Democracy Rules. A Book Discussion with Jan-Werner Müller and His Critics

On July 8, 2021, the Review of Democracy organised a panel to discuss Jan-Werner Müller’s new book Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton University, is a leading scholar of political thought, democratic theory, and populism. In Democracy Rules, Müller addresses central questions regarding democracy. During our July 8 panel his new book was discussed by four speakers, Gráinne de Búrca, Jan Kubik, Jeffrey Isaac, and Karolina Wigura, which was followed by the author’s response. The panel was conceived and organized by Ferenc Laczó, an editor of the Review of Democracy. You can find the transcript of the discussion below, followed by the video from the event.

Comments by Gráinne de Búrca (New York University)

I was interested to read the descriptions that Jan-Werner Müller gave of two different types of literature, and I believe I read in his account a certain scepticism or distance from those bodies of literature. He positions his work between what he calls the “democracy defence industry” and the “democracy innovations industry”, and as I understand it, he doesn’t see the book as belonging to either of these. It is not just a defence of democracy as we currently experience it, or a set of proposals for the reform of our democratic system(s), but it’s set somewhere in between. 

I share with Jan-Werner Müller his sense of hope rather than optimism, the sense that democracy is not over – it’s not yet time to write the epitaph for democracy as a political system or a political ideal –, but at the same time, what he calls the critical infrastructure of democracy, the intermediary institutions that are necessary to make democracy function, are in crisis at present. Those two positions resonate very much with me: a strong sense that democracy is not over and that there is a lot of democratic energy and hope out there around the globe, including amongst people living in the non-democratic systems and (currently ailing) democracies alike, but at the same time a sense that the critical infrastructure that Müller describes is ill. 

I also very much enjoyed his treatment of something that many other scholars have tried to do, i.e., to encapsulate democracy into a number of principles.  In Müller’s case he identifies three principles: (i) equality (which he specifies as a ‘hard border’ for him, something I completely agree with); (ii) freedom; and (iii) the principle of uncertainty, a more complex but essential principle conveying the idea that openness, innovation, and creativity are key to ensure that we do not always have the same losers. In a well-functioning democracy, the losers must change. Those are the three non-negotiable essentials that comprise his conception of democracy.

I also enjoyed his analysis of some of the symptoms of the sickness of our current democratic functioning, particularly what he called the double secession: first, the secession of the wealthiest who remove themselves from political life in common, like Peter Thiel’s bunker in New Zealand or Elon Musk’s plan to go off to Mars if there’s a climate crisis; and second, those at the other end of the spectrum, the disenfranchised, who have simply stopped voting and participating, who don’t see themselves as part of a political system or a political community. One criticism I would mention briefly here is that I’m not sure that the recommendations at the end of the book adequately address these symptoms. I agree that trying to heal and rebuild the critical infrastructure (political parties, media, etc.) of democracy is a very important goal, but whether this will be sufficient to address the double secession is uncertain.

I also found Müller’s revisiting the history of the two main intermediary institutions, the media and political parties, and his mining of that history for ideas to come up with five sets of principles to govern his recommendations, to be very thoughtful and interesting.  These principles – among them, accessibility, autonomy, accuracy – to break up the cartel parties that create permanent losers and don’t allow for dynamism in the system are thought-provoking and attractive. I also liked the fact that, even though he distances himself from the “democratic innovation industry”, he nonetheless wrote a very practical last chapter in which he presented proposals to try and come up with solutions, and not just diagnose the ills. 

Now onto some of the questions I have about the book. My first question would be whether the proposals are up to the task. While I like and find myself in agreement with virtually all of them (such as the new ways of thinking about militant democracy and civil disobedience), I was less sure whether these new ways of regulating the two intermediary institutions will be sufficient to address the profound nature of the democratic crisis. The crisis in the party system is a long-standing one. Some might think of it as resulting from the recent rise of autocratic populism, but it long predates that. My sense is that it’s a very serious issue, and that the party system today has become a set of shrunken institutions. I wonder whether Müller’s proposals to revitalise this shrivelled set of political institutions is really going to be up to the task of reinvigorating democracy and addressing the double secession he so well describes. 

Where I see hope, at present, when it comes to democracy and its revival, is in social movements. Social movements are mentioned here and there in the book, but they don’t get a lot of attention. If we think about what’s been transformative in the last couple of years in democratic terms, the MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement have very profoundly changed things, not from above or below, but as a set of diffuse and relatively leaderless social movements. Talking about them as transformative is perhaps too much, as there’s obviously still a long way to go, but they have already toppled powerful institutions and figures and changed practices. That’s where I see hope. 

I do share with Jan-Werner the sense that social movements alone are not enough – I completely agree that we need intermediary institutions – but I am less sure what intermediary institutions will channel that democratic energy into political decision-making, and I’m not sure that the party system will do. There is a sense in which we look at what we know, at what is familiar to us as political scientists, as a reference point from which to try to improve, to create something better. However, I wonder – I’m thinking even of futurologists here – whether we need to look beyond our current institutions, which are very much in crisis, and see whether we can contemplate or imagine new kinds of institutions. 

There’s a part of the book concerning the media which made me think that you may be reluctant to adopt a more innovative mindset, because you want to build on what we have and on what has been successful for a long time. When you talk about the media, you don’t seem inclined to include social media alongside traditional media, arguing that it doesn’t perform the same function of opinion-forming and providing professional content. In your last chapter, however, you come back to social media and discuss it as part of the media more generally – perhaps reflecting some ambivalence about its role. I think that social media may bemore transformative than you suggest. 

Along those lines, something that I was missing in the book was the profoundly transformative nature of the digital world we’re living in, and the way digitalisation is changing everything. Tech and digital issues are certainly present in your book, where you talk about Facebook and surveillance capitalism among other things, but as separate issues raised here and there. But the way digitalisation has been transforming our social world, our political world and our economy is very profound in ways I believe we’re not yet fully on top of. 

My sense is that the problems of democracy are very deep, political parties are in great crisis, the media is changing very significantly, and our world is transforming dramatically through digitalisation, and we need to be thinking in more innovative ways about intermediary institutions. 

This critique is not very helpful because I don’t myself have solutions to propose, but I’ll nonetheless put the critique out there and look forward to hearing your response later. 

Comments by Jan Kubik (Rutgers University and School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University College London

I’m a political anthropologist, so I will be talking about the issues raised by Jan-Werner from a different angle, indebted also to my work in the area of comparative politics. The three questions that the book deals with are: 1) How to reinvigorate institutions essential to the success of democracy? 2) Can we re-empower citizens while also ensuring a place for experts? 3) How can we ensure the future dynamism and creativity of democracies. 

There’s number of points that I share with you, such as the significance of basic principles and the danger to the whole system posed by what you call “double secession”. I also really like your nuanced point on polarisation, and the reminder that people don’t always think in binary terms, in-group versus out-group, but I would emphasise that there’s a very strong tendency to do so, and that politicians mercilessly exploit this tendency and make it worse. On partisanship, I love your point that it does not have to be the denial of the legitimacy of the other side, and that the acceptance of adversary’s legitimacy is essential for democracy. 

I completely agree, but how do you ensure that political rivals respect each other? The tight relationship between internal and external pluralism is something that has been very close to my way of thinking; I also believe it is a feature that should be more carefully analyzed. One of the main points you make is the significance of intermediary institutions but, before I move to my view of those institutions, there’s one thing about which I would be more pessimistic. You make a distinction between the fact that, while the performance of democracy is increasingly negatively assessed, as we can see from many surveys, the faith in the principles of democracy holds relatively steady. Recently I spent half a seminar teaching about the debate launched by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk through the pieces they published in the Journal of Democracy. I find what they present more convincing than what I think is your point. I think that, unfortunately, the faith in both performance and principles is dwindling, though in some areas there are some sources of optimism. 

My model of politics is slightly different. 

The question I would like to ask is, where do we need to focus our energy to reinvigorate institutions, re-empower citizens, and ensure the future creativity of democracy, beyond political parties and the media? 

I can suggest four places. The first, which was already mentioned, is civil society and social movements. I study movements and protest politics, so it’s predictable that I would talk about them. I often think about the fact that the four grand events that changed politics in the 20th century were movements: those led by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Lech Wałęsa. Their relationship with political parties was pretty complex. In their new book, Rivalry and Reform, Sidney Milkis and Daniel Tichenor talk about the process of interaction between social movements and presidents in the last hundred years of American political development. This again leads me to think about how those institutions outside of parties are very important. There is also an important new bookon state-led mobilisations and movements, edited by Grzegorz Ekiert, Elizabeth Perry, and Yan Xiaojun. While reading that book, I was reminded of Béla Greskovits’ incredibly important piece on the civic circles in Hungary: when Orbán was out of power, he was building grassroots organisations, strengthening his side of the political field. The same thing, by the way, was observed in Poland. The first thing is therefore to empower and protect civil society and the environment for social movements that fight for democracy; the anti-democratic side is increasingly well organized. 

Secondly, as an anthropologist, I’m of course interested in culture. Something I’ve been working on recently is what I call the massive anti-Enlightenment impetus, characterised by anti-science, anti-intellectualism and anti-expert sentiments and infatuation with mythological thinking, where rational thought – which is associated with moderation – is missing or poorly developed. This situation, in which culture becomes explicitly and directly politicized, resembles state socialism; cultural institutions are again directly involved in politics and have become political institutions. Just think about the role of churches and religious institutions, both in the US and particularly in Poland, but also in Erdogan’s Turkey and Modi’s India. There’s also the incredibly important theme of educational institutions, all the way from primary schools to universities. Right-wing populists try to take over those institutions, control them, and censor them. We therefore need to figure out a way to ensure that institutions of cultural and educational production are prepared to sustain democracy. 

The third point I would like to make concerns the dispersion of power. I’m a great fan of federalism, regionalism and empowering towns and cities, where a lot of the opposition to right-wing populism is centred. Budapest, for example, has a mayor in opposition, as do Polish cities and Istanbul in Turkey. Right-wing populists want to centralise, so decentralisation of power is important.

Finally, there is the economy. I’m also an economic anthropologist, and always try to think about the economic foundations of democratic architecture. You don’t even need to think about the mafia state, which we often talk about, for example in the case of Hungary. In our project, we have developed the concept of neo-feudalism, which helps us systematize our thinking about various ways in which politics and the economy are interlinked. Ideally, in democracy there should be a separation between these two areas and their interface should be tightly monitored. But when right-wing populists rule, they try to enhance their grip on power by linking them together as tightly as they can.

In closing, a few broader points about the problems or concerns we might want to concentrate on to get people’s – and particularly young people’s – attention. First, we should recalibrate our hierarchy of concerns, for example, by bringing climate change to the fore. This issue is not sufficiently high up on the agenda, and it has tremendous mobilizational potential. Women’s rights, and the protection of women in general, is also a huge issue that mobilises many people to action. Third, we need to pay attention to generational differences. Through my observations and research, I can say that generational differences are considerable, and young people have a different set of sensibilities and different reference points. This sometimes creates a disconnect that produces yet another divide in society, which is good for authoritarians. Fourth, we need to find a way to resurrect faith in rationalism and empiricism. I’m aware of the postmodern and earlier waves of discontent with the Enlightenment, but I strongly believe that the pendulum has swayed too far, and the right-wing populists thrive in the ensuing climate of doubt. This “escape from reason” therefore needs to be stopped somehow. This doesn’t mean – and you make this point in the book beautifully ­– that we need to turn power to the experts, but we do need to listen to them. The fifth point is that, if you are a liberal, you need to improve your methods of listening to people, particularly your methods of dealing with questions of identity and traditions. This is something that the liberal left-wing really doesn’t deal with well. 

Finally, I am concerned with what was diagnosed by the V-Dem project as the “third wave of autocratisation”, which is slow and gradual. It affects many more institutions than just political institutions, hence my insistence on taking institutions of cultural production more seriously, as a lot of the action is happening there. 

Comments by Karolina Wigura (University of Warsaw and Kultura Liberalna): 

I do believe that the particular drama of my country and other countries where authoritarian populists have been holding power is that they have been treated since 2015 or 2016 like lost territories in some battle against authoritarian populism, when, in fact, those lands are a kind of in-between land. They are similar to the piece of land between West and East Berlin before 1989; they could go in one direction or the other, and it is extremely important to grasp that there is real political struggle going on in such countries. Jan-Werner Müller’s new book embraces that, and that is why it is a particularly excellent book. 

Now, essentially I want to just ask three questions about reinvigorating democracy and its institutions in the context of Jan’s book. The first question is about going “back to basics”, it is a question about what ‘basics’ and what ‘principles’ are really meant here. Jan, you want us, in your book, to go back to basics and to reflect not only on rules and norms but also on values in democracy or, as some political thinkers in the past have put it, the spirit. 

I couldn’t agree more and I would like to ask if we could broaden this argument a little bit, broaden the understanding of ‘the basics’. This is a question which arises from one of the political thinkers in the past, a political thinker that I do believe is quite close to your thinking because he was also very much interested in intermediary institutions and with the spirit – I am talking about Montesquieu, of course. Montesquieu argued that there is indeed a spirit in every country and in every political regime and the spirit derives from the following triad: nature, spring, and the law.  Now, it’s quite easy to define ‘nature’ and ‘law’. Nature is simply the structure of the political regime – who is in power, what procedures are there to decide about next steps, etc. The law, of course, is also easy to define; it’s a set of rules, written and unwritten ones. Now, the spring has a more mysterious nature. It is a passion that lays at the bottom of every regime.  You might say it is not that passions shapes politics and institutions, but they lie in the background of everything people are doing in a given political system. 

When reflecting on how to reinvigorate our democracies, our institutions, and to empower our citizens, can and shouldn’t we go back to principles but also to passions?

My second question is about history and passion again. Painting with a broad brush, one might say that for roughly half a century from the mid-1940s liberal democracy was seen as a project without an alternative in Western countries. Why was that? Partly, it was a way to move away from the atrocities of the Second World War and the first half of the 20th century in general. Partly because liberal democracy was seen as a way of ensuring that the past would never come back. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that the stability of a political regime derives from the symbiosis of fear and hope. So, hope is not enough, it is also important to work with the dominant passion of a given day. Also, many countries after the Second World War were fearing the past and, at the same time, hoping for a better future which is where liberal democracy after 1945 starts. And, in fact, in my country, Poland, there is this escape from the past, which means two totalitarian regimes, the Nazi one and the communist one. Fear of the past plays a very important role, and I do believe this is true for the entire region.  

I mentioned Hobbes: he knew that even the strongest passions fade over time, and this is exactly what happened with Western democracies, including in my region. Therefore, for some decades after World War II there was a fear of the past and a hope for the future. But over time, the fear of the past was replaced by the fear of the future, and hope for the better future was replaced with hope of going back to the past. This is exactly what authoritarian populists are working with, this is exactly what they are using. Could you tell us what the dominant passion of today is and what ways of working with it do you suggest?  

My proposal would be to speak about loss as the dominant passion of today. 

Let me explain what I mean here. In my region, 1989 was one of the breakthrough moments of history, and it has been viewed in contradictory ways. It is as if we’re reading Charles Dickens in his beautiful book A Tale of Two Cities who writes about 1789 that “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, the spring of hope, the winter of despair, the age of wisdom, the age of foolishness”, and, one might say, this is exactly the ambivalent effect of 1989 in my region. 

After 1989 Central and Eastern European countries experienced extraordinary growth in almost every parameter, but change, when it happens so swiftly and completely, involves a great loss for the individual, and, of course, a lot of bankruptcies and job losses are mentioned.  But what I mean goes deeper than that – I am referring to the loss in the micro world of long-term relationships, identity sources, feeling of security, etc. What is important here is that the same duality has also been felt elsewhere. If 1989 marks in my region, and many of our regions, the beginning of the democratic era, then on a more global scale it marks the beginning of an era of global change and acceleration – which means simultaneous gains and losses. I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic increases our sense of loss. 

Authoritarian populists understand this emotion very well and they translate it into more concrete passions, for example rage – think about the Capitol Hill attack on Jan 6 – or frustration, resentment, the need for defending one’s country. Liberals have very good reasons to be skeptical about feelings. They remember the history of the Second World War and the history of 20th-century totalitarianisms where collective feelings were often manipulated, but perhaps it might be possible to embrace the feeling of loss, and to translate it into feelings or collective passions that are better for the political community. In this sense, the collective sense of loss would be something akin to that of grief that follows the death of a loved one. In bereavement our first reaction is to look back and dwell on the loss, and perhaps this reactionary authoritarianism and its concentration on negative aspects of rapid change might be compared to bereavement. 

We know, as humans, that after bereavement comes a recovery phase, and this requires courage, compassion, and of course, hope.

The last question is: you write about hope, which is indeed essential, but shouldn’t it perhaps be combined with the dominant emotion of today’s life, which would be the feeling of loss? Could you think of other emotions and tell us a little about them?

Comments by Jeffrey C. Isaac (Indiana University Bloomington)

I am very happy to be “here” with this group of fine colleagues to discuss Jan-Werner Mueller’s new book Democracy Rules.

It is an excellent book. In the author’s words, “returning to first principles,” the book beautifully outlines the core institutions, norms, and principles that underlay modern democracies – liberal, constitutional, pluralist – and why they are so important, worth both defending and extending. It explains how democratic political regimes draw upon and require “infrastructural” background conditions, with a focus on political parties and a free and professional press. And it provides a generally “hopeful” view of democracy’s possible future, avoiding both pollyannaish optimism and hopeless pessimism, and being honest about the scope for political agency – which means the scope for political judgment and responsibility.

The book explains the central rules of democracy; how and why democracy has come to “rule,” to the point where even its enemies feel the need to “fake” it; and, in the normative sense how it “rules,” in the sense of it “warrants some at least modest enthusiasm.”

Democracy Rules is an important book, and while I have had some minor disagreements with its author in the past, they were minor, and there is nothing about this book with which I significantly disagree. Instead of pretending to offer some kind of “critique,” I would like simply to offer five general comments or observations about the book.

First, it represents a mature statement by a scholar who has engaged many of these themes – contestation of democracy in the 20th century, constitutional patriotism, populism and its dangers – in earlier scholarly work, and has always worked at the intersection of scholarly discourse and broader academic and political public spheres, publishing in a wide range of public intellectual venues (I have found his recent contributions to Boston Review to be especially important in the U.S. context). This approach to political theory is challenging; many of us here share similar aspirations; and Jan-Werner Müller is an exemplary practitioner.

Second, this event, and the broader conversations and networks of which it is a part, are important, because they link scholars, teachers, and students across frontiers and also link institutions that are arguably important parts of the “infrastructure” of liberal democracy—publishing platforms and journals such as the Review of DemocracyDemocracy Seminar, and Kultura Liberalna, and academic institutions such as CEU and its new Democracy Institute led by my friend László Bruszt  and the New School’s Democracy Seminar network spearheaded by my friend Jeffrey Goldfarb and the Transregional Center on Democratic Studies directed by Elzbieta Matynia with the assistance of Lala Pop.

Third, through events such as these we can share ideas and collaborate on common values. As Jan-Werner’s book makes clear, democracy now faces dark times, real challenges and challengers, and the kind of normative clarification and advocacy that the book, and our work more generally, promotes requires amplification as part of the broader process of mobilizing citizens to commit themselves to defending and extending democracy. This is public work, it is important, and this kind of sharing is a form of solidarity but also a form of amplification or dissemination.

Fourth, while Jan-Werner’s conclusion offers some small reasons for “hopefulness,” I must say that my hopefulness is slenderer than his. I am deeply skeptical about whether it is possible to accomplish the kinds of democratic revitalization that Jan-Werner nicely outlines. I am very worried. One source of worry is the ingenuity and success of some of the enemies of democracy, such as Viktor Orbán. I refer here to a fine piece by Yasmeen Serhan that dropped today at The Atlantic under the title “The Autocrat’s Legacy: Defeating Viktor Orbán will be hard, but undoing Hungary’s democratic decline will be harder.”

The situation in the U.S. is alarming to me, and to a great many commentators, activists, etc. The Constitutional system presents so many obstacles to even elemental democratic reforms, and Trump and his enablers have done such a good job of exacerbating resentment and poisoning public discourse, that the chance of forestalling a Republican, read Trumpist, takeover of the federal government is not great—and is lessened by the way Republicans are brutally wielding their power over the state governments they control.

This brings me to my final point, which in a way reiterates earlier points: universities are central spaces of democratic inquiry and the possible cultivation of “civic virtue,” and defending these spaces, and supporting innovative forms of resistance to their infringement—which the CEU’s Democracy Institute is—is very important. In a similar way, autonomous academic institutions need defending, and need revitalizing, to address the challenges we face.

And for me, as an academic who attended Queens College, CUNY, decades ago, and who teaches at a large public university, incorporating values of inquiry and democratic civic education in ways that are supportive of academic freedom is perhaps my central vocation at this time.

Through our teaching we reach thousands, even millions of young people who are future citizens. We need to incorporate the current challenges to democracy into all our teaching, and we need to share with them important, engaging books like Jan-Werner’s Democracy Rules.

Response by Jan-Werner Müller

Let me thank the CEU Democracy Institute and the Review of Democracy for organizing this discussion. As others have already mentioned, the Democracy Institute is a very important initiative. It is a place that will produce important work not just on the question of de-democratization but also on the question of re-democratization after so-called “backsliding” which, in many ways, might be a whole new game.  Most of all, thanks to everybody who joined today, who read the book, who said such kind words, and who posed difficult and stimulating questions to which I will now turn.

I’ll start with a more general remark. The phrase ‘reinvigorating democracy’ has come up a few times, and, obviously, I am not against reinvigorating democracy. But I believe that this word was chosen by those engaged in PR for the book. I don’t think the word is in the book itself. Reinvigorating suggests a picture which one of our colleagues, David Runciman, skillfully painted in his book How Democracy Ends. He argued that democracy may be in a kind of midlife crisis; we may be looking for new stimuli or new toys. He even flirts with the idea that Trump may be a kind of red Porsche for the middle-aged men who need a boost. That’s not my perspective.

If there is a kind of intuition behind the book, it is perhaps best summed up by a distinguished political theorist who at one point said or, rather, sang: “It’s coming from the feel / That this ain’t exactly real / or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.” Some of you may remember these lines from a song by Leonard Cohen from the early 90s called Democracy. What mattered to me is a distinction between real and fake – which is of course somewhat contestable, but which is also crucial for going beyond a defensive discourse of “saving” or “reinvigorating democracy.” It is important to draw the line between what are the absolute basics of democracy and what are the contested issues that should be left up to day-to-day political combat. I’ll just mention two less obvious ones in this context. One has to do with the practice of journalism. We all remember how not very long ago some American journalists entered the trap set by both Trump and Steve Bannon when they basically said: ‘of course the media are the opposition’.  At least some journalists rushed out and said ‘yes, we are the resistance’ which I think was a big mistake because in a sense it became much easier to discredit in advance what these journalists were doing.

At the same time, there are moments when journalists should cease to practice, as we now like to say in the US, “bothsidesism”, to stick to a script of objectivity and neutrality that pretends that all sides are in the same democratic political space, when in fact one party is attacking democracy. To treat such asymmetric phenomena as symmetrical is a serious distortion, as I’m not the first to argue.  But this also means that, on some level, journalists have to become democratic theorists and decide where that line is, what is non-negotiable for democracy and ultimately for the exercise of their own profession.

Or think of opposition parties in political systems that have been captured by right-wing authoritarian populists. Sometimes they really have to explain to an electorate “look, we really disagree about a lot of stuff, but not every change to healthcare policy is a threat to democracy. Yet there are moments when it comes to basics, when you as citizens, even if you happen to be on the other side politically and you might not agree with us on a lot of issues, you should come around to the side of democracy.” 

Drawing that line, deciding what is indispensable and what isn’t, remains crucial in many contexts. My book can perhaps help a little bit with the exercise of drawing that line.

I’ll move on to what Gráinne was arguing. You’re quite right to gently say that my sticking to a discussion of political parties and news organizations is a tad old-fashioned. I take the point that social movements are very often crucial – and now I use the term myself – for ‘reinvigorating democracy,’ for raising new claims about identities, interests, and ideas. At the same time, I don’t see how some of the most basic functions performed by political parties can be replaced by anything else. I think that this lesson was taught to us again in a very hard way in the United States on January 6. If the Republican Party today was a halfway normal party with institutionalized infrastructure, with the possibility of a critical internal, but loyal, opposition, above all with a long-term horizon where you say “look, we lost this time but, we’ll win again at some point in the future”, things would have been different. But if a party becomes a personality cult and basically the time horizon is that of a man in his mid-70s, that fundamentally changes the game and the stakes of losing and winning. This should also be clear from the perspective of the kind of hard-nosed realism that our colleague Adam Przeworski keeps reminding us of: elections have a particular function in terms of determining how strong the winners and the losers are, but also processing conflict in such a way that everybody, at least for a while, can live with the results. I think this remains valid as a justification of elections with political parties; if we can think of alternatives that can perform those functions and that have a similar time horizon as parties, I’m all for that – but I just don’t see what these alternatives would be at this point. 

Social media. I have two pedantic observations and one concession to what Gráinne was saying. Here are the two pedantic observations. First, empirically, there is still so much that we do not know or do not really understand, partly because our colleagues in social science don’t have access to these institutions, to the algorithms, in a way that we have reasonable access to other phenomena in the political world. There is now some serious doubt about some of the early conventional wisdom about ‘filter bubbles’ and ‘echo chambers’ and so on, that made sense to everybody and that, as my colleague Andy Guess said, led to an echo chamber about echo chambers, in which we were all repeating to each other the seemingly obvious point that ‘Of course, on the internet we all meet people who are like minded.’ Empirically, this is not nearly as self-evident as it seemed for a while. Our online life, surprisingly or not so surprisingly, can be much more diverse than our offline life. This may be a very pedantic point, but I think we still often jump to conclusions about the apocalyptic threat, or the emancipatory potential of social media, always moving from one extreme to another. Many of these judgements are not empirically well founded; they also do not distinguish well enough between the technology, particular business models, and particular usages which still very much depend on supposedly old-fashioned media. 

The second pedantic point is that I still think the criteria I was trying to suggest in the book for how we assess intermediary institutions can be useful for how we think about social media and platforms more broadly. Just to give one example, it does matter that these institutions are relatively accessible and perhaps less anti-pluralist than some of us initially thought. But, of course, this is only true on an individual level; it’s not true on a systemic level. As everybody knows, the monopoly power of these platforms – the fact that you cannot escape these institutions even if you do something completely different that appears to have nothing to do with Google or Amazon – is in and of itself a problem and threat for any democratic system. In that sense some of the criteria, some of the normative expectations can be usefully deployed, but we must be very nuanced about which individual elements we are looking at. 

My concession is that I’m open to the thought that everything that I say in the book, everything that I suggest now is too old fashioned. Actually, the transition to what some of our colleagues call a ‘platform society,’ in other words a completely different architecture of institutions, with a completely new game of how they structure interactions – that is a possibility, and I see some good work on this slowly emerging beyond the initial veering from one extreme to another.

 And I am open to the thought that the change is more fundamental than I put it in the book – but not quite ready yet to simply accept that point about a completely new game in its entirety.

Just one observation to what Jeffrey Isaac said. I am trying to understand where the ‘public work’ happens now, or to use a neo-liberal term, what exactly incentivizes what. What I think about in particular is a phenomenon like Substack. On the one hand, it empowers individuals to reach audiences they couldn’t reach before and that’s obviously a very good thing. On the other, a cynic would say we have moved from a moment a few years ago that can be encapsulated by saying ‘democracy is dying but you can save it by buying my book,’ to a point where we can say ‘democracy is dying but you can save it by spending $4 a month subscribing to my Substack.’ These are rapidly changing situations, and it would be worth reflecting further on what we make of the institutional restructurings. It makes certain kinds of work easier, but it might make other work – think of what used to be called “little magazines” in the United States – perhaps more difficult. 

To Jan’s points, I just want to add some complications to two of your points to make the challenges even more severe in certain ways. I agree about the importance of the decentralization of powers. If I may add a footnote on this, during the Trump years it was very interesting to see how part of the American left which for many reasons felt ambivalent about federalism found new value in it. Federalism was often understood as a shield for racist practices in the South, as a shield from interventions by the federal government – so hardly the most emancipatory and progressive part of the American political system. But more recently things looked very different from the point of view of defending democracy: think back to, let’s say, 2017 when Trump did not have to worry much about Congress, about the news media, even about the many people demonstrating against his nefarious travel bans – there were no obvious checks. But when California says we’re not going to implement that, it constitutes a real point of resistance.  For me, it was also a moment to reflect again on the German Constitution and its famous (or infamous) eternity clause, which does not just include democracy and basic rights, but also federalism. Occasionally Germans may have said “come on, is this really on the same normative level – federalism? If Bavaria disappears tomorrow as an entity, maybe less folklore and so on but is it that crucial for democracy as such?” But it turns out that decentralization can make a crucial difference for democracy.    

But the lesson here is also ambivalent and so much depends on context. If you think about voter suppression and election subversion, very real threats in the US and elsewhere in the world today, one obvious thing some people say is: “let’s have a centralized way of dealing with this process,  let’s put in ten wise technocrats who oversee everything, etc.” to which, of course, more realist observers  would immediately object: if authoritarian populists captured that one institution for themselves, it would probably mean game over. Whereas now relatively unknown officials in Michigan or elsewhere can still decide that they are going to save democracy. That’s certainly not an ideal position for a democracy to be in; but centralization is not a panacea and might create new vulnerabilities.  As I said, we are looking at very ambivalent phenomena that require a subtle democratic imagination. 

One other thing about identity, I’m a little less on board with what I see as a typical form of liberal self-criticism in our era: liberals supposedly never listen, all these frequent flyer liberal cosmopolitan elites and so on who look down on the people are the real problem, etc. I’m not saying this picture is entirely made up or you couldn’t find flagrant real-world examples; I am, of course, also not saying that there are no reasons for self-criticism. At the same time, it is worth pointing at a strange irony here:  it becomes convenient to simply adopt the cultural framing of these issues by the right or even the far right. Less obviously, if you adopt the right’s frame, in a perverse way, you also confirm the importance of self-declared liberal elites. It is all about us and because we neglected someone or something, things went catastrophically wrong; if only we did something differently, all would be well. Self-criticisms and self-corrections can be very good and important things.  But the cultural framing creates its own blind spots – and, less obviously, liberals sort of like it, because it still confirms their importance. 

Second remark: I’m not entirely on board with the view that was articulated by some of our colleagues today, according to which democratic politics has become inherently more difficult or more conflictual or polarized, because nowadays we talk more about identity than we used to. I think this is completely ahistorical, it sort of conjures up a mythical age where socialist parties were all about negotiating higher wages and better working conditions in a rational, sober, aseptic way, and supposedly had nothing to do with identity, dignity, and cultural ways of life – and that is completely false, of course, as a historical picture. Generally, the idea that anything that has to do with identity is automatically more difficult to negotiate is misleading. I’m not denying that on occasion this can be the case. 

But if you think about Black Lives Matter and MeToo, the movements Gráinne mentioned, you can also think about some of the issues as matters of distribution, as in who has which rights, and whose rights (such as the right not to be harassed, let alone be shot or raped) are actually enforced. 

Think also back to Gabriel Tarde, the contemporary of Durkheim, who provides an important counterweight to today’s conventional wisdom that identity always creates more problems for democratic politics than material interests: people can shift their self-conceptions quite often (without this just amounting to a lack of character or opportunism). You make some adjustments and see yourself in a new light: it is not always that difficult and can actually be part of a conscious learning process. 

But I think we have sort of forgotten how hard material redistribution can be, because it has not really been on the table for a long time. This is one of the things we have to worry about in the US: we have a highly radicalized Republican Party, but during decades of – for shorthand! – neoliberalism, nobody has really tried to take that much away from the upper 1% – as, again, shorthand for the owners of concentrated wealth.  Now, what is going to happen if you really get close to actual material redistribution from top to bottom, as opposed to bottom to top, as has been the case for decades?

I will move on to Karolina’s very good – which is to say: difficult – question about passions. On the one hand, I am somewhat reluctant to go there because I worry that as important as Montesquieu’s emphasis on collective mentalities is, it can very easily be instrumentalized in certain ways. We are all too familiar with claims such as: “It’s bad that Europe is so culturally divided, our poor cousins in Central and Eastern Europe have always been more illiberal, they never really got used to multiculturalism, they only had a few years of democracy, there are all these differences in mentality which really explain why these people, unfortunately, end up with Kaczyński and Orban.” Of course, differences in political cultures exist. But cliches about national identity can also be easily and conveniently weaponized – and provide an excuse for Western Europeans to ignore rising autocracy in the East, after all, it’s just ‘their mentality’ over there.

Let me take the topic of emotions and experience in a somewhat different way then, also taking up your invitation to think about the pandemic. We are at a moment somewhat similar to the post-2008 situation. For a brief moment socialists and social democrats were saying: “after the financial crisis things are going to go our way; this is so obviously the end of neoliberalism, there’s going to be a massive reaction in favor of good old social democratic policies.” Now we all know what happened instead. We all know that the movement/party, at least in the American context, that most successfully made use of the financial crisis in terms of symbolic politics as well as institutional politics happened to be the Tea Party, which nobody had quite imagined could be there or could have the kind of impact it did. Today you might say that there is still a vacuum, interpretations are still up for grabs.  We did have a rare truly collective experience, but how that is understood is a question for movements and, in a very old-fashioned way, political parties. 

No matter how different our circumstances were, at least for a moment there was a sense that there were certain things that we couldn’t do because of restrictions, there were certain things you couldn’t have and couldn’t buy. You might say that is the experience of poverty every day. True, freedom isn’t just money, but money is also freedom. Of course, it would be obscene if you now said that we were in the same position as a large family in a small flat in public housing; nevertheless, there is something everybody experienced on one level. Some of you may remember the essay by Jean Améry about old age which makes for very tough reading; it is very disillusioned. It makes the point, among other things, that old age is basically the time where your horizons close in, you no longer have a sense of the world being open to you, waiting for you. 

I’m not equating these experiences, but if you have political imagination, you can draw on at least somewhat shared recent experiences during the pandemic – as opposed to a kind of defeatism, where the differences in experience prevent any attempt to work out a common vision of how to move towards less inequalities and vulnerabilities.  

True, experience was not always de facto shared, but that was the case in previous watershed eras as well: think of the fact that during the Second World War the experience of a British aristocrat who could retreat to his countryside home was very different from that of a worker who was sent to the front. Nevertheless, there was a Labour Party which said that this collective experience could be transformed into a collective agenda that can justify a welfare state. 

I know the story was more complicated than that, but this is how collective experience, including experiences of loss and vulnerability, might become translated into a particular kind of a political program. 

You can watch the video recording of this discussion here:

In collaboration with Ifrah Hassan, Virginia Crespi de Valldaura and Karen Culver

Contact Us