Chantal Mouffe – The Democratic Paradox

A paradox is distinct from a contradiction. Sometimes the two ideas are confused. They are used interchangeably in ways which remove the impact of the concept of paradox. It is true ‘paradox’ feels a bit more exotic than the more pedantic ‘contradiction.’ But this is no reason to distort its meaning. A contradiction is where two ideas are incompatible, so their combination becomes an impossibility. But a paradox is where a single idea brought to its logical conclusion becomes an impossibility on its own.

I have often described democracy as a paradox. The idea of democracy exists only so long as its logical conclusion is avoided, because democracy gives people absolute political freedom. And freedom involves choice. The most consequential decision in a democracy is to either embrace or deny democratic governance. The possibility of a complete denial of democracy through the expression of political freedom is what I call the Democracy Paradox. It means democracy is based upon a paradox. Its own impossibility becomes absolute upon its rejection. This paradox is like the supermassive black hole at the center of our own galaxy. Its existence makes the Milky Way possible. And yet, its existence is a negation of existence itself.

Chantal Mouffe explains The Democratic Paradox differently than I do. She describes the paradox in terms of liberalism and democracy. I describe the tension between liberalism and democracy as a contradiction. It takes work to resolve the contradiction in order to understand how liberalism and democracy work in symbiosis. It is not as simplistic as Francis Fukuyama wanted everyone to believe in his End of History and the Last Man. But Mouffe describes liberal democracy not as a contradiction but as a paradox. She explains that “in a liberal democracy is the idea that it is legitimate to establish limits to popular sovereignty in the name of liberty. Hence its paradoxical nature.”

It is easy to get lost in the semantics. But I do not believe Chantal Mouffe has misused her terminology. It is important to remember a paradox involves a single idea while a contradiction involves two distinct concepts. Liberalism and Democracy are typically viewed as two ideas. But she has combined liberalism and democracy into a single idea known as ‘liberal democracy.’ As distinct concepts liberalism and democracy may contradict, but as a single notion the same tension becomes a paradox. But this singular concept breaks down immediately into “two logics which are incompatible.” This transforms the paradox back into a contradiction which allows for a resolution.

Mouffe offers what she describes as ‘agonistic pluralism’ as an alternative to Carl Schmitt’s pessimism. Schmitt believed liberalism and democracy offer the theorist a choice between two different political traditions. Mouffe, however, believes she can bridge the gap through radical democracy. But the radicalism in her democracy is not so much a radical form of democracy, but the permission to embrace radical ideas within a democracy. She rebels against the traditions of democratic thought based around consensus and deliberation. Her sense of democracy is not epistemic but grounded in conflict and polarization which she views as inherent to the political.

Agonistic pluralism imagines politics as a form of conflict “which takes place between enemies, that is, persons who have no symbolic space.” Pluralism imagines an infinite variety of views. It is likely she believes agonistic pluralism allows for intellectual diversity in politics. But this diversity collapses as a single perspective dominates the political space in a hegemonic viewpoint. Mouffe introduces Gramsci’s notion of hegemony as a strategy for the left but also as a warning. She is dismissive of Clinton and Blair’s third way for the left which she describes as “no more than the justification by social democrats of their capitulation to a neoliberal hegemony whose power relations they will not challenge.”

There is a clear resentment of the embrace from the left of neoliberal political ideas in her writing which has gained a voice in the politics today of Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her ideas parallel the regret of Gramsci who looked back upon the alliance of Communists with the Socialists as an obstacle to their political emergence. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron has reflected upon the political risks of coalitions for junior partners. The Liberals formed a coalition government with the Conservatives after the 2010 parliamentary election. The team at the British Election Study (BES) described this fateful decision as an “electoral shock” which redefined voter perceptions of the Liberal Party and led to their collapse in the 2015 Parliamentary Elections.

Chantal Mouffe was clear in her abhorrence of the third way politics. She writes “while increasingly victorious politically… the left is still thoroughly defeated ideologically… Instead of trying to build a new hegemony, it has capitulated to the neo-liberal one.” Hegemonic politics offers a choice in democracy. Political power is available for those who embrace the hegemon’s agenda, but it demands a submission to a hegemonic worldview. The alternative is to remain in opposition where a new hegemonic coalition may become possible. The Southern Question was the challenge for Gramsci to transform the left from an opposition to fascism into a hegemonic power in its own right, but he was unable to offer rural peasants an alternative to fascism because he was incapable of projecting a political vision where the proletariat was not the hegemonic power.

Hegemony as a political concept brings together a Downsian analysis of political parties with a more controversial embrace of polarization. It is not enough for political outsiders to moderate their views because there is a point where the moderation becomes surrender. Gramsci and his compatriots discussed extensively about where the left came to an end and the right began. Some believed the Social Democrats were the far right of their movement while others believed they were the far left of the capitalist class. The distinction was important because its location marked the point where cooperation became capitulation. Gramsci believed the left lacked the support as an opposition to overtake the Fascists without further inroads into rural Southern Italy. The magnitude of this dilemma is difficult to imagine. Fascist is thrown around so often the word has lost some of its original meaning. Gramsci faced the very real challenge of Benito Mussolini in flesh and blood. And his failure had real consequences for world history.

Ezra Klein describes how American political scientists had advocated for greater political polarization in politics a few generations ago. The lack of polarization left voters unclear in the differences between candidates. Many believed there was not enough difference between Republicans and Democrats. Seymour Martin Lipset’s final chapter of his classic Political Man is called “The End of Ideology?” where he sounds like Fukuyama thirty years later. The debate between socialism and capitalism was largely resolved. Politics had become about the details of policies rather than values and ideas. Friedrich Hayek is portrayed as a lone voice as he rebelled against the convergence between the political parties into what he described as statist policies. Chantal Mouffe parallels Hayek’s voice even though she belongs to the opposite side of the ideological divide.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt blame the Civil Rights Movement and the Republican Southern Strategy for the realignment of American political parties. The tolerance for racist policies by both political parties is described as fundamental for this era of political moderation. I believe their analysis gives too little credit to the leadership of Eisenhower which held back reactionary elements in his party that wanted to roll back the New Deal. It also fails to account for the similarities in political mood throughout the West which had different institutions, different methods of elections, and different social challenges in its different countries. There is some truth in the thesis of Levitsky and Ziblatt but there is also some overstatement. Political realignment and its subsequent polarization were likely inevitable not just in the United States but around the world.

The glorification of polarization I find in Chantal Mouffe is unsettling. Pluralism gives the impression of multiple orientations and perspectives. But Mouffe allows this political diversity to disappear into a hegemonic opposition based around the force of her own ideology. Indeed, polarization brings about the presence of two hegemonic political views which strive to exclude the other from political power. Ultimately, the political for Mouffe is about exclusion. She believes “any social objectivity is ultimately political and has to show the traces of the acts of exclusion which govern its constitution.” An agonistic pluralism brings about different perspectives who compete in the political arena for hegemony. But her solution necessitates the consolidation of these perspectives into a hegemonic opposition capable of overtaking the neoliberal worldview and displacing its influence on the policy agenda.

This book is about a paradox that is endemic of liberal democracy. And yet, Mouffe overlooks the most obvious challenge of politics. Democracy is a postmodern idea. Its focus is on the process rather than the outcome. But ‘the political’ allows the process itself to become the subject of debate. Sometimes this brings about welcome reforms such as the expansion of suffrage to women and racial or ethnic minorities. But it has also allowed leaders to undermine democracy. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way developed the concept of competitive authoritarianism to refer to those regimes that hold competitive elections where the process remains neither free nor fair. Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas have shown the different avenues leaders have to manipulate elections in their book How to Rig an Election. Mouffe does not consider possibilities where the political process can be used to undermine the democracy. There is an a priori quality of democracy for Mouffe. This allows her to test the limits of conflict and to demean the compromise and conciliation which is fundamental to consensus.

The danger in democracy according to Mouffe is a failure to challenge the hegemonic worldview. It is not enough for the opposition to demand reasonable concessions. They must offer a radical alternative to the dominant political ideology of the moment. Anything less allows space for a new political alternative beyond the scope of their influence. This interpretation offers a philosophical explanation for the emergence of populism. But it is an overstatement to assume that a greater fidelity to socialist or social democratic ideas would have suffocated the political space that allowed populism to emerge. Some theorists have falsely assumed populism emerged out of the concessions of left-wing parties. It is possible that populist ideas were likely to emerge even in the presence of polarization. Indeed, populism is often a consequence of a polarized electorate.

Despite the logic of Carl Schmitt’s assault on liberal democracy, his argument loses its strength in the historical record after World War II. Liberalism and Democracy have been able to coexist. Indeed, democratic pluralism is an impossibility without the foundations of liberalism such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. The agonistic pluralism of Chantal Mouffe relies upon a liberal political environment. Democracy becomes an impossibility without the liberal rights that make political opposition possible. In the final analysis liberalism becomes a key foundation of democracy.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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