On being back – Lawrence Douglas in TLS:
‘Has America really returned to its pre-Donald Trump state, or is President Biden a temporary interlude of democratic revival in the nation’s more irresistible slide towards authoritarianism? The question found nervous expression during the recent G7 meeting in the UK, as European allies openly wondered, Joe Biden’s reassurances notwithstanding, whether the US is really “back”.
The same question animates two timely books, This Is Not Normal: The politics of everyday expectations by Cass R. Sunstein and Democracy Rules by Jan-Werner Müller. Sunstein, who teaches at Harvard Law School, is one of the US’s most prominent, and prolific, legal scholars; Müller, a German political theorist based at Princeton, has established himself as a subtle and wide-ranging thinker on matters of governance. Both books promise to make sense of the present political moment and its substantial dangers. And both, unsurprisingly, offer robust defences of democracy.’
‘For millions of Americans, the most shocking aspect of Trump’s presidency was the way it exposed the fault lines in what was assumed to be a highly stable democratic order. Sunstein reminds us that we should not be surprised by these fragilities: all democracies have them. And all it takes is for authoritarians to exploit them, expanding people’s sense of the normal. Until recently, it was unthinkable for a US president to defame journalists as enemies of the people and purveyors of fake news; yet an occupant of the White House with an itchy Twitter finger managed to change this in a trice. But the vulnerability of democracies to rapid unravelling is also a function of the people themselves, who tend to hide, or suppress, personal beliefs that dramatically depart from the norm. When democracy is the norm, people avoid disclosing their sympathies for authoritarian, xenophobic and racist values. Once a public figure authorizes the expression of such beliefs, the political climate can shift dramatically.’
‘Even shakier is Sunstein’s discussion of the case of Nazi Germany, which leads him to conclude: “the ultimate safeguard against aspiring authoritarians … lies in individual conscience – in decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large”. Does he seriously believe this? Acts of individual conscience did very little to halt the rise of Hitler, or to end his regime.’
‘But Müller rightly resists technological determinism: the idea that the advent of the internet and social media spell the doom of democratic rule. Rather, he insists that regulatory decisions, and not technological leaps, have permitted cable “news” channels to proliferate and social media platforms to serve as the breeding grounds of conspiracy theories and hate. It isn’t that regulation has failed to keep up with technology: it’s that deliberate regulatory decisions have contributed to the toxic climate of social media.
Müller also challenges the notion that populists such as Trump have simply bypassed party elites, demonstrating their ultimate irrelevance as sources of political restraint. To the contrary, he pointedly notes, “In no Western country has a right-wing populist authoritarian party or politician come to power without the collaboration of established conservative elites”. (Müller might have noted that much the same could be said about left-wing populist authoritarian parties, such as the PSUV in Venezuela.)’ (…)
‘He calls on journalists to make clear their value commitments and, when they do interpret events from a partisan perspective, to do so from a “clear commitment to democratic principles” – a call unlikely to shame Sean Hannity into a stance of responsibility.
Far more interesting is Müller’s embrace of sortition devices, such as Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review. In the Oregon system, two dozen citizens are chosen through a representative sampling to listen to arguments about a pending ballot measure; they then summarize the various pros and cons of the measure in accessible language, and these summaries are mailed to all households as part of an official voters’ pamphlet. It is doubtful that such a device could meaningfully address the extreme polarization in our national politics, but it could meaningfully empower citizens to take the lead on the local level to detoxify the current political climate.’
‘When populists or authoritarians threaten to abrogate the basic rule of liberal democracy, and when they systematically deny the standing of particular citizens as free and equal members of the polity, resistance is not simply authorized by democratic principles: it is mandated.’
Read the review here.
All democracies are fragile, some more than others.
Individual conscience, I would not put my life in the hands of the individual conscience of my neighbor, I would not even put my life in the hands of the individual conscience of some of my friends.
Democracy works best at a local (small) level, unfortunately most of the urgent problems cannot be solved at this level.
(I for one believe that a lottery instead of elections would save lots of money and produce better results.)
Resistance is mandated, sure. Sometimes it is. But what kind of resistance? Armed resistance? Writing to your congressman or writing to the editor of your favorite newspaper? Demonstrate?
The word resistance has been used frivolously.
The moment that a democracy cannot saved by voting most often it’s already too late.
But free press, intelligent articles and even some satire once a week (more is counterproductive) can be helpful.