Vanderbilt Law Review

Article Title

Is Democracy Like Sex?

First Page



Despite the end of the Cold War, democracy seems to be in bad shape these days. In fact, there has been a modest boom in books and commentary proclaiming either the inadequacy of democracy or its imminent demise. According to at least one commentator, we face the possibility that American democracy will turn out to be a failure. Much has also been made of the gloomy assessments of American democracy contained in recent books by Christopher Lasch and Jean Bethke Elshtain. Such gloom seems a natural follow-on to the generally negative evaluations of democracy as a decision-making device provided by the works of decision theorists such as Kenneth Arrow, and, more recently, by public choice theorists. It has even been suggested that democracy may be a victim of its own success: too much democracy, we are warned, may be the death of America as a vibrant and productive society.

I would be the last to argue that this concern is entirely misplaced. As I have suggested elsewhere, there are real problems with the way our society addresses and resolves important issues. Those problems undoubtedly incorporate the shortcomings of democracy (at least as it is currently practiced) in some ways. But I also believe that things may not be quite as bad as pictured, for some surprising reasons. In short, I believe that some of the characteristics of democracy that are often portrayed as shortcomings may actually be strengths. If properly appreciated, these characteristics may even be seen as protections against the very kinds of problems that today's commentators describe. Furthermore, a proper understanding of the role of democracy in our constitutional system suggests that many of the structural reforms being urged by some who complain about special interest dominance are likely to make things worse, rather than better.

To explore this idea, I have chosen as an analogy or metaphor another widely criticized and misunderstood institution-sex. In short, some discoveries resulting from the application of complexity theory to the question of evolutionary fitness among biological systems have important implications for our discussion of the fitness of the body politic. Both kinds of systems face a similar problem-main- taining a balance between adaptability and stability on the one hand, while resisting parasitism on the other. In essence, democracy can be viewed as serving the same function in political systems that sex serves for biological systems-enhancing resistance to parasites. As it turns out, this approach raises important questions regarding the merits of many proposals for fixing current democracy through, for example, "electronic town meetings," in which citizens vote directly on issues, or term limits for elected officials.

This Essay will first summarize some contemporary thinking about the role of sex in evolutionary biology. Next, it will briefly outline some reasons why the conclusions reached by evolutionary biologists regarding the advantages of sexual reproduction are likely to be applicable to complex dynamic systems that are not biological, including political systems. It will then apply this construct to analyze the outcomes of two recent Supreme Court cases. It will conclude with some observations about what the similar roles of sex and democracy can tell us regarding our American constitutional system, including various proposals for its reform.