Democracy and dissent
Nadia Urbinati 11 March 2009

Human societies are held together by something more than convenience, calculation or the threat of punishment. There is certainly something in a state’s constitution, especially in democratic states, that is permanent, never to be questioned, and that political institutions must protect and preserve. A democratic constitution is in fact far more than a writing on a piece of paper. It envisages cultural and moral loyalty to certain values. This kind of loyalty or feelings of faithfulness consists in an explicit commitment to the basic ideals that the law of the state incorporates. The power of this meta-juridical ethos reflects on the manner in which procedures work and citizens interact in their daily lives. This principle is the sovereignty of the individual, of each individual, and resulting in the sovereignty of individual political judgement.

The sovereignty of individual judgement is the principle that justifies democratic government that is government by debate and it is the fixed point (what people agree to hold “as sacred”) holding together democratic society. As a shared acknowledgement, it is beyond discussion. This is not simply a principle of private morality but a value that provides democracy with its own ethical specificity. Above all, it is not an abstract principle or a metaphysical rule, but is instead the gradual acquisition of civilisation, inherent to human history in its fundamentals and thus capable of becoming deeply rooted in the depths of the psyche as if becoming a moral garment or common sense.

In democratic society the value of individuality acquires moral legitimacy and judicial codification because of the existence of relationships between individuals as relationships of equality between different people. It is expressed in an ethical form (as feelings of partiality and cooperation) and in a legal form (as the right to individual freedom and political and social equality). Together, these two aspects compose what can be called a democratic moral constitution. In a representative democracy, this moral constitution permeates and orients citizens’ deliberative competence, and simultaneously protects political and legal order from the illiberal inclinations of powerful and arrogant majorities as well as anti-egalitarian inclinations resulting from economic and corporative interests.

The constitutional morality of democratic society also establishes limits for tolerance, pluralism and freedom to dissent. In a constitutional democracy each individual is guaranteed the legal freedom to also challenge its fundamental principles. However, while the constitution defends the right to dissent, citizens and society must be able to and capable of developing civil sentiments that do not destroy the social fabric. Moral limitations of individual freedom and tolerance guaranteed by the democratic constitution are, or should be, intrinsic to the ethos pervading democracy itself. This ethos hinges on the individual as a primary asset and implies an essentially Socratic habit of the mind. At its centre there is the person, not simply as a rational agent moved by preferences, but as an individual who has the right to ask for explanations for the obedience owed to the laws of the state. It is no coincidence that democratic deliberative institutions are organised on the premise of free debate and training the public’s free will and judgement thanks to the free circulation of ideas and pluralism of information, and finally, through freedom of association and the right to express personal opinions. The democratic citizen, on whose vote the legitimacy of the entire political mechanism rests, is called upon to reason using his own brain (and to vote in solitude and as an individual), and associate with others to exchange information and opinions, to change his or her mind and then change it again, if necessary. Finally, the democratic citizen is also called upon to challenge those in power. Democratic deliberating institutions are basically organised so as to gradually educate citizens to understand that they can change their minds and give value to their right to question authorities and ask why they must obey or share or believe, as well as finally rendering accountable those who in their name govern or sit in parliament.

As one can easily sense, the individual’s sovereignty and dissent are inseparable within a democratic society. Not only or simply because dissent works in the anti-authoritarian sense or as the majority’s reaction to power; precisely because democratic ethics are of a Socratic kind, self-culture is a public and private virtue for individuals. Since democratic legitimacy is based on consensus (never to be confused with consensualism or conformism), autonomy of judgement and reciprocal respect of ideas, dissent is a constitutive virtue of democracy. Rather than corroding social ideals, as authoritarians and conservatives believe, it strengthens partiality and cooperation between citizens. A free public discussion and dissent strengthens the commitment and beliefs of individuals, because, as everyone knows only too well, we discuss and have a passion for the things we love and to which are linked by bonds deeper than rational assent and principles. Dissent reveals a fundamental loyalty to a country, a society or a community. Even a religious community founded on obedience to dogmas and the hierarchy not open to appeal of an interpretative authority, such as the Catholic Church, very probably prefers active and spiritually vivacious believers to those who are apathetic and passive.

Dissent mitigates the tendency to cultural uniformity inherent to democratic society and strengthens acceptance of majority rule as a method for making decisions based on the acknowledgment of the equal fallibility of citizens. Having equal rights to review opinions and decisions is the same as acknowledging that no one is infallible and can therefore demand to have irrefutable opinions. It is no coincidence that Albert Hirschman defined the attitude of those attempting to “win an argument rather than… listening and discovering that one can at times learn something from others” as that of someone with a predisposition for authoritarian rather than democratic policies.

Instead, precisely because the measure of democracy lies in opinions and not in the truth, dissent is not an indication of subversion or disharmony; on the contrary it is a sign of humble acknowledgment that every decision can become the object of revision, even that which is accepted and voted by a vast majority. Democracy is the only form of government conceived so as to result in a constant process of amending laws or decisions taken without jeopardizing the stability of civil and legal order. Dissent is hence set within the decision-making process. It is one of its fundamental elements. One can therefore join John Stuart Mill in saying that “formidable evil” is not in “conflict … between parts of the truth”, but instead in the “quiet suppression of half-truths.” Although the critics of democracy have often emphasised the conformist temptation of the political model, the principle of the individual’s sovereignty does not at all undersign an ideal of a harmonious society, but rather a society that learns how to regulate dissent without using force, using procedures for solving conflict through a free debate.

Nadia Urbinati is Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University, New York. Together with Andrew Arato she co-edits the magazine Constellations. Her works include Representative Democracy: Principles and Genealogy (University of Chicago Press 2006). An author of essays on liberalism, individualism and Stuart Mill, she edited and published in the United States, for Princeton University Press, Carlo Roselli’s Social Liberalism. She is also co-author of Liberal-socialisti. Il futuro di una tradizione (together with M. Canto-Sperber, I libri di Reset, Marsilio, 2003), and of La libertà e i suoi limiti. Antologia del pensiero liberale da Filangieri a Bobbio (with C. Ocone, Laterza, 2005).

Translated by Francesca Simmons