The institutions of democracy, its norms and mechanisms, should embody a vision of human beings as deficient, flawed and imperfect.
Ancient Athenian democracy devised two institutions that fleshed out this vision.
In Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” the Grand Inquisitor says: “There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible.” And what a sweet surrender!
Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler and Mussolini were all smooth talkers, charmers of crowds and great political seducers.
He can do whatever he likes with the enraptured followers now. This is, roughly, the human context against which the democratic idea emerges. Genuine democracy doesn’t make grand promises, does not seduce or charm, but only aspires to a certain measure of human dignity. Compared to what happens in populist regimes, it is a frigid affair.
Who in his right mind would choose the dull responsibilities of democracy over the instant gratification a demagogue will provide? And yet, despite all this, the democratic idea has come close to embodiment a few times in history — moments of grace when humanity almost managed to surprise itself.
In the grand scheme of human events, it is the exception, not the rule.
Despite democracy’s elusive nature, its core idea is disarmingly simple: As members of a community, we should have an equal say in how we conduct our life together.
To be a true democrat, in other words, is to understand that when it comes to the business of living together, you are no better than the others, and to act accordingly.
To live democratically is, mainly, to deal in failure and imperfection, and to entertain few illusions about human society.