On the #YTLAnnualLecture, 23 January - Richard Tuck (Harvard) on ‘Active and Passive Citizens’

Richard Tuck, Professor of Government at Harvard and a co-founding signatory of The Full Brexit, gave the 2019 Yeoh Tiong Lay Centre Annual Lecture at King’s College London last week. Audio of the following day’s panel discussion is here, while the video of the whole lecture is here:

Richard also has a book on democratic theory in the twentieth century forthcoming, more details of that hopefully soon. Below are some notes on the general argument of the lecture.

The status of democracy in both political theory and Western political culture has suffered a serious downgrading in recent years. In Tuck’s words, we have witnessed a “cultural shift away from democracy”. Within this attitudinal change, as Yascha Mounk’s research suggests, there is a striking generational divide. For instance, while 75% of those born in the 1930s believe democracy is essential, only 25% of those born in the 1980s hold the same view. As Tuck put it, “septicaemia has invaded the organs of democracy”

The first part of the lecture investigated some of the main reasons for this decline in the status of the concept of democracy. The past 25 years have seen the emergence and then dominance of Third Way ideologies of left liberalism. Hillary Rodham Clinton represents its newest iteration. Revealingly, she describes her motivation for getting into politics as “to make life better for children and families”, rather than to represent (class) interests. In general, and with a few notable exceptions, the clash of material interests is not an accepted model of politics, especially on the Left. Instead, we have seen the emergence of a politics of charity and aid for the worst off in society such that the Left comes to see the state, in Tuck’s memorable phrase, as “the armed wing of Oxfam”.

With the age of mass citizen armies seemingly passed (with the Vietnam War as a last, belated example), people’s relation to politics and to society as a whole has shifted. Increasing numbers of people find themselves in what author Anne Amnesia has called the “unnecessariat”, facing declining chances of social mobility. Declining political participation, voting rates and party membership rates from the 1970s onwards (again, with very few exceptions) characterise the trajectory of Western European politics. Taken as a whole, these changes play into the dynamic of separating political representatives from the citizens who not only hold them to account but give them their power in the first place.

Tuck’s key claim here is that these material changes (in representative politics and in the class structure) have had a profound effect in the sphere of culture and theory. In short, we have seen a undermining of the moral force of decisions made by a majority. A range of political theories have emerged, in particular from the 1990s onwards in the Anglosphere, to downplay majoritarianism including:

  1. the defence of bodies of entrenched rights (such as the German and Indian constitutions) as properly immune to democratic change;
  2. the promotion of models of deliberative democracy (including Rawls’ influential analysis of the US Supreme Court);
  3. a case being made for sortition, or the choosing of political representative by lot (which is the method used to select the Pope of the Coptic church);
  4. an increased emphasis within political theory on opinion polling and responsive policy making, often as a way to “get closer to the preferences” of the electorate; and,
  5. approving discussions of epistocracy, which sometimes draw on neo-Confucianism or admiring analyses of the Chinese state’s ability to make decisions without consulting the masses.

Tuck’s discussion of these anti-majoritarian theories was rich and wide-ranging, focusing on two main points. First, it is impossible to imagine institutions of this anti-majoritarian kind that are not the creation of a (prior) popular vote. In this sense they are superstructural, built on the foundation of legitimacy given by a collective democratic decision. Second, and more importantly, these political theories represent a denial of the relevance of agency in political life.

The idea of agency in political life — or the idea that what distinguishes active from passive citizens is participation in a process that has the potential to change society — is one of the central issues in twentieth-century democratic theory. As Tuck explained, from the 1950s onwards we have seen arguments from economists and political sociologists that voting cannot be agentive, given the extremely low probability of being the decisive voter. Instead, the arguments run, for voting to be rational it must be about something other than bringing about a consequence, as each individual has a very low chance of being the specific voter who brings about that consequence. As a result, the link between voting and the outcome is weakened, since voters are self-expressing rather than demanding a specific vision of society (socialist, liberal, conservative) to be realised.

The fundamentally conservative character of this anti-majoritarianism should be clear. It puts some issues outside the remit of political decision-making — even if we all were to agree, some things just cannot be changed. The political sphere is seen by thinkers such as Anthony Downs as analogous to the market; in neither is the agency of the consumer important, beyond selecting between pre-arranged alternative options. Against this tradition, Tuck examined older Rousseauian ideas around what politics and, secondarily, voting mean. Under an agentive theory of politics, society can be transformed through a simple headcount in a way that previously would have required violence. This is the radical promise of democracy, and what justifies a focus on majorities as a method for expressing the form of life a collectivity decides to adopt. (Strikingly, and despite having taught The Social Contract before, I don’t think I previously understood why for Rousseau it is the generality of the General Will that constitutes its good. In other words, because a decision is shared and is collective, it is good. Perhaps this is why Castro claimed to have made the Cuban Revolution with a copy of The Social Contract in his pocket.)

Debates over democracy are now centre stage in British politics. Indeed, the debate over Brexit has meant that majoritarian decision-making processes have come under intense scrutiny. Tuck’s lecture was useful above all in placing these shifts in contemporary political theory into wider perspective, that is as informed by the history of political thought and material political and social changes.

New book: ‘The End of the End of History’ (https://tinyurl.com/5bkdxyfz) | georgehoare.com