Tuesday, September 10, 2019

James Lindley Wilson's "Democratic Equality"

James Lindley Wilson is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Democratic Equality, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Democratic Equality distinguishes two ways in which people can treat others as authorities. In one way, we treat other people’s expectations of certain kinds of treatment as authoritative. For instance, you expect that I don’t tread on your feet on the subway, and I treat that expectation as authoritative when I take it as determining what I should do (e.g., stepping carefully). In another way, we treat other people as authoritative, when we take their decisions about what we ought to do as playing an important role in determining what we should do. For instance, you tell me that we should go get an ice cream, and I treat that decision as weighty in my deliberations about what we should do together. I then begin to explain my view that true democracy requires that citizens equally share authority in the sense of authority of persons. One important consequence of this is that representatives should see themselves as tasked with doing what their constituents believe the representative ought to do, not with simply advancing the constituents’ interests.

Page 99 presents a central thesis of the book—that equal authority is a morally central part of democracy. It moves directly between philosophical clarification of ideas and practical consequences for democratic ethics. Page 99 is from a chapter that’s a bit heavier on the clarification, because I introduce a new way of thinking about the authority of persons. I suggest that we can obligate others to attend positively to our views about what to do without putting them under obligations to obey us. (I don’t have an obligation to obey your verdict that we should go for ice cream, but, if we are friends, I ought to take your judgment seriously, and engage with it in various ways.) This way of thinking about the mutual authority of citizens is suitable for a democracy of equals, or so I think.

Page 99 gives a flavor of how this clarification of ideas can help develop a moral argument about how we should pursue democratic reform. But it does not alert the reader to the fact that the book takes up many of these political questions in some detail (by philosopher standards, at least!). Later chapters discuss, among other issues, proportional representation, racial vote dilution, gerrymandering, and campaign finance regulation. Earlier chapters try to ground these more concrete discussions in a wider ideal of citizen equality.

Page 99 catches the discussion in the middle of movement between the wider ideal and the concrete applications. The page shows how painstaking it can be to make this movement. But I hope it also reflects how fascinating it can be to reflect on how our democratic aspirations involve ideals drawn from familiar features of our social life. There is something democratic in this very idea that most of us understand what it is to be treated like an equal, and are fit to judge our political conditions accordingly.
Learn more about Democratic Equality at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue