The Hatred of Democracy

And What It Does to Your Mind and Your Marriage

Image of a town meeting from Picryl

Who hates democracy? We all do, says French philosopher, Jacques Rancière in his 2005 book, The Hatred of Democracy. It was hated by Plato, who lived in its birthplace, ancient Athens. It’s hated even by blue blooded Americans like me. Our Founding Fathers weren’t too keen on it, either. The Constitution limits democracy in favor of an elected oligarchy. We hate democracy because it’s slow and messy. It involves too many people and the wrong sort of people. Democracy is the type of government by those who have no qualifications to govern, the unwashed masses, those who believe conspiracies theories, people swayed by Russian bots, and the rabble who can’t even be trusted to know their own interests. The people of a democracy are at once sovereign and deplorable, governor and ungovernable. Hearing this, you wouldn’t think Rancière supports democracy, except he does. The hatred of democracy is integral to democracy. You can’t be democratic without hating it.

This hatred of democracy is easily found in the civic arena, but we hate democracy everywhere. Practically no workplace is democratic, we hate it so much. Our marriages are supposed to be, these days, but I’ll show you how we hate it with our loved ones, too. The insides of our heads seem to be democratic in that all our thoughts and feelings think they can tell us what they think and feel whenever they want, but we’d rather that wasn’t the case. We often wish for an inner tyrant to rule our passions.

In all these settings, the problem is that we want both equality and unity. I’ll just speak for myself. I want my way, but I also want to belong. I’m not content to just share my opinions about what we do as a group, I want everyone to agree with me. I want to matter. Democracy ensures that everyone matters equally, but it’s difficult to arrive at a consensus. I hate those who hold out, insisting on their unreasonable points of view, preventing us from attaining unity.

It’s confusing, but Rancière is probably not using the word democracy as you use it. He’s not talking about having voting rights. In fact, he says voting is undemocratic because when we vote, we’re voting for a limited number of choices. In Rancière’s democracy, all viewpoints are prized, and we continue to talk until we agree on a common good. No action is taken until there’s consensus. Rancière would say there is no true unity if we abandon equality. There may be a pseudo-unity, achieved by silencing dissent, but true unity only comes the hard way, by maintaining equality while working towards unity. Instead, we want it to be easy and force unity before everyone is ready.

There are subtle ways to force unity, and there are not-so-subtle, brutal ways. The brutal ways are well known. You can shoot protestors, arrest dissidents, and terrorize everyone into going along. You can ostracize, name call, blacklist, and boycott. Slightly more sophisticated are regimes that shut down the press, the internet and make it impossible to be heard. The subtle methods are legion. Local governments will often open things up for public comment and give everyone an arbitrary length of time to speak, but then they turn the mike off and expect everyone to go along with the decision made by a small group. Then there’s elections and referendums, which limit citizens’ involvement to a prescribed list of choices.

The town council where I live recently voted to lower the speed limit on all roads to twenty-five miles-per-hour. There was a short period of public comment and elected council members voted for it. We can expect new signs to go up in a few weeks. It was a power move against equality. If everyone in the town were equal, no one, even the town council could tell others what to do. I can guarantee that few will be driving twenty-five just because a sign says so. Drivers will continue to drive at whatever speed feels safe. The police won’t even pull anyone over unless they’re doing thirty. The unity is pseudo-unity. In order to achieve true unity, there would need to be a change of heart for all drivers; a difficult task to accomplish, but it can be done. Everyone just needs to be patient and open minded until people come around.

My town council was an example of a sub-group attempting to impose unity over equality. Let’s look at what happens when greater equality is attempted and shut down in the name of unity. Think of the reaction to the 1619 Project, a journalistic endeavor by Nikole Hannah-Jones, of The New York Times. In it, she rewrote American history, placing slavery in the center of the narrative. The 1619 Project came out of a desire for equality. Hannah-Jones says the legacy of slavery has long been pushed out of sight. The stories of slaves and their descendants have been silenced. She insists on a place at the table. But not everyone loves the 1619 Project. They say it disrupts the fragile unity we have constructed in this country. They believe we will never get over slavery as long as there are people who keep talking about it. Many localities have responded by banning any mention of it in the public schools. They are attempting to force unity by silencing dissent. They’ll never get true unity that way. True unity only comes when we maintain equality.

If that has got you scratching your head, here where it gets even more complicated. Lovers of the 1619 Project want unity, too. If they can’t get it over the whole country, they’ll form a sub-group, enjoy unity among like-minded people, and keep the legacy of slavery at the center of their narrative. All this is fine until they try to silence those who want to silence talk of slavery. If they utilize name calling, stigmatizing everyone who disagrees with them as a racist and a bigot, then it is they who are trying to force unity by giving up equality.

This is why we hate democracy. It places everyone, the virtuous and unvirtuous alike on an equal footing. It requires that we tolerate the intolerant. If everyone is equal, then racists and bigots are equal, as well.

I think I know what you’re going to say. We need education. Once people are educated, that’s when we can trust giving the keys of the government to ignorant people. Educated people make better decisions. Well, it’s never worked, and it’s never going to because no amount of education is ever going to make a single person abandon their own perspective, nor should it. All education can do is help them debate more effectively, so they have less need for the cheap shots and gotchas that characterize most political discourse. That would certainly be an improvement, but we would still hate democracy and its interminable arguments.

I said I’d show you how we hate democracy in marriage, too.  Marriage, and any long-term relationship, is the intersection of two people who have different points of view. No matter who you marry, one person is going to be neater, calmer, thriftier, friendlier, hornier, and more permissive than the other, etcetera. You are both the way you are because you believe that’s the best way to be. You’re committed to yourselves, but you’re also committed to the marriage and desire unity. Many times, people will force unity and end disagreements by violence, bullying, nagging, whining, name calling, gas lighting, punishing, or failing to talk about the things that threaten the relationship. All they get is pseudo-unity. Having a truly equal partnership results in permanent conflict. No one likes conflict, so they either push or give in. When they do, they lose equality. They dream of meeting a person just like them, so there are no conflicts, but that just ain’t going to happen.

When people come to me for marriage counseling, they’re expecting to improve communication and end conflict. It doesn’t work that way. Improving communication increases conflict. But that’s a good thing. Conflict is a sign of equality, and it is only through equality that we get true unity.

Think of it this way. There are two people in a marriage for the same reason you have two eyes. You need different perspectives. What if one of your eyes said to the other, I want you to see things my way? Or, if they both said, we see things differently, but we’ll vote on which way will win? No, each eye keeps its point of view and when they combine, they come up with a new thing, depth perception.

I also see the hatred of democracy when I meet with individuals for psychotherapy, for every individual has a city in their head. Each person is beset by a thousand inner voices, all telling him what to do. These voices are called thoughts, feelings, impulses, obsessions, compulsions, instincts, drives, roles, and the internalized simulations of others, both known and anticipated. Many of these voices are deplorable. They’re the kind of thought you can barely admit having, much less share with others. Having dissenting inner voices can be intolerable for people. They would like to get them to shut up. They want to be of one mind, with a single purpose, congruent, consistent, and integrated. They attempt to force unity. That’s what all the ego defenses are for. Psychosis, projection, denial, acting out, splitting, displacement, dissociation, intellectualization, reaction formation, repression, altruism, anticipation, humor, and suppression are the brutal and subtle means of achieving a pseudo-unity of the psyche.

Almost everyone who comes to me for therapy is looking to end the democracy that’s in their marriage and in their head, but I’m not going to do it. Psychotherapy exports democracy to those very people who want to overthrow it. When we say we want you to talk about how you feel, we’re trying to give those deplored voices a seat at your table. The marginalized parts of yourself need a 1619 Project. If you ever wondered why psychotherapy of depth takes so long, that’s why. Because having an interminable debate among all the parts of you is a sign of progress.

What’s so great about democracy, whether in the polis, marriage, or in your head, if we hate it so much? For one thing, it’s not as if we have a choice. Without democracy, marginalized parts will undermine and rebel against tyranny until laws are meaningless or the government falls. Democracy is the price of the consent of the governed. Secondly, democracy is the only form of government that permits every point of view, whether held by citizens of a nation, partners in a marriage, or parts of a psyche, to reach their full potential and contribute whatever they have to the whole. Therefore, if we want the cooperation and the contributions of everyone, we need to give them a place at the table and listen to what they have to say. We can’t give the keys to the kingdom to any single one because we will lose the equality that is necessary for flourishing.

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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