One of the most disturbing trends in current discourse is the misuse of the term “anti-democratic.” It has become a kind of all-purpose insult, used as a cudgel to criticize political and intellectual opponents. Not only is this practice intellectually lazy, but it threatens to distort the meaning and obscure the value of democracy.
The advantages of democracy are obvious, at least to me, and deserve greater emphasis:
• Democracy helps produce higher rates of prosperity and economic growth.
• Democratic governments are more likely to protect human rights and basic civil liberties.
• As philosopher Karl Popper stressed, democracy helps societies escape the very worst rulers, by voting them out of office and in the meantime constraining them with checks and balances.
Of course democracy is not perfect. First, a lot of individual democratic decisions are not very good. (In fact, relative to scientific or technocratic ideals, most democratic decisions are not very good, though I would argue that technocrats cannot be completely trusted, either.) Second, there are periods when some countries might do better as non-democracies, even though democracy is better on average.
Too much commentary ignores these nuances. For example, The New York Times recently published an opinion piece with the headline, “Modi’s India Is Where Global Democracy Dies.” Many of its criticisms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are valid — but the regime is not anti-democratic. Modi has been elected twice by comfortable margins, and he is favored to win another term. It is instead a case of a democracy making the wrong choices, as they often do.
Or consider the criticisms of Poland when that regime limited the powers of its independent judiciary several years ago. That was a mistake, as it undermines the system of checks and balances that help strengthen democracy. Yet the move was not part of an “anti-democratic” agenda, as some commentators said at the time. Limiting the judiciary typically makes a government more democratic, as it did in Poland. (By the way, there are Polish elections scheduled for 2023; I see no signs they will be canceled.)
The danger is that “stuff I agree with” will increasingly be labeled as “democratic,” while anything someone opposes will be called “anti-democratic.” Democracy thus comes to be seen as a way to enact a series of personal preferences rather than a (mostly) beneficial impersonal mechanism for making collective decisions.
Closer to home and more controversially, many on the political left in the U.S. have made the charge that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade was “anti-democratic.” It is fine to call Dobbs a bad decision, but in fact the ruling puts abortion law into the hands of state legislatures. If aliens were visiting from Mars, they simply would not see that move as anti-democratic.
Yes, the American system of government has many nondemocratic (or imperfectly democratic) elements at its heart — the Supreme Court itself, for example, or the Senate, which gives less populous states outsized influence. Yet those same descriptions would apply to the court that decided Roe v. Wade as well as the court that overturned it.
(An aside: My qualms about the term “nondemocratic,” as opposed to “anti-democratic,” are separate but related. Not every aspect of a democracy can or should be democratic; there is a strong case for appointing sheriffs and dogcatchers. But if “nondemocratic” is used as a normative insult, people may begin to wonder if their loyalties should be to small-d democracy after all.)
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. No one says the Swiss government is “anti-democratic” because it puts so many decisions (for better or worse) into the hands of the cantons. And pointing out that many U.S. state governments are not as democratic as you might prefer does not overturn this logic.
It would be more honest, and more accurate, simply to note that court put the decision into the hands of (imperfectly) democratic state governments, and that you disagree with the decisions of those governments.
By conflating “what’s right” with “what’s democratic,” you may end up fooling yourself about the popularity of your own views. If you attribute the failure of your views to prevail to “nondemocratic” or “anti-democratic” forces, you might conclude the world simply needs more majoritarianism, more referendums, more voting.
Those may or may not be correct conclusions. But they should be judged empirically, rather than following from people’s idiosyncratic terminology about what they mean by “democracy” — and, by extension, “anti-democratic.”
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is co-author of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.