Juan Linz – Crisis, Breakdown & Reequilibration

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I find it difficult to read the classics of political science. It is easier to read contemporary scholars. I am certain some will believe this means the classics are dense or contemporary scholarship has regressed in its complexity. But that is not it at all. It all comes down to the context of the scholarship. Every book or article is a piece of a conversation. It is part of a wider discussion among scholars and intellectuals. Reading the classics is difficult because most of us read just one side of a conversation and ignore the rest.

I read many works of political philosophy in high school. For example, I read Locke’s Second Treatise of Government a few times before I was twenty. But I never took the time to read Richard Hooker or Robert Filmer. I read John Rawls but never took the time to read Henry Sidgwick. It is difficult to fully comprehend a conversation or debate without listening to both parties. Of course, this becomes a challenge as every theorist references older theories. The reader finds they must eventually draw a line so their curiosity can move onto new subjects.

Contemporary political science is easier to digest because the authors are building upon one another. It does not take too long before the passages of one article appear in a new one. The footnotes of a new article lead the reader to new books and articles to shape a complete picture of the subject. Moreover, the current events of the time are understood as they have happened rather than through the revisionist lens of historical analysis.

I did not expect Juan Linz’s Crisis, Breakdown & Reequilibration to have been such a difficult read for me. The current literature has been focused on the decay and breakdown of democracy for a few years. Giants of political science like Mounk, Levitsky and Fukuyama among others have discussed the decay of democratic governance… and how to save it. Linz belongs in this tradition of scholarship. Except that he is not. Not entirely. There is a distance.

The third wave of democratization brought about a wave of optimism within the literature. It established a wall of separation between the literature of democratic breakdowns in the 1970s and the literature of the past ten years. The way Linz discusses the current events of his time is different than the way scholars reflect on these same exact events in historical perspective. The importance of these events has been reshaped over decades of reflection reexamination. His book was published in 1978. The third wave of democratization was in its ascendency, yet there is a pessimism within the subject matter. There is a hint of optimism about the democratization of Spain, Greece, and Portugal, but there is a lack of confidence it will last. It is reminiscent of the Arab Spring where a hesitant optimism was present, but there was little surprise when it failed to take hold throughout the region. Today, Tunisia is the only democracy to have survived from the Arab Spring. But Spain, Greece and Portugal have remained democratic regimes for decades now.

Nonetheless, Linz has had an enormous influence upon current scholarship. This book continues to echo in the works of writers today. Crisis, Breakdown & Reequilibration is found in the footnotes and bibliographies of nearly every book on democratic deconsolidation, breakdown, and decline. His ideas are no longer part of the conversation but instead form the framework for the current context of scholarship. It is not impossible to appreciate or understand similar works of today without Linz, but his book helps reinforces the theories and ideas developed today.

Crisis arises in democracies from any range of internal and external causes. The legitimacy of a democratic regime rests in its ability to deliver stability and performance despite these crises. Democratic breakdown begins not from the crisis itself but from a loss of political legitimacy in the democratic regime. Linz regards the effectiveness and efficacy of governance as critical to the performance and stability of governance and thereby legitimacy of the democratic regime. These ideas are echoed in the work of Francis Fukuyama who focuses on the performance of the state in his works The Origin of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay. Fukuyama credits the influence of Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies as his primary influence of his two-volume masterpiece. But upon a close reading of Linz it is obvious this work is a critical part of his thought. Its influence goes beyond its attribution buried in his massive bibliography.

The presence of a loyal opposition becomes essential for democratic legitimacy. The concept of a loyal opposition predates the advent of political science as a discipline. But Linz makes this concept his own because it becomes so integral to his model of legitimacy and breakdown within a democracy. Linz views the presence of a disloyal or semi-loyal opposition as common within democratic political systems. Its presence becomes a source of instability because its presence works to undermine the stability and performance of democracy so long as the governing party remains in power.

Contemporary literature is hesitant to believe in the presence of a disloyal opposition. Polarization is sometimes regarded as a sign of a healthy democracy where public debate is active. But there is a critical difference between healthy debate and unwavering opposition. Too many scholars and intellectuals are afraid to brand some tactics and methods as undemocratic. But the American political system is an example where both parties have crossed the line at different times into a disloyal opposition who has worked to undermine the performance of governance for their own political gain.

American politicians implicitly believe there is a distinction between governance and democracy. They fail to realize poor governance undermines the public’s faith in democracy, the constitution, and its institutions. There is no schism between governance and democracy. So long as democracy is the government of the people, it remains the responsibility of the people in a democratic government to bring about good governance. But political polarization makes this rational realization an impossibility. Instead, it draws the public into the conspiracy against democracy. It divides the people into the parties who govern and those who oppose them at all costs.

Milan Svolik has written about the ways that polarization gives voters license to accept undemocratic behavior from political elites. But I believe he has not gone far enough. Polarization brings about what Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have described as democratic deconsolidation. The public does not simply tolerate undemocratic behavior but encourages it in their leaders. The adherents of different parties want policies and laws to limit the influence of the opposition. They clamor for policies designed to dilute democracy and shape it to their advantage.

Juan Linz saw the dangers of polarization exacerbated in presidential systems. He writes, “Even when the ideological distance between supporters of a president and his opposition might be the same or smaller than the distance between government parties and the opposition in a parliamentary system, the conflict might be more intense.” But recent events have shown how polarization has brought about a similar breakdown in democratic legitimacy in Israel, Italy, and Spain. Proportional representation limits the influence of extremist ideologies, but it also gives them a seat at the table earlier than single member districts. Ultimately, there are no easy solutions. Democracies are shaped more by their people than their institutions.

There is a democratic bias among contemporary scholarship. I mean scholars assume the public naturally embraces democracy. It is considered the failure of elites to preserve democratic norms and institutions. Perhaps this is a failure of the liberal perspective of democracy. Takis Pappas has said liberal democracy was largely a construction of elites. But the preservation of democracy depends on the virtue and commitment of its people. Without the support of the people, institutions and norms will be undermined by their leaders. A conservative notion of democracy would focus on the responsibilities and obligations not just of its leaders but its people to preserve and defend democratic governance.

Linz saw the danger of the disloyal opposition in its capacity to bring about a coup or a counter-revolution. But today democracies are subverted from within. It is the disloyal opposition who come to power and undermine democratic government as a disloyal government. There is a very real fear Donald Trump will win reelection among intellectuals and scholars. But the greater fear should not be of Donald Trump. It is a fear that the people want a leader like Trump who will undermine democratic principles to protect their interests, their principles, and their ideological priorities. It is a fear the people will use democracy to bring about its breakdown all the while claiming it is in the name of democracy.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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