by Jan-Werner Müller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 256 pp.
Democracy, as Freedom House put it in its 2021 report, is “under siege.” Over the past decade there has been a steady decline in the quantity and quality of democracies across the globe. And perhaps the most consequential case of democratic decay today is in the United States, one of the oldest and most powerful democracies in the world.
For years, the United States has experienced growing economic inequality, declining social mobility, and increasing geographic, racial, religious, and political divides. These problems, along with the inability or unwillingness of the government to deal with them, have made Americans increasingly pessimistic and dissatisfied with democracy. The Pew Research Center, for example, has found that by the year 2050, many expect the economy will be weaker, healthcare will become less affordable, the environment will be in worse condition, our political divisions will be more pronounced, and the U.S. role in the world will diminish. The 2020 Global Satisfaction with Democracy report, published by the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University, has documented a dramatic increase in Americans’ dissatisfaction with democracy from the 1990s to the present day. This is the context that made Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory possible. During his administration, U.S. democratic norms and institutions faced their most significant challenges in decades.
There is a huge literature on democracy’s contemporary problems, much of which has focused on right-wing populists like Trump, who have become the most powerful antagonists of liberal democracy in a wide variety of countries. This literature has helped us understand the nature of populism and the conditions under which it thrives. If we want to know, however, when populism shifts from a challenge to democracy to becoming an existential threat, we need to understand what we are fighting to defend. In other words, with Trump’s presidency and a decade of global democratic decay behind us, it is time for scholars to shift their attention from populism and threats to democracy to democracy itself.
Jan-Werner Müller sets out to do this in Democracy Rules. Müller, an acclaimed intellectual historian, political theorist, and author of the excellent study What Is Populism?, is particularly well-suited to this task. He argues that understanding democracy’s problems, and potential solutions to them, requires returning to democracy’s “first principles” or “hard borders.” Democracy Rules highlights two of these in particular: political equality and an acceptance of basic facts.
Political equality means that the rights of citizenship—including the right to develop one’s own political preferences and priorities, participate in the political process, and enjoy freedoms of speech and assembly—must be guaranteed for all citizens. In a democracy there can be no first- and second-class citizens; all must be treated equally by public officials, governments, and their fellow citizens. This does not mean that every citizen must be equally successful in getting their preferred candidates elected or policies implemented; democracy generates winners and losers. But citizens cannot be systematically disadvantaged or hindered from exercising their rights and pressing their demands on the political system. Democracy cannot, as Müller puts it, “expel or disenfranchise citizens,” and “it also cannot in more insidious ways deny the standing of particular citizens, for that conflicts with a commitment to democratic equality.”
Müller adds that democracy can only work if our claims, choices, and conflicts are constrained by facts. Citizens in modern democracies have diverse preferences and priorities; disagreement is inevitable. As Müller notes, arguments in a democracy are necessary and productive: when more views are “on the table,” the “pressure to justify them” grows, helping citizens learn and “refine” their thinking and habituating them “to the notion that others might just possibly be right.” But for this process to occur, citizens can’t disagree on the underlying reality upon which their differences are based. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not their own facts. We must accept the legitimacy of different preferences and priorities and be willing to compromise, bargain, and engage in political competition. Citizens should, for example, be able to accept the legitimacy of different judgments about the policies Joe Biden should pursue as president—about the relative prioritization of public health and economic and social risks in determining current pandemic rules, for example, or how much pressure should be put on citizens to get vaccinated—but there can be no legitimate disagreement over the reality of Biden’s electoral victory, the existence of COVID-19, or the efficacy of vaccines.
A clear understanding of democracy’s first principles makes it easier to assess threats to the system. Right-wing populists, for example, deny the political equality of citizens; they portray society as divided into “us” and “them,” and they regard the latter as not truly part of, and perhaps a danger to, the real “people.” Such a view makes it easy for populists to delegitimize and justify illiberal and anti-democratic moves against their opponents. In addition, since populists believe in the existence of the will of the people or the common good, anything that goes against these things must be false or the product of plots and machinations. Populists accordingly thrive on conspiracy theories and other distortions of fact and consistently condemn newspapers, journalists, and any sources of information that do not agree with their worldview. The more populists attack and undermine these fundamental democratic principles, the greater their threat to democracy is.
Understanding what is fundamental to democracy is also necessary for evaluating proposed solutions to its problems. Because many ideas about how to “fix” democracy are not grounded in foundational principles, they are as likely to weaken as strengthen it. Müller discusses two such solutions in Democracy Rules: lottocracy and technocracy.
Lottocracy, or sortition, starts from the premise that voters are uninformed and easily swayed by their emotions and that politicians are corrupt and unresponsive. Elections are therefore incapable of producing governments that can solve society’s problems. Advocates of lottocracy argue that fairer, more efficient government will be achieved by randomly selecting leaders from a pool of eligible candidates than by elections. Technocracy, meanwhile, starts from the premise that the world has become increasingly complicated, rendering voters and politicians unable to make wise decisions about crucial contemporary issues. Advocates of technocracy favor handing as much decision-making power as possible over to meritocrats or experts who they believe are better equipped to solve pressing social problems.
Lottocracy and technocracy share an underlying assumption that the goal of elections is picking the right leaders, in order to realize the common good. Their proponents, Müller writes, view “politics . . . as a series of problems to be sorted out; what matters is finding the correct solution,” empowering those who have figured it out, and then telling the “rest of the citizens . . . to shut up.” But elections should reflect the political equality of citizens—their right to have their voices heard and participate in the political process. Elections and other forms of political activity are where citizens’ preferences and priorities are formed and their conflicts peacefully processed. Lottocracy and technocracy not only diminish the representative and creative elements of elections but fail to “preserve the peace the way elections do,” Müller argues. “They fail to measure the strength of different groups in society; they also leave no way for losers to mobilize in order to win the next time around.” Because they misunderstand or ignore democracy’s fundamental principles, lottocracy and technocracy end up reproducing key features of the populist threat: “shrinking the demos,” reducing citizens’ role in “the decision-making public,” and assuming democracy should be judged only by its ends rather than appreciated for how it works.
Another proposed solution to democratic decay is “militant democracy,” empowered to defend itself via extraordinary means. Militant democracy entails giving governments and leaders the ability to restrict the basic democratic rights of parties and politicians that threaten democracy. The idea is most closely associated with postwar Germany, where it developed as a response to Hitler’s rise to power via legal means. As Joseph Goebbels once gloated, “It will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy that it provided its mortal enemies . . . with the means through which it was annihilated.” Determined to avoid such an outcome, advocates of militant democracy argue that defending democratic principles sometimes requires restricting access to them.
There is something paradoxical about arguing that principles are best defended by attenuating or abandoning them. And militant democracy involves obvious dangers: restricting rights over the short term can undermine faith in their nonnegotiable nature over the long term, and any use of extraordinary power can create perilous precedents. The track record of militant democracy is not encouraging, either. Radical parties and politicians can adapt their rhetoric and behavior to avoid sanctions and then present themselves as martyrs if governments move against them anyway. A good example of this, as Müller notes, is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, after having his Welfare Party banned, resurrected his career with a new party, Justice and Development, with which he won elections, gained power, and then undermined Turkish democracy. Another worrying example is Germany, where militant democracy did not stop the rise of the radical right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In response to a recent threat to invoke extraordinary powers to limit the AfD, the party claimed that the federal government was acting like the Communist government of the German Democratic Republic—a charge that presumably resonates with the AfD’s many supporters in former East Germany.
Given the flaws and pitfalls of lottocracy, technocracy, and militant democracy, where should we look for solutions to democracy’s current problems? Müller suggests that since democracy is a system that builds on and promotes the equality of all citizens, it is up to citizens themselves to defend and strengthen it. And democracies offer citizens numerous ways to influence political life—elections, protests, forming and joining social movements and civil society organizations, engaging in critical speech and writing, and more.
What if people try existing avenues of political participation and influence, yet existential threats to democracy’s fundamental principles remain? At this point, Müller argues that citizens may need to break rules to defend principles; “democratic politics,” he argues, “is never exhausted by rule following and sometimes might positively require upsetting the game.” It may be necessary to fight unfairness “with drastic, even norm-breaking measures.”
The idea that it is ultimately up to citizens, rather than apolitical mechanisms, technocrats, or governments armed with extraordinary powers, to defend democracy seems reasonable. But given how easily rule-breaking can undermine rather than strengthen democracy, Müller argues, it is necessary to be clear about how to determine when and how such rule-breaking should occur. As George Eliot once put it, “the right to rebellion is the right to seek a higher rule, and not to wander in mere lawlessness.”
Before breaking rules, existing democratic processes and procedures must first be tried and found wanting. Second, a distinction must be made between policy differences—however vast and vehement—and real threats to democratic principles. Rule-breaking can be justified only with regard to the latter, not least because as long as democracy exists, opponents of any particular policy have the opportunity to use its procedures to fight another day. Unfortunately, the type of polarization that exists in the United States today makes it enormously difficult for citizens to make such distinctions: once you view your political opponents as enemies, anything advocated by them easily turns into a threat that justifies resistance by any means.
Third, any rule-breaking must be clearly tied to the defense of fundamental democratic principles. The obvious example here is the civil rights movement, which involved law-breaking in the service of achieving democratic equality for African-American citizens. At around the same time, protesters in many European countries also made use of sit-ins, nonviolent occupations, and other tactics to oppose illiberal and undemocratic features of the reigning order, including police brutality, press censorship, unequal treatment of women and minorities, and the power of ex-Nazis in government and business (particularly in Germany). Actions designed to bully or humiliate opponents, on the other hand—such as activists going to Tucker Carlson’s home and harassing his family, or stealing the clothes off an elderly leader of the AfD while he was swimming, forcing him to walk home half-naked—or the vandalizing of property unconnected to a threat to democracy, would not fit into this category.
Democracy’s current challenges place an immense burden on the shoulders of citizens. Ultimately, democratic government can only survive if citizens prioritize defending first democratic principles above the achievement of policy or partisan goals. This is easier said than done, particularly in the polarized times we live in today. Small-d democrats must learn to look past their policy and partisan differences to deal with challenges like low and unequal levels of political participation, the translation of economic and social power into political influence, the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories, and partisan attempts to manipulate voting rules and election oversight. If we do not address these issues, which undermine political equality and our sense of a shared social reality, we will have no one to blame for our country’s continued decay but ourselves.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her latest book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.