Carl Schmitt – The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy

My generation has faced the Great Recession and now, a global pandemic, in our lifetime. I remember watching the visuals of the World Trade Center’s destruction on 9/11. Two presidents have been impeached and a presidential election was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. My generation has endured both economic and political crises. And other people around the world have faced greater challenges during these same years. For example, Darfur, Bosnia, and Rwanda are places with recent memories of genocide and war.

So, I can understand how an intellectual crisis might feel a bit shallow. The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy was written between two great wars which encompassed all of Europe and a great part of the world. It predates the economic crisis known as the Great Depression. Amidst these historical calamities, it helps to begin with a reflection on the meaning of crisis. I define a crisis is a problem without a solution. A crisis is managed, but never entirely solved. Schmitt argues parliamentary democracy faces a crisis. It is a problem without a solution.

The Great War was a war to end all wars. But it was also a war to make the world safe for democracy. And democracies did emerge out of the chaos of the war. The Weimar Republic brought democratic institutions to Germany for the first time. Indeed, many democracies throughout Europe flourished during this period. But many were fragile and collapsed before the second World War. Schmitt wrote this short work in 1923. Italy’s democracy had already begun its descent into Fascist Dictatorship as Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister in 1922. Democracy had spread widely throughout the West but there was great uncertainty in the strength of its institutions and hesitations from many in its ability to meet the challenges of governance.

Schmitt recognized a transformation in the political institutions of his time. Parliaments had become synonymous with democracy because they offered a channel for representation through elections. But Schmitt recognized parliament was never imagined as a democratic institution. It was designed as a deliberative body. Richard Thoma notes “that Schmitt discovers the “intellectual center” of modern parliamentarism in this ideology, he reaches the conclusion that parliamentarism has lost its historical-intellectual basis.” Advocates of direct democracy recognize the limitations of representative bodies. These institutions were designed for deliberation, but mass media had brought about deliberation among the public. Parliamentary debate had become redundant. Even today, politicians make speeches to empty chambers not for their fellow members but for the Congressional Record and the hope of an appearance on television.

It was “the circumstances of modern mass democracy” which had brought about “the crisis of the parliamentary system and of parliamentary institutions” according to Schmitt. Parliamentary democracy imagined a process of thoughtful deliberation amidst the pressures of mass mobilization. Schmitt felt the epistemic character of parliament had been lost through democracy. He writes, “it is no longer a question of persuading one’s opponent of the truth or justice of an opinion but rather of winning a majority in order to govern with it.”

Chantal Mouffe uses Schmitt’s critique of liberal democracy as the genesis of her idea of The Democratic Paradox. But I do not believe this was quite as important to Schmitt as it became to Mouffe. Schmitt does write about “the inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity” as Mouffe emphasizes. But Mouffe meditates on this notion because liberalism and democracy are important to her. I sense Schmitt cared less about liberalism than he did about democracy. He accepts democracy as an inevitable force of modern politics but is willing to allow liberal ideas and principles to disappear. His later political career gives justification to how little he cared about the ideas of liberalism.

But Schmitt has a peculiar notion of democracy based in Rousseau rather than the liberal tradition. Indeed, this is largely why he sees a natural incompatibility between liberalism and democracy. Mouffe recognizes this key difference in Schmitt, “In his view, when we speak of equality, we need to distinguish between two very different ideas: the liberal one and the democratic one.” Schmitt believes democracy requires a sense of conformity. In this sense, he accepts the Nietzschean critique, but rather than revolt against democracy, he embraces it. Schmitt believes, “Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.” Mouffe remarks that this has a chilling effect on those who understand Schmitt’s later involvement in Nazi politics. But the very idea is peculiar because it brings about some bizarre conclusions such as “Bolshevism and Fascism by contrast are, like all dictatorships, certainly antiliberal but not necessarily antidemocratic.”

Schmitt reimagines democracy as a sort of homogeneity where people reach a general will. But this phenomenon demands a sense of conformity among the people. Hence, “democracy can only be introduced for a people who really think democratically.” Democracy becomes an idea for Schmitt rather than a political regime. It becomes a state of mind in a way only philosophers of the Hegelian tradition are capable of truly imagining. His emphasis on conformity within a democracy recalls the recent work of Jennie Ikuta who focuses on the conflict between individualism and democracy with quite different conclusions and insights. Schmitt believes the individual must submit to the democratic mood. A people must think democratically to have a democracy, yet this emphasis on intellectual homogeneity leads people to regimes which do not resemble democracy.

There is a tension in every democracy between the majority and the demands of clearly defined minority voices. Representation intends to give voice to different heterogenous groups. Representative assemblies are designed to offer inclusion to different perspectives. There is an implicit value in having a seat at the table. It helps when ideas or causes have a champion. But presidentialism centralizes the will of the people into a single person. Parliamentary democracy does not entirely escape this phenomenon because the prime minister often serves an executive role in the government. The American President Andrew Jackson gave rise to an early form of American populism when he claimed a different form of legitimacy from Congress. His legitimacy came directly from the people. He was the inheritor of a Schmittian sort of homogenous will of the people with greater moral claims to authority than the heterogenous nature of Congress.

Carl Schmitt deserves credit for recognition of a new claim to legitimacy for dictatorship in the twentieth century. Indeed, this claim has its roots in Napoleon or even Cromwell. Monarchs have a traditional claim to authority through inheritance. Political institutions were designed to eliminate (or at least reduce) competition over authority. Napoleon reimagined his claim to political legitimacy as his ability to reflect the will of the French people. But it was not a democratic claim to legitimacy because the French were not involved in the process of governance. But modern dictatorship claims their participation is superfluous because the leader reflects their will a priori. Populism shares many characteristics in this intellectual tradition. Perhaps a homogenous people are best represented in a single charismatic leader, but this idea devolves into myth. Every collection of people has differences. Heterogeneity is endemic to the human condition.

Few scholars want to admit they have read Carl Schmitt. It almost requires explanation because of his political career. His ideas are not favorable to democracy, so his works are not fashionable. Indeed, his definition gives justification to autocrats and authoritarians in the name of democracy. But his importance is not relegated to those who cite his work. He taps into a sort of zeitgeist which many implicitly embrace in their politics. Many politicians have had a political vision which reflected Carl Schmitt’s ideas without any recognition of his name or writings. This is why it becomes important for scholars of democracy to study him. It becomes easier to recognize the fallacies and pitfalls in the political philosophies of others. Carl Schmitt names many crises and contradictions in democracy because he has corrupted its definition into something utterly unrecognizable for those who admire democracy. His sophisms lead him to confuse dictatorship with democracy because he fails to recognize their essential difference. Schmitt believes “a democracy… can exclude one part of those governed without ceasing to be a democracy.” Indeed, he believes democracy may require exclusion to reinforce its homogenous character. But exclusion is the essence of authoritarianism. Democracy is an inclusive means of politics. Over time people have found ways to become more democratic, but it has always been through innovations which fostered inclusion. Efforts to exclude others in the name of democracy are authoritarian and inevitably decay into dictatorship and autocracy.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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