Jan-Werner Müller | Allen Lane | $45 | 256 pages
Something is amiss at the heart of democratic politics. Or so goes the conventional wisdom. On at least two occasions since 2016, both 1984 and The Origins of Totalitarianism have appeared on bestseller lists. In 2020, HBO made a prestige drama about an American fascist takeover. Political columnists earnestly invoke Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” And an entire subgenre of books fans the flames: How Democracy Ends, How Democracies Die, The Death of Democracy, The End of Democracy, Twilight of Democracy.
It is easy to be cynical about such pessimism. Doom prophets are as old as the sun. But even if you don’t go in for crisis chatter, you would be hard-pressed to deny that some of the world’s most mature democracies are facing some serious headwinds. Many of the culprits are so familiar that they need no more than a passing mention: competing varieties of right-wing populism led by the totemic shocks of Trump and Brexit; new forms of authoritarianism stifling opposition in Hungary, Turkey and Brazil; crude ethnic nationalism gaining electoral traction in almost every European country, a kind of domino theory for our time.
Jan-Werner Müller, a political philosopher from Princeton, knows his way around this public end-of-democracy seminar. In fact, he was one of the first cabs off the rank with his 2016 book What Is Populism?, one of the most clear-sighted early attempts to identify the many family resemblances among the new “Populist International.” It is his view, then and now, that what ultimately connects figures as diverse as Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi and Hugo Chávez is their rejection of political and cultural pluralism. In Müller’s conception, wrote one critic, populism is democracy’s “anti-pluralist, moralistic shadow.”
Naturally, then, Müller’s new book, Democracy Rules, turns the mirror around. Rather than opine further about the shape of populist threat, as most of the doom prophets have done in recent years, he attempts to shift the focus back onto democracy’s own first principles. If we choose to think seriously about what democracy actually is, he implies, we might see more clearly what it is that we are trying to defend. The ultimate question for our times is not “what is populism?” but “what is democracy?”
Of course, we don’t need to frame all our ideas about democracy as a response to the new “autocratising regimes.” But neither can we deny that it is the existence of these regimes that is bringing such urgency to the latest wave of democratic soul-searching. One of the features of the new right-wing populism, after all, is the way it presents itself as being fundamentally democratic. Unlike “paradigmatic” twentieth-century fascism, to which it is typically compared, populism is much less openly hostile to democracy itself. Populists instead seize power by exploiting democracy’s institutions, if only so they may undermine them. This is democracy’s paradox and its fatal flaw: it is a system that tolerates its opponents.
Taking that logic to its extreme, the new authoritarians claim they are actually arch-democrats reflecting the will of the people. At this point, the debate is enveloped in a fog of partisanship. Trump, for example, never openly entertains the idea that he is subverting democracy: he simply won the 2020 election. His opponents saw illiberalism everywhere they looked: friendly appointments, political favours, wall-building. Figuring out whether populist political movements represent genuine threats to democracy seems to be more art than science. But even so, says Müller, there must be a nonpartisan way to draw a line between ordinary democratic friction and pernicious polarisation.
The answer, in his view, is to maintain a fundamentally democratic idea of “the people.” Put simply: you cannot expel or disenfranchise citizens, or attempt to limit their participation in the political process. This is democracy’s “hard border”: cross it, and you pose a threat to democracy itself. Governing on behalf of a particular constituency or political coalition might be a normal part of the democratic process, but framing your political rivals as enemies of the state and stripping them of political rights is the threshold at which the backsliding begins.
What ultimately protects democracy against itself, argues Müller, is its “critical infrastructure”: political parties and the media. In an ideal world, these institutions act like shock absorbers for new political demands — as a means by which citizens can participate in the political process and affect political outcomes. And crucially, they provide a way to define the boundaries of political debate in increasingly complex modern societies. They create the “visions of divisions” over which elections are typically fought.
For Müller, the health of democracy is directly tied to the accessibility and smooth functioning of these mediating institutions. This is unfortunate, because both parties and the media have been experiencing a crisis of legitimacy for a while now.
Major political parties have begun to resemble oligarchies. Rather than functioning as “laboratories” for new political ideas, in the Gramscian sense, many are proscribing certain ways of thinking and limiting internal dissent. In some countries, too, dark money floods the political system, creating drastic inequality at the level of political influence. All of this breeds further cynicism and compounds democracy’s crisis.
The advent of social media, meanwhile, has blown up traditional ways of delivering news, put a price on “virality” and turbocharged the fragmentation of the public sphere. Accurate and “assessable” facts are getting harder to come by. Certain types of politicians exploit the situation, peddling disinformation and manufacturing confusion (or, as Steve Bannon puts it, “flooding the zone with shit”).
Müller proposes a number of fixes for these problems, none of which really sets the heart racing. On the issue of dark money, for example, he explores the idea of a voucher system: large donations would be banned, and every citizen would instead receive an equal amount of money to be allocated to the party or candidate of their choice. This seems practical and achievable. Applying the same concept to the media, however — creating a constellation of “transparently partisan” non-profit news co-ops — seems beyond my own personal Overton window.
We can haggle over the details, but the underlying rationale of such schemes is nevertheless sound: to encourage political participation, and to discourage passivity, cynicism and the suspicion that the game is rigged. Both political parties and the media have become increasingly unresponsive to the changing demands of societies — that is, they have become less democratic — and as such they have begun to lose their legitimacy. If we want to protect democracy, we need to find ways to re-democratise its mediating institutions.
Ultimately, though, democracy can’t be protected by laws and decrees alone. It needs believers — and enough of them to keep the game going. All of us have a role to play. There are such things as “democracy-enhancing” behaviours, Müller thinks, acts of generosity and good faith that can create virtuous cycles of political engagement and reciprocity. Reading this, I could not help but think of Barack Obama, a democratic true believer, whose insistence that there be no red states and blue states was exploited mercilessly by his intransigent opponents. Obama’s good faith, say his critics, was simple political naivety. Politics is not for nice guys.
Müller is not so cynical. There are always the examples of figures like Martin Luther King and Edward Snowden, rule breakers who sought to restore the “spirit behind the rules.” But the defenders of democracy nevertheless find themselves in a difficult position. If your only response to the illiberalism and bad faith of your opponents is high-minded platitudes and good-faith gestures, you risk losing it all. Democracy-enhancing behaviours appear to be of little use to the systematically disenfranchised opponents of the Hungarian and Turkish regimes. But to do the opposite — to meet illiberalism with illiberalism — risks undermining the very principles you are seeking to defend, and there may be no coming back.
This is not to engage in bothsidesism or to suggest that prominent left responses to right-wing populism in recent years are themselves illiberal. In fact, the idea that politicians like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn represent some kind of left authoritarianism is grossly overstated. Rather, both are healthy examples of the political party as laboratory: a partisan political organisation that shifts and reshapes its agenda in response to internal dissent. Neither Corbyn nor Sanders formed new parties, but instead sought to reform existing ones. Both relied heavily on real grassroots support, and neither sought to exclude or demonise particular groups from the political process. They did in fact lead highly democratic movements.
By contrast, the new populists are intensely undemocratic. They project muscular, uncompromising personas. Some maintain autocratic control over their own parties. (Geert Wilders’s far-right party in the Netherlands has two members, both of whom are Geert Wilders.) They aim not just to defeat their opponents but to keep defeating them, to dominate. Like mafiosi, they rig the game. True winners, they believe, don’t need to pretend their opponents have anything worthwhile to contribute. As Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump enthusiast, is known to say, “competition is for losers.” To compromise or show sympathy is weak and effete. It’s loser talk.
For Müller, this is exactly the point. Democracy is for losers. It is “a political system in which parties lose elections” (although, he adds, it is not one in which the same party loses elections). In a functioning democracy, the losers can always plausibly entertain the idea that they will one day win. To defend democracy, they must defend the right of winners to rule over them, and the winners must defend the right of losers to continue to participate in the political process. Both sides must accept the fact that their opponents are in some way legitimate. You can be against the government, but you cannot be against the political system.
It is often said that the new populists thrive on division, but what they really crave is the opposite: predictability and control. Conflict and disagreement, on the other hand, breed uncertainty — especially when combined with regular elections. And that, for Müller, is all democracy is: “institutionalised uncertainty.” Electoral outcomes cannot be preordained. Citizens must accept disagreement in perpetuity. Priorities change, the losers regroup, and everyone tries again. The movie never ends — it goes on and on and on and on. •