Excluding the Antidemocratic Is Antidemocratic

In her lead essay for this month’s Cato Unbound, Mila Ghorayeb argues that democracies can, in a non-contradictory way, limit the participation of those who hold antidemocratic views. By antidemocratic views, Ghorayeb refers to those who “wish to exclude a socially salient group of participants from the demos.” Though Ghorayeb thinks democracies can limit the participation of the antidemocratic, she is skeptical that it is wise to do so. While I agree with Ghorayeb on this latter point—we should always exercise extraordinary caution when granting government new powers—I do not think she succeeds in arguing for the former. That is, I am not convinced democracies can restrict the participation of the antidemocratic without violating their most basic principles.

As a starting point, we might ask: what are the basic moral principles that ground democratic political institutions? Ghorayeb, following a long line of influential thought, says that the ideal of equal influence is at democracy’s foundation: “democracy is a system wherein citizens have an equal opportunity to influence political outcomes.” The basic idea here is that all citizens in a polity should have a roughly equal capacity to influence political decisions. The rich, for instance, should not have more influence on who is elected and what policies are implemented than the poor do. Nor should certain racial or ethnic groups have more influence than others. Equality of influence is a fitting moral goal for a democratic society, according to Ghorayeb, because “of the way citizens are legally bound, equally, by the decisions made in the political sphere.” That is, political decisions effect all of us equally, so we should all have a roughly equal say in how these decisions are made.

According to Ghorayeb, democracies can restrict the participation of those who hold antidemocratic views because doing so helps achieve and preserve equality of influence. She makes her argument by appealing to Ronald Dworkin’s work on campaign finance regulation. On Ghorayeb’s reading of Dworkin, it is permissible to regulate the amount of money persons may spend on political speech, because “the concentration of wealth inhibits the likelihood of equal opportunity of influence. As such, it is antidemocratic.” Dworkin’s argument is simple and intuitive. Democracies ought to realize equality of influence. Too much money in politics leads to inequality of influence. Therefore, we ought to regulate money’s role in political speech in order to achieve democracy’s guiding ideal of equal influence.

Ghorayeb’s argument for why we may restrict the participation of antidemocratic agents is structurally similar to Dworkin’s argument for why we may regulate money in politics. By definition, the antidemocratic are those who want to exclude certain persons from political participation. If the antidemocrats get their way, then there will not be equality of influence, as those excluded will not have as much (or any) influence on political decisions when compared to those still enfranchised. Hence, to secure equality of influence, we may permissibly ban the antidemocratic from political participation. This—like Dworkin’s imperative to limit the role of money in politics—is not in tension with democracy’s basic commitments, according to Ghorayeb, but rather serves democracy’s basic commitments. Such restrictions help equalize political influence.

There is an important difference between Dworkin’s argument for regulating political speech and Ghorayeb’s argument for limiting the participation of the antidemocratic. According to Dworkin, if we don’t regulate money in politics, then there will be unequal influence. A billionaire will likely have more influence on politics than the average citizen if there are no caps on spending. Yet, if we do decide to regulate money in politics, we don’t create any new inequalities in political influence. That is, by restricting the amount of money the rich can spend on political speech, we don’t thereby disenfranchise a new group of citizens, preventing them from influencing political decisions. True, the rich no longer have as much influence as they once did, but they still have just as much influence as everyone else (indeed, that’s the point of the regulation). The point here is that campaign finance regulation does not eliminate one form of political inequality just to find a new form of political inequality pop up in its place.

This is not so when it comes to limiting the participation of the antidemocratic, however. If we don’t restrict the participation of the antidemocratic, then they may get their way and implement a system of unequal influence. Whoever the antidemocratic exclude from the demos will have less influence than those still enfranchised. Yet, if we do restrict the participation of the antidemocratic, we create a new form of political inequality. In particular, the excluded antidemocratic individuals now have less influence over political decisions than the enfranchised democratic ones. If we don’t bring in other moral considerations and view things solely from the perspective of equal influence, these two cases are identical. In both, a group is excluded from participating and has a diminished capacity (when compared to other groups) to influence political decisions as a result. Which group is excluded differs between the two cases, but there is nonetheless unequal influence in both scenarios.

The more abstract point here is that when thinking about new regulations—be they restrictions on money in politics or restrictions on who may participate in democracy—it’s not enough to ask: does the proposed regulation eliminate an inequality in influence? We must instead ask: does the proposed regulation eliminate an inequality in influence without creating a new inequality? If the answer to this question is not “Yes,” then it is hard to see how the policy is justified from the perspective of equality of influence alone. Yet, as I have argued, though campaign finance regulation can plausibly answer this question in the affirmative, Ghorayeb’s proposal cannot.

This is all just to say that I think restricting the participation of the antidemocratic is inconsistent with basic democratic principles. In particular, if one holds that the ideal of equal influence is at the very heart of democracy, then restricting the participation of the antidemocratic is itself antidemocratic. This is because restricting the participation of the antidemocratic creates unequal influence and, by Ghorayeb’s own premises, democracy is about securing equality of influence.

Of course, if we don’t limit the participation of the antidemocratic, then we might also end up with unequal influence. If the antidemocratic get their way, then that will be the result of their successful exclusionary policy. So, what do we do? Allow antidemocratic parties to run rampant, which may possibly result in unequal influence, or restrict the participation of the antidemocratic, thereby creating a different form of unequal influence? In my view, we should take the former path, not the latter. Why?

Suppose we are confronted with a group that adopts antidemocratic rhetoric. We might seriously worry that if they win election, they will disenfranchise certain groups. In response, we might disenfranchise them first. If we do this, then we will have definitely created unequal influence. Suppose we don’t take this route, though, and the antidemocratic group wins seats in office. Then what happens? In this latter case, it’s hard to say. The antidemocratic group might keep its promises and disenfranchise certain groups. If they do, then we will have unequal influence. And yet the antidemocratic group might not follow through on its rhetoric, or it may try but fail. As Ghorayeb notes, “concerns about antidemocratic threats do not always come to fruition.”

The point I am making here is that when faced with antidemocratic tendencies, our choice is not between two political inequalities, where we must choose which group suffers the fate of unequal influence. Rather, our choice is between the certainty of unequal influence (which happens if we preemptively exclude those we deem antidemocratic) or the possibility of unequal influence (which may or may not happen if the antidemocratic party actually wins election). When faced with this choice, I choose the possibility of unequal influence (hoping that it never comes to fruition), rather than its certainty. But this is just to say that I do not think we should disenfranchise the antidemocratic.

Of course, this does not mean that I am not worried about rising antidemocratic tendencies. I am deeply worried about them. My point is that, contra Ghorayeb, we cannot address these tendencies through disenfranchisement without also harming the very thing we are trying to protect: the ideal of a free and open democratic society.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Mila Ghorayeb looks at liberal polities’ use of antidemocratic tactics against illiberal groups. She concludes that it is not necessarily paradoxical to limit political participation with a view to preserving an imperfect democracy, but that whether it is desirable or feasible are different questions.

Response Essays

  • Brian Kogelmann says that a democracy shouldn’t compromise on democratic participation. Allowing antidemocratic groups to participate runs the risk that they might win and restrict the franchise, but restricting their participation creates a new form of political inequality. It is therefore preferable to allow them to participate.

  • Rather than restricting antidemocratic groups, Jason Kuznicki proposes to safeguard democratic and other rights by articulating them in an impersonal way and making it constitutionally difficult for anyone to change them. Under such conditions, open participation by antidemocrats becomes less risky, and persecuted minorities can organize for their own protection.

  • Mike Godwin argues that democracies should tolerate antidemocratic activism—at least as an initial response. Yet democracies’ responses to antidemocratic activism need not end there. He urges the defenders of liberal democracy to better articulate how to respond to antidemocratic critiques. Such critiques need not lead us to abandon democracy, and at times they might even draw attention to genuine shortcomings in a democratic polity.