defending democracy: institutions and principles

In the leadup to the anniversary of last year’s January 6 insurrection, a couple of Tweets combine into some interesting questions about the relationship between support for democracy in theory; support for extant institutions of “democratic” governance; and frank policy failures. How should scholars support democracy and to what extent?

A tweet about an ongoing discussion at The Butterfly Collector notes the following observation:

The implication, of course, being that democratic scholars ought to question, not simply defend, democracy in its current form.

Next, the infamous dispute in political science about this paper (“Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change” by Ross Mittiga in APSR). Mittiga argues, as I read it, that democratic governments’ failures to address climate change adequately could ultimately lend legitimacy to authoritarian movements and governments, as the policy failures of democratic governments undermine confidence in democracy.

There’s a lot in the paper, and it’s pretty clear that virtually none of the people commenting after Alexander Wuttke’s tweet mischaracterizing and critiquing the argument had actually read the paper, or even the abstract. (I make no comment on how thoroughly Wuttke had read it.) Wuttke reads the paper as endorsing authoritarianism to address climate change if democracies can’t or won’t do so (“…it could be justified to dismantle democracy in order to ensure climate policies through authoritarian governance”). That’s not at all what the paper argues for, as is evident even in the abstract let alone the full paper. Rather, the paper argues that the threat of authoritarianism is another reason why democracies should seek to address climate change adequately. But the misreading nevertheless led to a predictable deluge of conservative replies, e.g.,:

I think it’s fair to argue that part of the global shift toward populist authoritarianism is related to climate change, both through climate’s effect on societies but also through the opportunity to charge climate-mitigation policies as harming ordinary people. The first mechanism is theorized by the paper; the second, I think, works against the paper’s thesis because it’s authoritarians, not democrats, who end up opposing climate-change response on populist grounds.

In response to the controversy, JP Pardo-Guerra tweeted:

essentially endorsing the paper’s argument as mischaracterized by Wuttke: climate change is important enough, and democratic governance inadequate enough, that it would be appropriate to jettison democratic governance for successful climate-change policy (and, by implication, an end to the elite, finance, and capital privileges that have dominated).

Now, there are empirical questions to be asked here, including perhaps most urgently whether authoritarian governments are more likely to address climate change (they’re not) and whether authoritarian governments are more likely to reduce elite, finance, and capital dominance (they’re not). But JP’s tweet brings us back to the question in the Butterfly Collector tweet: (why) must democratic scholars defend democracy as practiced, when that practice is demonstrably and deeply flawed?

There’s an enemy-of-my-enemy problem here. In the US context, political actors explicitly opposed to democracy have launched an assault on all manner of formal and informal governance structures, either repurposing them (e.g., the filibuster, the electoral college) or seeking to destroy them (e.g., the Senate; voting rights) in order to undermine popular sovereignty. It’s easy to react, then, by defending these institutions in the name of democracy because those opposed to democracy oppose the institutions.

We’ve been there before. The term “actually-existing socialism” was used to insist that critiques (and defenses) of socialism refer to the Soviet-bloc countries’ experiences as opposed to the theoretical possibilities of socialism (Nancy Fraser referenced this obliquely in her pathbreaking 1990 paper “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.”).

We shouldn’t fall in that trap. It was a false dichotomy during the Cold War and it’s still a false dichotomy. American institutions over the past 50 years or so have actually been OK at some kinds of democratic representation, but have also served to ossify deep inequalities and prevent even very popular large-scale policy changes. Moreover, they’ve proved distressingly vulnerable to populist authoritarianism.

The institutions of American government, then, are at once:

  • vital to retaining even the level of democracy we once enjoyed; and
  • inadequate to the policy and democratic aims Americans deserve.

The antidemocratic wave in the Republican party has more sought to repurpose and distort the institutions of American government (something my colleagues and I predicted, sort of, a while ago) than to destroy them, the January 6 insurrection being a major counter-example. For the short-term, current conflicts, we can reasonably prefer hyperprivilege for elites over iron-fist authoritarianism, even while acknowledging that both are bad and that the former likely drives the latter; and even while wondering if that tradeoff is empirically true/necessary. My brilliant colleague Liliana Mason makes that position explicit in this morning’s tweet:

So, bottom line: does the critique of actually-existing democracy undermine commitment to democracy? No, as long as the critique is rooted in a coherent theoretical standard for democracy. Indeed, under those conditions such a critique bolsters the commitment to democracy by emphasizing opportunities to improve and deepen democracy, not just defend a flawed system. That, in the long term, is how we can be at once pro-democracy, non-partisan, and truthful.

What does such a standard look like? I’m open to suggestions, but I tend toward something relatively (deceptively?) simple, comprising two elements in productive tension with one another:

  • popular sovereignty / self-determination: the right of the people as a collective to drive policy and representation
  • rights and protections for individuals and minorities: limits on the power of the state to impose the majority’s will

Each of these is necessary to the other but also threatens the other. The dynamic balance is the product of debate and contention, not fixed guardrails to be set in place and forgotten. As we contend with the antidemocratic wave on the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, recognize that defending institutions is a short-term necessity in the service of the long-term goal of bolstering popular sovereignty and individual and group freedoms.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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