hans groen *17 09 1959 - †11 08 2022

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democracy rules

Is democracy in a state of crisis; is it in ‘transition’, i.e., a crisis in slow motion; or have we forgotten what democracy is all about? Seeing how people follow the self-serving voices that speak the loudest, I think it is the last. Having read Jan-Wener Müller’s Democracy rules,* I feel more confident to say that we have been very sloppy with the maintenance of our sense of democracy.

Let me first get a point of criticism out of the way. I don’t like the motto of this book as it is printed on the cover: ‘Liberty, Equality, Uncertainty’. That ‘uncertainty’ is a fundamental part of democracy, Müller argues convincingly. However, to re-write the holy words of the French Revolution, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” is a bit of bad taste. That each of us has the liberty to move around and lead one’s life not as a pawn in someone else’s scheme, with equal opportunities to realise one’s plan, and carrying one another’s burdens, is the threefold basis of our democratic society. It was even the main purpose of the late John Rawls to give a political translation of ‘fraternité’, and I think it is the essential value of human society. Don’t juggle with fraternity!

‘Fraternity’ is the stumble stone for populist politicians. Substantive parts of Democracy Rules argue against populist ideas – with Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and the Law and Justice Party in Poland as trail blazers, populism has developed a strong voice in traditional democracies. However, as I see it, populism fails when it comes to fraternity. For them, the people is one and conflict is out; the ‘people’ are formed by those to which this unity applies. Populists cannot live with, cannot think of disagreement and conflict. Their unity is the unity of the graveyard, the peace between people who are all losers – they all have lost their life, eventually. Conflict is endemic to human relationships; democracy is the way to settle conflict between citizens without annihilating the ‘losers’. The minority is still member of the polity today and can become the majority of tomorrow, in an endless cycle. That truth is what populism refuses to recognize.

‘Fraternity’ is not the just solidarity with those who are your eqauls, but also solidarity with those who are not your equals and with whom you might deeply disagree. Democracy is a scheme that aims at working constructively with disagreement. And because disagreement is not to be eradicated and the rules of the democratic process are meant to contain and enable conflict, political outcomes are always uncertain – there is the ‘uncertainty’ of the cover-motto of the book. What I really like about how Müller treats conflict and disagreement, is that he does not conclude to the inferiority of either of the disagreeing parties. The differences with which we deal in political deliberation are not the result of a lack of rationality of one side, or a lack of proper education. We have to start with the given that people in their right mind, with all their mental capabilities in good health, with all the available evidence and with all other caveats provided for, draw different, even conflicting conclusions. Political conflict about how to order our society is not a result of the ‘burdens of reason’, as John Rawls thought (and which I consider the deep communitarian line in his theory**). Elections are not about finding the truth (Müller p. 100), and a reconciled humanity is not the foundation of politics or society.

In a proper democracy all voices will be able to speak and in principle be heard. But at the end of the day, there will be voices that are not honoured in the decision that is made. It is a fact of democracy, and its strength, that dissent will never be silenced and the ‘demos’ most likely will never be united. I think that is something proponents of forms of direct democracy tend to forget; Müller refers to the Five Star Movement in Italy that promoted direct democracy and some kind of ‘collective intelligence’, tellingly via an online system called ‘Rousseau’ (p.133). And it is completely possible to have a nationwide consultation as Amart Etzioni*** some where proposes: you start at 9 o’clock in your street, escalating every hour to your neighbourhood, borough, city, province, and finally offering the conclusion to be implemented at 17 o’clock (and then everyone goes to the pub), for some voices in the morning this will only offer the legitimacy of the procedure. Important as that is – and its importance is far beyond triviality! – it will not be enough in the case of some substantial disagreements.

Proper representation is a precondition for democracy, less often do we talk about advocacy or intercession. Of course we want our own cause to be represented optimally in the public debate. But not everyone is able to stand strong amidst their fellow citizens, or is savvy enough to find the proper ways of expressing one’s interests. We, the citizens, need other citizens as intercessors for our cause, especially when I am part of the minority, be it only to remind the majority that winning the elections is not a license for having it your way now. Unfortunately, intercession is highly suspect after decades of identity politics and fragmentation in one-interest and one-identity parties in many parliaments. Speaking out for someone else leads to the suspicion that one is not honest and has alternate motives; honesty to one’s own identity is the first and only virtue of modern citizens, it seems.

When identity has such an importance, the number of parties in parliament grow according to the number of identities that people feel are to be represented. The Netherlands had an established tradition of a working parliament with a fair number of small parties at either corner of the left-right spectrum. Some of these parties had a niche identity; most of them shared a healthy arrogance claiming they also had a message for all citizens and that that message would make The Netherlands a better society for all citizens. Nowadays, the multitude of parties have primarily a message for their own constituency.

Democracy and our democratic sense needs constant maintenance; complacency is deadly. And sometimes those who hold the banner of democracy very high in the air, are its worst advocates – Müller is quite adamant about Hilary Clinton calling some citizens ‘irredeemable’, meaning that they cannot listen to reason anymore. One should never disqualify groups of citizens for not being fit for their calling as citizen.

One should also never leave democracy to the elites. The phantom of ‘Weimar’ appears in Müller’s argument; more generally, ‘Weimar’ is a point of reference in present discussion and analyses about how democracy will continue after Trump and other populists. But one should remember that the rise to power of Adolf Hitler was not the result of a democratic accident. When Paul Hindenburg appointed Hitler Reichskanzler, his popular support was already declining, having never won even really close to a majority of the German population anyway. It were the animosities and quarrels between the two persons who should have done the job that gave the idea that by appointing Hitler he could be house trained and lose this radicalism.**** Maybe that is a bigger disappointment, that being part of a decent system (and ‘Weimar’ was a decent republic) does not automatically make one decent. ‘Trickle down’ just does not work, one has to labour for the desired outcome.

Jan Werner Müller has written Democracy Rules out of anger – a passion beyond reason but based on reason: that there is something the matter, something invaluable but in danger of being demolished; complacency is not adequate (Müller’s anger shows itself in the innumerable additions between brackets which sometime even offer essential parts of the argument; he clearly did not give himself the time of tidying his argument into smooth reading, feeling the great urgency that we have to stand up for democracy). Read it, taste the anger, share the anger, and build further on a functioning democracy.

*Jan Werner Müller: Democracy Rules. New York: Farra, Strauss and Giroux, 2021

** This is the argument in chapter 9 of my dissertation: J.F. Groen: Justice Without Consensus. Amsterdam: Dissertation Vrije Universiteit, 1990.

*** Amitai Etzioni: “On virtual democratic communities” in A. Feenberg/D. Barney: Community in the Digital Age.” Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004

**** Patrick Dassen: De Weimar republiek 1918-1933. Amsterdam: Van Oorschot, 2021


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