Many Americans complain about the ‘messiness’ of democracy, by which they mean either the partisan negativity of the electoral process, or the seeming inability of our current political system to solve chronic problems. Rather than attempting to understand the specific causes of democratic messiness, Americans hope someone will come along and magically make the negativity and ineffectiveness go away. However, an examination of our history shows that democracy has always been, and likely always will be, messy. Consequently, rather than hoping for a wand-waving savior, we should attempt to understand the root cause of democratic messiness. The premise of this article is that democratic messiness occurs because democracy allows for a vast diversity of opinion on any issue, and this diversity represents contradictory human needs, and these contradictions lead to political conflicts.
A contradiction is defined in the dictionary as the expression of the opposite of a previous statement. In logic a contradiction is defined as two propositions that are related in such a way that it is impossible for both to be true or both to be false. In a democracy contradictions are not just about statements and policy propositions; they are more fundamentally about the contrasting human needs that underlie statements and policies. In this context each contradiction is composed of two competing needs, and the satisfaction of each need is necessary for a functioning democratic society. Completely satisfying one need means that the other need is completely ignored, and therefore completely satisfying any one need rarely happens in a functioning democracy.
Graphical Tools for Understanding Democratic Contradictions
College students taking an introductory statistics class are introduced to two useful graphical tools for understanding diversity and contradictions: the normal (bell-shaped) distribution and the correlation graph. The normal distribution (and other distributions) can be used to graphically map opinion diversity, and the correlation graph can map democratic contradictions. The normal distribution is shown in Figure 1. It can be applied to almost all human characteristics, including human values, expectations, preferences, attitudes and opinions. Opinions can vary from one end of the graph line to the other end. The shape of the distribution indicates that most people are moderate non-extremists on most issues, because their opinions are close to the center of the distribution. Opinions become more extreme moving away from the center in either direction, with the most extreme opinions located in the tails of the distribution.
Of course not all opinion diversity perfectly mimics the theoretical normal distribution. On some issues there is less opinion in the center and more toward the extremes, and sometimes opinion is skewed more toward one extreme or the other. Figure 2 shows positive and negative skewing, respectively. In positive skewing the majority of opinion on a particular issue is bunched to the left of the distribution, and in negative skewing the majority of opinion is on the right.
Nonetheless, most people have moderate (non-extreme) opinions on most issues. This is shown in a recent Pew Research Center survey on American political positions. Survey results revealed that current overall political opinion is skewed slightly to the right, politically speaking (negative skewing). About 27 percent of registered voters identified themselves as strongly conservative, 17 percent as strongly liberal, and the remaining 57 percent as various types of moderates.
Much research has examined factors that underlie opinions. Opinions are expressions of attitudes, and attitudes reflect needs. Thus different opinions on any given issue reflect different needs, and these needs are often contradictory. Another graphical tool can be used to operationally define contradictory needs. Correlation graphs show the quantitative relation between two variables (labeled X and Y in the figure below), to ascertain the degree of co-relation between them. In statistics contradictions can be operationally defined as negative correlations. A negative correlation describes an inverse relationship between two variables, as shown below.
Figure 3 demonstrates that one variable is listed on the X axis, and the other variable is on the Y axis. As the X variable increases from zero, the Y variable declines toward zero. For example, as household income increases (X), the percentage of income spent on basic necessities (Y) diminishes. Another example of a negatively correlated inverse relationship is any team-based competitive sport where ties are not possible. In tie-free competition there are only two possible outcomes, Team X wins and Team Y loses, or Team Y wins and Team X loses. The two teams have an inverse relationship. Every time one team scores, it takes the other team further away from its goal of winning, and vice versa. One team’s score contradicts the other team’s likelihood of winning.
When needs are contradictory, completely fulfilling one need completely obviates the other need. In a democracy completely fulfilling one need is usually unacceptable because some people want one need fulfilled, and other people want the other need fulfilled, as indicated by survey results and as the normal distribution predicts. An inverse contradictory relation between two needs means that the only acceptable democratic solution is to try and balance the two needs, by somewhat fulfilling each one. This solution is always less than totally satisfactory to adherents who strongly support completely fulfilling one need and ignoring the other. These less than totally satisfactory solutions are another reason why many people say that democracy is ‘messy’. These contradictory needs are most generally manifested in a cultural dimension, Collectivism versus Individualism.
Collectivism versus Individualism
In collectivist cultures groups such as families, neighborhoods or countries are more important than the individual. Conformity, obedience, cooperation, duty, loyalty, obligation, and sacrifice are valued, and interdependence is acknowledged as the fundamental glue that holds societies together. In individualistic “it’s all about me” cultures each individual’s needs, desires, values and goals have precedence over an individual’s collective obligations. Independence, autonomy, freedom, competition, and individual rights are valued. Simplistically one could say that collectivism imposes various forms of social control over individual behavior, and individualism is about removing social control over individual behavior. As societies become more individualistic they become less collectivist, and vice versa. It is not possible to be both highly collectivist and highly individualistic at the same time. Consequently an inverse relation exists between collectivism and individualism. Since all humans have both collective and individualistic needs, no society is ever completely collectivist or completely individualistic; it is always a matter of which set of needs is more or less satisfied, in relation to the other set of needs. Figure 4 shows the inverse relation between collectivism and individualism.
Control versus Freedom
Although there are many specific aspects involved in the overall difference between collectivism and individualism, one aspect that democracies continually grapple with is control versus freedom. In all societies groups exercise control over their members because members internalize obedience to group leaders and conformity to group values and norms. Since almost all humans are members of groups, their individual choices are restricted by their group memberships. In highly collectivized societies group control over individuals is increased, and in more individualized democratic societies (less collectivized) group control over individuals is diminished and individual choice is enhanced, as shown in Figure 4. One way to frame American history is to trace the ongoing struggle between control and freedom through the various issues that can be conceptualized in the control versus freedom context.
Control versus Freedom: equality vs. opportunity
The freedom versus control issue is initially discussed in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration mentions both ends of the fundamental contradiction that forms the backbone of democracy: opportunity (freedom) and equality (control). Opportunity is represented by the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, and equality is of course represented by the phrase “all men are created equal”. It is noteworthy that the phrase is “pursuit of happiness”, not “guaranteed happiness”. Thus happiness itself is not granted as a right, but the pursuit of, or opportunity to achieve, happiness is. This phrasing implicitly acknowledges individual differences in interests, ability, talent, skill and motivation, differences that can graphically be represented by the normal curve. Individual differences in these traits mean that some people will do better at using the opportunity to pursue happiness, and others will do worse.
The implication underlying the phrase “all men are created equal” is that democracies must somehow counteract some of the effects of inherent individual differences. Despite individual differences equality must be preserved in fundamental ways. Since no society can ever completely erase the inequality that results from individual differences, equality can only be offered to citizens through guaranteed rights that apply to all, the most important of which is equality before the law and equality of each person’s vote.
Opportunity and equality are inversely related, and democracies attempt to balance them. This is an extremely important balancing act, because an extreme emphasis on either leads to the death of democracy. Communism was theoretically an extreme emphasis on equality which in practice led to permanent “dictatorships of the proletariat”. An extreme emphasis on opportunity also leads ultimately to dictatorship, where the few economic winners monopolistically control most of the wealth, the middle class is destroyed, and the majority live in squalor.
Equality, like collectivism and control, is imposed, in the sense that guaranteeing basic equality somewhat restrains the effects of individual differences. Opportunity, like individualism and freedom, represents the less restrained impulses of each person.
Control versus Freedom: security vs. various specific freedoms
Perhaps the most currently salient control vs. freedom contradiction is the inverse relation between security and freedom of movement. This contradiction has become painfully obvious since the 9/11 attacks. Americans who fly commercially are very aware of the airport security controls put in place after the attacks. Freedom of movement in airports has been greatly restricted and the flying public has been inconvenienced. As security (control) increases, freedom, in this case freedom of movement, inversely declines.
The recent National Security Agency (NSA) controversy highlights another contradictory security versus freedom issue: communication security concerns (control) versus freedom of speech. The NSA and the Obama administration justify the massive surveillance of the various forms of private citizen electronic communication as necessary to combat terrorism. Critics say that the surveillance violates the implied right of privacy incorporated in the freedom of speech portion of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. This contradiction is another inverse relation of needs that democracies will always confront.
Gun control versus unrestricted private citizen gun ownership is another security versus freedom issue that is currently controversial. American civilians have legally been able to own and use guns since the beginning of the country, and this use is supported by the 2nd Amendment. However, as the country has gotten older and as guns have become more lethal both the federal and the state governments have imposed various forms of gun control, without completely banning private gun ownership. As always there are passionate proponents on both sides, and both sides believe that the other side is out to destroy America. A balancing act of contrary needs results from this ongoing inverse relation.
Control versus Freedom: sin crimes
Another general control versus freedom category that continuously plagues democracies revolves around what is referred to as ‘sin crimes’: recreational drug use, gambling and various forms of pornography and prostitution. Many argue that participation in these activities is not a crime, because no one (other than perhaps the participant) is harmed, and therefore participation should not be controlled. Others argue that indulgence in these activities is a crime because others, such as children, can be harmed, and more generally because participation in these activities debases social morality. Therefore these activities should be controlled. Once again we have competing contradictory human needs that can graphically be displayed as an inverse relation.
As with all contradictory social needs, the United States attempts a ‘sin crime’ balancing act. We allow for limited amounts of gambling and prostitution freedom, in limited locations. Until the recent semi-legalization of marijuana in some states, we have not allowed any legal recreational drug freedom, and the other classic recreational drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates, and psychedelics) remain completely illegal. However in the American past the balance between sin freedom and sin control has been very different. For example, before 1920 marijuana, cocaine and opiates could be bought legally in drugstores. In the towns of the west in the late 1800s brothels and gambling were both legal and prevalent. This is mentioned simply to point out that the balancing act between contrary human needs is ongoing and dynamic, and the balance point is always open to future change.
Control versus Freedom: other social issues
Another social issue that can be conceptualized as an inverse contradiction of needs framed in the context of control versus freedom is abortion. Those who support the ‘pro-life’ position want to restrict abortions as much as possible, thus controlling the choices of pregnant women. Supporters of the ‘pro-choice’ position want abortions to be legally available to any pregnant woman who wants one. The Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade made most abortions legal in the United States, but the pro-life supporters have never given up trying to restrict abortions. The point being that although the current balance favors the pro-choice position at this time, there are always those who wish to change the balance in the future.
A further social issue that can be conceptualized as a control versus freedom contradiction is divorce. Highly collectivist societies make divorce difficult, thus controlling the romantic choices of individuals. As societies become more individualistic, divorce usually becomes easier to obtain, giving individuals more relationship choices. In the United States the balance dot has shifted dramatically from difficulty in obtaining divorce (control) to ease in obtaining divorce (freedom). This has occurred as the United States has become less collectivist and more individualistic.
Control versus Freedom: economics
The control versus freedom issue extends to economics. Arguably the history of economic thought can be viewed as an intellectual struggle between proponents of a controlled economy versus proponents of a free market economy. This struggle plays itself out in the economic policies of the various democracies.
Free market economies respond to increasing human economic needs by expanding. An expanding economy is needed to provide jobs for an increasing population. Environmental preservation, which controls and inhibits present economic activity, is needed to provide resources for future generations. In a graph of this inverse contradiction, an expanding economy (freedom) would be on the Y axis in and environmental preservation (control) would be on the X axis. The negative correlation shows the contradictory inverse relation between these two needs. Expanding the economy inevitably leads to varying degrees of environmental degradation, and environmental preservation leads to fewer jobs.
Another contradictory issue with economic consequences is immigration. In its history the United States has been inconsistent regarding immigration, with increased immigration representing freedom, and decreased immigration representing control. At times we have had an open door, and at other times we have closed the door. The inconsistency reflects contradictory needs. New immigrants fulfill societal and economic needs, such as helping to expand the country westward and providing cheap labor for growing industries. However, immigration, particularly illegal immigration, represents a loss of control, both over the borders, and over who is allowed to become citizens of the country.
Self-sacrifice versus Self-interest
A more psychological aspect of the Collectivism versus Individualism overall contradiction is the contradiction between self-sacrifice and self-interest. Collectivist societies try to blunt self-interest by having group members internalize collective values that periodically require self-sacrifice. For example, a young person’s parents want her to take over their small restaurant operation so that they can retire. In a collectivist society she would without hesitation honor her parent’s request even though she desires to go to medical school and become a doctor. In individualistic cultures children are taught to follow their own self-interest, regardless of the desires of their fellow group members. Thus the young person in the example would pursue her medical school plans regardless of her parents’ desires.
The self-sacrifice versus self-interest contradiction shows up in several different issues. Americans want government services/benefits, but they do not want to pay for them. Receiving free or low-cost government services and benefits is clearly in each individual’s self-interest, but paying for these benefits is a form of self-sacrifice. The work ethic versus entitlement contradiction is another example of the self-sacrifice versus self-interest contradiction. Work ethic is the internalized attitude that hard work (self-sacrifice) is both rewarding in itself and necessary to earn rewards. Entitlement (self-interest) is the belief that people should receive certain resources and rewards from their society simply because they are members of that society.
The Underlying Psychological Contradiction
The overall collectivist-control-self sacrifice versus individualist-freedom-self interest contradiction has an underlying fundamental psychological component: internalized self-control (impulse control) versus lack of self-control (impulsivity). Impulsivity could be defined as the freedom to do whatever a person wants whenever he/she wants, if it makes that person feel good. This definition implies that people should be able to ignore societal rules and norms if they so desire. Impulsivity is opposed by impulse control, which promotes conformity to societal norms and delay of gratification. There are individualistic forces in American society that promote impulsivity, such as advertising and modern music (rock and rap), and there are collectivist forces that promote impulse control, such as laws, ethics and religious mores.
Impulsivity apparently peaked in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. During these decades several markers of impulsivity reached their highest levels, such as the amount of illicit recreational drug use and the number of out-of-wedlock teenage births.
The basic point of this paper is that democracy can be conceptualized as an endless dynamic governance process that attempts to balance contradictory needs. These sets of contradictory needs can be categorized within the overarching framework of collectivism (control) versus individualism (freedom). Because of individual differences, there will almost always be some people for whom one of the set of two contradictory needs is more salient than the other need, and vice versa. When the balance is equidistant from either axis, supporters of each need are roughly equally powerful in influencing the democratic process. When the balance is more toward one axis or the other, supporters of one need have more influence than supporters of the other need, at least temporarily.
The strong implication of this analysis of democracy as sets of contradictory needs is that most balance points between contradictory needs are usually in the center or close to it. Partisans on either side have difficulty accepting this fundamental fact about democracy. The two major political parties, which are each dominated by their respective partisans, generally fall on opposite sides of each of these contradictions, and they strive to make their particular position dominant by overcoming the other position and thus eliminating the contradiction. Centrists not only accept the fact that these contradictions will never go away; they value these contradictions as the essence of democracy. Centrists believe that partisans waste their time trying to eliminate whatever contrary position they oppose. Instead, centrists believe that the focus should be on finding balance points that best serve the long term health of our democracy.