Sweet talk and self-governance

We haven’t heard as much lately about panic over falling faith in democracy, but questions about the proper scope of democracy and what we mean by “democracy” are still relevant. Is democracy popping a ballot in a box, or does it include our conversations and what we do as communities?

Vincent Ostrom asks this question in The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge, and urges us to recognise a seldom-discussed danger to democracy. We often hear that we need to do more than just vote—we need to vote well. But, says Ostrom, we also need to be able to persuade each other—to use what Deirdre McCloskey calls “sweet talk“. Sweet talk is how we get people to act together when we can’t force them to. But we have to persuade well, the right way—building buy-in and consensus. The wrong kind of persuasion might be as dangerous as the wrong kind of voting. “Rhetoric pursued as an art of manipulation can be a trap contributing to the vulnerability of democratic societies.” (xiii)

In the first chapter of The Meaning of Democracy, Ostrom argues that while voting (and voting well) and the design of our political system matter, we worry too little about sweet talk and self-governance. We worry so much about voting and the design of government in part because of the importance of the thought of the American Founders, explained most clearly in The Federalist. Thanks to the Founders, we are especially worried about what Madison called “the tyranny of the majority”.

Madison worried about political “factions” working together by building coalitions to win power. Coalitions can railroad through policies that minorities and individuals wouldn’t have agreed to. To avoid this, the Founders drew on Montesquieu, designing a system of government that uses “power to check power”. We call this system one of ‘checks and balances’ in the American system of government. Checks and balances make it difficult—the Founders may have hoped it would be impossible—to seize control of the government to pursue agendas that don’t have buy-in outside the ruling coalition.

The Founders are important if we want to understand how to restrain modern governments, but they aren’t the only ones who wrote about the “American experiment”, the first attempt to build a self-governing society. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, another important examination, raises concerns about something called “democratic despotism“.

Democratic despotism, says Tocqueville, is the result of a process. First, men start to feel that they, individually or as a community, aren’t able to solve the problems they face, and so aren’t responsible for their own governance. Next, feeling that the problems of society are beyond their control, they turn to the government to remove their discomforts and even to provide the things they want. Finally, having found that the government can provide things that they want, men turn to it more and more. The fewer problems they try to solve on their own, the more they forget how to govern themselves. The more they forget, the more they turn to the government. Once these conditions are met, restraints on the government will be seen as akin to restraints on the ability to pursue happiness. And restraints on the pursuit of happiness are impossible to tolerate.

So democratic despotism will undermine a system of checks and balances. The government will only check itself if its people want it checked. Freeing the government to act without constraints might be tolerable or even help people in the short-term. But when the government does too many things for us, rather than empowering us to solve our own problems, it supplants self-governance. And you don’t need sweet talk when you can pass laws.

This vicious circle can eventually undermine the whole system. Just as dependence on foreign aid can undermine attempts at self-governance in developing economies, Tocqueville worries that dependence on “aid” from one’s own government can undermine even an established democratic society.

Once people believe the government is responsible for solving our problems and meeting our needs, it doesn’t matter if the problem is primarily one of self-governance or one of institutions. Democracy is thoroughly undermined.

“[Madison’s] Tyranny of the Majority might be viewed as a sickness of governments. Partisan coalitions would pursue narrow partisan advantages to the detriment of the more general public good, minority interests, and private rights. What Tocqueville is referring to as Democratic Despotism is by contrast a sickness of the people. Sicknesses of the people can be characterized by such vices as greed, envy, and a sense of helplessness. Perhaps the most fatal affliction of a people is a combination of helplessness, envy, and greed. These characteristics can be gradually created by the appeals of politicians in seeking to win elections and form winning coalitions. Democracies are in serious difficulties when a sickness of the people create a dependency, a form of servitude, in which the people no longer possess the autonomous capabilities to modify their constitutional arrangements and reform their system of government in appropriate ways. When republican diseases afflict both the Government and the people, it is not at all clear how democratic societies can maintain error-correcting potentials and self-governing capabilities.” (17)

Ostrom makes a credible case that a discussion of what’s required for a functional and healthy democracy can’t do without talking about more than what happens in the voting booth. We need to listen to both Madison and Tocqueville.


This post discusses the preface and first chapter of Vincent Ostrom’s The Meaning of Democracy and the Vulnerabilities of Democracies: A Response to Tocqueville’s Challenge. All page references are from the University of Michigan Press 2009 [1997] paperback edition.