Democracy and Its Discontents

Democracy and Its Discontents

Three authors engage with the threats to a liberal society.

February 16, 2018

How Democracies Die 
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Penguin Random House

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic 
David Frum 

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It 
Yascha Mounk 
Harvard University Press

This article will appear in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Throughout the four and a half decades of the Cold War, the consoling myth of the self-styled Free World was that democratic politics constituted the end point of political evolution. It was an article of faith that once the blighted societies on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain attained democracy, the “end of history” would commence, as Francis Fukuyama memorably put it in 1989. Political contestation would not disappear, but the battle henceforth would be about mere “economic calculation” and “the endless solving of technical problems” rather than fundamental political ideology.

That things haven’t worked out quite as Fukuyama imagined is the common theme of the three books under review. All three take as their fundamental premise the idea that democracy, far from being a stable and all-but-irreversible political regime, is instead fragile, perpetually vulnerable, and prey to both internal pathologies and external enemies.

It is no mystery why anxiety about the stability of democracy is rampant today. Throughout the West, countries that used to think of themselves as paragons of “advanced democracy” are facing challenges to their established political systems—challenges mounted not by restive militaries or militant revolutionaries but by broad segments of their own citizenry.

These challenges are often grouped under the label “populist” or “populist-authoritarian” or “nationalist-populist” or “far-right populist.” None of these terms is quite satisfactory. After all, the foundation of democracy is what Tocqueville called “the dogma of popular sovereignty.” Populists claim to speak for the People while denouncing the rest as “elites” or “aliens” or both. If a populist movement succeeds in attracting a majority of adherents, does it not have the right to rule as it sees fit? Is that not the very meaning of democracy?

No, reply the proponents of liberal democracy. Unfettered majority rule can all too easily turn into majoritarian tyranny, as Tocqueville warned (and as our constitutional Founders appreciated); or, worse, it can become a mask for the rule of a ruthless minority cloaking itself in a popular mantle. Democracy thus threatens to sap its own foundation, since a sovereign free to do as it pleases—even to the point of tampering with the rules of the electoral system by gerrymandering districts and disqualifying potential voters, appointing biased judges, and silencing critics of its policies—cannot hope to win the acquiescence of the defeated minority. Unless there exists a possibility of alternation between those momentarily in power and those excluded from it, democracy forfeits its legitimacy, even if certain of its outward forms, such as elections, are retained.

Democracy therefore rests on a contradiction. If a democratic system of government is to endure, all parties must acknowledge that the imperative of preserving the rules that define and protect that system takes precedence over the goal of achieving power. Yet at the same time, the quest for power is the parties’ very raison d’être. Somehow the thirst for power must be restrained sufficiently to preserve the system itself. For as long as the system survives, the defeated can live to fight another day, but if the system itself is subverted the losers can be deprived of their very right to participate in politics. Hence when the Republicans gathered at their party’s 2016 nominating convention indulged their hatred of the opposing party’s candidate by shouting in unison, “Lock her up!” many Americans began for the first time in their lives to tremble for the future of their republic, which Benjamin Franklin had warned was theirs only so long as they knew how to keep it.


POLITICAL SCIENTISTS Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to examine just how shaky the foundations of American democracy might be by studying the ways in which democracy has failed in other countries. Their bravura tour d’horizon covers two centuries of democratic histories in all corners of the globe. They find that the preservation of democracy requires two things. First, the political parties that constitute the system need to act as gatekeepers. Men and women who would vie for high office must first be vetted by their collaborators and competitors, people in a position to scrutinize their character and capacity for governance more closely and intimately than the average voter can, at least in the abstract ideal. Parties can also be the locus of corrupt bargains and often were, or they can simply fail in their role as gatekeepers: “When fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.” Commons

In their book, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to examine just how shaky the foundations of American democracy might be by studying the ways in which democracy has failed in other countries. Here, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speak in 2017. 

Precisely because the parties sometimes fail in their gate-keeping role, a second line of defense is needed. Even if unscrupulous actors circumvent the gatekeepers and succeed in gaining power, they must not be free to change the rules and norms that govern the operation of the system and protect the minority from the arbitrariness of the majority. Without such constraints on the will of the majority, democracy may exist but not liberal democracy.

Significantly, the rules that Levitsky and Ziblatt regard as crucial are not the rules and procedures written into the U.S. Constitution, the much-vaunted system of checks and balances in which many Americans, vaguely remembering what they learned in civics class, are wont to place their faith. After detailing the ways in which explicit constitutional safeguards identical to those found in the U.S. Constitution have broken down elsewhere, the authors conclude that something more is needed. “Democracies work best,” they write, “where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms.” Two such norms stand out: “mutual toleration,” or recognition of the legitimacy of the opposition, and “forbearance,” defined as “restraint” in the exercise of institutional powers.

The two Harvard political scientists are not sanguine about the robustness of these norms in the current political moment. Why not? Because the rot stems, they say, from “extreme partisan polarization” growing out of “an existential conflict over race and culture.” Now, any political conflict that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as “existential” runs the risk of turning catastrophic, because rule-breaking is licensed by the assumed imperative of self-preservation.

For right-populist parties today, and not only in the United States, the perceived existential threat is primarily a consequence of demographic change. People fear disruption of the prevailing racial or ethnic hierarchy. In the United States it was Trump advisor Steve Bannon who, more clearly perhaps than the candidate himself, saw the potential of this issue in a country where one party, the Republican, is sustained largely by white votes, while the nonwhite share of the Democratic vote has increased sharply over the past half-century.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

A group of President Donald Trump supporters is seen from the media van traveling in the president's motorcade en route to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida

There is a tension in the Levitsky-Ziblatt book between these two strands of the argument, norm-breaking on the one hand and existential crisis on the other. “Existential” issues of race and culture will always entail norm-breaking in the name of self-preservation, or else lead to compromise at the expense of minority groups. In the past, the parties have opted to preserve tolerance of opposing views and forbearance in the use of the powers of office, to be sure, but arguably at the expense of democratic fairness rather than in support of it.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt duly note, this was the case at the end of the 19th century, when Reconstruction was ended by a tacit agreement between Northern politicians prepared to tolerate Jim Crow in the South and Southern conservatives prepared to compromise on economic questions in return for the opportunity to restore the racial and class hierarchies they believed fundamental to their way of life. In the same period, similar unwritten norms countered the democratic thrust of the nascent workers’ movement. This was reinforced by Supreme Court majorities wedded to a concept of “freedom of contract” inimical to organized labor and law enforcement policies with similar effect.

Like Levitsky and Ziblatt, Alexis de Tocqueville knew that the survival of democracy depended on more than written constitutions and formal legislation. “Laws matter less than mores,” he wrote. Mores: an interesting choice of word (the French is moeurs). By it, Tocqueville meant not just “habits of the heart,” such as the mutual toleration and forbearance invoked by the two scholars, but “the whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind … the whole moral and intellectual state of a people.”

Tocqueville’s notion of mores, while capacious enough to encompass Levitsky and Ziblatt’s tacit norms, is really far broader. The two political scientists focus narrowly on the behavior of politicians and officials, whereas Tocqueville weighed the “whole moral and intellectual state of a people.” How Democracies Die is a book with many strengths, but its single-minded focus on norms leaves out other parts of the story. The authors highlight numerous instances in which democracy has been threatened by the trespasses of officials but say little about the moral condition to which a nation must sink in order to tolerate and even incite such misbehavior in high places.

Toward the end of their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt do broaden the focus somewhat to include not just American officialdom but the American people as well. Pessimistically, they quote their Harvard colleague Danielle Allen: “The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority.” Undeterred by the absence of precedent, they resolutely insist, to their credit, that there can be no retreat from efforts to make the American political system more inclusive, no matter how much resentment of demographic change has contributed to the erosion of norms. They observe, further, that “slowed economic growth” has only compounded the anxieties attendant upon the loss of white ethnic superiority. Whatever optimism they can muster then comes down to the hope that by restoring growth and spreading its fruits more equally, racial anxieties can somehow be laid to rest. Weighed against the bleak historical record they set forth in the preceding pages, this seems a thin reed on which to rest the fate of the Republic.


DAVID FRUM, A JOURNALIST and former conservative movement operative turned apostate, has more to say about the decay of American mores in Tocqueville’s broad sense of the term. Like Levitsky and Ziblatt, he blames political actors, whose pursuit of power leads to disdain for the norms that sustain the system: “Where constitutional democracy has been lost, it has been lost because political actors have broken its rules … to achieve some immediately urgent goal.” But he also blames the “enablers” and “appeasers” of those actors, including a “conservative entertainment complex” that propagandized for an extremist candidate and “a donor elite who funded him” for reasons of self-interest or, as Frum prefers to put it, “plunder.” Levitsky and Ziblatt have little to say about the odd symbiosis between plutocracy and populism, which is central to Frum’s analysis. As a conservative keen to limit the role of the state, he is appalled by the use of state power for private gain: “Costly as the Trump family was to the presidency, the presidency was correspondingly lucrative to the Trump family” and its friends.

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Perhaps more clearly than Trump himself, it was his advisor Steve Bannon who saw a political opportunity in the existential fear of demographic change.

Frum does not stop with the class of wealthy buccaneers keen to fill their own pockets, however. They would have been satisfied with any of the Republican hopefuls. To explain why the party went instead for the one candidate who broke the mold, the former Bush speechwriter must look to the base of his own conservative movement. He excoriates the “millions of rank-and-file Republicans” who embraced the norm-busting front-runner. This readiness to acknowledge the alarming decay of “the whole moral and intellectual state of a people” sets Frum apart from the value-neutrality to which political science aspires, and which tends to stress self-interest rather than democratic passions such as the envy and resentment of elites. If this concern with the moral foundations of democracy rather than with its formal and informal institutional arrangements reflects Frum’s conservative roots, it also does honor to them.

Among the many sources of resentment that fed 2016’s revolt of the masses, Frum singles out a ferocious rejection of political correctness. According to candidate Trump, political correctness “cripples our ability to talk and think and act clearly.” The once-silent majority had never really been silent about its disdain for elitist “snowflakes” who refuse to call a terrorist an “Islamic terrorist” or an undocumented immigrant an “illegal alien.” In speech where some saw only rank prejudice, others saw a willingness to grapple frankly with salient realities of the day. It proved surprisingly easy to persuade people who felt disrespected for candidly speaking their minds that “liberals were colluding to destroy white Western manhood.”


THE TWO BOOKS DISCUSSED thus far have both centered on the dilemma of American democracy in the era of Donald Trump. Levitsky and Ziblatt take an admirably comparative approach, but their primary concern is with the fate of American democracy in light of what has happened elsewhere. Frum writes of American politics with an insider’s intimacy. Yascha Mounk’s book is different. Born in Germany but now a citizen of the United States, Mounk sees the Trump catastrophe as but the latest in a series of populist uprisings against the status quo ante. Hence the title of his book: The People vs. Democracy.

Since this opposition has sprung up in many countries, there must, Mounk reasons, be a cause common to all. He finds the cause he is seeking in the concept of undemocratic liberalism: “Unnoticed by most political scientists, a form of undemocratic liberalism has taken root in North America and Western Europe. In this form of government, procedural niceties are carefully followed (most of the time) and individual rights are respected (much of the time). But voters have long since concluded that they have little influence on public policy.” Provocatively, he adds, “They aren’t altogether wrong.”

One way of reading this is to take Mounk as seizing the other horn of the dilemma identified by Levitsky and Ziblatt. They worry about what happens to democracy when “procedural niceties”—that is, democratic norms, both formal and informal—are not respected. He worries about what happens when respect for norms serves to mask the denial of democratic voice.

Why has this happened? Mounk singles out three changes in the environment in which liberal democracy flourished after World War II. First, the economic growth that sustained the expansion of the welfare state has ended. Wages have stagnated across the developed world, and inequality has increased. Globalization has limited the ability of nation-states to deliver healthy growth. Legislative bodies have been reduced to impotence as what limited economic sovereignty remains has been shifted to the executive or to supposedly independent entities such as central banks when not simply ceded to supranational bodies such as the European Commission. Furthermore, lobbying by economic interests has infiltrated all these institutions, whose decisions are increasingly captive to will of powerful economic actors rather than responsive to the will of the people. All these changes have undermined liberal democracy from within, yielding what Mounk dubs, with appealing symmetry, undemocratic liberalism.

Abetting the corrosive effects of undemocratic liberalism is what the author calls illiberal democracy. This is the cultural side of the reaction to globalization. If undemocratic liberalism thrives on the free movement of goods and capital, illiberal democracy stems from the free movement of people, which forces once-homogenous nations to contend with the influx of people whose language, religion, culture, and habits of mind and heart—Tocqueville’s mores—are unlike those of the native population.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Then-candidate Donald Trump turns around to supporters behind him as he speaks before a crowd in Phoenix in 2015. 

The final threat to liberal democracy comes, according to Mounk, from the internet. Democratic politics flourishes best where there is a shared civic culture. The rapid spread of social media via the internet has meant that people no longer need expose themselves to views not consonant with their own. Their prejudices, never challenged, grow unimpeded in this hothouse environment.

This picture of what has happened to Western democracy is no less dire for being familiar. Mounk may concede more to the populist critique than he has to or should, however. For example, he acknowledges that “the case for taking so many policy decisions out of democratic contestation may be perfectly sound. … Undemocratic liberalism may have great benefits, but that doesn’t give us a good reason to blind ourselves to its nature.” But what is its nature, exactly? Surely the reliance—and perhaps over-reliance—on technocracy stems in part from the recognition that the democratic will is often as inscrutable as the Delphic oracle when it is not outright self-contradictory. People want their medical costs to be paid for when they are sick but don’t want to pay insurance premiums when they are healthy. They want excellent schools yet resist paying taxes to support them. They want the benefits of low-cost imports yet also want jobs in industries that shift production to low-wage countries in order to remain competitive (as well as line the pockets of their shareholders).

Especially in Europe, the rise of technocracy was in part a response to the previous wave of populism, fueled by the perception that the European economy could continue to compete globally only if it could achieve economies of scale engineered by experts in Brussels. Mounk’s category of undemocratic liberalism leaves no room for distinguishing between the more social democratic European Commission of Jacques Delors and the conservative one of José Manuel Barroso. During what the book portrays as the golden age of liberal democracy, which coincides with the 30 years after World War II to which the French refer as les trente glorieuses, France was arguably the very embodiment of undemocratic liberalism: a dirigiste state run by a technocratic elite guided by a strong executive with little input from a docile and subservient parliament. In retrospect, the considerable opposition that this regime aroused at the time can be portrayed as reasonable and constrained, democratic and rational rather than populist and irrational. But only in retrospect—at the time, it was denounced by opponents as authoritarian and hypernationalist and contested vigorously in the streets in May 1968. Mounk concludes with a series of policy recommendations that he believes will assist in re-asserting democratic control over the technocrats without ceding too much ground to their critics. Liberal democrats should confront populists on their home terrain. As an expatriate and citizen of the world, he formerly thought that nationalism’s virulence could be quelled, but he has come to see nationalism as a powerful and permanent influence in human affairs. Liberal democrats should therefore embrace what he calls “inclusive patriotism,” seeking to use the powerful emotions and symbols associated with the nation-state to advance their cause. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama serve as examples of how this can be done. So does Emmanuel Macron, whose Marseille speech extolling the composite nature of the French nation Mounk salutes. Unmentioned, however, is the policy line that Macron has followed since that speech, which emphasizes more stringent conditions on political asylum and accelerated deportation proceedings for immigrants who do not meet the requirements.

Indeed, Macron is a good test case for Mounk’s nostrums. Is he a liberal democrat or rather a complex blend of technocrat, pragmatic politician, and skilled rhetorician capable of mobilizing the rhetoric of inclusive patriotism on one occasion, of entrepreneurial capitalism on another, and of national grandeur on still another? There is a danger, I think, of allowing “liberal democracy” to become a value-laden term conveying broad approval without analytical purchase. What the current moment demands is insight like Tocqueville’s into the way in which successful democracies rely on a blend of contradictory ingredients, not all of which can be labeled “democratic.” Indeed, it was the heart of Tocqueville’s argument that a successful democracy must incorporate elements of its opposite, which he called “the aristocratic social state.” Conditions have changed since Tocqueville’s time, and so has the precise blend of contrary components required to hold the centrifugal forces of the democratic social state in check. Each of these books reveals in its own way a part of democracy’s contemporary predicament, but much work remains to be done to elucidate the conundrum of the present moment.

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