Two Slowness-es of Democracy

At the end of his presidency, Obama worried that people were becoming “impatient with the slowness of democracy,” explaining that “the less effective Congress works, the more likely people are to start giving up on the core values and basic institutions that have helped us to weather a lot of storms.” Indeed, democracy was never meant to be efficient: public deliberation—the principle of democratic legitimacy—takes time. Yet when democratic institutions fail to deliberate, impatience with their slowness is surely justified. Impatience is not the problem, so long as we don’t confuse the slowness that is a symptom of democracy’s malfunction for the slowness that is a feature of its design.

We may locate the origin of democracy’s positive slowness, as I will call it, in the deliberative council of ancient Athenian democracy: the boule. The noun is etymologically related to the Greek verb “bouletai,” translated as “to deliberate.” That is what members of deliberative bodies—ancient and modern, democratic and not—are expected to do. According to Aristotle, deliberation is inherently slow: fast deliberation isn’t deliberation—it’s guessing. While guessing may sometimes serve in a pinch, prudent decisions, the purview of deliberation, require careful (we might even say ‘deliberate’) weighing of facts and reasons. And of course, the deliberative process only becomes more complicated, and thus slower, the more people that are involved. Because the people cannot rule themselves if they do not deliberate among themselves, a well-functioning democracy is, and should be, slow.

Or have we drawn the inference in the wrong direction? Because the public deliberation required of democracy is slow, the objection goes, the people cannot rule themselves effectively—that is, they shouldn’t rule themselves. Likening democracy to a ship captained by untrained pilots, Plato endorsed that conclusion. Shouldn’t the person at the helm, he thought, be the one best at sailing, not the one best at flattering the ship-owner? Despite Obama’s insistence that democracy’s institutions have “helped us weather a lot of storms,” it is precisely during storms that the efficiency of authoritarian regimes—a Philosopher King, a Central Committee—exercises most appeal.

Yet even when we consider democracy’s slowness a cost, we needn’t apologize for it, given what it offers us. The list varies, depending on where in the liberal tradition we look: Rawls would emphasis justice; the founding fathers, stability. More sympathetic to democracy than Plato, Aristotle might add that humans are by nature political animals and that participation in political process, even if it slows the process down, is a condition of individual flourishing. And what more could we want from politics? Tocqueville may have had these values in mind when he praised the nascent American democracy as “the slow and quiet action of society upon itself,” or he may have simply found its slowness worthy of praise. 

Yet praise only applies when the slow action of society upon itself is, as Tocqueville says, quiet. The first sign that democratic institutions may not be functioning properly is that their slowness becomes loud. Anyone who has followed the spectacle of Congress’s dysfunction will know what loud slowness sounds like. It is the negative slowness of yelling and uncompromising stands, rather than the positive slowness that springs from the quiet posture of measured deliberation. Positive slowness is a virtue, but when slowness reverses its polarity, we may also agree with a recent campaign slogan for the September parliamentary elections in Germany: “Ungeduld ist auch eine Tugend.” (Impatience is a virtue, too.)

By imploring us to not lose faith in democracy’s “core values and basic institutions” because of our impatience with a dysfunctional Congress, Obama intuitively understood, although he did not clearly articulate, the fundamental difference between positive and negative slowness. In a campaign promise, he called for bipartisan cooperation to correct the polarity of the negative slowness that had set in several years before he took office. But two terms later, when he failed to right that polarity, another politician came along with a more enticing promise: to cure our democracy’s negative slowness by running government like a business—efficiently.

Eight months later, the results of the experiment are in: if anything, our democracy has become even slower.


Jeremy McKey

Jeremy McKey Jeremy McKey is a Master’s student in philosophy at the Freie Universität in Berlin.