In the current debate about the radical left candidates in the US and the UK, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, one argument in support of their policies is heard again and again: their policies can command widespread popular demand. Corbyn's call for the nationalisation of the railways regularly tots up polling support in the high 60 percent.
The argument about popular support always struck me as dubious. There are quite a few nutty policies that would probably gain popular support if put to the electorates in the UK, such as capital punishment for rapists and murderers. What supporters of Sanders and Corbyn tend to neglect is that modern democracy is not a mechanism to identify and implement the will of the majority. In fact, the Federalists had grave misgivings about what the majority of citizens may lead politicians to decide. Their doubt about the reason and rationality of majority rule was instrumental in carefully constructing and safeguarding minority rights.
Yet, the most fundamental discomfort of cautious liberals with the popular argument has deeper roots. It is anchored in the concern that too many of radical socialist policies with seemingly popular support claim to be 'scientifically' true, making negotiations between social and political interests in society redundant. The main thrust of socialism was its alleged 'scientific' nature, which relegated public debate to the status of a post-hoc democratic justification by an electorate possessing the 'right consciousness'.
It is this presumption of righteousness that renders the socialist alternatives a la Corbyn and Sanders fundamentally anti-democratic. After all, for socialists, all the important questions have already been decided. Liberalism's antithesis to this un-democratic impulse of socialism is animated by the will to question everything anew, preserving the possibility to arrive at a different solution any day of the week. It is this openness of the political process and the uncertainty of outcomes that is hard to stomach for socialists.
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