What Makes Democracy Intrinsically Valuable: Talking to Josiah Ober

How might our most liberalizing and/or progressive idealizations of democracy hinder prospects for collective self-governance in other parts of the world? How might political theorists encourage the expansion of empowering democratic practice without (as in disastrous overreachings from recent decades) imposing/exporting a constrictive cultural homogeneity as some supposedly inevitable part of this democratic project? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Josiah Ober. This present conversation, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on Ober’s Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice. Our preceding conversation focused on Ober’s books The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, and Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule. Ober, Mitsotakis Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University, focuses on how the social thought and institutional practices of the ancient Greek world might most constructively shape present-day political outcomes.


ANDY FITCH: Could we begin with you offering the most basic delineations (conceptual delineations, historical delineations, prospective delineations for present and future states) by which Demopolis differentiates between democracy and liberalism? And could we raise from the start one of Demopolis’s most pressing concerns — that present or future societies first considering democracy and liberalism fundamentally entwined, then considering liberalism an inappropriate paradigm for their own particular needs, might, by default (basically by erroneous conflation), forgo democracy?

JOSIAH OBER: This project connects in various ways to earlier work in which I sought to understand the first fully documented democracy in world history, that of classical Athens (5th and 4th centuries BCE — long before the classical liberalism that developed from Enlightenment thought, or the contemporary liberalism of the late 20th and 21st centuries). But in Demopolis I also wanted to abstract away from ancient Greece, a society that employed slaves, considered women unsuited to citizenship, and based political membership on native birth. So the question becomes: what can we learn from Athenian democracy without tying ourselves to Athenian history? That gets us to a theoretical question: what might a contemporary society look like that was democratic in the basic sense of being ruled by citizens, but had not (yet) institutionalized the norms and rules that arise from liberalism’s moral commitments?

Analytic philosophy seeks in part to clarify some of our most significant concepts, to put definitions on the table so that we can use them to do further work. And contemporary political theory runs into this problematic lack of clarity arising from conflations of liberalism with democracy. So it seemed useful to demonstrate that democracy and liberalism are not only historically separate (democracy emerged before liberalism), but also conceptually separable, even if most contemporary political theory does not separate them. I want readers to realize that democracy begins as collective self-government, as citizens participating in creating their own future together. Even when democracy does not overlap with individual rights, with personal autonomy, with separation of church and state (core features of liberalism), we might regard it as in some ways choiceworthy when compared to authoritarian alternatives. Whether you believe that social cooperation (that seeking common political goals together with others) has instrumental value in bringing about good ends, or whether you believe that engaging in political action has intrinsic value for humans (and so is a good in itself), you have good reasons to value democracy, reasons independent of liberalism.

I was raised as a liberal and remain personally committed to liberal principles, but I recognize that many people are not liberal and are unlikely to be moved by liberal arguments. Many societies, for instance, base themselves around a strong shared belief in the essential value of some specific religious conception of morality. So, as a democratic theorist concerned with the real world, I need to have something to offer people who say: “Look, we like the idea of being citizens. We despise the idea of a tyrant ruling over us. We want to adopt some features that shape your democracy, but we’re not liberals. We don’t buy into the liberal package of personal autonomy, universal rights, and secularism. So what have you got for us?” I don’t think contemporary liberal political theory has an adequate answer to that question.

And just to trace basic democracy’s elastic parameters, Demopolis cites, as perhaps the two most exemplary models from U.S. history of “modern regimes…characterized as collective and limited self-government by citizens, through their accountable representatives,” the 19th-century Jacksonian era and the 20th-century Civil Rights era. Since these respective historical spans could be seen to offer the greatest consolidations of, and the greatest challenges to, patriarchal white-supremacist domination of U.S. politics and policy, could you describe some crucial overlaps, and crucial points of departure, in their conceptions of democracy and their approaches to democratic liberalism?

Both periods stressed a strong commitment, at least in principle, to the value of equal citizenship, and to the importance of defending the essential dignity of non-elite (i.e., poor and poorly educated) citizens. But a big difference between then and now lies in the answer to the question: who is a citizen? Democracy itself does not have a principled answer to the broader question: who should be a citizen? It simply imposes the limit condition that all those whom the dominant culture imagines as citizens ought to be citizens. And democracy also commits to the principle of considering its citizens worthy of political participation — with their voices heard and their votes counted. Jacksonian America effectively limited citizenship to white men, yet incorporated poor and rural citizens as real political participants, against the objection of the preceding ruling elite. The Civil Rights era arose from African Americans (defined as citizens according to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments) getting subjected to extreme forms of indignity by local practices and local ordinances that, we now recognize, contradicted both the spirit and letter of those amendments. While often couched in the liberal vocabulary of universal human rights, the 1965 Voting Rights Act in fact provided a victory for the principle of civic dignity — for the right of citizens to participate in politics without fear of being subject to humiliation or infantilization.

In terms then of Demopolis reaching the broadest possible range of communities, one further definitional question comes to mind. Since your book posits from the start that democracy “remains in part aspirational, a hope…not fully realized,” and since a reader might feel torn between conceiving of “basic democracy” as an ever-emergent, ever-provisional phenomenon (with recent manifestations, say, in Civil Rights era struggles in the U.S. in the 1950s-70s, in Eastern European opposition movements of the 80s-90s, in Middle Eastern uprisings of the last decade), versus conceiving of democracy as an institutionalized, constitutionally structured regime enduring across generations, why did it make sense here, given your focus on democracy before liberalism, to prioritize stabilized states, rather than more fluid social movements?

I think of this book providing an answer to democratic agonists (including the late, great Sheldon Wolin) who see constitutional democracy as a betrayal of democracy’s aspirations. We certainly can image democracy as purely aspirational, with real democracy emerging only during moments of revolutionary upheaval. In that imaginary, as soon as we reach any kind of institutional formation, democracy sells out and loses its potential for endlessly productive contestation. But that vision ultimately fails to address the basic concluding question which my book has tried to answer: “How should we live our lives, together?” For most of us, who care also about things other than contestation, the answer is not: “As an endlessly emergent aspiration with nothing ever nailed down.” Still I don’t directly engage democratic agonists in Demopolis, because I want to offer a positive argument for what democracy is, and what it is (and is not) good for, rather than fostering a parochial debate among theorists.

For crucial perspectival differences between how basic democracy and how present-day vernacular U.S. liberalism might respond to that question of how we should live our lives together, two distinctions especially stood out: the basic democratic (though not necessarily liberal) assumption that we inevitably face a dangerous and mutable world, always coaxing forth new external and internal pressures for the state and its members; and the related assumption that this ever-volatile and competitive context cannot help but require a vigilant citizenry’s constant contribution to the state’s proactive regeneration. And here could we address what seemed perhaps this book’s most persuasive (if understated) argumentative tactic of transforming these two potentially negative propositions for democratic states (both carrying considerable personal costs for citizens operating within such regimes) into positive virtues? Here unceasing existential precarity in fact calls forth and crystallizes some of our most celebrated human capacities. Here duties of democratic participation help us to recognize, appreciate, enhance the most prosocial such capacities. So here could you outline, however you see fit, your career-long effort to articulate these distinctly democratic goods, and to present these goods as potentially worth pursuing even independent of any altruistic or ethical rationale for them?

Imagine someone saying: “I have been reading Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. Although I don’t buy his whole argument, I do agree that people want basic security so that they don’t have to live in constant fear of their neighbors.” That same person might likewise acknowledge Hobbes’s emphasis on the value of basic welfare, of living without the constant threat of extreme deprivation. She might conclude: “Hobbes says a life with basic security and welfare only can occur in a society with rules made and enforced by a lawless sovereign — in essence a tyrant, whether an individual, a junta, or a mob. Do you agree with him?”

In reply, I readily would concede that Hobbes has a real point. Human societies develop in order to allow people to live with basic security and welfare. In any complex society, this requires some kind of constitutional foundation. Here the question inevitably arises: just how much and what type of constitutional apparatus do we need to achieve these baseline conditions? So Demopolis explores how a bounded community of persons could achieve basic security and welfare, but while avoiding Hobbes’s conclusion that those desired conditions require accepting tyranny. If you don’t accept tyranny in this case, then democracy provides the answer for how to organize constitutional government. But then how open should such a democratic constitution be to future change? I would answer: at least open enough to address shifting social conditions brought about by demographic trends, technological innovations, evolving cultural attitudes, new threats and opportunities.

Demopolis does not specify the details of constitutional apparatus. A democratic constitution might result in a modern, elaborately administrative and highly regulated state. Or at another extreme, it could align with the aspirations of radical social movements (left or right) that see an elaborate state apparatus as a threat. But in any case, Demopolis argues that we should seek to understand what makes democracy intrinsically valuable, which means moving beyond treating democracy as merely a more-or-less efficient instrumental means to higher ends. Demopolis argues that humans (like other animals) have a distinct kind of being, and possess certain innate capacities that constitute us as this specific kind of being.

So what particular capacities constitute us as human? I opt for a minimalist answer to this very big question. I search for common ground between Aristotle and his severest critic (Hobbes). Hobbes wrote Leviathan as a refutation of Aristotle, as an alternative to Aristotle’s solution to the problem of social order in the Politics. So any agreement between Aristotle and Hobbes on this question of human capacities should provide a good baseline. And as it turns out, they agree on the proposition that humans possess a distinctive capacity to use reason, a capacity which does not seem fully present in other animals. They agree on human communicative capacity, on our unique ability to use symbolic language systems in ways other animals cannot. Finally, and more controversially, I argue that Hobbes and Aristotle agree (more than usually gets recognized) about our capacity to construct and flourish within extensive and complex social systems — again in ways most other animals do not.

I sense enough agreement between Aristotle and Hobbes, enough agreement among contemporary social and natural scientists, to allow me to claim human rationality, communication, and sociability as core human capacities. Among forms of political order, democracy emerges as unique in calling on each of to use each of these capacities — as we reason, and communicate, to solve problems and create the society in which we all can live together. If a tyrant tells us: “I exclude your input from my effort to solve social problems,” then that tyrant denies us the chance to fully exercise our core capacities.

Think of what makes a domestic cat’s life go well: warmth, shelter, petting, and so forth. Suppose someone provided a cat all those things, yet kept it in a small cage for its whole life, never allowed to move around, to jump, to pounce. If you’ve ever lived with a cat, I think you’ll agree that a cat kept in a cage loses the chance of leading a flourishing cat life. The cage denies the cat the ability to exercise its fundamentally feline capacities. For humans, living under a tyrant who rules over us, without our input, resembles the life of a cat in a cage.

Does this appeal to the fulfillment of human capacities come across as potentially fraught in social-science conversations? Does the rhetorical naturalization of innate capacities raise fears that we might be reinforcing contemporary norms (as previous naturalizing claims might have reinforced, say, culturally determined gender dichotomies, heteronormative imperatives, dubious racialized distinctions) as much as positing historical facts? Or if we decide to valorize humanity’s evolutionarily derived prosocial capacities, do we open new possibilities for validation of less proto-progressive and yet just as profoundly “human” capacities — inclinations towards, for example, individual aggression or collective violence (what if a Hobbesian state of nature in fact enables our capacities, taken as a whole, better than any democracy ever could)? Or how might we reach a conclusive designation for what counts as a long-term species-benefitting prosocial capacity? Or admittedly, this current question cluster might come across as too Liberal Studies 101 to merit much consideration in your incisive book. But since Demopolis does acknowledge adopting a “nonexhaustive” list of human capacities, since one footnote supposes Demopolis’s inherent-capacities approach “compatible with” (though not necessarily equivalent to) “some religious conceptions,” could you parse further how arguments for capacities fulfillment differ from the types of ethical pronouncements appealing to innate or teleological or utopian claims that Demopolis seeks to push beyond?

First my book does assume that the Demopolis thought experiment has to be testable with the best science we have available. I go through that list of baseline human capacities in part to show that both Aristotle and Hobbes agree (on this at least) with contemporary natural and social scientists. Of course, appeals to nature can get used maliciously or deployed in ways that make some liberals (myself included) uncomfortable. But it seems very wrong to base our account of politics on a wishful, unscientific account of humans as uniquely (among animals) lacking inherent traits, as existing somehow outside nature — simply because we fear the consequences of political arguments acknowledging the characteristic natural abilities of our species.

I should add that Demopolis’s argument for democracy’s intrinsic value appears within the description of a civic education that can sustain this basic democracy’s claim to legitimacy, all without appealing to liberal ideals of justice, traditionalist notions of divine right, or nationalist sentiments of blood and soil. The Demopolis thought-experiment depends on continued buy-in by its citizens. They must have reasons to obey its rules, to pay the considerable (though I believe not overly burdensome) costs of participatory citizenship. Demopolis needs to provide citizens with a respectable answer to the question: “Why should I choose to be a participating citizen, rather than just do my own thing, full time?” If you choose to live in a tyrannical regime, so goes Demopolis’s argument, then you have cut yourself off from certain goods available only through practicing democracy.

Again, Demopolis’s imagined founders do not necessarily start with a shared set of specific values. Different citizens might embrace the three basic ends of security, welfare, and non-tyranny for different reasons. One might say: “I am a (Philip Pettit-type) Republican. I despise domination. Tyrants dominate, and so I reject any tyrannical regime.” Another might reply: “I’m an (Isaiah Berlin-type) believer in negative liberty. I don’t worry much about domination and don’t value political participation as an end. I want free choices in how to live my life. I’ve studied history, and I see that tyrants typically restrict those choices.” A third might say: “I’m an (Oscar Wilde-type) aesthete. I find intolerable the disgusting spectacles and drab parades that tyrants invariably sponsor.”

But whatever reasons a citizen has for preferring those basic ends, certain conditions become necessary. First, all citizens must participate, one way or another, in order to avoid an intractable free-rider problem: why should anyone work for the common good if others do not? Second, Demopolis must provide freedom of political speech and association, without which citizens cannot truly participate. Third, Demopolis must ensure political equality, because when a few grow much more influential than the rest, you get tyranny. And finally, democracy requires that all citizens enjoy the condition of civic dignity, that they get treated with respect, as worthy of being citizens, or else formal freedom and equality become functionally meaningless — as we discussed in relation to the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

So Demopolis does need to establish certain conditions without which democracy becomes a sham. Yet these conditions need not start off as values. A very religious citizen might agree to support political freedom — not as a value, but as a condition which in turn sustains her own chance to practice religion without fear of tyrannical interference. Unlike, say, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, I don’t begin with the aim of establishing value commitments. I start with the conditions necessary to realize those three basic human ends, and a kind of education that could sustain society’s efforts to achieve those ends.

Returning then to your basic assumptions that democracy exists in a dangerous world and that it imposes compulsory costs, if I had to picture any generalized social identity most likely to embrace these two assumptions (and therefore to work proactively to establish the foundational conditions you just outlined), it would be that of an immigrant. Historical studies would confirm that immigrants often have paid in exemplary fashion the participatory costs owed to the regenerative maintenance of U.S. democracy. As a concise illustration of how competing discourses of active assent and tacit or hypothetical consent shape Demopolis’s conception of civic participation, could you sketch the case for Demopolis’s ambitiously inclusive parameters of citizenship, in which all long-term residents potentially qualify (based on what they do, more than who they are), and could you likewise sketch the inverse case for “citizenship-eligible noncitizen” designation?

This gets to the question of how Demopolis sustains itself after its founding. Open borders pose questions for which I can see no good solution, so I assume that Demopolis exists within a bounded territory, and that citizens remain free to move across the border. Those who choose to immigrate to Demopolis, and who the state allows to reside within its border, must have the option of becoming citizens.

If a basic democratic society predicates its legitimacy on the idea of citizenship and political participation as inherent human goods, then it must allow anyone born or accepted within its territory the option to become a full-fledged citizen. But it also must demand that those choosing citizenship accept the costs of participation. Civic education will articulate those costs. Demopolis’s citizens then must enforce this duty to participate, by outing free riders and sanctioning them. Any potential citizen must positively affirm to take on the duties required of every citizen. Again, I consider this type of affirmation quite different from the tacit or hypothetical consent providing the basis for political legitimacy in various contract theories of government, from Hobbes to Rawls. Demopolis avoids that language of consent.

The requirement for immigrants to affirm, in a formal way, their willingness to take on citizenship duties seems familiar enough. An immigrant seeking to become a U.S. citizen already has to take a test and swear an oath to uphold the constitution. In Demopolis, native-born citizens likewise must assent to taking on civic duties. Of course many questions will arise about this implementation of assent: what about cognitively impaired individuals, for example? I don’t address those questions, but any real-world democratic state obviously must. Demopolis focuses on the core definition of citizenship as a status that you cannot simply inherit because you happen to be born in a place. Rather, each citizen must choose and actively maintain this status through his or her activity.

What of those who, having taken an initial civic-education course, consider the costs too high? They might decide to obey Demopolis’s laws, but choose not to become citizens. Demopolis will offer such individuals the choice to remain, subject to civil authority and protected by the law. Because they benefit from participation costs paid by those who do choose citizenship, citizenship-eligible noncitizens may have to pay a higher tax rate, and may find themselves excluded from some public benefits. That will depend on what the citizens decide. Finally, if somewhat cannot accept these costs, they have the option of exit.

Demopolis, as you already have stated, operates on the abstracted, propositional plane of the meticulous thought experiment. Does it seem worthwhile sometimes to place its lucid, transparent mechanisms back into more murky historical circumstances? As one example for how complicated historical vectors might reshape any real-life Demopolis’s more streamlined propositions: let’s say I’m a present-day working-class Latino American young adult sensing that the promises of American democracy have never fulfilled themselves within the economically marginalized community in which I grew up, a community facing both historical and quite contemporary threats of political disenfranchisement on any number of fronts. Neither I nor my ancestors ever elected to play this peripheral part in this limited democratic experiment (this democracy’s borders, in fact, might have moved on my family, rather than my family electively crossing those borders), and yet here I find myself facing the choice of devoting my own time to perpetuating a chronically unequal regime, of officially becoming a second-class “citizen-eligible noncitizen,” or else of facing exile and presumed statelessness. Should any of those options seem fair or reasonable or worth pursuing?

Again the type of democratic political theory presented in Demopolis ought to offer such a citizen a language to analyze his life experiences, and to express his intuitive (and, by my lights, accurate) sense that things have gone badly wrong. Here the analytic frame I offer differs somewhat from, but remains compatible with, the justice-centered frame and vocabulary of both mainstream liberal theory and various schools of critical political theory. Analytic democratic theory does not readily translate into specific policies, or operational plans for activists. But it should help activists to focus their attention on what the public realm currently lacks, and on which political means we could employ to remedy this lack. Demopolis might help to clarify that the citizen you describe not only has been denied economic justice or the correction of historical wrongs, but also an adequate education (and the conditions under which that education could take place) enabling him to assume the role of a fully empowered political agent ­ — and embrace the identity of citizen-activist ready and able to work with others towards achievable goals.

Here placing premises of basic democracy alongside realities of present-day liberalism points me also to questions of scale, and to a politics of representation. To what extent does the emergence of larger and more diversified political constituencies inevitably lead to a rhetoric of abstracted, collectivized, or quasi-universalized ethical appeals, rather than of pragmatic engagement with the concrete circumstances facing a particular community and its aggregated individual perspectives? To what extent does a politics of representation inevitably prompt liberal paradigms, pushing away from possibilities for basic democracy? Or alternately, historically and/or at present, what mechanisms of political representation best fulfill the constitutive human capacity to reason together, even as a given political regime adroitly faces the ever-shifting present’s manifold demands?

The scale challenge is very real. Demopolis builds on natural- and social-science premises that very small human groups have both the potential and the tendency to be democratic. The small groups of human foragers existing for thousands of generations before agriculture appear to have been (relative to what came after) quite democratic. So we might consider it our nature to act this way. But since direct democracy gets harder with scale, at what scale do such difficulties make representation inevitable? Even classical Athens, with a citizen body of roughly 30,000 people, was much too populous to make all decisions through the small-scale, face-to-face, deliberative interactions that characterize forager groups.

Indeed Athenian institutions manifest some features of political representation. The Athenian Council was comprised of 500 citizens chosen by lottery. Equal numbers of people from the city, from the coasts, from the agricultural inland came together on the council for a year’s service. They carried out many ordinary tasks of day-to-day government, and set the agenda for the mass citizen assembly (open to all citizens, but with only about 20% of the citizen body attending and voting on legislation at any given meeting). These council members were, effectively, “we the people” in miniature. Those who did not attend the assembly meeting were, in a meaningful sense, represented by those who did. So instead of thinking of representation emerging as a political solution of the later Middle Ages or the Enlightenment, we should recognize that feature of government in complex democratic states from the start.

And if representation seems an inevitable feature of democracy, it also seems important for bringing expertise into the decision-making process. Present-day presidential or parliamentary systems do not offer the only or the inevitably most effective modes of representation. Direct voting has become an increasingly prominent feature of modern democratic systems. In California, for example, citizens vote directly on all kinds of important topics. But most citizens have only a limited sense of how they ought to vote on the many options offered in these referenda. Here modern democracies could experiment with alternate forms of “direct” representation, for example by using a lottery to choose a citizen group to formulate policy options, make recommendations on those options, and present those recommendations to a larger voting population.

Crucially, in a basic democracy, citizens must remain capable of removing their present representatives. Elections that “throw the bums out” offer one approach. But when representatives come to think of themselves as a special elite, when they monopolize power and privilege, using these advantages to pursue their collective interest, then the citizens must demonstrate their capacity to take back the authority delegated to these representatives (delegated on the condition that the representatives seek the common good). This means citizens have to remain capable of actually legislating through some more sophisticated referendum system than exists right now. As soon as we the citizenry lose our capacity to rule, we run the risk of being ruled by a tyrant.

Here your blueprint for Relevant Expertise Aggregation provides a useful model for how astute citizen-directed decision-making could take place at a sophisticated level without facilitating some new type of technocratic tyranny.

Right. The Relevant Expertise Aggregation approach aims at giving public voice to those who can provide particularly useful information. One primary advantage that democracy retains over autocracy comes from democracy harnessing a diversity of viewpoints and forms of useful knowledge as it addresses a particular problem. But a basic democracy must ensure that citizen participation does not eliminate possibilities for specialists to contribute their expertise. It must ensure that these specific voices get heard over the noise of everyone’s opinion on everything — the Babel that sometimes can overwhelm well-meaning attempts at democratic decision-making. This requires designing the right kind of institutions, which seems difficult but not impossible. Ancient Athens was successful in part because democratic Athenian institutions could identify and bring to the fore especially relevant views, knowledge, and information. Every citizen had the potential to become a relevant expert on some problem of public concern, whereas nobody, and no small group, could claim expertise across all possible policy areas. Contrary to Plato’s vision of philosopher-kings, no one in Athens had a rightful claim to rule over all the ignorant others.

Well with Plato still in mind, it also seems hard to discuss prospects for successfully expanding the scale of democratic practice without your broader attention to civic education — with citizens’ widespread internalization of foundational democratic principles perhaps the most efficient means for seeking to ensure that more elaborate mechanisms of self-regulating political representation play out to the advantage of the state and its members. Of course such civic-minded education might seem to foster its own ethics or even ideology — institutionalizing a distillation of the value preferences enshrined by this state’s founders. Yet could you expand upon how this dynamic educational process might best fulfill the “‘value proposition’” (here noting your own use of scare quotes) that “certain goods produced by participation in democracy, along with their instrumental role in sustaining welfare and security, justifies accepting the coercive authority of a democratic government and paying the relatively high costs of civic participation”? And here again, experiential aspects of civic participation prove especially galvanizing, with Demopolis’s educational scaffolding perhaps suggesting something more like an idealized internship or on-the-job training program and less like a lecture course. So how do we convince citizens currently not immersed in such empowering practices of civic-education-through-participation to recognize what they’re missing and get on board and take part?

Civic education is fundamental to this book. As you suggest, Demopolis’s education must remain nonideological — in the sense of not persuading people to obey based on deception. Yet it also must provide more than just the facts I learned in my high-school civics class. Civic education must be truth-based, guided by contemporary science, but also must demonstrate the value to individuals of devoting time and effort to the community. Demopolis’s civic educators must explain the unique benefits that only participatory citizens can reap, so that a rational individual will not say: “I should live in some other society, which provides security and welfare without taxing me with participation.”

One way to demonstrate civic benefits involves giving individuals lived experience of what it feels like to participate as active citizens. When I talk to people who recently served on a jury (actually served, rather than waited around until dismissed), I often hear that they had a profoundly meaningful experience. Demopolis’s education will have to offer that kind of concrete experience in any number of ways, across a citizen’s lifetime. Becoming a citizen must mean more than gaining the right to vote. It should open the door to a rich and varied menu of participatory experiences, whether holding an office, advocating for policy, or criticizing public malfeasance.

Civic education ought to be continuous and experiential, not a one-off matter of rote learning. In Aristotle’s “best possible” state, children spend their time in formal education, then graduate to become warriors who defend the community, then magistrates who legislate and judge, and finally priests offering divinity its due. I would imagine a different life sequence, but I share Aristotle’s commitment to a life of continued public engagement, with the types of engagement continually changing, and meant to expand in their richness and depth.

Still on questions related to a politics of scale, I particularly appreciate your sketch of the cultural fulcrum by which pressures of increasing scale and diversity can serve as negative, dispersive forces in democracies until these same pressures get properly coordinated as a positive (providing, as you have suggested: unparalleled expertise, fluid communication, mutually beneficial information exchange), thereby strengthening a society. I also of course sense possibilities for more ominous prospects, as you sketch broadscale technological progress (say the historical advent of agriculture) sometimes prompting sudden scalar shifts more readily addressed by autocratic than by democratic regimes. Newfound prosperity itself, it seems, can bring with it new opportunities for free-riding, for rent-seeking, for commons tragedies, for strongmen promoting themselves as uniquely qualified to stamp out such social scourges. So today, as newly expansive communications networks and corporate empires (and/or newly globalized ecological catastrophes) push us to invent unprecedentedly scaled political communities, how might we most proactively foster future preferences for democratic self-rule, and seek to forestall a new cycle of eons-encompassing autocratic eclipse? Or to reframe here a more general question about Demopolis’s democracy-enhancing education policies: if civic education emerges as more or less perpetually compulsory, and if this education prioritizes calling forth our most human capacities, and if these capacities only get actualized by addressing the most pressing, complex, ever-shifting problems, how could/should the state forever refresh its own educational focus in response to the most urgent, inherently unpredictable, impromptu crises that arise (without, say, the efficiencies of an expertly recalibrating philosopher-king at this state’s helm)?

All organizations (states, NGOs, universities, firms, etcetera) face the same basic conundrum: how to balance learning with innovation? Demopolis emphasizes education. But an organization that over-values learning, that puts too much stress on accurately reproducing “the capacity to do well just what we do best…under the current circumstances,” will likely fail when circumstances change and innovation requires meeting new challenges. At the same time, organizations over-invested in constant innovation, at the expense of reaping the value that comes from having learned to do certain things superlatively well, also will miss out. But I think a democracy has a better chance of getting this balance right than does an autocracy. Once again, I’d point to democratic Athens as an example of a state that, over time, became more and more capable of benefitting both from learning and from innovation. And once again, their “secret sauce,” brought about by managing highly diverse sources of know-how and talent (in the form of a highly motivated and epistemically diverse body of citizens), served both as a constant stimulus to innovate, and as a constant source of organizational and individual learning. We have no guarantee that things always will go this well. In fact, the subsequent history of Athens (or any other democracy) shows that they will not. But a democracy grounded in civic participation also provides resilience to survive and learn from many mistakes.

Well for one further example of how Demopolis delineates its distinctly democratic benefits, and again in terms of your book’s deft argumentative pivots, I very much appreciate how an understated, mechanistic emphasis upon civic participation brings along with it a powerful case for prioritizing the more normative aspects of civic dignity — “a matter of the respect and recognition we publicly accord to one another, through our words and our actions, as persons worthy of political participation.” Liberal social models less bent on promoting active participation might strain the patience of some citizens when suddenly enforcing highly subjective standards of, say, tolerance, sympathy, decency, kindness. But basic democracy can make the more fundamental case that “In order for freedom and equality to be meaningful…in order for democracy to deliver the basic goods of security and prosperity, even the…most vulnerable citizens must also be experientially secure in their dignity — in their worthiness as participatory citizens.” Could you address this centrality of civic dignity to the healthy functioning of Demopolis, and could you also deploy the metrics quoted above to assess the state of civic dignity in present-day U.S. culture? What might it mean, say, for a self-respecting democratic society to arrive at a moment when perhaps all of its citizens often feel (fairly or not) bereft of peer-endowed civic dignity?

Political theorists tend to focus on liberty and equality. But this book claims dignity also as a distinct and necessary condition for democracy. Dignity means that one receives recognition of being worthy of participating as a citizen. Sustaining dignity requires that all citizens defend the dignity of every other citizen. I assume we’ll never end up in a world of saints, that some people always will gain pleasure from humiliating others and treating them as infantile. As citizens, we face the duty of watching out for that type of bullying behavior on the part of government officials, private persons, organizations — and, we now need to add to that list, on the part of Internet trolls and bots. We must defend fellow citizens whose dignity comes under assault, who get treated as unworthy of full participation within the community. When we don’t, we ourselves risk being the next victim.

Although I introduce dignity as a third necessary condition (so not necessarily a value), my claims for dignity are value-laden from the start. In speaking of dignity, I can’t avoid the language of worth, and I can’t fully insulate this language of worth from the language of morality. Still because I want to keep the Demopolis model as thin as possible, the civic-dignity concept does not extend here to concerns about self-esteem or group-esteem as such. No doubt we have good reasons to worry about self-esteem. But in the political realm of participatory democracy, Demopolis focuses on the self as citizen, not the self as such, nor as a member of some identifiable (and perhaps vulnerable) group.

Again, this particular focus might help us to pinpoint where, in the contemporary world, everyone ought to concern themselves with defending one another against assaults on our worth as citizens (whatever we may think about claims of injury to esteem or identity). This might help us to distinguish, for example, between free political expression and free expression full stop. This might help us decide when a racial slur attacks someone’s civic dignity, and thus demands civic intervention, versus when an attack on an individual’s or group’s esteem or identity demands some other response. In brief, I hope with the civic-dignity concept to give a reasoned justification for why even an individual with racist personal views should understand his/her duty to come to the defense of a fellow citizen belonging to a vulnerable racial group. Or why a committed liberal sometimes should consider it in his/her own interest to come to the defense of a hard-right conservative.

Of course this line between the political/civic domain and the rest of social life is not very bright. Much contemporary theory urges us to act as if no such line exists at all. But I think we give up much essential to democracy when we describe the personal as political all the way down. That position seems to require a highly moralized politics. Many theorists might consider it their ultimate goal to realize such a moralized politics. But in Demopolis I wanted to step back from morality-based politics, to give an account of democracy as little grounded in moral beliefs (liberal or otherwise) as possible.

To help push beyond examples taken from present-day U.S. political divides, could we also look, say, at recent developments in a country like Egypt? Who, in Arab Spring uprisings and their aftermath (and in international responses to these), seems to have had the most accurate sense of what democracy offers, implies, requires? Where, amid the imperfect scenario of a democratically elected Islamic Brotherhood suspected by some citizens of being (and subsequently seeming to many more citizens) antithetical to democratic values, does even an incrementalist attempt at democratic reform conclusively fall apart? And how here might false equivalencies (from any number of vantages) between democracy and liberalism have exacerbated the prospect for basic democratic principles to stabilize themselves?

I am far too inexpert in policy, and certainly amid the complexities of the Muslim world, to speak specifically to the Arab Spring’s aftermath, or to the consequences of the last generation of American interventions in the Middle East. But again Demopolis was written in part because I believed that, as a democratic theorist, I ought to have something to offer a society that longs for the benefits of non-tyranny but staunchly rejects secularism. I do not know if Demopolis actually has much to offer to a real religious society burdened by tyranny and longing for democracy. But at least I now have an answer to try out, whereas the liberal democrat who regards secularism (at the governmental level) as an inseparable part of the democracy package does not. And I tend to think that at least some of the blame for the very bad unintended outcomes of recent American interventions can be laid at the door of policy-makers who had no clear idea how to distinguish, conceptually or practically, between democracy and liberalism.

Finally, in what ways have we not yet articulated your own present position as a “worried liberal”? Could you sketch a not-distant-future scenario, for example, in which citizens of certain democratic states might consider it no longer worthwhile to pay the personal costs associated with liberal democracy, and as a result might opt out of democracy altogether? Can you foresee any plausible scenarios in which a democracy after liberalism might regain its footing to build a newly stable, self-governing, non-autocratic society?

I am worried (but not yet panicked) by events of the last several years, here in the U.S. and abroad. The new possibilities and dangers that emerge, it seems daily, from technological innovation make it very difficult for historical experience to predict the future. If we do look to history, we find democracy often very resilient — but not infinitely so. Ancient Greek democracy lasted a lot longer than most people think, and Greek democratic states successfully adapted to staggering arrays of social and political challenges. But Roman emperors eventually suppressed collective self-government in the Greek cities. A somewhat similar story of resilience yet eventual extinction could, I think, be told of other times and places.

So have we reached a moment like that of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, with democracy about to be crushed by an oligarchic coup, only to restore itself a few months later, reinvigorated by new institutional reforms? Or, like Sicily at about the same time, will we soon fall into an era of tyranny and adventurist imperialism, culminating in a grinding two-generation period of civil conflict and warlordism? Or, like Greek states of the 1st-century BCE, will we face a slow suffocation of the remnants of popular rule by an ever-rising power fearing and despising this idea that the people ever could rule themselves, preferring to run its expansive empire with the collusion of self-interested local elites? Those all seem possible scenarios. But on the whole, I’d still bet on democratic resilience and a new wave of democratic reinvention, featuring bold new institutional designs and a renewed recognition and valorization of citizenship.

In any event, I wrote Demopolis for those who refuse to allow despair at this or that democracy’s recent stumbles to overwhelm their recognition of democracy’s unique features and intrinsic value.