FeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

Is There a Crisis of Democracy?

The Rise of Trump-like Figures in Democracies

There is a very interesting debate taking place between Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa and Erik Voeten on Monkey Cage and Wonkblog.

According to Mounk and Foa: “Public attitudes toward democracy… have soured over time. Citizens, especially millennials, have less faith in the democratic system. They are more likely to express hostile views of democracy. And they vote for anti-establishment parties and candidates that disregard long-standing democratic norms in ever greater numbers.”

According to Voeten: “Public support for democracy is not a major problem in well-established Western democracies. Or at the very least, it’s not a bigger problem than it was 20 years ago. There is no strong evidence that people in Western democracies have slowly become so dissatisfied with democracy that they are starting to embrace alternatives.”

The positions could not seem more different, and the difference seems to center on how to interpret the World Values Survey and the European Values Survey, two major surveys that track changes in public opinion on a range of social and political questions. I am not an opinion researcher. Voeten’s skepticism about the way Mounk and Foa interpret the data, and especially the implications they draw from whatever small changes might be discerned, seems apt to me. At the same time, the concern about the future of liberal democracy that seems to motivate Mounk and Foa also seems apt.

But I suspect that neither Voeten nor Mounk and Foa are well served by fixating on the survey data. For the difference in their perspectives seems to lie elsewhere, not in mass opinion, but in party-political and electoral shifts more broadly, and especially in the growing power of what Mounk and Foa call “anti-establishment parties and leaders.”

The real concern of Mounk and Foa is not so much with the vague avowal of “democracy,” but in the meanings of “democracy” that are increasingly mobilized, especially by populists, and especially by right-wing populists. Here it is worth quoting Mounk at length, writing this past summer in Slate:

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

Critics often attack Trump, Le Pen, and their cohort for being undemocratic. But that is to misunderstand both their priorities and the reasons for their appeal. For the most part, their belief in the will of the people is real. Their primary objection to the status quo is, quite simply, that institutional roadblocks like independent courts or norms like a ‘politically correct’ concern for the rights of minorities stop the system from channeling the people’s righteous anger into public policy. What they promise, then, is not to move away from popular rule but rather to strip it of its artificial, liberal guise — all the while embodying the only true version of the people’s will.

Mounk is here tracking something that is of increasing concern to many journalists and political scientists: the ascendancy of an increasingly illiberal and anti-liberal discourse of “democracy.” The project of instituting a new form of “illiberal democracy” in place of the supposedly outmoded form of liberal democracy is most closely linked to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has repeatedly announced this intention. But the idea is commonly associated with a broader range of political leaders — Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Raynep Erdogan in Turkey, among others–who have sought to institute illiberal measures and to justify them, at least in part, by appeal to a more authentic form of “democracy.” And, as Mounk, along with many others, points out, this tendency is now ascendant in the “West” — in the UK, France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and the US itself. Leaders like Nigel Farage, Marine LePen, and Donald Trump have not come out against “democracy.” They claim to speak for “the people” in a way that those they denounce as “liberal elites” have failed to do (this logic, one presumes, lies behind the “Europe of Freedom and Director Democracy” group in the EU Parliament, a militantly Euroskeptic group co-chaired by Farage). They claim, in some ways, to restore “popular sovereignty,” even if their “restoration” is disingenuous, and centers on a mythic past. Because they trumpet their own version of “the people,” “popular sovereignty,” and “democracy,” when increasing numbers of citizens vote for them and their parties, they are not voting against “democracy,” but for it.

To be clear, the “democracy” being supported here is typically ethnically, racially, or religiously exclusive; animated by fear of immigrants and of multicultural “threats” to an essentialist national identity; suspicious of and often hostile to legal and bureaucratic institutions designed to support human rights; and generally hostile to cosmopolitanism, pluralism, and liberalism. But it is justified as “democratic,” it is pursued through the electoral process, and it is advanced through legislative and constitutional measures defended on majoritarian grounds.

Mounk and Foa may exaggerate the extent to which public opinion tracks a decline in democratic commitment. Voeten may be right that the survey data suggests more marginal changes in value commitments in recent decades. “Democracy” might still be a central keyword of political life to which many continue to attach themselves. But its meaning is being increasingly contested, on the left as well as on the right. And both the practice and the discourse of pluralistic, representative liberal democracy surely seem to be facing major political challenges. Such challenges may be driven less by value change, than by a set of overlapping institutional crises associated with capitalism, the EU, the immigration crisis, and a more generalized crisis of social security. But they are challenges nonetheless.

How will “democracy” fare as these challenges unfold? Will a broadly liberal and pluralistic version of democracy be deepened, and perhaps made in some ways more social democratic, in order to meet these challenges? Or will it be replaced by something anti-liberal, a kind of “illiberal democracy,” a la Orban or Erdogan or Trump, that in time might even give way to something more emphatically authoritarian, as Putin’s “sovereign democracy” has done? The jury is out. We defenders of liberal and pluralist democracy have our work cut out for us. Such work involves institutional analysis and institutional experimentation, normative critique and normative reconstruction. It is necessary to persuasively argue that any vision of “democracy” that rejects the “polyarchal” institutions of civil liberty, freedom of association, and competitive elections is a recipe for political closure, growing acrimony and resentment, and illegitimacy. But it is equally necessary to deepen and extend these institutions so that they can meaningfully address issues of political alienation and social injustice that plague existing liberal democracies. In the end, I agree with Mounk: it is important, especially now, to defend and give deeper meaning to liberal democracy. The alternatives, whether or not they are advanced in the name of some other supposedly more authentic conception of “democracy,” are grim.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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