Pluralist Points: Democracy as a Civic Bargain: Josiah Ober talks with Ben Klutsey about how democracy arose in history and how we can help it endure today (BEN KLUTSEY, JUN 28, 2024, Discourse)

OBER: Our basic idea in the book, or the idea we start with, anyway, is that democracy should be defined as “no boss”—or at least no boss other than one another. The impulse toward democracy is the resistance to having some external power (a king, an oligarchy) tell you what to do. We then suggest that the real only alternative to being told what to do by some ultimate boss is to figure out how to organize the political sphere, organize what we are going to do together ourselves.

That really is the beginning of democracy: is a bunch of people somewhere saying, “We’ve had enough of being bossed around, and we won’t have it anymore.” This can be an evolutionary process in which people become increasingly fed up and do things that slowly move the boss into a more and more minor position. That’s sort of the theory or at least one way of explaining what happens in the United Kingdom. Or you can have a revolution that just kicks the tyrant out, and then you’ve got to figure out what to do in the aftermath. That’s what happens, for example, at Athens or at Rome.

You can have—as the case in the United States, you become fed up with an external boss that you feel is not doing what the boss was supposed to do in terms of providing you with basic liberties. Then you say, “We’re done. We’re not going to be ruled by the king any longer. We’re going to run things ourselves.”

I think it’s always this conception that we don’t want somebody telling us what to do who isn’t us.

KLUTSEY: Right. Now, when you look around and you observe the situation with democracies across the board, what problem are you seeing? What issues are you seeing?

Obviously, there’s quite a bit written about in terms of—the democratic backsliding is what oftentimes people refer to. What are some of the core problems that led you to say, “Hey, we need to write something to get people to understand what this democratic project is all about”?

OBER: Yes. Our core idea in the book is that democracy really is a bargain. It’s got to be a bargain that is made within a pluralistic society. We assume that the people who decide “we don’t want a boss” are not just a homogenous mass of people who agree on everything else. Yes, they agree we don’t want a boss, but they don’t necessarily agree on what the marginal tax rate should be once we have to raise some funds to deal with, for example, foreign policy, national security and so on.

We say that it is imperative to recognize that not having a boss means that you have to learn to negotiate with your fellow citizens over matters on which you disagree. We can try to limit the degree of disagreement. We can try to make arguments to each other and say, “It would be better to have the marginal tax rate as this. Don’t you see how right I am?” But at a certain point, you’re going to say, “No, actually, I don’t agree.” Then we’re going to have to have some method to say, “All right, we’re going to come to the best deal we can.”

The whole purpose of basically making these deals is to be able to go on together without a boss, running our own affairs as best we can. We want to say that as soon as the idea of negotiating with, bargaining with, coming to the best agreement you can find with your fellow citizens is rejected—when that’s rejected and we say, “I don’t want to make a negotiation with them. I want to force them to do things my way. I reject the idea that those people really are even my fellow citizens, if they don’t believe what I believe.”

That kind of strong polarization, value polarization, is what we really see as a big threat to democracy, because it makes people convinced that democracy is about getting pure justice or getting exactly what you think is the right way, as opposed to recognize that democracy is always an imperfect bargain, imperfect from the point of view of anybody’s—any individual or any individual group’s—idea of what would be absolutely best.

No one’s going to get what they think is best, because we’re in a pluralistic society in which people’s interests are not identical. So that’s our key thing, is to try to say that democracy really is about compromise. It has to be. Because it’s about compromise, it will always be—the solutions will always be imperfect from everybody’s point of view. That’s just intrinsic to the system. As soon as you start demanding perfection, you’re basically rejecting the very idea of democracy.