September 15, 2016
Gathering again in the Philodemic Room, our Society ambitiously decided to debate “Resolved: Democracy is not inherently good,” a debate which coincidentally took place on International Day of Democracy. On the affirmation was Mr. Garrett Hinck (SFS ’18) of Pennsylvania, while the negation was advanced by Mr. Daniel Ernst (COL ’18) of Massachusetts.
Beginning by reminding the Society of its motto, “Eloquentiam Libertati Devinctam,” Mr. Hinck defined democracy as a system in which there is equal participation, open and free discourse and voting, and no tampering by outside institutions. Noting that democracy requires faith in the wisdom of the average person, Mr. Hinck provided a laundry list of democratic failures in which the will of the majority was used to suppress a minority. If democratic processes can be used for such evil purposes, he asked, can it be inherently good? In fact, as the authors of the Federalist argued, anti-democratic institutions such as SCOTUS and the Bill of Rights are necessary to provide the United States with a workable government. Our country is made great not by its democratic elections, but rather by its laws, norms, and institutions.
As Mr. Ernst rose to respond, he began with the story of Themistocles, who in 472 BC was unjustly exiled from Athens by a democratic election. Though this was a result of an unjust democracy, nevertheless it was morally good that the people of Athens were given the freedom to make a wrong decision. Mr. Ernst argued that democracy further imparted three intrinsic values: first, that democracy is based on the premise of equality; second, that the ability to harm one another prompts voters to reflect on the past in making their decisions, and that democracy therefore has an instructive tendency; and finally, that although democracy does not guarantee human rights, democratic institutions tend towards the protection of human rights. Even though democratic institutions may fail, the freedom to choose fundamentally redeems democracy.
Opening the floor speeches, Mr. Musser responded to Mr. Ernst by stating that claims of inherent moral instruction and an inherent tendency to protect human rights have to be assessed based on reality, by which measure they are shown to be untrue. Mr. Peter Hamilton (COL ’20), contrarily, stated that free choice is inherently good, and that by denying political choice to the people, the affirmation is inherently elitist. Not dissuaded by his rhetoric, Ms. Fisher made the bold claim that a benevolent dictator would be the greatest form of government, yet, according to Mr. Mullaney, George Washington would have been a great benevolent dictator but nonetheless resigned his post because he sought to prove that democracies could operate peacefully. Ms. Li retorted that the peaceful tendency of democracy only proves that democracies can do good in good conditions. Mr. Marrow, returning to the issue of the benevolent dictator, argued that even a benevolent dictator who represents the people perfectly has still denied them of their voices.
Ms. Provo pointed out that the debate ought to determine whether it is debating the goodness of ideal democracies or of democracies in reality, and that the negation holds that democracy is working in practice. Stating that problems with democracy result from poor education, Ms. Weissman argued that Jim Crow and other perversions of democracy are a result of an imperfect education system. Mr. Easterling responded to this line of reasoning by asking Ms. Weissman who determines the content of this education, to which Mr. Fletcher retorted that democracy itself encourages reflection and results in enlightened citizens. Referencing Brexit, Mr. Eisen argued that it’s crazy to give elderly people the same right to vote as young people when the results of any election will impact them for such a short amount of time. Mr. Gonzalez, again invoking the benevolent dictator, argued that if a good decision is not back by the will of the people, it cannot be said to be inherently good. Ms. Friedmann, however, stated that it is foolish to measure ideals, and that in practice democracy has promoted a disenfranchising form of meritocracy.
Opening nonmember speeches, Mr. Bryan Karas (COL ’19) argued that although we cannot have an ideal democracy, democratic norms make democracy inherently good. Mr. Bret Reinking (SFS ’19) stated that although democracies make electing good leaders more likely, the fact that brutal leaders are often elected in democracies invalidates the claim that democracy is inherently good. Ms. Tehya Corona (COL ’20) stated that, as an ideal, nearly all types of governments are inherently good, to which Ms. Sarah Baron (SFS ’20) responded that the failures of democracies to intervene in international atrocities and to learn from their mistakes negate the inherent goodness of democracy as a political ideal. Mr. Ben Zuegel (COL ’19) unabashedly claimed that democracy is the best form of government, as it provides the realistic expectation that situations can be improved over time. Delivering the last of the nonmember speeches, Mr. Jack Townsend (COL ’20) argued that government structures improve over time, and that it is therefore arrogant to claim that democracy represents the pinnacle of all political theory.
Returning to our member speaking time, Ms. Garrett argued that democracy should be judged not by its results but by its motivations, which are equality and progress. After an abstention speech by Mr. Bies, Mr. McCarthy argued that the strength of democracies is in their ability to change over time and examine themselves. Desiring to breathe new life into the affirmation, President Thanki posited that democracies are simply a political structure, which can have neither inherent goodness nor inherent badness apart from the people who compose them. Mr. Harden argued that democracy is beautiful because it extends the right to vote to all, even those who spend their Labor Days at an entirely unregulated campground in West Virginia. Mr. Shuman, responding to Mr. Ernst’s original point that democracy is instructive, stated that democracy is a bad teacher, because it teaches “lessons” only to minorities, while majorities never need to learn anything from their actions. Speaking on the negation, Mr. Perez-Reyes argued that although democracy is not “inherently” good, it is nonetheless good because it acknowledges the nonexistence of an inherent “good” and the ability of each person to determine goodness for themselves. Ms. Haag responded that some things are inherently wrong, such as the convict leasing in the post-Reconstruction South that was supported by democratic elections, although Ms. Cooke retorted that if there is anything inherent good, it resides in people; thus, democracy must be good because it empowers the inherent goodness in all people. Ending the period of floor speeches, Ms. Oster reminded us of James Madison’s words: “If men were angels,” democracy would not be necessary—and how can a necessary evil be called inherently good?
In his closing keynote, Mr. Ernst argued that this debate hinges entirely on the right to choose, which is more fundamental than making the right choice. Nonetheless, democracy has added benefits: it forces people to change themselves prior to expecting society to change, and it humanizes everyone, giving them all an equal right to choose. Ending his keynote, Mr. Ernst asked his audience whether any of them would have preferred that the speakers opposed to them had not been allowed to speak—if not, then they ought to stand on the negation at the end of the night.
To close out our night, Mr. Hinck arose again and began by pointing out that Democratic Peace Theory predicts that while democracies rarely fight one another, they frequently initiate wars against non-democracies. As a system of government, democracy pits people against one another, forces choices, and ultimately promotes tribalism. Finally, every structure created by human societies is tainted by inequalities, and democracy does not rise above this taint. And how can a system which is tainted by inequality and which encourages conflict against our fellow man be considered inherently good?
After the dust cleared and the results were tallied, the Society voted 13-3-28, negating this resolution! Of course, had a benevolent dictator been in charge of the voting, we might well have expected a different result.
Huzzah and ELD,