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Review of Gordon Graham's article: What is special about democracy?

Updated on February 13, 2015

What is special about democracy?

What is special about democracy?
Throughout our history, people have had a very distorted, simplistic, and even a pernicious notion of what democracy really is. People’s knowledge of democracy has been shaped by an ambiance of bigotry. People fail to realize that this is a highly contested concept with no simple definition. This essay will revolve around Gordon Graham’s article, What is special about democracy? This essay will cover the following: the author’s central concern, the argumentative support that he provides to support his conclusion, the possible objections that might be raised against the author’s position, and if the author’s central thesis is convincing.
The author has a very caustic attitude towards the majority’s view of democracy. Many positive connotations are added on to the word democracy. What comes to mind is freedom, self-determination, and power within the hands of the people. The perceptions and views of democracy that a majority of people have, has been shaped by their surroundings. Many people fail to question democracy. Many people fail to realize that the political system of a certain place at a certain time may affect this grandiose delusion they may have. These are factors that affect the legitimacy of democracy. The central concern of his argument and what the article revolves around is the legitimacy of democracy. At the very beginning, Graham comes out and questions the role that the “majority” plays. Gordon Graham (1983, p.94) notes that “it seems that simple majority rule is inadequate on its own as a conception of democracy,” and therefore is objectionable and questionable as will be explained later.
Gordon Graham gives us a number of arguments to support his conclusion. He starts off by telling us that the wishes and views of the majority is highly objectionable. Just because the majority of people may be for a certain policy, law, or candidate, does not necessarily mean that they are making the right decision. It is highly possible that they are irrational, unreasonable, and very stupid. Gordon Graham (1983, p.95) tells us that “it is still possible for the wishes of the majority to conflict with justice and reason.” Graham also tells us that the majority does not necessarily mean all people. In history and in today’s current time, many people have been, and are excluded due to their race, sex, age, sexual orientation etc. If certain people are excluded than it would not be “democratic”. Children and the clinically insane are excluded for a good reason.
Gordon Graham takes on Brian Barry’s defense of simple majority rule. Barry says that it is better to go with the majority principle, because in the end the disputes will be resolved in compliance with one’s own interest. Even though certain procedures are needed to settle certain disputes, the disputes and the questions are also disputable. In the end, people are more interested in what procedures will be efficacious in resolving the dispute. It revolves around the wishes of the majority.
Graham breaks down and systematically demolishes Barry’s argument into three parts. First, Graham says that Barry’s defense of democracy would not apply in certain parts of the world. Graham is absolutely right in saying this, because there is a number of variables including the time, place, dominant religion, culture, and the political structure of that region that would not make this possible. A forced democratic system could be conducive to chaos and implosion. So Barry’s defense is already weakened. Second, Graham tells us that Barry does not have enough of an argument to justify the use of certain democratic methods to resolve certain disputes. Graham does not argue that one should support what the majority supports. His objection to Barry is that the latter has failed to show that democratic ways of settling disputes are right, especially when the individual taking part in this process is free to ignore issues that do not directly or materially affect him/her. Graham goes on to say that Barry says nothing about the way in which disputes can be settled and that one should support what the majority supports. This is also a problem, because what comes to mind is that what one individual supports may differ and may conflict with what the majority supports. Third, Graham says that Barry’s argument for majority rule does not strengthen his defense of democracy and it no way gives Barry an advantage over his argument. Representative democracy can also be a problem, because the majority decides to choose a particular candidate to represent and to make decision for them. One can see a myriad of problems with this approach. Many illogical people would say that this is a good idea, but the truth is that unfortunately most people are not reasonable, rational, educated, or competent enough to make the right decisions. Their judgments are clouded by false promises. They fail to question the true intentions and competency of the candidate and they fail to question the legitimacy of representative democracy. Once a candidate is chosen than he/she is already provided with power and authority to resolve problems, if they choose to, and to make decisions for the majority. Graham tells us that Barry does not give an account of the naturalness of representative democracy. If and when a particular candidate is chosen does that truly entitle that candidate to rule over others? Graham brings these questions up.
Graham also questions John Stuart Mill’s ideas of a good despot. He questions whether, as Mill contends, democracy necessarily supplies self-determination. He criticizes the value of self-determination and tells us that just because one region is categorized as democratic does not necessarily make it so. There are many who believe that their vote matters when it comes to elections. Voting may not be efficacious, it does not produce the desired effect, but most people are convinced that it does. Most people are convinced that they have a certain amount of influence in certain affairs even though the person they choose to make decisions for them is the only one who has any real influence, authority, and power. This “democratic ideology” that most people have, has clouded their reason and their judgment.
There are possible objections that might be raised. Most people who read Graham’s article will have the notion that Graham is attacking democracy or is anti-democratic, because he criticizes democracy. A large percentage of people will vehemently disagree with him, even though Graham stated his case clearly. Many would say that Graham has gone too far and that people really do have a larger part and more of an influence than Graham thinks. Many would label him as a misanthrope for not having more faith in citizens and the decisions that they make. Others would say that the democratic system is somewhat flawed, but is developing and that we are better off with some sort of democracy than no democracy at all. Graham would be able to confront any one of these objections by going back to what was stated earlier. Graham does not reject democracy as an illegitimate form of rule. His point is rather that one cannot provide “a theoretical defense of democracy as such”, and that there is nothing intrinsically better about representative democracy. Towards the end of his article he tells us that whatever people may say in favor of democracy, they must take into consideration the time, place, and the political system of the region. These things make the biggest difference.
The author’s central thesis is convincing. His central thesis is convincing, because it is true in a number of ways. Not enough people criticize democracy, the legitimacy of democracy, the political system in that region, and the people who are being chosen to make important life decisions for us as citizens. Graham is absolutely right in stating that the time, place, and the political system of the region plays an enormous part in everything as well. More people would rather live in the United States than in Russia or any other democratic country, because there are certain liberties that come with living in the region such as freedom of expression etc. Graham raises very important points and does a superb job of challenging assiduously built up delusion of democracy.

Gordon Graham, “What is special about democracy?”, in Mind, New Series, Vol. 92, No. 365 (Jan., 1983), pp. 94-102.


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