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Citizens, political leaders, and scholars invoke the term 'democracy' to describe present-day states without grasping its roots or prospects in theory or practice. This book clarifies the political discourse about democracy by identifying that its primary focus is human activity, not consent. It points out how democracy is neither self-legitimating nor self-justifying and so requires critical, ethical discourse to address its ongoing problems, such as inequality and exclusion. Wallach pinpoints how democracy has historically depended on notions of goodness to ratify its power. The book analyses pivotal concepts of democratic ethics such as 'virtue', 'representation', 'civil rightness', 'legitimacy', and 'human rights' and looks at them as practical versions of goodness that have adapted democracy to new constellations of power in history. Wallach notes how democratic ethics should never be reduced to power or moral ideals. Historical understanding needs to come first to highlight the potentials and prospects of democratic citizenship.
From the time of their association with natural rights in eighteenth-century America and France to their encoding by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the idea and practice of human rights have possessed constitutively ambiguous and paradoxical – if not contradictory – political features. On the one hand, they would constrain the actions of institutional political actors within a universal ethical framework that coincides with international law. In this vein, they presumptively operate outside of both domestic and international politics. On the other hand, the actualization of human rights amounts to a comprehensive moral charge for social change, which requires political action by individuals and institutions. This suggests that human rights can be powerful and legitimate but only when they are enforced by an invisible hand – a political deux ex machina. In other words, the practical integrity of human rights depends on their being simultaneously political and non-political, a sign of immutable morality and a practical tool of particular political actors.
This constitutive political ambiguity of human rights has belonged to the discourse of human rights since its origins, but only recently has “human rights” factored seriously in the justification of political action by powerful states. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the emergence of the European Union as a political actor, and the consolidation of the global hegemony of the United States – the discourse of human rights has become dramatically more significant in the language of international relations and the politics of states.