What does it mean to be a citizen of a state? Perhaps this is a question that most people do not contemplate. In modern times, the concept of citizenship is interlinked with natural rights. Individuals are granted political rights by issuance of birth where the state acts as protector of liberty. Natural rights can be defined as laws or customs that cannot be overruled by judicial or political institutions (the right to life and liberty are classic examples).
Liberty is fundamental to the existence of democracy and is essential for the development of civil rights. Under democratic institutions citizens partake in the development of the social contract, which is when people help to shape the legitimizing role of the state as the protectorate of freedom. From this the state is endowed with power to prescribe society with a definition of what constitutes liberty under the law.
Unfortunately, as political authority of the state becomes institutionalized, liberty becomes more opaque in its meaning. As a citizen of a state one is obliged to the ordinances that protect order. Freedom becomes a delegated concept, one where its definition changes with the measure to which individuals derive their identity through the state.
Today, we live in times where democracy does not grant freedom and individuals revolt against the nature of the state. States can be corrupted and abusive in their powers over the people, the 20th Century alone is riddled with examples of the state murdering its own citizens (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot). But what happens when people use democracy to vote in corrupt leaders? When does democracy become mob rule?
In America we are flirting with boundaries of political paralysis. Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are deemed non-representative caricatures of the American electorate. Trump is a cult persona, representing the ghost of American hegemony. Clinton is the American political machine. Each represent mob rule in the mind of political opponents. Are Americans fulfilling their duties of citizenship by participating in an unruly election? More importantly, can democracy be destroyed by the freedom of opinion?
Fulfilling the duties of citizenship require an informed public to vote on rules of society and the people who swear to uphold those rules. Engaging in the institution of democracy allows for people to act as political agents whom help to build the preferred constructs of the common good. This ensures that the people are citizens of a representative governing authority (in modern times a state) and not subjects of political authority.
In the United States today only 64.6% of eligible voters are legally registered to participate in electing their leaders. This leaves the most ideologically oriented people to have a much larger affect on the policy orientation of Democrat and Republican platforms. As we have seen in this current Presidential election cycle, if the American middle does not vote the center cannot hold and the bottom will drop out. Americans are left feeling cheated due to a lack of representation of the interests of the common good and the common man. Freedom comes at a heavy price, but the freedom to rescind political agency and civic association casts a far heavier one.
The insurgent campaign of Donald Trump has left many Republicans, most of them heavily ideologically conservative, unable to put in a vote of confidence for the Republican Party. If large parts of a politically active community denote their own votes as void, do they become subjects of democratic-oriented mob rule? In a country as politically, ethnically, and religiously diverse as the United States, has democracy become a rotation of one group’s heavy hand over another?
Can Democracy Lead To Dystopia?
Utilitarianism can be defined as the greatest good of the greatest number. How utilitarianism is interpreted and adapted to a certain opinion or ideology will allow for structural differences towards the assessment of the human condition. Whether based upon moral equality or economic fairness, utilitarianism has different outcomes based upon how it is played out in reality and how long people preserve its intended meaning. For example, happiness can be defined as a proactive measure people use to succumb to activities that promote the majority’s well being. If everyone in a society works to sustain the equal gain of others, there will be a balance of gain in a community.
Let’s take a look at the work of modern political philosopher John Rawls to help provide an assessment of how justice can be defined in large democracies. Rawls contends that the way justice is defined directly affects how social and economic institutions compensate for the happiness of everyone. A journey through his preeminent work, A Theory of Justice, offers an evaluation of how societal practices and institutions define and impose justice on community order.
Rawls starts off by acknowledging, “laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” Rawls makes note that people should not be pushed around by institutions and laws that create an unjust society. He wants the reader to understand that sometimes it is dangerous to abide by the law. What is set into stone as fundamental law may not be good for the society as a whole. This line acts as a disclaimer to his ideas of what resonates as just in a society. For Rawls what is just in a society are “the liberties of equal citizenship taken as settled; the rights secured by the just are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.” Rawls sees the danger of bargaining as a tool for the most advantaged to set forth a skewed agenda by allowing narrow interests of the majority to define what is equitable under the law.
Additionally, German philosopher Friedrich Hegel suggests that in order to see truth one must take into consideration both sides of an argument. Since truth is never confined to one proposition, dueling positions must come together to form a synthesis. It was seen as dangerous if laws were negotiated by the will of the powerful as a standard. The maximum of justice in a society does not have a standard formula. Democracies will infinitely contend with themselves, what matters the most is if people equate their governing institutions with fairness.
Can democratic institutions be used to put a value on the standard of happiness in a given society? Majorities tend to vote in a manner that suits their feeling of the moment. This lends to the rise of nationalist infused populism that is seen today in both Europe and the United States. Voting in accord with what makes the majority happy gives credence to standardizing mob rule. The standard of a society usually shows up in the type of leaders the populace allows to represent their interests.
In a functioning democracy, political and social actors reflect the governing will of the majority of active voters. If people are unable to judge their own society in accordance with fairness and respect for minority opinions, a schism will form between the citizenry and government leaders. People will not be able to decipher the motives of government leaders and the will of the majority will become reflected in dueling narratives of socially/economically driven sub-groups that seek to protect kinships over democratic institutions. If government goes unchecked and unguided due to a fractured society, those who assume positions of leadership will have to ability to use the citizenry as a means to their end. We must always ask ourselves if we are voting to retain liberty under the law, if we cannot define what that means in terms of fair and just representation of society as a whole, it forebodes that we may eventually have to protect ourselves from the law. This is usually the point where democracy starts to devolve and anarchy steadily builds in its place.