Where could this increased demand for new non-corrupt ruling elites on the part of voters, who care primarily for their self-interest rather than abstract principles, take us?
The following essays were presented as part of the day-long conference “ Democracy in Trouble?” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. As the post-Cold War democratic order is straining under the dual threat of authoritarian and exclusionary movements on the national level and transnational oligarchic networks, the goal of the conference was to take account of the different facets and causes behind these developments. Originally published on the Mitchell Center’s website, these pieces are also natural fits for Public Seminar’s Vertical “Liberal Democracy in Question.”
In different ways, the contributions by Cas Mudde, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi all speak to the recent phenomenon of populism, frequently treated as the inseparable Other of liberal democracy. Mudde suggests that populism is a protean ideology premised on the separation of “the pure people” and the “corrupt elite”—one that has become increasingly prominent as an “illiberal democratic” response to the “undemocratic liberalism” of transnational economic and governmental institutions. Mungiu-Pippidi argues that while such institutions were originally intended to foster and strengthen “good governance,” the “global normative order” that once held anti-corruption as a central value is now threatened by backsliding, ironically, in the West itself. This erosion in the effectiveness of neutral, public institutions is exacerbated by attacks from aspiring authoritarian “strongmen” in Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and the United States, who, as Ben-Ghiat points out, tell narratives of civilizational decline and thus promise to defend their nations against corrupt elites and foreigners alike.
Jason Brennan and Hélène Landemore’s papers, meanwhile, are framed as a debate about the benefits and limitations of democracy as a form of government, given the constraints of modern societies. Both agree that representative democracies today suffer from a number of pathologies. Citing voter ignorance, Brennan argues that democracies are flawed systems that require both strong protections of economic and civil liberties and an openness to experimentation with other (non-democratic?) forms of institutions. Landemore, in contrast, stresses the egalitarian element of democracy, arguing that we should draw on its intellectual and institutional resources to push back against the drift toward oligarchy and elite rule. Whereas Brennan proposes “epistocracy,” or rule by the knowledgeable, as an alternative or at least a supplement to, democracy, Landemore proposes a new paradigm called “open democracy” that seeks to expand it beyond representative institutions by opening additional channels of participation in order to draw on the collective knowledge of citizens.
Taken together, these papers are part of an ongoing effort to investigate the underlying causes of the current rifts in the post-Cold War liberal democratic order. While the analyses and remedies of this moment are sure to differ, it is clear that the problems they identify and the questions they pose are very real and will remain with us in the near future.
– Rafael Khachaturian, University of Pennsylvania