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“What Democracy is for”, Stein Ringen

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"What Democracy is for" by Stein Ringen

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"What Democracy is for: On Freedom and Moral Government"

by Stein Ringen

Princeton University Press | June 2007 | ISBN 0691129843

Extract from the Introduction:

DEMOCRACY IS VICTORIOUS. The competition has collapsed. Most countries have made themselves democracies of sorts and the remaining outright nondemocratic ones count only a handful. But citizens are turning away. They care less for democracy, believe less in it, participate less in it, and have less trust in its governance.

In this book I look inside the democracies that are usually thought to be the most robust and find them wanting-and possibly on the decline. Even those that are best by a comparative measure, such as the Scandinavian ones, do pretty poorly by an absolute standard. If we think democracy is now assured, we are mistaken. Democracy is strong in quantitative terms, in the number of democracies in the world, but weak in qualitative terms, in how well those democracies perform.

If democracy should decline, the loss would be immeasurable. It would be in the freedom and security of ordinary women and men and children and families to live their lives by their own ambitions and aspirations. It would be in our well-being.

We may not think that what we have won can be lost. But it can, in particular if those of us who have had the good fortune to live under democratic rule for some time slip into forgetfulness about what it means for us. Democracy can be taken away, of course; that is always a danger. Or it might just wither; that is perhaps a more imminent danger. It could disintegrate into despotic reality within democratic formality, the despotisme doux that Alexis de Tocqueville warned against in the 1830s, with a perceptiveness later unmatched by any student of politics, when he observed democracy in action in its then most advanced form, in America. Perhaps we are already deep into this despotisme; it was after all Tocqueville's genius to see that citizens could fall into a trap of unfreedom while still believing themselves to be free. His time was not unlike ours: a postrevolutionary one with democracy spreading and the direction of its inner development in the balance. The danger he saw was subtle, not so much that democracy might give way to violent or cruel government as that centralized government would become overwhelming and that citizens, out of convenience, selfishness, comfort or misunderstanding, would allow themselves to be degraded even if not tormented. In chapter 6, I suggest we may well be there.

Danger comes from two quarters: from defects in the machinery of democratic politics and from citizens themselves in how they practice and understand democratic citizenship. [...] Throughout, my message is that we need to set up against the dangers both to and in democracy not only a defense of it, although that too, but a determined effort to improve it. The way to protect democracy is not to cheer it, which we do too much, but to reform it, which we do too little.


Democracy has a purpose. It is (or rather, should be) for the good of the persons who live under its governance. It is to help them to live in autonomy and security and to get on reasonably with their lives as they wish. And it is to enable them to trust that they and their children can live as their own masters also in the future. It is, in short, for the freedom of the common man. It's freedom that democracy is finally for. That's the idea this book is built around: to analyze democracy according to its purpose, to find that purpose in the lives of persons and to think of it as ultimately a matter of freedom.

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