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Joseph Porter

While democracy’s proponents defend it on both relational and non-relational grounds, democracy’s opponents tend to focus almost exclusively on non-relational considerations against it involving democratic voters’ irrational policy preferences. But what if the case against democracy is not merely non-relational?

In this essay, I offer a novel relational argument against democracy: the loss of recognition respect argument. This argument holds that democracy is objectionable to the extent that it causes citizens to lose what Stephen Darwall calls recognition respect for each other—that is, respect for each other specifically as human beings—because of their perceived (and usually quite real!) political irresponsibility.

Democracy grants almost all adult citizens coercive political power. As a result, democratic citizens frequently lose recognition respect for many of their fellows because they perceive them to exercise their political power over others irresponsibly. Although democracy is often defended on the grounds that it embodies (as Elizabeth Anderson says) “relations of mutual respect and equality,” actual democracies frequently threaten their citizens’ mutual recognition respect by bringing about adversarial conditions under which many citizens’ exercises of political power are perceived to be irresponsible. Accordingly, the political culture of many actual democracies is marked not by relations of mutual respect but by antagonism, dehumanization, and even political violence. One of our main political ends, however, is to foster social conditions of mutual recognition respect. So democracy is objectionable to the extent that it threatens citizens’ mutual recognition respect.

To be sure, democracy is not the only political system which threatens citizens’ mutual recognition respect. But some other political systems (for instance, some lottocratic systems) may threaten citizens’ mutual recognition respect less than democracy itself by granting fewer citizens opportunities to exercise coercive political power irresponsibly. To the extent that they do, considerations of mutual recognition respect count against democracy.

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