Democracy Rules: Liberty, Equality, and Uncertainty By Jan Werner Müller • Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 2021 • 256 pages • $27
President Joe Biden stated at his first presidential press conference in March 2021 that democracy is in a “battle” with autocracy for the future. He continued, “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
A central principle of the new Biden Administration is the idea that for democracy to survive our globe’s cascading crises and a shifting geopolitical landscape, marked by the rise of China, democracies need to do something quite fundamental: They must deliver for their citizens. Democracies can justify themselves if they can effectively master the multiplying calamities sweeping the globe such as climate change and the COVID epidemic.
In this new monograph, a follow up to his influential 2016 book What is Populism?, Princeton political theorist Jan-Werner Müller probes the potential of such justifications for democracy and finds them important but insufficient. The problem, Müller notes, is that, in democracies, economic growth rates will inevitably falter from time to time. Autocracies may sometimes prove superior at problem-solving, even if only in the short run, delivering peace, health, and stability to their citizens.
If this is so, can democracy still be justified beyond this purely instrumental rationale? Put differently: Why should we value democracy on its own terms?
This book represents an effort to answer these questions. Müller builds on a long line of theorizing on what are sometimes called the “intrinsic,” as opposed to the “instrumental,” qualities of liberal democracy vis-à-vis authoritarianism. Instrumental justifications for democracy emphasize its immediate policy and material benefits for society while intrinsic justifications highlight the values and principles that make it self-justifying. Müller focuses on the latter but does so with an important twist. His focus is post-Trumpian America, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Rather than weighing the political virtues of the West against Chinese or Singaporean authoritarian models, Müller’s starting point instead is to distinguish what he calls “real democracy” from Trump, Orban & co.’s variants of “fake” democracy. We see here that Trump’s turns of phrase haunt even the most distinguished of political theorists.
Müller’s debate-shaping 2016 book told us what defines “fake democrats,” and this book’s first chapter elaborates this thesis. What ties together the cast of characters—Orbán, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Trump, Narendra Modi, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Benjamin Netanyahu—is that they are all politicians who claim they, and only they, represent the “real people” or the “silent majority.” This basic claim to a “moral monopoly” of the people is pernicious for democracy, Müller powerfully reminds us, because the political opposition can be easily cast as illegitimate and its supporters, even more dangerously, as not part of the “real people.”
But if we know what “fake democracy” is, what exactly is “real democracy”? And what makes it endure? Here Müller returns to first principles. The first is that democracy, by definition, promises equality—both the idea that all citizens deserve the possibility of equal official influence via the ballot box, as well as the idea that citizens actively treat each other as equals. On both fronts, equality is a bedrock principle that democracy both protects and requires. Müller then asks, if, say, a giant computer or master planner could guarantee political equality, would democracy still be necessary?
The answer is “no,” so a second ingredient is critical: It is only if we also value freedom—the idea citizens are free to participate and choose their representatives as well as the criteria by which they evaluate their representatives—that democracy becomes imperative. In this discussion, Müller leads his reader through a detailed landscape of alternatives to representative democracy, including ancient Greek models and Rousseauian versions (though neither is admittedly currently taking center stage in our heated public debates). All of this is to highlight a core though widely recognized idea: In Müller’s view, equality and freedom are inherently in tension. Freedom to participate, in unrestricted fashion, inevitably causes inequality in outcomes, as some are better equipped than others to protect their own interests.
This leads Müller to add a third, less familiar principle that he places next to the big two of equality and freedom: the principle of “uncertainty.” The core idea here, drawing on work by political scientist Adam Przeworski, is that democracy is a system in which political outcomes are uncertain, or in which power-holders accept electoral loss. At first glance, this third principle may not appear to rise to the lofty level of principles like equality and freedom. But the insight is actually remarkably far-reaching. For political actors to accept the uncertainty of possibly losing elections—as the example of former President Trump after November 2020 and his incessant “Big Lie” rhetoric vividly displays—they must be willing to accept that political opposition is legitimate. And lurking even further behind this is a deeper value of pluralism: that no one and no party has a monopoly on truth or power. In other words, political tolerance, with its roots in the seventeenth century European wars of religion, is an essential part of democracy’s foundation.
The common thread—what we might term the “Müller Insight”—that runs from What is Populism? through to this book is the notion that in a healthy democracy, no group or individual ought to claim to speak exclusively on behalf of “the people.” If politicians or parties do this before an election, they are, in Müller’s view, populists who threaten to poison a democracy. If they do this after an election (the focus of this book), the damage can be even more extensive: A populist who claims to be the only authentic representative of the people also inevitably believes he can lose only if a political system is “corrupt and rotten.” If a populist faces his own demise, he is tempted to demolish the entire system.
Unfortunately, Trump’s post-election ventures into these dangerous waters appear to be not only effective but contagious. Up to 70 percent of Republicans report that they believe the election of 2020 was stolen. And, in the wake of Israel’s 2021 elections, Netanyahu at first resisted conceding and then attacked his successors in sadly familiar language: “We are witnessing the greatest election fraud in the history of the country, in my opinion in the history of any democracy.” Also, in June 2021, Peru’s populist scion, Keiko Fujimori, denied she lost the presidential election to leftist candidate Pedro Castillo—with calls to investigate non-existent fraud—though Peru’s election authorities as well as international election observers all agree the extremely close race was clean. Not to be outdone, Brazil’s Bolsonaro has also promised he won’t hand over power if there is “election fraud” (which of course there has to be, if he loses). Just as Müller’s book has appeared, there has been an outbreak of a contagion of anti-democratic losing that threatens a key test of democracy: the peaceful transition of power.
But what lies behind this contagion? Here, Müller offers only indirect answers. While he notes that rising inequality makes democracies vulnerable (leading to what he calls the “secession” of the rich), the final part of the book offers a distinctive angle. What is failing is the “critical infrastructure” that makes democracies work: traditional media and establishment political parties. These intermediary institutions were critical to building post-World War II democracy in Europe, North America, and Japan. As the postwar mass parties that structured voters’ choices and the media systems that structured political debate have fractured, our democracies have become more vulnerable to demagogues and populist outsiders.
In Müller’s account, the problem is not that voters have become disaffected from democracy, though that is a common diagnosis. Instead, it’s that the intermediary institutions that structured our democracies, linking voters to power-holders, have vanished. The fracturing of establishment parties—that is, the decline of the mass center-right and center-left parties of the postwar years and the rise of social media—have made these institutions more inclusive. At the same time, it is easier now than ever before to found one’s own party. With the rise of primaries within political parties, the pathway to candidacies within many existing parties is more open than ever before. Likewise, it has never been easier to communicate directly with fellow citizens, through Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. But the decline of gatekeeping institutions has paradoxically also opened the door to demagogues and populist outsiders.
Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the radical right party, no longer does interviews with leading publications, because, as one German journalist reports “they don’t need us.” The AfD has its own YouTube channel where they communicate directly to voters. A George Washington University study of the 2019 European Parliamentary elections noted that it was the AfD that dominated Facebook political posts, with millions of postings to its supporters, while the mainstream parties were virtually silent. The growth in direct channels between voters and politicians has gone hand in hand with the demise of traditional forms of media. And finally, recent research by two Harvard political scientists has shown that when there are fewer local newspapers in German towns, voters are vulnerable to misinformation: They are more likely to overestimate the number of migrants in their community—undoubtedly contributing to the success of radical right parties.
One curious omission from Müller’s account of intermediary organizations is the role of labor unions, a key bulwark of postwar democracy in Europe and North America. Labor unions before and after WWII were essential preconditions of both expanding and stabilizing democracy. Their role in political education was critical. Given the threats posed by economic inequality to democracy, labor unions’ role in reducing wage disparities made democracy more stable. And finally, the linkage between unions and parties of the center-left in Europe and North America were critical in forging a broad coalition that pushed for political inclusion of African Americans in the United States and more inclusive democracies in Western Europe. Indeed, the decline of labor force union membership from 35 percent in 1950 to just over 10 percent today in the United States, and the nearly as precipitous drop in Europe, is perhaps the most significant change in the intermediary landscape in contemporary politics. All of this—as well as the broader tensions between changing patterns of capitalism and democracy—seems to be outside of the scope of Müller’s analysis. As sweeping economic pressures of changing labor markets have weakened unions and increased economic inequality, the organized political power as well as the electoral voice of poorer voters have diminished, harming democracy itself.
This omission aside, Müller’s useful emphasis on the decline of intermediary institutions recaptures an important thesis articulated in William Kornhauser’s 1959 work on the politics of “mass society,” which warned that weakening of intermediary institutions leads to authoritarian temptations. In Kornhauser’s classic account, the decline of intermediary institutions leaves voters available to be mobilized by authoritarian movements and leaves elites more exposed to the pressure of these same movements. What Kornhauser warned of in the 1950s appears to have come to pass.
What lies behind this? And how to cope with it? There are few easy answers, as Müller makes clear. But if the ills of our democracy lie in the weakness of our intermediary institutions (already an important insight from Müller), so too are the cures. Müller provides an abstract set of answers: We need intermediary institutions that are accessible, accurate (truth should triumph over misinformation), and autonomous, not dependent on narrow private interests. The latter is particularly relevant when we think of the private funding of election campaigns in the United States and the superficiality of America’s profit-driven television media landscape that does not serve its citizens well.
The most concrete solutions that Müller proposes to repair the intermediary realm are modest: universal vouchers (“democracy coupons”) to pay for election campaigns (modeled on a plan implemented in Seattle, Washington); a lottery among citizens to determine who will be office holders (modeled on a 2010 Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review and a plan that ran in Ireland in 2012); as well as consultative citizens assemblies. All of these ideas, while certainly marked by ingenuity in working around the edges, seem to sidestep (indeed, perhaps by design) the biggest macro barriers to political change, such as well-organized economic interests and dysfunctional political institutions.
But it is worth noting that the ills of one democracy, notably American democracy, are so prone to dysfunction and a widely supported dangerous radicalism among one of the country’s two major political parties that such measures feel, at best, like half-measures. We must recognize that there is a gulf between the scale of America’s democratic crisis and what is unfolding in Europe. Keeping that contrast in mind is essential because America’s political system is built on the oldest written Constitution in the world and is marred by an unparalleled set of hard-to-reform pre-democratic institutional legacies—the filibuster, lifetime appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Electoral College, and extreme malapportionment of the U.S. Senate. These national-level political institutions thwart basic majority rule and poison America’s political system to a degree unparalleled today in Western Europe.
So, the problem may be our national political institutions, not just our intermediary organizations. Until a reformist coalition of national politicians emerges—under pressure from broad social movements that have echoes of America’s Progressive era or the civil rights era of the late 1950s and early 1960s—these national political institutions will remain intact. And all reforms at the edges will be thwarted or feel like remodeling a kitchen as the house burns down.