Most people think democracy means the people get to vote on who holds office and what laws get passed. Government by the people and majority rule, at least when it comes to elections and referendums. Not so long ago, serious types would correct someone if they said America was a democracy. They would say it is a republic, not a democracy, which is technically correct. Civic nationalists will still do this whenever someone says America is a democracy, even though the term has become ubiquitous.
Putting aside the linguistic issues, most people think of democracy as something close to the Merriam-Webster definition, “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” The people have the final say on who holds office and by extension, what they do while in office. The government is controlled by the people, through an orderly process of elections and referendums.
The people in charge, however, have a different definition of democracy. They look at democracy as a thing, rather than a process. When they speak of democracy, they are talking about the offices and institutions they control, both official and unofficial. The media, for example, is an unofficial part of the democracy. The array of non-profits and think tanks are part of the democracy. The entirety of the managerial state is this thing they call democracy, which is why they endlessly talk about the need to defend it.
For example, this story in Foreign Policy magazine is about how Denmark’s use of computer software to manage welfare benefits is a threat to liberal democracy. The authors use the term in the way in which normal people would use it. They provide an example of how one municipality is using “a system that would use algorithms to identify children at risk of abuse, allowing authorities to target the flagged families for early intervention that could ultimately result in forced removals.”
In order for these systems to work, the state needs access to all sorts of data that not so long ago was assumed to be outside the scope of government. Think about what the state would need to know about “the children at risk” in order to know they are at risk. Most of what would be useful is the sort of information, people in liberal democracies think is none of the government’s business. Then there is the notion that the state has the right to involve itself in the affairs of citizens, before they do something wrong.
Notice too the shift in language. Those inclined to dystopian views like to use the word “pre-crime” to define this sort of thing, but it is actually worse. The new class thinks they need to intervene in your life before you do something wrong, which is different than preventing crime. What the Danish state is up to is intervening in the lives of citizens before they act in a way that may be legal but not in their interests. The state now has a monopoly on morality, in addition to a monopoly on violence.
As the authors point out, the core assumption of liberal democracy has always been that the state must be restrained. This is described as negative liberty. The state is out of the way of the people, who are then free to pursue their interests. It’s why the US Constitution narrowly describes the role of each branch of government. It’s also why there is a bill of rights, which describes broad spheres into which the state is prohibited. In theory, the government is like a dog on a leash. It can only go where the leash permits.
What’s happened in the last several decades in the West is a subtle shift away from negative liberty to positive liberty. This is the claim that to be free, a person must be self-determined, able to control their own destiny in their own interests. For example, an addict is not free because they are a slave to the drug. A black person, despite equality before the law, is not free due to white racism and the legacy of slavery. The state may not be placing obstacles in their way, but the person is not in control of their destiny.
The role of the state, therefore, is not to stay out of the way, but to intercede in order to clear these limits on the citizen’s ability to fulfill their potential. That’s why the Danish government just assumes it is their duty to meddle in the personal lives of citizens. They are not violating their rights. Instead they are helping them reach their potential, by preventing them from doing things that are not in their interests. In the case of family life, it means stopping people from being bad parents or bad examples to their children.
It’s why the new class is in such a panic over the rise of populist movements in the West and willing to use totalitarian means to suppress them. From their perspective, these forces are a threat to democracy, because they are the democracy. The new class, this consolidating class of people at the top of politics, administration, finance, business and the law, are the indispensable class. Without them, there is no democracy, because there is no one to structure your life so you can reach your fullest potential.
It’s also why they are prone to blaming the super natural for observable phenomenon like racial inequality or the differences in the sexes. When you eliminate the natural explanations for why blacks have different life outcomes than whites, then you are left with the supernatural. White privilege is just another way of blaming bad juju. The same is true of “gun violence” which shifts agency from the trigger puller to the object. These various bogeymen become an explanation and a rallying cry for the new class.
More ominous is how the new class, at least in America, is slowly coming to the conclusion that the reason the new citizens are not reaching their potential is that the old citizens have a mystical power source. The mere presence of legacy Americans, minding their own business, living their lives, is bad for the new citizens. After all, that is the definition of white privilege. There can be only one solution to that problem. That probably explains why the Sackler family walks free. They are the sword of democracy.