed, such comments are so familiar to us – encountered virtually every time we pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV or go to our favourite political blog – that it would seem almost perverse to treat them with the amount of detached scepticism and critical analysis that they deserve.  But then, that’s even more reason to do so.

University of Cambridge political scientist John Dunn is happy to oblige.

“It’s true that many find it extremely difficult to believe that the idea of democracy isn’t somehow or other very tightly connected indeed with the idea of the rule of law, very tightly indeed connected with the idea of civil liberties, and very tightly indeed connected with the institutional structures of a capitalist society.  And they view those structures in a very uncritical and very obtuse way: they don’t understand the structures to any significant degree.  So they conflate things that are actually straightforwardly contradictory.  It’s not just that they don’t go adhesively together.  Actually, they don’t go together at all.

“The idea that you could have a world of political equals that was also a world of very, very drastic economical un-equals doesn’t make causal sense.  It can’t be true.  There can’t be such a world.  And there jolly well isn’t.”

Language, then, often obscures.  Through the use of subtle rhetorical devices (“as everyone knows”), we often find ourselves in a situation where our critical faculties are dulled or diverted; after a time we may find ourselves unthinkingly parroting statements whose questionable validity we naturally assume has been long established.

But language is a notoriously double-edged sword, capable of enlightening and disguising in equal measure.  Indeed, the link between knowledge and language is so significant, its relationship is one of the cornerstones of the so-called “Cambridge School” of political theory, whose adherents focus on determining the beliefs and intentions of the authors of influential texts rather than being misled by what those words mean to a contemporary audience.

As one of the founders of the Cambridge School, it is thus hardly surprising that etymology – the detailed examination of the origin and evolution of words – plays such a significant role in John’s research.  In his book, Democracy: A History, he invests a considerable amount of time in tracing the history of the word “democracy”.  When I asked him why he did that, he had this to say:

“Well, it’s because you can follow a word very, very precisely.  You can go wherever the word has been and left traces and you can see it; and you can look at what was happening in and through it.  What that word actually refers to, mind you, you can’t see in the same way: you have to work it out.  And actually, it’s quite difficult to work it out.  You have to pay close attention, and you can never be quite sure you’ve got it right. But if you do, you find something that is quite surprising to most people today.”

For John, a careful examination of language is necessarily linked to the underlying ideas it represents.  And by unthinkingly imposing today’s language and conceptual frameworks on historical figures, we don’t merely misquote them, we significantly distort what motivated them to say the words in the first place.

Perhaps the most significant example of this is highlighted by the role the Founding Fathers play in contemporary American life.  Unceasingly invoked as poster boys for everything from civil liberties to gun ownership, the one thing that almost everyone can agree upon is that the Founding Fathers, in their unified determination to break away from the shackles of British monarchy, were determined to erect the world’s first modern democracy.  But once again, careful analysis reveals that almost everyone is wrong.

“What is definitely true is that the way Americans think about democracy is very, very grievously mistaken, and it’s mistaken in a number of different ways.

“First of all, it isn’t true that the American Republic was founded on the idea of democracy.  The American Founders were extremely sceptical of democracy, and they thought it referred to a very bad form of government.  And they actively and militantly argued against allowing anything that would appropriately be described with that word to operate in the United States.

“So you can see that it’s a muddled way to think about the relationship between what those people were trying to do and democracy to say that the United States Republic was built as a democracy and to be a democracy: it just wasn’t.”

This doesn’t, of course, imply that our modern version of democracy is inherently undesirable, or that our present political structure should follow the thoughts and opinions of people who lived several hundreds of years ago.

But what it does mean is that paying very close attention to the language that people use to express themselves is one of the surest ways to grapple with their underlying ideas.

Sometimes we will agree.  Sometimes we will disagree.  And sometimes we will conclude, on careful inspection, that what they are saying simply doesn’t make any sense at all.

Howard Burton,


Related videos and eBook on Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal: Clips: Thinking It Through, Winning Ideas, Democratic Misconceptions, Compilation:  History and Language, Full-length video and eBook:  Clarifying the Muddle.

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