My search for meaning behind the political notion known as democracy began with the election of Donald Trump. Like many I did not believe his election was possible. It seemed inconceivable the democratic process would elevate a candidate who threatened its very existence. Republicans may feel I exaggerate, but I was appalled when he was unsure whether he would accept the outcome of the election if he lost. I remain terrified that a sitting president might refuse to accept an unfavorable election outcome. My naivety did not acknowledge this possible outcome. Yet I now recognize the future has far greater uncertainty than I ever imagined.
Democracy lost its innocence for me. It seemed as though it had collapsed upon itself. Was it truly possible for people to simply reject democracy through the democratic process? The very notion was a paradox. It went deeper than the contradiction of liberal democracy. No. It seemed as though democracy was capable of its own destruction. The research of Milan Svolik confirms my suspicion that this is not just a theoretical fear. There is an element of self-destruction embedded within democracy itself. Political polarization sets the stage, but the politics of populism is its most common instrument.
Nonetheless, none of this gave any meaning to democracy. Rather it lead to a nihilism I could not accept. Indeed, Fukuyama predicted an end to history because liberal democracy had no internal contradictions. Yet I had begun to believe democracy revolved around a paradox fundamental to its existence. Astrophysicists believe every galaxy revolves around a supermassive black hole. Perhaps, democracy orbits its own inevitable destruction.
The writings of Dahl and Lijphart go a long way towards an explanation of democracy. Yet neither provides a satisfactory answer capable of defining it. Dahl offers a majoritarian theory of democratic governance. He believes democracy’s problems often arise from a lack of democratic ideals rather than its excesses. Yet this is an oversimplification of the greatest scholar democratic theory has ever known. He refered to political systems which best reflected democratic ideals as polyarchies. The conditions of polyarchy changed over his lifetime but he blended majoritarian principles with liberal ideals like freedom of speech and association. Still he fails to explain why the principle of majority rule cannot limit the franchise, censor unfavorable political ideas or ban opposition political parties. His answer was it is simply not democratic.
Ljiphart is today’s greatest living scholar of democracy. His theory of consensual democracy was the first comprehensive answer to majoritarianism which was based on democratic principles. He analyzes democracies along multiple dimensions to offer two distinct forms of democratic governance. The idea of consensual government appeals to me because it approaches the impossible ideal of a government of all people. Majoritarianism is largely a politics of exclusion. Those who lose elections are offered inclusive participation but lack inclusive governance. Lijphart offers a vision where a larger proportion of the population becomes included not just in political participation but actual governance. Yet it falls short of universal inclusion because parliamentary coalitions continue to exclude political opponents. And he fails to recognize the features of consensus within majoritarian political systems. The American two-party system requires a great degree of consensus within both political parties even though they may struggle to cooperate with each other.
There is a certain dissatisfaction in a serious reading of Lijphart. He comes so close to providing a meaning for democracy. Yet he fails because this was never his aim. Lijphart is no philosopher. He is a scientist. His answers are offered only after he runs a regression analysis so he can determine the statistically significant variables. In the end, his vision of democracy becomes an outcome of institutional structure. The political scientist can accept this conclusion because political institutions offer the opportunity to test hypotheses. But the philosopher wants more for humanity.
Institutions change and evolve over time. They are shaped by the norms and values within society. Marriage today has been transformed from an institution which reinforced patriarchal power into a nearly equal partnership. Institutions transform as the social framework evolves. But they may become corrupted within an unfavorable environment. Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas have given a detailed analysis of rigged elections. Jennifer Gandhi and Adam Przeworski have explained the role of legislative institutions within authoritarian political systems. The institutions which were once synonymous with democratic governance can also be designed to reinforce authoritarianism.
Of course, political science never abandoned its focus on political culture. Yet even Putnam was hesitant to argue culture had the power to transform the nature of political institutions. Recently, Levitsky and Ziblatt did a remarkable job reintroducing the notion of political norms as the foundation of democratic governance. Yet too often this approach places the focus on political elites. The information age has led to a more efficient democracy. Politicians no longer have the luxury of conscience. They react to the demands of their constituency. This has shifted the responsibility for democratic governance from politicians to citizens. Perhaps this is the way it always should have been. However, the voters remain alienated from political governance. There is an instinctual detachment which leads to an abandonment of political responsibility.
As an American, there is a natural affinity to the constitution. Lijphart admires many components while he finds parts to criticize. Consensual democracy is based on a parliamentary government elected through proportional representation. This distinction makes the American political system inconsistent with Lijphart’s ideal form of governance. But the American political system has survived and outlasted “better” constitutions. But its success depends less on its formal constitutional structure than the commitment of its citizens. America has survived periods of political polarization, but it depended on the emergence of a new form of patriotism which gave purpose and meaning to the nation.
Democracy is not a collection of institutions. It has been said more times than I can recall, “Democracy is more than elections.” Indeed, the presence of elections do not symbolize the presence of democratic governance. It seems democracy is a culture or a behavior. It is the way we govern rather than the government itself. Democracy is said to be the government of the people. Yet elections are used to exclude people from participation in governance. Electoral competition is considered a feature of democratic governance, but it also leads to many undemocratic behaviors. The manipulation of election laws, the practice of gerrymandering and the censorship of ideas are derived from a competitive spirit.
The American obsession with competition must find resolution with key democratic ideals like cooperation and consent. Corporate culture has already begun to transform as they recognize the importance of teamwork. Team sports blend the distinct ideas of cooperation and competition together. Yet the politics of today struggles to resolve these values. Democracy does not depend on the integrity or design of its institutions. Nor does it depend on the behavior or leadership of its politicians. It requires a culture which has deep roots within the people themselves. Democracy is a political behavior and we are all political animals.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com