A slate of new books on the theme of democratic breakdown has inspired more reviews than any individual could reasonably expect to cover (especially if they also intend, at some point, to read the books in question). Instead of weighing in directly on these works, I want to suggest a pair of reviews that helpfully bring out a basic difference in how to approach the question on everyone’s mind: What the hell is going on?
Those two reviews are Arthur Goldhammer’s essay in The American Prospect and Shadi Hamid’s in The American Interest. Both concern The People vs. Democracy, by the political theorist Yascha Mounk (Goldhammer’s piece also addresses How Democracies Die, by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and David Frum’s Trumpocracy).
Mounk’s book argues that we have accustomed ourselves to “liberal democracy” without recognizing how it embodies two different principles which are now in open tension. In short, our liberal commitments to rights and the individual seem to be increasingly clashing against our democratic commitments to collective autonomy. The question is then: What to do when illiberal majorities justify their actions using the language of popular sovereignty, or when unaccountable elites ignore, even for noble reasons, the will of the people? In other words, we seem to be trapped: reluctant to further diminish our commitment to democracy, but also unwilling to hand power to menacing majorities, while also incapable of answering the disturbing form of populism seemingly generated by our paralysis.
For the most part, Hamid seems to endorse this interpretation of our current state of affairs. Criticizing undemocratic liberalism for its vision of “a democracy without conflict,” Hamid writes that “an artificial consensus, manufactured and nurtured by the powerful, is by definition exclusionary, pushing away anything that offers a whiff of radicalism.” For an example of this exclusion, Hamid cites the way that elites in Western democracies have discussed immigration, charging them with a “condescending” reliance on “enlightened moral appeals to multiculturalism and anti-racism juxtaposed to the untutored bigotry of the masses.” A restrictive immigration policy, Hamid seems to be saying, might be illiberal, nasty, and undesirable for all sorts of reasons. But it’s not undemocratic—unlike (by implication) deeming the issue out-of-bounds for public discussion. (For what it’s worth, I do not agree with this characterization of how elites have approached public debate over the issue of immigration, but that’s a different discussion.)
In contrast, Goldhammer’s Prospect essay tries to find a way of holding together the liberal and democratic commitments Hamid wants to pull apart. Note that this is no naïve attempt to simply declare liberalism and democracy synonymous—rather, it’s a way of trying to recover a conception of democracy that explicitly builds in normative values whose inclusion, on Hamid’s argument, is the result of a kind of illicit conceptual smuggling. In his discussion of liberal democracy, Goldhammer argues that untrammeled majoritarian rule “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.” Without the possibility of losers accepting defeat or regaining power, “democracy forfeits its legitimacy, even if certain of its outward forms, such as elections, are retained.”
Goldhammer uses the language of “liberal democracy” to describe this system, but its logic is driven by a certain pragmatic reasoning about the conditions of competition and regime stability as much as by an Enlightenment commitment to individual rights. Moreover, its maintenance, he implies, is based not just on the satisfaction of the people’s will but on the state of its civic competence. To the broad, ongoing conversation about the survival of democratic norms, Goldhammer adds a sharp observation about life in Trump’s America—by taking note of “the moral condition to which a nation must sink in order to tolerate and even incite such misbehavior in high places.”
I present these two pieces in a slightly stylized way to draw a distinction between two ways of thinking about democracy. Amid talk about democratic norms, democratic breakdown, democratic values, the crisis of liberal democracy, and so on, there has been too little consideration of whether democracy itself incorporates specific values—either values that distinctively make it what it is, or that render it worthy of our devotion. Hamid can be read as suggesting that democracy can be understood in relatively narrow terms, an interpretation which indicates the relatively frequent possibility of trade-offs between democratic values and their rivals. Goldhammer can be read as proposing a more synthetic approach, in which contemporary commitments to democracy only make sense if democracy is seen as including other related values. I lack the space here to propose a solution to this debate, but it’s worth making the difference explicit—if only to get a clearer idea of the nature of the trade-offs, tensions, and compromises we’re talking about. As both authors would agree, the question is urgently confronting us, whether we’re ready for it or not.