The absence of democracy as a threat to 'democracy.'

  • Posted on: 21 March 2018
  • By: benfell

My thinking on threats to democracy is developing further in preparation for the Human Science Institute conference to be held this October. In my earlier post, I observed secession movements, particularly in California, as motivated by a sense among an aggrieved minority (for example, authoritarian populists in California) that their concerns are ignored or dismissed by the political establishment which, in California, tends to hew to a mainstream neoliberal Democratic Party line.1

To begin, from a critical theory perspective, even standpoint theory understands our view of the social world as predicated on our social location. It is inevitable that heterosexual working class white males will have a different experience and view of the world from even working class white females, let alone gender-queer people of color. It's possible to argue that standpoint theory risks essentialism and oversimplification,2 but my response to this typically has been to draw on an understanding that suggests each of us has our own unique social location. Our standpoints might have much in common, but they are not and can never be identical. Edgar Morin put it this way:

Why do we continue to see human beings solely in terms of their social or professional status, their standard of living, their age, gender, or however else they figure in opinion polls? Every human being, even the most anonymous, is a veritable cosmos.3

But if essentialism is a fallacy, so too, I would argue, is its atomistic opposite. Few, if any, of us are so unique that we cannot find common ground with others. A question relevant to democracy is to what extent we find that common ground with others to form a political group identity. And if, within a political system, that identity can muster enough votes that group members are not consistently alienated. In the California secession movements, it is clear that conservatives and Republicans generally, and especially authoritarian populists, face long-term alienation at the state level and even often at the local level. Secession movements can be seen as an extreme manifestation of that alienation.

But secession is far from the only manifestation. And a search for common ground may face constraints. Simone de Beauvoir observed a seemingly inevitable tendency to distinguish "ourselves" from presumptively hostile "others."4 In her words,

[N]o group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself. If three travelers chance to occupy the same compartment, that is enough to make vaguely hostile "others" out of all the rest of the passengers on the train. In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are "strangers" and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are "foreigners"; Jews are "different" for the anti-Semite, Negroes are "inferior" for American racists, aborigines are "natives" for colonists, proletarians are the "lower class" for the privileged.5

I'm pretty sure I see where de Beauvoir is going with this. It simply does not matter how much we may have in common with others. We will find some way of distinguishing ourselves from them and a rationale for being hostile toward them. It might be ridiculous and indefensible, but we will do it.

It's certainly possible to see such a conclusion as overdrawn. And perhaps it is a hasty generalization. But returning to the question of democracy, the question is not whether de Beauvoir's claim is universally true, but rather whether it is true for enough people enough of the time.

I don't see how it can be reasonable to answer the latter question with anything other than an emphatic yes. Which raises its own question: Why? What is it about humanity that even a trivial distinction can engender hate and distrust? And yeah, I'm thinking of the horrendous polarization in political discourse in the United States, where we no longer even share a common epistemological ground but instead label claims we disapprove of as "fake news."

This is not a new question for me. It in fact predates my dissertation topic. But because at that time, I was working toward a dissertation, I haven't had a chance to look into it. I'm trying to do that now.

  • 1. David Benfell, "'Democracy,'" March 5, 2018,
  • 2. Virginia L. Oleson, "Early Millennial Feminist Qualitative Research: Challenges and Contours," in Landscape of Qualitative Research, eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 311-370.
  • 3. Edgar Morin, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  • 4. Simone de Beauvoir, "Women as Other," in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 345-347.
  • 5. Simone de Beauvoir, "Women as Other," in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 345-347.