Mouffe’s Democratic Paradox

Democratic Paradox

The Democracy Paradox differentiates itself from the Democratic Paradox this week. Every week I write a new part as I work through the different components of democratic theory. This is the second part of the first chapter called “Democracy Defined.”

What is Mouffe’s Democratic Paradox?

The Democracy Paradox is not the Democratic Paradox. Many scholars have developed different formulations of the paradox of democracy from Samuel Huntington to Condoleeza Rice. Typically it is used as a rhetorical device rather than a fundamental part of a broader part of a theory of democracy. Chantal Mouffe has developed the only meaningful theory of democracy I have found where a paradox plays a central role in its formulation. 

Mouffe believes pluralism is not a feature of democracy, but its defining characteristic. The importance of this element in her theory is hard to understand without an exploration of Carl Schmitt’s theory of the political where groups are naturally antagonistic towards one another. Mouffe necessarily views democracy as a domesticated form of the political. She embraces conflict and even polarization within democratic politics. But the political is a force of conquest that encourages hegemony. So long as democracy is a form of the political it tends toward a single hegemonic view. But democracy itself demands a diversity of opinions. The paradox arises from the political nature of democracy. The political tendency toward hegemony undermines democratic pluralism. Over time democracy undermines itself. 

Carl Schmitt and the Political

Carl Schmitt is a major influence upon Chantal Mouffe who is routinely referenced in her work. He differentiates between politics and what he describes as the political. Politics is mundane, while “the political is the most intense and extreme antagonism” (The Concept of the Political, 29). The political goes beyond reasonable conflict. Indeed, it goes beyond reason. The political does not simply lead to violence, but may sometimes necessitate it. Schmitt writes, “What always matters is the possibility of the extreme case taking place, the real war, and the decision whether this situation has or has not arrived.” 

Today Schmitt is widely discredited due to his associations with the Nazi Regime. His fate is proof cancel culture is not a phenomenon of the twenty-first century. Mouffe resurrected Schmitt’s ideas as a challenge to her thoughts on democracy. She embraces his idea of the political, but largely rejects his ideas about democracy. It is a credit to Mouffe to recognize it is easier to discredit a person than an idea. Schmitt’s ideas have resurfaced in the political thought of the far right today. Some have taken the time to read his writings like Viktor Orbán, but others like Donald Trump have subconsciously come to the same dangerous conclusions. 

Carl Schmitt has a complicated view of democracy. During the Weimar Period, he did not attack democracy directly. Rather he argued the Western approach to democracy had critical flaws. In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, he describes an “inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity” (Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, 17). Schmitt goes farther to argue, “Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity.”

Consensus and Homogeneity

Consensus is the aim of democratic deliberation for many theorists. Jürgen Habermas describes a public sphere where ideas are contested. Both deliberation and debate allow for democracies to have an epistemic quality where the best ideas gradually become adopted. But democracy also allows for differences between different people. Different cultures may adopt different laws. In this manner, democracy is relativistic. It acknowledges the right answer may differ between different groups and circumstances. 

A long tradition has believed representative governance depends on cultural homogeneity. John Jay says so much in Federalist No. 2, “…Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people – a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs…” Of course, Jay makes this argument to overcome the objection that many believed the different colonies differences were too great. Madison embraces these differences in the Federalist 10 where he argues America’s diverse pluralism offers an antidote to polarization and faction. 

Liberalism and Democracy

Liberalism, on the other hand, is universal. Its precepts apply to all cultures and all situations. Human rights do not receive cultural exemptions. So Schmitt is right to assert liberalism and democracy have a fundamental tension. Democracy does not have a predetermined answer. It allows for the freedom for people to make their own political decisions. Liberalism, however, appeals to fixed principles and ideals. In many ways, liberalism restrains democracy. It limits the possibilities for democratic decisions. 

In this light, liberalism is a limitation upon democracy. Mouffe herself notes, “What cannot be contestable 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” (The Democratic Paradox, 4). But it also demands freedoms necessary for democracy like free speech and assembly. So perhaps liberalism is an amplification of democracy. Like a strong marriage, the partnership makes both parties better versions of themselves. It is important to note the tension between democracy and liberalism is not a paradox. It is the necessity of liberalism for the actualization of democracy that is paradoxical. 

In contrast to Mouffe, Schmitt believes homogeneity is the defining characteristic of democracy. It is not necessarily a cultural or racial homogeneity. The key is for democracy to produce consensus. The sharp divisions in American politics would not reflect democratic sensibilities for Schmitt. On the contrary, he would have seen the divisions in American politics as a consequence of multiculturalism. Liberalism exacerbates political differences so for Schmitt it becomes incompatible with democratic governance. He believed societies have a choice between liberalism and democracy. The two did not belong together. Looking back it helps to recognize the unstable political environment in the Weimar Republic gave his ideas credibility in a Germany looking for answers. 

Can’t Have One Without the Other

So did Schmitt choose liberalism or democracy? In the end, he chose neither. Instead, he embraced the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany. About twenty years ago, Marc Plattner wrote an essay called, “Liberalism and Democracy: Can’t Have One without the Other.” More recently, Sheri Berman has written an essay called, “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism.” Both essays make the case that democratic and liberal reforms develop side by side. The belief that liberalism can develop independent of democracy or democracy can survive independent of liberalism are illusions.

Liberalism and democracy reinforce one as history has shown. Contrary to Schmitt’s analysis, undemocratic liberalism and illiberal democracy create unstable political regimes that either become liberal democracies or more often backslide into some form of authoritarianism. Schmitt’s own personal story is a testament to this fate. Rather than choose between liberalism or democracy, Schmitt found the rejection of one became the rejection of both. 

Chantal Mouffe recognizes the challenge Schmitt finds in democratic pluralism. So long as democracy is political it will invite conflict. Schmitt resolved the conflict within the state through a demand of homogeneity, but Mouffe believes the essence of democracy is its heterogeneity. The focus of political conflict for Mouffe becomes internal or within the state rather than between different states. Her solution is to redefine political conflict as agonistic rather than antagonistic. Schmitt writes in terms of friends and enemies, whereas Mouffe accepts the more liberal conception of competitors that Schmitt widely criticizes. Agonism accepts politics as a fierce competition, but avoids violence or uncompetitive behaviors. Mouffe never explains why political actors embrace agonism over antagonism, but liberalism is the most obvious cause. In this manner, Mouffe embraces liberalism as the ingredient to keep democracy stable. 

Digression on Radical Politics

In many ways, radical democracy embraces a polarization in politics. It embodies more than a radical conception of democracy, but serves as a vehicle for radical ideologies within a democratic framework. Democratic theorists have historically been wary of radical politics because it places an emphasis on outcomes rather than the process. Friedrich Von Hayek may have argued a command economy threatened liberal democracy in The Road to Serfdom, but when push came to shove he embraced the military coup of Pinochet in Chile. In the end, he thought capitalistic economic policies were more important than democracy. On the other hand, communist revolutions have never been democratic. Radical ideologies focus on political outcomes rather than the process. Democracy places the emphasis on the process rather than the outcomes. 

Ayn Rand elevated capitalism from economic policy into moral philosophy. She regularly argued the “ends do not justify the means.” The phrase is a Kantian formulation based on his deontological approach to ethics. Rand argued left-wing relied on government coercion through taxation or regulation to create desired outcomes like a fairer distribution of wealth. She saw coercive government action as unjust so any outcomes no matter how desirable were wrong. The irony is she focused on the outcomes of the political process rather than the means to accomplish them. Consequently, libertarianism has a strong anti-democratic strain. Many libertarians believe a strong leader like Pinochet is preferable to a liberal democracy. These ideologues rarely pause to ask whether they can justify the means to accomplish their policy goals. 

Agonism and the Democratic Paradox

Chantal Mouffe works around this complication through an appeal to our better angels. She believes “accepting that conflict and division are inherent to politics” is a necessary condition for what she describes as agonistic democracy (The Democratic Paradox, 16). But this is a challenge easier said than done. The United States has plenty of “conflict and division” today. Many Republican states have begun to change voting laws to restrict access. They have accepted the political nature of democratic politics but have chosen to change the laws to win elections. 

Polarization raises the stakes in the political process. Some polarization is necessary and beneficial for democratic governance. It gives voters clear decisions in elections and encourages participation. But severe polarization raises the stakes in elections to astronomical heights. Nobody wants to lose elections, but severe polarization brings about the worst fears of the opposition. Moreover, those in power begin to believe they have an outcome to keep their adversaries out of office not simply through effective governance, but through changes in laws that govern elections. 

Mouffe focuses more on her desire to radicalize politics than a reason for people to accept political differences. It’s not enough to simply say politics should be agonistic rather than antagonistic. The democracy paradox turns the responsibility inward to the individual to contribute to the democratic process. People have an obligation to make government work through their votes, participation, and activism. But more importantly, they have an obligation to ensure others become included in the political process. 

Democracy Defined

Democracy does not determine political outcomes. It facilitates them. So while it helps to think of regimes as democratic or authoritarian, the political theorist has to consider the essence of democracy outside of any political system. Democracy is not a collection of institutions. Authoritarian regimes can conduct elections and hold parliaments. The essence of a democracy is its inclusive nature. Autocracy, on the other hand, excludes others from the decision-making process. This definition implies no government has ever been a pure democracy or a pure autocracy. Autocrats have advisors and administrators who wield political power and influence. But autocratic regimes strive to consolidate power in a single person. Democracies work to disseminate power to the broader population. It is easy to critique democracies for the ways they fail to share power. Indeed, democratic regimes have autocratic elements and authoritarian regimes incorporate democratic elements into their government. 

Institutions such as elections, legislatures, and the courts are important. But their precise design is less important than whether they serve as a vehicle for inclusion or exclusion. Most of the time they behave as a vehicle to include some perspectives while they exclude others. The long legacy of racial injustice in the United States accounts for how inclusive institutions worked to exclude racial minorities from the political process. But the process of inclusion is not limited to formal institutions or laws. Inclusive participation is easier to achieve than inclusive governance. Truly democratic governance accounts for all perspectives in the political process so even though some do not get their way, the community listens to their concerns and makes reasonable accommodations and compromises. 


Some readers may confuse my account of the democracy paradox as the same as Mouffe’s democratic paradox. But they have important differences. Moreover, Mouffe does not go far enough to explain the conditions to adopt an agonistic approach to democracy. My view allows for a radical pluralism within society, but embraces compromise and moderation as well. Chantal Mouffe is among the most dynamic scholars of democracy alive today. But sometimes I wonder whether her ideas on democracy are simply a vehicle to justify a more radical politics of the left. 

A Few Sources

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Zizi Papacharissi Dreams of What Comes After Democracy

Michael Hughes on the History of Democracy in Germany

More Episodes from the Podcast

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: