For what does democracy need political parties?

Jan-Werner Müller, in an interview with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, talks about the functions of contemporary political parties, the role of the constitutional courts and the future of European Christian  Democracy.

Luka Lisjak GabrijelčičYou have criticized Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s attempts to hijack the notion of Christian Democracy for his purposes, stressing that Christian Democracy was born precisely as an attempt to reconcile Catholicism with democracy. However, the attitude of Christian Democrats towards liberalism has always been ambiguous, to say the least. Is it wrong, then, to juxtapose Christian Democracy to Liberal Democracy, or does this distinction have some historical base?

Jan-Werner Müller: As you know, as a practitioner of conceptual history, only that which has no history can be defined. At the risk of being pedantic, let me distinguish two things. One is a historical examination of the self-perceptions and self-descriptions of Christian Democrats. There is no doubt that many of them would have proudly declared themselves as being anti-liberal, illiberal etc. But that was on the background of a historically conditioned use of term “liberalism”, at least in continental Europe. When these early Christian Democrats were against liberalism, they were opposing what they understood as a problematic form of individualism, materialism, and often what they perceived, not wrongly, as an attack on them by states that were pushing back against the power of religious groups.

 States like Germany that had unleashed some kind of Kulturkampf, directed particularly against Catholic actors, practices and institutions.

In that sense it is not wrong to say that Christian Democracy, at that particular historical level, could be understood as illiberal. 

But of course, Mr. Orbán is not interested in subtle historical investigations; he is doing two things, and I think both of them are wrong. One of them is pretty obviously wrong, which is that he has redefined his own political system as a faithful instantiation of Christian Democracy. When he refers to “illiberal democracy”, it is important not to focus solely on the adjective: the noun is important, too. Mr. Orbán has been systematically hollowing out the basic rights which are fundamental for any plausible understanding of democracy, never mind if it is Christian, liberal, “illiberal” etc. We should not buy his claim that what he is doing is still democracy! 

Secondly, and maybe less obviously, I think that the way he is redefining Christian Democracy by bringing nationalism to the definition, claiming that Christian Democracy is about closing borders, being hostile to refugees and migrants, explicitly glorifying ethnic homogeneity… maybe you think differently, but from what I understand, this is not part of any plausible rendering of the tradition of Christian Democracy as a body of historical thought. If anything, Christian Democrats were skeptical of modern nation states. This goes back to the point that in the 19th century, many nation states unleashed state power against political Catholicism: Germany and Italy are the most obvious examples. These unified nation states were in direct conflict with religious actors. Especially in Germany, which had a Protestant majority, Catholics were accused of having at least dual loyalty, or only loyalty to Rome and no loyalty to the newly unified German state. 

To say that nationalism is an essential part of the Christian Democratic tradition is a second sleight of hand that Orbán is engaged in.

My claim is that his domestic and international audience should not buy this kind of fake product of allegedly authentic Christian Democracy.

I do, however, concede your point that it would be crazy to redefine all of Christian Democracy as a liberalizing movement. That would only be true at the most abstract level, in the sense that in many countries Christian Democracy did have, if we think of thinkers like Jacques Maritain, a liberalizing and democratizing thrust, with all kinds of twists and turns. However, historians have all reason to get uncomfortable with that level of abstraction, where all specificities, including specificities of political languages disappear in a Fukuyama-style of reasoning, according to which everything converges towards liberalism defined in a very broad sense. I don’t think we gain much with such a broad perspective.

In the early 1990s, when Fidesz was still a liberal party, they had a catchphrase: “We are all children of divorced parents”. It was a hint to a social reality of Hungary, which in the late Socialist period had one of the highest divorce rates in the world, but it also hinted at a feature that many found attractive in Fidesz: a self-awareness that they were engaged in a constructivist project, that they were bringing together bits and pieces of different ideological traditions. In other words, they were fully aware of the “postmodern condition”. Lately, we have become much more wary of the pernicious aspect of this postmodernist “bricolage”, but it remains the case that arguments about ideological consistency always bounce off any political actor. They can say: “Look, I am an heir to the Christian Democratic tradition because I, too, fight against the corrosive power of individualism, but my problem right now is an aggressive secularism that tries to present values like the rights of sexual minorities or abortion as consensual, while I can show you that the majority of my society rejects them. And if I can use the power of the state against this aggressive cosmopolitan secularism, I’m going to do so, and I don’t care what you have to tell me about 19th century Germany.” How would you respond to this kind of argument?

I take it to be part of your question that sometimes you can hear very simplistic accusations from Western European politicians that point to Orbán’s past: “We remember you as a liberal from the 1990s, you are such a hypocrite!” He was accused of that in 2017, during the discussion on the Lex CEU in the European Parliament, when a number of speakers apparently thought this was the coup de grâce that would shame him and bring him down. Of course, that’s highly naïve. He has a very simple argument against them: “I underwent a learning process. That’s the very thing you always call for: you point to the cognitive advantages of democracy, saying that democracy should be a learning system. That’s exactly what I have done.” If I may quote somebody who is a mutual friend and colleague: historian Balázs Trencsényi would tell you that 

there were many liberals in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1920s who became authoritarians by the early 1930s; 

they would justify their evolution by saying: “We naively imported the Western system of thought, and we realized it doesn’t work under our conditions. We learned a lesson, and we now offer something else.” Orbán’s evolution, too, cannot be easily dismissed by saying he is a personal hypocrite or that he misrepresents history. That is obviously no conclusive argument.

It is also not new, in the history of modern Christian political thought, that you have actors who are interested primarily in the functional value of religion, and in a quiet moment are even ready to concede quite openly that for them, the truth value of religion, the status of revelation, is somewhat secondary.

The type of argument made by thinkers associated with the Action Française

Even earlier than that, if you think of the early 19th century with people like Bonald, and maybe to some degree de Maistre, who were basically saying “we need stability, and these naïve individualistic liberals don’t understand that a cohesive society needs a collective system of belief”. If one wants to go back to that tradition, one can say that something analogous is also required in a post-Socialist, atomized, disaggregated society. But this not really the argument Orbán is making. It still matters that he is trying to cash in the semantic, normative surplus value of tapping into an existing and more respectable tradition which many people have strong association with. To bring it down to the banal level of party politics, I think it does matter whether people can plausibly sell themselves as members of good standing of the European People’s Party or not. 

They can only do that if they convince others that their politics is not just a cynical exercise in fortifying their rule, or simply providing stability, but that they remain faithful to a set of underlying democratic values.

I take your point that it would not work with these actors themselves to say they are selling them a fake version of Christian Democracy, but my maybe naïve hope remains that one can advance this argument in conversation with other audiences, in Western Europe but also in Central and Eastern Europe. This is not a completely hopeless undertaking if you look what Donald Tusk is now saying about Orbán, which has changed quite dramatically over the last couple of years. For a long time, the EPP establishment lived under the impression that maybe there is something funny going on here and there, but overall these are our guys, who are well within the mainstream of Christian Democratic thinking. 

In the articles you have published in the Western media since 2010, you have been warning liberals not to bite too easily into the Kulturkampf themes launched by Orbán, neglecting what he is doing at the level of institutions and day-to-day power politics.

It’s hard to believe it has been more than ten years that some of us have been trying to make these arguments, not always to great effect. It would be disingenuous to say that we can always separate, in a neat analytical fashion, questions of democratic procedure from questions about culture or morality. Questions about abortion are not really about culture, you might say, they are also questions of basic rights. It would be wrong to claim that in every single instance, we can obviously say “this is an issue of democratic values, that’s a Kulturkampf topic”, and then prescribe to pundits and academics how they should handle these issues. Nevertheless, sometimes you can show that 

what these self-declared illiberal actors are pushing is problematic not because their value choices are unacceptable, but because often they can only implement their cultural or moral agenda by very clearly circumventing even their own democratic procedures. 

I’m not an expert on Polish politics, but from what I understand about what recently happened in Poland with additional restrictions on abortion, this could have been done in the Sejm: PiS could have stood up for this and face judgment in the polls; instead, they used the court they had captured. Not only did they implement a decision that even people who don’t identify as liberals find highly problematic, but they did it in a way that subverts democratic decision making procedures. It’s a variation of the argument you sometimes hear in the US: no matter what you think of abortion, the fact that it is fought out in the arena of the Supreme Court it’s in of itself a bad thing because this is something a democratic public can meaningfully debate. It is not something we should outsource to courts as if they had an automatically supreme wisdom about these matters. If people felt that democratic procedures were followed, and everyone had an equal say, as it should be the case ideally in a democratic contest, then people might be much more willing to live with the outcome. Partly because they’d feel that the game remains open, as opposed of being decided by the court in an almost incontestable manner one way or another.

This reminds me of a point philosopher Charles Taylor made already in the early 1990s. As a Canadian, he commented on the developments in “our southern neighbor”, where courts were increasingly becoming a stage where policies were decided. He was highly critical of this trend, since courts are not there to arrive at working compromises but to adjudicate who is right and who is wrong. At the end of the day, you walk out of a court of law as a loser or as a winner, which is not how political compromise works. David Frum, who has emerged as one of the most vehement critics of Trump from the center-right, made similar arguments. Frum sees this “judicialization of politics” as an important factor in the polarization of American public life. Do you agree with this argument, in principle?

I’m not sure there is an answer “in principle”. It’s a highly context-dependent issue. In the past fifteen years or so, there has clearly been a backlash against the enthusiasm about Constitutional Courts and their stabilizing role in democracy. You can see it in Eastern and Central Europe, too. Take the Hungarian Constitutional Court, which was modelled on the German one and was praised for playing such an important role in the consolidation of democracy based on the doctrine of “invisible constitution”; in the last decade, people realized that it was much more fragile and it did lead to a backlash. I think it’s wrong to decree from above, “strong judicial review is problematic” or “strong judicial review is beneficial”. These statements depend on the political and institutional context. 

Critics of strong judicial review in the Anglo-American context, such as Jeremy Waldron, openly say that their arguments ride entirely on the background assumption of a parliament that is in very good order and a robust public sphere.

These are condition that, by now, are not obviously given even in the US or the UK.

Furthermore, as many political scientists have pointed out, many courts are highly sensitive to public opinion at least in the medium term. They know that they can’t have judgments that go in completely different direction that clear majorities in successive elections express as something that is plausibly construed as popular will. That is important to bear in mind, as an empirical finding. Having said that, what we can see now in the US is a counter-majoritarian party that actually knows that it is not representing popular policies and ideas, and is systematically capturing non-majoritarian institutions in order to defend positions that would have a hard time gaining clear popular support. Once that one is in a game like that, it’s no longer obviously true that courts are going to go with popular sentiments in the long run.

Columnist Ross Douthat has been arguing in the pages of the New York Times that the permanent blockade in the US Congress has led to a disproportionate strengthening of the executive and judicial branches of government. A similar argument was advanced by Ezra Klein in his latest book Why We’re Polarized, where he stresses that ideological polarization went hand-in-hand with the weakening of political parties. The crisis of political parties is also something you tackle in your new book, Democracy Rules. If we look at East-Central Europe, it’s obvious to me that the wave of authoritarian populism was preceded by a deep crisis of political parties, and political representation in general. The same is true in Italy. My question is: should we understand this populist wave as a symptom of a deeper malaise of representative democracy, on this basic level on how to channel popular demands into political decision making?

Let me give you a very clear answer: yes and no [laughter]. In a context where you have very unstable party politics, where you have a clear vacuum because the previous party system has collapsed, as was the case of Italy in the early 1990s, or where you have situations where wave after wave of political leaders seem to come from nowhere: these are certainly factors that facilitate the rise of populist actors. It doesn’t determine it, which is why I am saying also “no”. We’re often so invested in searching for the single macro cause of everything, that people begin arguing about what is the answer: it’s parties, no, it’s economic anxiety, no, it’s racism, etc. It’s never going to be just one thing, and national contexts and trajectories still matter a great deal. But if we say is that the crisis of party politics facilitates the rise of populist movements, the question is what follows from this. 

I think it brings us back to a more fundamental question: what for does democracy need political parties? This means that you have already committed to the idea that democracy as we know it can’t do without political parties. Some people don’t agree with that, they believe in post-representative forms of democracy, or think there should be lotteries that determine decision making. We can discuss these ideas, too, but if we take as a starting point that parties are indispensable, what do we actually need for them? One of their essential roles remains that they structure political conflict; they stage the political battle in certain ways. That’s not a new insight, but it’s sometimes forgotten by those who say “crisis of representation results from the fact that certain people aren’t represented”. But the question is: how do we know that? On what basis do we decide, “this is what it would mean for everyone to be properly represented”? 

Everyone of us has many identities and interests, it’s not objectively given that the conflict runs across a rural-urban, religious-secular line, etc. 

Any number of things can become central, and it’s political actors themselves who play a central role in how they set it up. If we go back to example of Poland: it’s not inevitable that people in eastern rural Poland feel that only this kind of hard-line conservative Catholic, anti-intellectual party is the most appropriate representative of our interests; things could be different, and indeed were different ten years ago. Or think about Ireland: for decades, you had two center-right parties with pretty archaic sounding names: “Warriors of Destiny”, “Tribe of Gaels”? Few other parties in Europe have names like that. Everything was structured around a leftover cleavage from the times of independence.

The civil war of 1922-23…

Yes. Whether you like Sinn Féin or not, the fact that they all of a sudden brought out a set of different issues — healthcare, housing, the fact that there are all these young people in Dublin who are really badly off — was instrumental in redefining the political conflict around a clearer left-right cleavage. This is a pretty obvious dynamics, but one that is often forgotten not only by pundits but also by those political scientists who have a very mechanical understanding of representation, and very quickly point to a “crisis of representation” instead of acknowledging that there are many ways in which conflicts can be structured. 

The real normative issue is whether you structure conflict in such a way that it remains compatible with basic democratic principles. That is what populist parties, at least in my view, don’t do. 

They tell their supporters, “the other side is illegitimate, they don’t belong to the people, if they win it’s the end of our polity” etc. That kind of stuff is not just ordinary conflict; it’s a different way of doing politics that is highly problematic.

Another issue is the internal nature of parties. Obviously, it’s no good to idealize internal party democracy. Oscar Wilde famously quipped, “The problem with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings”. These are often quite tedious processes, and we shouldn’t all of a sudden discover some deep affection for something that a lot of us wouldn’t be prepared to invest all that much time in. And yet, it’s also characteristic of some of these parties that come from nowhere, or populist parties, that they either have no real internal structures at all, or they are structured like a fan club: if you think of Forza Italia, which was basically a TV-party, an acclamation of a leader from within. That’s not really compatible with minimal expectations about internal party pluralism, which is impossible without some basic structure and internal debates. This is why, for instance, the German party law, mandates certain criteria for internal party organization.

I don’t want to idealize it, but some sort of regulation can put a check on the kind of thing that happened in the Czech Republic, where a great entrepreneur comes out of nothing, and all of a sudden the ruling party is a one-man-show. Another indication of something going wrong is parties no longer having a platform, a program. In the US, for example, Republicans simply pledged fidelity to the President, saying that whatever he says is also our agenda, except that we don’t know what he wants for his second term. These are all red flags that could trigger some thought on how to legally restructure our basic expectations of what parties should be like.

End of Part I of the interview. The second part can be found here.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University. He is the author of Another Country: German Intellectuals, Unification and National Identity, A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought, Was ist Populismus? His Christian Democracy: A New Intellectual History, based on his Carlyle Lectures in Oxford, is forthcoming with Harvard University Press; his Democracy Rules will appear with FSG.

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