As the title implies, Crises of Democracy is an unwelcomely timely work: as Trump exits in the most Trumpian way imaginable, “democratic backsliding” is present across the world, with his colleagues looking to entrench themselves in Brazil, India, Poland, and elsewhere, and in opinion polls, which show weakening support for democracy, especially among elites. The author, political scientist Adam Przeworski, has a crisply, logical style, appropriate humility in making predictions (“especially about the future,” as they say,) and mastery of the literature on democratic survival – (including analyses from the worlds of statistics, economics, history, and game theory to name a few). But the weaknesses of the volume point to failures of the academic discipline (his of political science, mine of historical sociology, not that either of us would accept that as meaningful distinction) – he brings empirical and analytical tools to bear on a situation that, in its particulars, seems to be unprecedented and irrational.
This failure is embodied in the chimeric structure of the book itself. Taking an admirably multi-method approach, Przeworski examines several case studies of democratic failure or survival. He then turns to existing trends, offering some a priori rationalist analysis of when factions should find it reasonable to act within constitutional bounds, then he shrugs and says he’s cautiously pessimistic. As he says on p. 195 of the volume, “As my description of these possibilities [continuing polarization and distrust in government as ordinary wages stagnate, or some unforeseen event that knocks things off this grim course] may reveal, I am leaning toward the pessimistic scenario… I must abdicate to the reader the task of deciding where in this range of possibilities the future lies.” None of these are bad, but what disturbs, and justifies Przeworski’s upturned shoulders, are the degree to which past case analyses prove unhelpful for dealing with present concerns.
Each of the case analyses offered at the beginning concerns an acute crisis within the political sphere, which was either distinctly averted or distinctly not so. In the familiar case of 1930s Germany, rightists used constitutional means to declare a dictatorship; in 1970s Chile, political leaders willing in their own persons to strike bargains and play within the constitutional system could not restrain their supporters, and constitutional dispute provided rightists in the military cover to simply impose economic and political dictatorship; in 1950s France, De Gaulle resolved a political impasse by acting as a dictator in the Cincinnatus sense – i.e. coming in, imposing order, and then leaving in short order to a reconstituted republic; in 1960s America, Nixon broke the law, then insisted it was metaphysically impossible for him to break the law, and then resigned himself to ignominy. All of these concern a vacui jurum at the top of the political system amid widespread spontaneous violence at the bottom, and which are resolved in the installation, or not, of a personal dictator. Military leaders play crucial roles, if only in not acting. This “constitutional crisis” model could be applied with as much relevance to Mussolini’s 1925 declaration of dictatorship, the 1975 Australian “Dismissal,” and numerous – but, crucially, far from all – positive and negative cases of regime change.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, America’s disputed election result ultimately had more in common with recurrent conspiracy theories concerning American elections (Diebold Nixdorf, birth certificates, Russian hackers, whatever) than a real constitutional crisis, but in the future, were democracy to be challenged with a more competent but equally corrupt incumbent, we might not be so lucky. Just imagine how last week’s (apparently) spontaneous storming of America’s Capitol might have turned out with an equally loyal mob, but with far more coordination and planning.
But what Przeworski looks at – in terms of long-term economic and political trends – is quite different. Two factors stand out: first, sluggish growth combined with increasing income inequality have combined for decades, producing, for the first time ever in the modern West, popular and reasonable perceptions that lives will not improve in generational terms. Second, he correctly asserts that intermediary institutions – most importantly unions and parties that act as interfaces between ‘the people’ and the ‘state’ – are in decline.
Previous episodes of polarization and ideological struggle – for and against democracy, and what it can and cannot achieve – happened in the context of institutionalized politics. The Catholic Church, the labor movements, the military, and various parties penetrated and organized social life in a way that our ‘bowling alone’ society can hardly approach. People today are divided and bitter and ideological, but when they are so, they are so as part of a hobby, institutionalized to the extent through individual media consumption. Spectacle replaces struggle as the venue of activism. Ironically, this may be nowhere more visible than in the most alarming and coup-like event of the entire Trump presidency last week, when, having stormed the Capitol, the armed mob gathered in opposition to democracy did not arrest or shoot their political opponents, but took selfies. In nearly every photo of this bizarre failed putsch, the phones are out.
Przeworksi notes that democratic elections must have something, but not too much, at stake – too little, such that if people feel that voting makes no difference and the system is not responsive to their concerns, but not too much, such that if the losers would understand the result as an existential threat. What he might have added is that the trends – trends which, to be sure, have been exaggerated – from economic conflict polarized along property ownership lines to cultural conflict polarized along education lines results in stakes that are simultaneously too much and too little. And here is where I cut to the quick: Some of these trends present too little, because living conditions are placed outside of the bounds of political discussion and too much, because every election is phrased as a threat to – and a struggle between – different socio-political identities rather than actual plans of action. On the ‘too little’ side, neoliberalism has reduced the distance between economic plans offered by parties; whilst on the ‘too much’ side, cultural issues almost always present themselves as a fight between non-negotiable rights. And while in an age of growth these economic compromises could be made less dissatisfying by the belief that the battle over the next pie would be bigger, no such possibility however exists today.
Przeworski therefore accordingly places much more concern on chronic rather than acute subordinations of democracy, such as that pursued against the media and judiciary by PiS in Poland. But even this seems to me too much of a narrowly political, in the sense of focusing on the formal structure of the state. What the long-term trends reveal is not just increasing weakness in democratic government but democratic society. The older models of government which so inform our imaginations of the “negation” of democracy were in fact models that presumed a highly mobilized society in which ordinary people pressured, informed, delegated, and were embedded in civic and organizational life – a mirror of democracy’s ideological vision of its own ideal self. The populist radical right, when it tries to offer what Viktor Orbán proudly calls “illiberal democracy,” is following this model, if not the totalitarian or even traditionally authoritarian political structure. But if growth continues to be sluggish and its concentration unabated, and civil society hollowed out, what may threaten democracy may not be parodies of it but something more redolent of the pre-modern world, with its frank hierarchies, clientelism, and resigned acquiescence more from skepticism that things could be anything different, than proactive ideological endorsement by the populace at large. Diagnosing – and, perhaps, avoiding – something like this is not something which our traditional historical analyses of democratic politics may be well suited, but is a sobering reality that we must all recognise in order to avoid a passive slip into the abyss.
Dr Matthias Wasser is a Senior Fellow at CARR and is a specialist of intellectual history of the far right, political economy of fascism. See full profile here.
© Matthias Wasser. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).