The book: At a time when the future of democracy is increasingly in doubt, Democracy Rules (Farrar Straus and Giroux) takes us back to basics: What really is a democracy? According to Müller, it’s built on three things: liberty, equality, and uncertainty. Though uncertainty may initially seem undesirable, he explains, it is the crucial factor that differentiates a democratic state from an authoritarian one, in which nearly all political action is rendered predictable. To that end, Democracy Rules urges us to reinvigorate key democratic institutions, including political parties and the free media, with the dual benefit of re-empowering citizens to take part in democratic processes and letting these institutions help negotiate a democratic social contract for all. Diffusing pessimistic theories that democracy is doomed to succumb to populism, Müller encourages us to view democracy as a dynamic experiment with yet-untested possibilities.The author: Jan-Werner Müller is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. He has been a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford and has held many visiting professorships. His public affairs commentary has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books, among other publications. His book Fear and Freedom won the Bavarian Book Prize in 2019.
Everybody thinks they know that democracy is in crisis, but how many of us are certain what democracy actually is? The reasons for a pervasive sense of crisis seem plain: a steadily rising number of authoritarian regimes; increasing levels of dissatisfaction with politics within democracies; and, beyond abstract numbers, the double trauma of 2016, with Brexit and the election of a reality TV star as president of the world’s oldest and (still) most powerful democracy. Does the elevation of an evidently unfit candidate to the highest office in the land automatically prove that democracy is in crisis? Or was conclusive proof only supplied by the fact that this man-child, in the very last days of his presidential term, incited followers to storm the legislature? Or did American democracy on that occasion demonstrate its resilience, ultimately absorbing the shock to the political system? Not every shock signals crisis. In the original ancient Greek meaning, krisis denotes a moment of stark choice: a patient would either die or recover, a defendant would be judged guilty or innocent (in fact, “judgment” was the other meaning of the term). If so, was Trump’s election perhaps a moment when it was voters who were judged—as unfit for democracy? As we now know, a president tweeting falsehoods or spouting them in live press conferences can certainly turn into a matter of life and death—if members of his audience take him seriously and literally during a pandemic. But did lying about Lysol undermine democracy? Does the decision to leave a supranational organization, following a referendum initiated by one of the world’s oldest political parties, namely the Tories in the United Kingdom, constitute a fatal blow to democracy as such? There are plenty of outcomes in democratic politics one might find abhorrent, but to presume more or less casually that they’ll kill the system is to engage in what Saul Bellow once derided as “crisis chatter.” Just what are plausible criteria for declaring a “life-and-death moment”? And is there a way for such criteria not to look immediately partisan?
That question cannot be answered without a proper understanding of democracy to begin with. True, we think we know it when we see it. But many leaders determined to subvert democracy have become very adept at making us believe that there’s something there long after it is in fact gone. What is truly essential for democracy? Is it one thing only, or perhaps more than one thing? Is it elections, or a set of basic rights such as free speech, or a more elusive matter of collective attitudes, for instance, citizens being disposed to treat one another in a civil, respectful manner?
It’s a mistake to assume that all thinking about democracy today needs to be fashioned as a response to the new authoritarians. Yet we also can’t pretend that nothing happened. Thus, the first chapter of this book will revisit the question Hillary Clinton posed in her instant memoir: What happened? And why is it still happening, after so many self-declared defenders of democracy have sounded the alarm bells?
There have been two convenient but ultimately very misleading responses. One is to blame the people themselves. This has been true of liberals in particular, who prioritize individual rights, are more or less content with capitalism, and tend to value diversity as such, but who also labor under an inherited notion that democracy is perennially in peril of deteriorating into a tyranny of the majority. They have taken what is often dubbed “the global rise of right-wing populism” as license to revive clichés from nineteenth-century mass psychology—the kinds of ideas one should not really utter in polite company, even if one is convinced that civics-education pieties hardly ever match political realities: the masses bring all kinds of disasters on themselves; ordinary folks—ill-informed and, even if well-informed, plainly irrational—are always ready to be misled by demagogues. The obvious lesson is to re-empower what are gingerly called gatekeepers—which is often really just to say traditional elites. More concretely put, we must reengineer political primaries so as to minimize the decision-making power of those who in the United States are often (strangely) called everyday citizens: let’s be done with referenda and other irresponsible exercises in direct democracy; let’s just recognize that politics is a profession. After all, we must not forget that two-thirds of Americans can name at least one member of the jury of the TV show American Idol, but only 15 percent are able to identify the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Amateurs may applaud a particularly virtuous performance of “politics” in a TV debate, but during and especially after the show they must be kept safely on the sidelines. Those holding such views—lest they be thought of as just indulging good old demophobia, that is, fear of ordinary people—usually rush to back up their suspicions about the masses with timeless insights from social psychology: the people are prone to tribalism; polarization, as in enmity between groups, is the default of all politics; and we should devise psychological exercises such as “mindfulness” to make ordinary people tone it all down a bit. Those despairing of the masses also point to surveys supposedly proving that citizens across the globe are more and more inclined to back “strong leaders,” or even military rule.
What’s wrong with this picture? To begin with, most surveys are ambiguous at best, and in any case surveys have hardly ever predicted either the life or the death of democracy; they certainly do not demonstrate conclusively that the people are thoroughly disenchanted with ideals of self-rule. There’s a reason why the instigators of military coups—be it in Thailand or Egypt—do not officially disavow democracy. Rather, they fake democracy, as in General Sisi’s Egypt, or they promise a swift return to self-government as soon as the conditions are right, as in Thailand (even if there are always reasons to put that return off again). It’s wrong to assume that there is now an unstoppable wave of authoritarian populism—or, as the English Brexiteer Nigel Farage, who evidently felt the image of a wave didn’t do justice to his world-historical role, put it, a “tsunami.” True, parties that can plausibly be labeled populist—and I’ll say more about that highly contested designation shortly—have increased their vote shares in many countries. But the notion that majorities are inevitably clamoring for authoritarians fails to take note of one simple fact: until today, in no Western country has a right-wing populist authoritarian party or politician come to power without the collaboration of established conservative elites. Moreover, the supporters of those elites don’t think of themselves as getting rid of democracy when they vote for conservative and center-right parties.
Review: “Few people are as well-equipped as Jan-Werner Müller to assess today’s heated debates about democracy. With unerring realism he examines the critical conditions necessary for democracies to function, reminding us of the essential role played by intermediary institutions such as parties, the idea of the loyal opposition, and the free press.” —Tamsin Shaw, associate professor of European and Mediterranean studies and philosophy at New York University and author of Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism