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Democracy’s False Humility

It is often said — going back to Churchill, right? — that democracy is the worst form of government in the world . . . except for all the others. This comment generally occurs in discussions where somebody is being critical of this or that aspect of democracy or democratic practice. Inevitably some genius whips out this aphorism  as a way to somehow validate the person’s point while simultaneously making sure that it has no potential impact on anything. “Yes, your point is clearly valid, but any alternative to the problem you point out is infinitely worse, so how about you shut the hell up now?”

Could we please have people who say this sort of thing just drop this disingenuous trope altogether? The thin rhetorical shroud around this all too common quip is nothing other than false humility. What’s really being said is that democracy is the best system of government the world has ever produced — I mean if “all the others” are worse, where do you think that leaves us?

After all, if democracy really is the best form of government ever, why tip-toe around it with false humility and patronization?


  1. Doesn’t Walter Wink say something about democracy being nonviolence institutionalized? (At least ideally).

    I wonder if in most contexts where someone complains about democracy if they’re really complaining about a particular problem with how we’re doing democracy. (Or whether in fact we are doing it at all! Many days I am sympathetic to the notion that the USA is an oligarchy.)

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  2. Evan wrote:

    I don’t know if it’s disingenuous, so much as just trying to be clever. And it’s a statement about the inadequacy of all political systems as much as it is a statement about the relative success of democracy in particular. As such a statement, it can certainly be disputed with regard to its conclusions about political thought in general or democracy in particular. But I don’t know if anyone’s trying to pull any sort of false humility. It’s a concise way to express that democracy is acceptable and even preferable in a decidedly relative sense.

    I’d think that this presents an opportunity to acknowledge the virtue of not hitching oneself to any worldly political configuration in any ultimate sense. Why would you want to object to that, even if you might reject the relative privileging of democracy over other schemes?

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink
  3. d barber wrote:

    If one believes in democracy, then one has the motivation to criticism actually existing democracy. So, actually existing democracy, by proclaiming itself the least worst politics, rather than the best politics, cuts off the possibility of political belief — all belief, even belief in democracy, being cut off at root by a rather nihilistic presupposition. (In this sense Thatcher’s TINA is in real continuity with Churchill.)

    I’m not sure how to take Evan’s comment … after all, the theological (I suppose this is where Evan’s coming from) “virtue” of not getting hitched to a political scheme fits really nicely with democracy. In this case, Churchillian democracy and theology both say: do not invest belief in the political.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  4. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Maybe it is the best form of government Halden. That is the problem. If this is the best you can do in this psychotic shithole they call civilization, maybe it is time to think of a new way of living. Looking not to the cities and the great people of the world, but to the wild ones we like to kill off and dismiss…

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 7:26 pm | Permalink
  5. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Walter Wink is one of those liberals who wants to make the state nonviolent. As if that nonviolence would not merely be a tighter noose around our necks. He needs to read Huxley. For that matter, he should read what Martin Luther King Jr. said about nonviolence done for the wrong reasons: he said it is more immoral to use nonviolence to uphold a fundamentally evil system than it is to use violence to uphold it. I could not agree more.

    To say something like that and ignore the technological society within which we live, where everyone has their little task and cannot think of the bigger pictures, the ends and telos because our jobs are to keep the ovens baking the dead bodies, is to be on another planet, not this one. In this technological society, nonviolent states look like what they did in Pittsburg to the protesters with their damned nonlethal weapons: they unleashed a brand new one: an acoustic weapon that dropped people like rocks. How effective…how tame…how good of them…aren’t they benevolent?

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Oh I agree that it might be. That wasn’t my point. Rather it was the nature of the trope that I found fault with.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I also tend to despise Wink’s work. Its really total crap.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  8. robert wrote:

    Wink’s defense of the modern state is garbage. Anyone with a good chance of meeting up with him should always have a copy of Torture and Eucharist handy to whack him upside the head with.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 8:34 pm | Permalink
  9. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Get over it, he’s not that bad.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    He’s pretty bad. Marva Dawn really nails him in her excellent book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 8:54 pm | Permalink
  11. james wrote:

    I don’t think the saying is necessarily disingenuous. It usually arises in a moment in which one seeks to acknowledge that democracy has just produced another terrible outcome which no enlightened dictatorship (or many other forms of government) in theory would ever produce. Unfortunately, we also know those other forms would eventually get everything else terribly wrong. So we are stuck with the truly more awful but sustainable form of day to day practical government, though we know better theoretical forms exist.

    The statement isn’t intended to make any substantive outward comparisons and trumpet democracy’s greatness. It is pure internal critique bemoaning the sausage-making drudgery of democracy. Far from cleverly trumpeting greatness, it is saying “here we are making asses of ourselves yet again, and there isn’t anything to be done but wait it out.” The speaker has no pride in the process but simply resignation to “the system”.

    Having said that, every human speaker and listener knows democracy to be the best form of government that has ever existed. That’s just not the point here.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Permalink
  12. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Wink has this example in one of his books of Korean police using nonviolence as a way to put down protests against the regime. He advocates that tactic as an alternative to using violence to put down the protesters. And I suppose if your concern is *not* using violence, it is better.

    Either way, however, same result, except that with the nonviolent method the Korean regime can count on the support of the intellectual pacifists and liberals like Wink who will then tell people that the regime is “not all that bad, because they don’t hurt people or kill them” (they just keep you in a sweat shop for 24 hours a day, but hey, you’re alive.

    Never mind that the nonviolent example of his Korean police serves to further legitimate the regime in the eyes of the middle class and never mind that in making the claim that nonviolence is more effective, which all of them do, Wink and others are essentially accepting the fundamentally unjust systems embedded in the technological society. Marva Dawn has read Ellul…she’d understand that (at least I hope so, but who knows).

    Democracy, in any case is not a form of nonviolent rule. It is less overtly violent, but it is not nonviolent. What I object to in people like Wink (Stassen does this too) is the way they deploy concepts like democracy in ways that make the New Testament skepticism of the state irrelevant. After all, every state that I can think of claims to be a democracy. If Communist Russia, Maoist China, Fascist Spain, and Capitalist Britain all claim to be democracies, then the concept has no meaning anymore, or it is at least relativized so that the difference between it and other forms of government matter very little.

    The US is not a plutocracy, it is a technocracy. Technology rules our lives, our ethics, our relationships, our theology, our worship, and virtually every thing we think and do….it even manufactures, literally, the air we breath. It is the actual techniques and also the technicians who rule this territory, and probably the entire civilized West.

    Write to a Senator, President or the IRS and behold the automated response you will get in return…consider the form a full reply from the matrix.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  13. d barber wrote:

    James, you overlook the way in which such “resignation” is far from passive — it is an active policing, even if “self-critical”, of the possibility of something other than the present “democratic” state of affairs.

    You say, “Unfortunately, we also know those other forms would eventually get everything else terribly wrong” — but the point of the Churchillian statement is not just a survey of past and present, it also looks to the future. Its aim is to deflate an affirmation of the possibility of something better, in the future, than the present “democracy.”

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink
  14. james wrote:

    I’m sorry, but as for future alternatives to democracy I believe history and the present global population has rendered its verdict (a democratic vote no less!) I shudder to think what is being suggested, but it will lead to some anarchy schoolboy stuff in short order I’m sure.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink
  15. d barber wrote:

    Ah, James — only now do I connect this thread with others where i’ve seen you comment. With that in mind, I imagine this may go nowhere, but that said …

    1. Hume has demonstrated, i think it’s fair to say, that we have no reason to presume that the future will resemble the past. Thus the supposed verdict that history (the past) and the present global population has rendered has no validity for the future.

    2. I have no idea by what means you have determined the desire of the “present global population.” I’d be intrigued to hear about your polling experience!

    3. You have no need to “shudder” in anticipation of what is being suggested. All you have to do is read (or it might help you to re-read, slowly if necessary) my comments: what I’m suggesting is what I have suggested, namely, that the Churchillian statement is a means of proclaiming that what is is what is, that nothing else is possible.

    4. You do seem to think nothing else is possible. And that’s how i take your fear of anarchy — it is the fear that things could be different than they are. When you are locked in to the present (as it sounds like you are James), time begins to look like a crazy anarchist.

    5. You have no idea how old I am. Refrain from the “schoolboy” stuff, for my sake because it annoys me, for the argument’s sake because it’s a petty diversion, and for your sake, because it makes you sound insecure and ignorant.

    Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  16. james wrote:

    On polling experience, I’ll make it easy, find me person who doesn’t want a democracy. Let’s go ahead and stipulate that they can’t be in or connected to a grad school in a democracy either.

    As for clinging to the present, I do fear a certain kind of “different” governance namely most of human history and most of what anarchists (or the schoolboy theoreticians who read them) dream of the future. If men were angels….

    On stereotype-dating of interlocuters: what can I say? Like most stereotypes, they’re true most of the time. Pity the few grown-ups who still play such games of stunted development and delayed rebellion. If the latter describes you, I apologize for any offense.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 12:26 am | Permalink
  17. dan wrote:

    I’d be curious to hear more about this. I haven’t read a lot of Wink (just the Powers trilogy and some other essays about sexuality) but I didn’t think what I was reading was ‘total crap’. In fact, a lot of his powers stuff seems to fit fairly closely to Stringfellow’s writings. So, I could read the Marva Dawn book, or you could post some more about this (I prefer the latter option!).

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 3:11 am | Permalink
  18. Evan wrote:

    I still don’t understand why this is false humility. Plenty of people are offering plausible reasons why Churchill is wrong. But for him to say that democracy is the best scheme in a relative sense (and an historical “ever” is still rather relative), or to imply that all political schemes fail to justify ultimate commitment, doesn’t strike me as disingenuous in the least. It’s either an acceptable statement or it’s not, but no one’s given any reason why this is patronizing, except for a vague and angsty rash of responses that make it clear that Churchill has bruised a few folks’ sentiment.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 6:07 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    I’ll see what I can do about posting on this.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    Evan, maybe Churchhill wasn’t being disingenuous, but the way this trope is deployed I think often is. This is, admittedly not his fault or even the fault of the saying as such. Rather it has to do with how it is often deployed in argument, at least in my experience, which is, of course limited.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  21. d barber wrote:

    Evan, To be clear: i don’t think it’s false humility or patronizing. What’s at stake are the effects produced by the peculiar way in which Churchill’s statement is forumlated — such that it maintains the hegemony of actually existing democracy not by saying that one should believe in it, but that one should not believe in anything else.

    Which is something, in my mind, far more harmful than condescension. It is an active consturction of political power that conceals its activity. It wins the game by setting the game up such that any competitors are initially disqualified.

    Now I don’t know if you have me in mind in with “vague and angsty” claim, but I would hope that my other comments, and certainly this one, are pretty clear and analytical. My sentiment is not bruised, I just think Churchill’s statement produces bad effects.

    I’d be happy for you to address any claims i am clearly making, but “vague and angsty”, if it is indeed aimed at me, seems patronizing itself.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  22. I guess a definition of ‘democracy’ is commonly understood by youall. Anyway, I would venture that some of the matrilineal, Native-American peoples, from Zuni to Iroquois, practiced forms of social life and decision making that I find admirable and worthy of emulation (even preferable!). That folks (Christian?) can’t even imagine another form of govt. may suggest how much dominant ideologies have been interpolated, not that we have reached the “End” of (Fukuyama’s) “History.” Obliged

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  23. d barber wrote:

    Very much agreed. Another way of putting my problem with the Churchill statement is that requires a cessation of imagination.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  24. Evan wrote:

    Your comments I think have pretty clearly fallen into the category of plausible explanations of what is wrong about this characterization of democracy. It’s the accusation of being patronizing or having a false humility that I think is somewhat vague and more rhetorically useful than really meaningfully helpful. Actually, I think it attempts the same sort of power play that you’re saying the Churchillian statement does, simply against democracy rather than for it. But a statement arguing that part of democracy’s goodness is the badness of other options seems pretty straightforward to me. And it might be total crap, but I don’t see why it’s any more harmful than other political arguments. All one has to say is, “actually, x, y, or z are preferable to democracy” or “actually, x is the worst form of government except for all the others (including democracy)”, etc. Seems simple enough to me. What makes something like this concealing or based on false pretense is its reception by people and the assumptions that allow it to turn into something that feigns humility. But I think the statement in itself is pretty mundane, and pretty genuinely humble. Presumably one could reasonably believe that democracy (or anything else) is the least of a number of evils, right? That’s all I’m saying. I’m not trying to dispute some of the critiques of democratic apologetics that are being offered here, only the insistence on the basic inherent inadequacy of a statement like Churchill’s.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  25. james wrote:

    I question the sincerity of your admiration of tribal councils. This strikes me as just hipster-Iroquois-chic posturing. Until you get a website like with complete links to ‘running the gaunlet’ and such I’d say your probably pretty content with what we call Western democracy.

    I really don’t think the issue with the comment is not being able to imagine an alternative to democracy, but rather misusing the phrase to advocate the status quo versus other forms of representation or governance WITHIN democracy (supermajorities, federal vs. state, lack of minority parties representation, etc.) If the phrase is thrown out to say well your just going to have to get the votes in this system perhaps it is a lazy power play. But some sort of patriotic triumphalism, it is not. Generally both parties aren’t contemplating the Zuni council.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  26. Hill wrote:

    I was severely disappointed to find that the website linked above was not real.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  27. james wrote:

    I must admit that when the intended text showed up hyperlinked even I couldn’t resist. That was a bit embarrassing.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  28. roger flyer wrote:


    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  29. James, said “I question the sincerity of your admiration of tribal councils. This strikes me as just hipster-Iroquois-chic posturing.” Yes, you have found me out James, I can’t tell you how often I have picked up hot chicks at the clubs with a line like, ‘No I don’t come here often, but the Corn-Mothers have reached a consensus and have given me permission to seek-out and copulate-with a mate outside the tribe, provided she is willing to have her genitals inspected by them and undergo a 9 day ritual of purification.’ But, seriously, no, I am not “pretty content” with American ‘democracy’ (youall still haven’t explained what you mean by ‘democracy’). I am merely suggesting that other models have existed (without perfection) and may be preferable in whole or part. For example, one could easily imagine a system informed by systematically working thru the political-theology of how Papal Infallibility functions as a mode of affirming revealed Truth of the Church in the world, from the bottom up, (contra popular understanding) to establish parameters of social practice (as Carl Schmitt argued, all political models are secularized theological models), animated with the work-a-day practicality of the pre-Stalinist Soviets, de-limited by the critical energy of Anarchism, balanced by the theocratic Ashiwani of Zuni councils, as guided by the wisdom of the Talmud, as articulated by post-temple Qumranic-Lubavithchers, with the whole kaboodle submitted to the final authority of post–menopausal Women. (see the site for a more comprehensive manifesto, Obliged.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 5:52 pm | Permalink
  30. oh, the link is Obliged

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 5:55 pm | Permalink
  31. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    trouble posting the link, sorry.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  32. james wrote:

    Hoist with my own petard. This was beautiful, Daniel.

    Friday, October 2, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  33. I agree–you can use nonviolence immorally.
    However, I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that using a commitment nonviolence as an excuse to perpetuate a systemic evil is worse than using violence to attempt to get rid of that evil. (Which may be different than what Dr. King meant in Andy’s quoting of him.) Part of my commitment to nonviolence applies to the way I do interpersonal politics, in family relationships, other personal relationships, or in congregations and church systems. I have some pretty strong opinions about policies and practices in my church–local and national–that are unjust; but even if I have to wait longer, even without guarantee that those practices will end, by remaining committed to nonviolence, I’m not going to violate that commitment. My commitment to nonviolence isn’t (purely or ultimately) pragmatic.

    I haven’t read much of anything of Wink, honestly. I’d be interested to read more about Marva Dawn’s criticisms, also. One of my early hear-say exposures to Wink was to his way of reading nonviolent resistance teachings into the Sermon on the Mount – “going the second mile”, “turning the other cheek”, “giving your tunic as well”. Is that also total crap in your opinion?

    Saturday, October 3, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  34. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Well, in King’s case, the Birmingham police deliberately decided not to use violence so that the out-of-state news media would not be able to broadcast more beatings and such things, which always brought more sympathy for African Americans than agreement with southern white establishment.

    Part of King’s strategy was to provoke the system to use violence, have the media there to record it, then broadcast it and get sympathy from those who could help influence a change. Those places that did not use overt violence against the demonstrators, such as Chicago, effectively stopped the campaigns through bureaucratic means. In Chicago, the problems were every bit as deep as in the South, but the administration knew better than to unleash dogs on kids. They just held press conferences and congratulated King for showing them problems, then never did a thing. To this day many of the issues King wanted to help alleviate are a major problem there (I am from Chicago originally). This also happened in Selma, The police chief actually read Gandhi before the protesters came. Civil Rights in that city took much longer as a result.

    Thus in the Birmingham jail, he said that indeed the police had been “rather nonviolent” in handling the protesters, then denounced them for doing it for the cynical reason of upholding Jim Crow: no problem here ladies and gentlemen. Just these rowdy, illegal protesters whom we have to sweep up and keep out of people’s way.

    I’d say that if and when any police force does such things they do it for cynical reasons of upholding their unjust system (and all governments are unjust…a la Barth, Epistle to the Romans). I think we might be in the same church Scott…you are Mennonite right? WE got idiotic Mennonites who advocate, help develop, etc. for nonlethal weapons for police and such as a *more effective tool* for the government. They are right about it being more effective probably, but that is the problem. I don’t want a tighter grip! Mennonites irritate me to no end when they do this sort of thing.

    Regarding Wink: I have serious doubts about his reading of the Sermon on the Mount. I do not know of any biblical scholar who takes that seriously. But there may be some. I just don’t know of any.

    Sunday, October 4, 2009 at 8:12 pm | Permalink
  35. @ Andy: I am Mennonite; we might be in the same denomination if that’s what you mean. But we aren’t in the same local congregation (unless you’re using an assumed name online). There are only about 50 or 60 people in our congregation at present.

    Friday, October 9, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

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