Jan-Werner Müller joins the podcast to discuss his new book Democracy Rules. He is a professor of social sciences at Princeton University and the author of the well-known book What is Populism?
It really matters how you set up conflict and how you talk about the issue and above all how you talk about your adversary. That’s where I see the decisive difference between those who tend to invoke the people, the common good and et cetera, in a way that is compatible with democracy and then those who talk in a way that, ultimately, is bound to be dangerous for democracy.
Key Highlights Include
- What does it mean to be undemocratic in a democracy
- Why populism threatens democracy
- Role of conflict in democracy
- What is militant democracy and is it democratic
- Role of the majority and opposition in democracy
Democracy and populism diverge at a single point. It’s like a fork in a road where both traditions depend on a common history, but they split in two. At first it may seem the choice doesn’t matter. You believe that eventually they will both lead to the same destination except they don’t. The choice leads to two different outcomes. Populism uses some of the same language of democracy. It has a similar vocabulary. But as we go farther down its path, the less in common they have with each other.
Jan-Werner Müller is among the most recognizable voices on the subject of populism and democracy. Our conversation touches on some of their most challenging aspects from political leadership to majority rule to militant democracy. This conversation explores some of the ideas at the heart of this podcast. Ideas that give definition to the very meaning of democracy.
Jan is a professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. His book What is Populism? is among the most widely referenced books I have ever come across. Now he has a new book called Democracy Rules. It explores the norms and institutions fundamental for democracy.
Now, Jan and I touch on a lot, but there is always more to say. So, join the conversation at www.democracyparadox.com where you will find a full transcript and an area to leave comments. You can also mention me on Twitter @DemParadox or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Jan-Werner Müller…
Jan-Werner Müller. welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.
Well, Jan, your book touches on so many topics that I myself have spent a lot of time thinking about. So, I’d like to ask a question that comes across my mind a lot and I think it really gets to the heart of your new book, Democracy Rules. So, I’d like to know can leaders govern undemocratically in a democracy?
They can certainly get away with it for quite some time. And why is that? Well, what we’ve seen in the last, let’s say, 10 or 15 years or so is the emergence of a set of strategies where leaders in no way officially disavow democracy. So very different from episodes in the 20th century when it was absolutely out in the open that we were now going to try an alternative system. We going to do bureaucratic authoritarianism, fascism, whatever it might be. So, for quite some time we witnessed an ability by leaders to sort of talk the talk of democracy. The tendency by leaders on the one hand to say, ‘We’re good democrats. In fact, we’re better democrats than some self-declared liberal democrats.’
And yet at the same time to in essence claim that they, and only they, represent what these leaders often referred to as the ‘real people’ or sometimes also the silent majority with the obvious implications that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate. But also, the less obvious implication that some people, especially those who don’t support the leaders politically, don’t truly belong to the people at all. Sometimes people who hear this say, ‘Oh, but you know, it’s just talk.’ But it does lead to what some of our colleagues rightly call trickle-down aggression. So, if you constantly tell people that some don’t belong at all, or even worse that some pose a threat to the polity, eventually it has consequences. And that basically is incompatible with a notion of democracy.
One of the challenges that I have when we talk about leaders governing undemocratically when they’re in a democracy is we can look at Donald Trump, we can look at Bolsonaro, even Erdoğan. The institutions do not necessarily change. They still have a parliament. They still have elections that occurred and they have all the trappings of what is a democracy. The constitution doesn’t necessarily even change. Orbán in Hungary’s an exception, but oftentimes, they maintain the same general constitution. It gives me pause to wonder what a democracy is when the same government can have the same institutional structure yet one be considered democratic and then the other one drift away towards something that’s more authoritarian. What does that say to you about the meaning for what a democracy is?
Well, I would mention two things. One is that we’ve also learned the hard way that even if you don’t change the constitution or basically start to mess with fundamentals, there are many, many other areas where you can make seemingly small changes and some of these changes can even seem innocuous, or sometimes you can even justify them with very good arguments. But then you put the whole together and all of a sudden you realize, ‘Wait a minute. The system has changed.’
One of my colleagues, Kim Scheppele has coined this very nice phrase, the Frankenstate. So, remember, Frankenstein’s monster is made up of normal body parts. It’s not that all elements are themselves monstrous in the novel, but it’s the combination of all these different elements and how they work together and might reinforce each other in certain ways that might sometimes create a completely new situation. This is, I think, something that for a while, critics didn’t fully understand.
So, let’s say in the European context, sort of well-meaning observers of Hungary, Poland, other countries say, ‘Well, we feel that maybe something is going wrong, but we can’t pinpoint it, because we look at this one reform in the election system and, you know, it’s the same as in, let’s say, Denmark or some perfect democracy in Scandinavia. So, it can’t be, bad, you know, it’s part of perfectly well-functioning democracies.’ It took a while to realize that, ‘No. Wait a minute. You got to have a holistic view of what’s going on.’ And then you can still retain a fair number of so to speak normal parts of democratic life.
So, it’s not the case that in the countries I just mentioned you couldn’t blog and say critical things about these leaders. It’s in no way similar to let’s say certain dictatorships in the 20th century, but yet there is a qualitative change that one has to take account of. The second thing I would just briefly add is that obviously constitutions matter and obviously the sort of obvious hardware of democracy such as the electoral system and who counts the votes and so on are very important.
But maybe one of the things that we haven’t always taken enough note of are the institutions that I think more or less ever since the 19th century were meant to make representative democracy as we know it work so, most obviously both the parties and professional news organizations. And if these fall into disrepair, I call it critical infrastructure of democracy in the book, if these fall into disrepair, or if somebody hijacks these institutions, democracy as a whole is going to have a problem even if the constitution doesn’t change, even if let’s say nobody sort of stuffs the ballot boxes on the day of the election.
You mentioned about how context matters so much. It reminds me a lot of the Hungarian constitution when they created their new constitution. Because one of the things that a Fidesz has done is utilize what are called cardinal laws, where it takes a two-thirds vote to be able to make a change. And the previous constitution in Hungary utilized cardinal laws as well and they were designed to make it so that it encouraged no one party to be able to force a decision upon others. It was to encourage compromise and consensus, but because Fidesz has a two-thirds majority already, they’re using cardinal laws, they’re using the ability to reshape the constitution, to lock in their policies. So, that in the future they effectively will have a veto over a number of different changes.
My point is that, like you said, context does matter so much because in one case two-thirds majority asks people to have consensus. In the other case, a two-thirds majority means one party has a veto over any kind of reform or change. It just completely changes the landscape of how we look at things. So, democracy is never one thing or the other. It’s more of an idea in some ways.
I agree. So, on the one hand, it’s again I think confirmation of the point that if you look at some of these rules in the abstract, you know, they might sound very good. But then you realize maybe only too late that they were meant to interact with a particular kind of party system or party landscape. And if that changes radically, then all of a sudden, also the rules might be instrumentalized in ways which are against the spirit of the constitution. Having said that it’s also not exactly an insoluble problem, because you could have rules that say, ‘Look, it’s not just about the nominal majority, but you also need to involve a substantial number of parties because that’s really the point. The point is not actually what exactly is the majority.’
If I may just add one last point, to your observation. So, I think, this is also a good indication of how some of these leaders talk, which is, ‘We gave power back to the people. You know, liberal elitists always took power away and then handed it over to the European Union and so on.’ Some of the critique is not necessarily unjustified, but what has happened since clearly does not amount to giving power back to the people, because as you said, you’ve basically entrenched in preferences beyond your time in office. In a way that makes it extremely difficult for different future majorities to get their way in one form or another.
So, the sort of image that is sometimes presented by these figures that, ‘Oh, but we believe in direct democracy and we constantly ask the people and so on.’ Yes, it’s true that from time to time there’s a kind of sham consultation with pretty rigged sort of questionnaires. But in terms of the basics, does the structure allow different majorities to effect fundamental changes? Clearly that’s not the case.
Now, populism, especially in your account of populism, refers to this idea of a leader saying that they can speak for the people. And in many ways, it references back to an earlier concept of the common good, where government was supposed to put in policies and ideas that affected the people as a whole. That helped everybody in the end. Somewhere along the way, we kind of shifted towards an idea of democracy being about interests and interest groups, but there’s always in the background an idea that government should be trying to create policies that affect the common good, that we shouldn’t be trying to design policies that favor one group over the other, but try to benefit everyone or at least the largest majority that we possibly can.
How is this different from populism? And is it really possible to govern for the common good in pluralistic societies that have so many different demands?
Yeah. So, I’m not going to sing the praises of 1950s style interest group pluralism. As you say, it’s precisely important to see where the differences lie between politicians, who of course still today tend to invoke the common good. I mean, very few people, if anybody, goes around and says, ‘Well, I’m just representing special interests’ or ‘I’m just here for a faction.’ I mean, that’s not how politicians talk, so there’s nothing wrong with an invocation of the common good, nor is there in my view, anything wrong with an invocation of the people as such.
In fact, if you were talking to a political leader and you ask them, ‘What is your understanding of the people, where should we go as a country?’ And they answered, ‘Look, I have no idea, but I’ve got some great ideas about local sewage problems or something.’ I think we would rightly feel that, look, I mean, there’s something missing here. That’s important. It’s not the only thing, but certainly is important. So, all of that I think is perfectly fine and normal.
The difference is between people who talk like this and then what indeed I would call populist, of course, in a way that deviated from the historical inherited meaning of the term in the United States where in my understanding politicians will not just say that they represent the people or aim at the common good, but where, in addition, they’re going to deny that anybody else could possibly have a legitimate understanding of the common good, because everybody else is simply deemed corrupt and to coin a phrase, crooked characters. I mean, it’s one thing in a democracy to say we have differences about policy, even about values. I mean, this is completely normal, ideally, even productive in a democracy to have these sorts of conflicts.
But that’s not really the level at which, especially right-wing populists, are going to argue when they will jump right to the kind of remarks that candidate Trump made in 2016 and then more or less again in 2020 where from the get-go it was about saying the other candidate is a bad corrupt character and that’s all you need to know. So, they make it entirely moral. They make it entirely personal. There’s no real sort of back and forth about the common good, what the country might really need. In addition, they’re going to suggest that not all the people, not all citizens are really the people. And that is, as hinted at earlier, very dangerous for any democracy.
You can have very deep disagreements. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think democracy is about conflict, of course, also about consensus. But the sort of suspicion that conflict is in and of itself indication of a problem or that, you know, if only we weren’t so divided, I think, this sort of sometimes, with all due respect, very sort of kitschy communitarianism puts us on a wrong path in democratic theory. But it really matters how you set up conflict and how you talk about the issue and above all how you talk about your adversary. And that’s where I see the decisive difference between those who tend to invoke the people, he common good and et cetera, in a way that is compatible with democracy. And then those who talk in a way that, ultimately, is bound to be dangerous for democracy.
Jan. you have an interesting quote in your book where you discuss exactly the point you just made. You say, “The conflict is partly about how to define conflicts.” So, today as we’re dealing with the rise of populism, and in many ways, we’re trying to understand what democracy means for us today. You even hinted earlier, you said that I don’t want to get back to the interest group politics of the 1950s. I think there’s a widespread sense that democracy is undergoing a change, some sense of evolution.
The danger of course is that populism, especially the type of populism that you refer to is a perverted sense of democracy. It’s not taking us into a deeper sense of democracy, but in a different direction. But what I’d like to know from you is regarding the conflicts. Is the conflict right now, especially in the United States, but possibly throughout the world, is the conflict today really about different notions of democracy itself?
So, it’s interesting that some of our colleagues, I think, would say that the problem today is precisely that you cannot have a conflict about democracy within a democracy. So, you can talk about all kinds of stuff where you can find compromises and negotiate. But if democracy itself, you know, starts to be up for grabs, we have a problem. I actually don’t agree with that view. I think you can have let’s say contained conflict about what fundamental democratic principles really mean in a particular polity in a way that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t possibly come around to the other side or you couldn’t possibly accept being out voted by a majority.
Again, it’s about how it’s done, but I think it will be a mistake to say, oh, the subject matter in and of itself has to be off limits because then we sort of get into an infinite regress or the stakes become so high. I don’t think this has to happen. Empirically though, one thing that we’ve clearly seen is an increasingly successful strategy by at least a number of actors to essentially redefine conflicts through frames of cultural war. I mean, this hasn’t happened everywhere. But it’s broadly speaking a strategy that can travel. It’s where you can learn from other people of how they do it. And again, it doesn’t mean that this is something that democracy could never accommodate.
Again, it’ll be strange to say, you know, we can only ever deal with economic interest and everything else, identity, ideas, and so on is too dangerous. Democracy that kind of adopts this defeatist attitude, I think, also has a problem. But as you will no longer be surprised to hear, I think, this sort of arch right-wing populist strategy has been cultural and even though some of these figures constantly talk about unifying the people, it, of course, always means unification on their terms. And if you are not going along with that, or if you happen to belong to a minority that’s a Muslim from India that, you know, part of the core symbolic understanding of the real people that the leader puts forward to begin with, you again, get into a situation where democracy itself is likely to be damaged.
Populism has a lot of similarities to fascism, at least in how we talk about it. Karl Loewenstein’s solution to fascism was what he called militant democracy and some imply maybe we should be approaching a more militant form of democracy today to combat populism. Is militant democracy democratic?
So, that’s a very good, which is to say difficult question. So, it’s sometimes said that militant democracy, even though it was basically invented by a European exile in the United States and first put forward with two articles in the APSR or American Political Science Review, possibly the most influential articles ever published in that journal, that nevertheless, this is sort of very European and it doesn’t really exist in the U.S. You have the criminal law, but everything else is sort of basically up for political contestation. And I don’t entirely agree with this view.
Clearly, the parameters are different. There are different understandings of free speech. There are different understandings of the limits to which you might possibly go in terms of banning political parties, something that has happened in a number of European countries. Even in the worst moments of McCarthyism, the Communist Party of the USA was not actually officially banned. So, I’m not denying the differences, but the underlying issue that sometimes democracy has to engage in conduct that prima facie looks undemocratic and that boils down to restricting the rights of individual citizens. So, the right to organize a party, the right to speech, And so on that, of course, we have in the United States as well.
So, I think it’s a long-forgotten episode, but FDR, for instance, basically wanted Congress to look into the question whether Louisiana, more or less still under Huey Long, was really still a kind of democracy or not. And if not, maybe some measures, should be taken. And if one doesn’t have an overly narrow understanding of militant democracy as in, oh, it’s always about banning particular political parties, it seems to me it’s also on the basis of the Republican clause, i.e., you know, we guarantee all states be republics. It’s a form of militant democracy.
And the same you might say for impeachment. That’s also basically a way of saying some actor might’ve proven himself to be such a danger to democracy that he might even have to be permanently be taken out of the political game. I mean, you remember, that this was sort of on the table earlier this year.
The 1965 voting rights act, was that a form of militant democracy?
I think it was, because it essentially is about restricting the rights of a particular set of actors. So, can particular states do something with their local regulations about elections? It’s not that they lost the right entirely, of course. But, as you know, they basically have to go to the federal government first and have it vetted and make sure it’s truly compatible with basic democratic principles. So yes, I would agree with you, that’s a form of militancy. And this, I think, is also an indication that there are sort of shades of gray here.
The critics of this whole approach, of course, have always said, ‘Look, you want to protect democracy, but you might end up doing something which is so undemocratic that you actually ended up destroying democracy yourself in the name of protecting the thing. You’re actually undermining it already. The fascists might never come to power, but if you basically keep banning parties and telling people they can’t engage in political speech and so on, you’re really damaging the very thing that you claim to care about.’ And the criticism is certainly important. And, I think, always has to be on the table when anybody touches the subject, but there are many in-between steps you can take.
And there are many ways in which you can signal to political actors, ‘Look, we’re worried about where you’re going with something with the way that your party looks like with the kind of speeches your leaders give, but we’re not going to immediately jump in and ban you,’ which basically probably would have to happen anyway on the basis of the criminal laws, let’s say somebody, you know, directly incites violence. The crowd, you know, is right there. they go after people then, you know, you might say, ‘Well, there’s no point in militant democracy because that’s already covered by other forms of legislation.’ But there are sort of gray in between areas where I think this might play an important role.
But this brings us back to one of the themes that we’ve had in our conversation which is that it’s very context dependent. So, it will be a mistake in my view to think that, oh, here’s the ideal militant democracy tool kit. Let’s say you’re a new democracy. All you have to do is implement this and then you’re kind of set. I mean, this would obviously be very naive and it’s probably also not something that new democracies would actually be able to agree on, because parties might feel, ‘Look, what if the other guys, you know, in the first election decide that we were actually anti-democrats, even though we’re not.’ It’s far too dangerous. So, in that sense, it’s not something that’s a kind of fail-safe method for protecting democracy.
But my considered view in the end is that, yes, there’s a place for it, but you have to be very sensitive to context. And ideally of course you would never even get close to having to use some of these tools.
One of the things that I found interesting about your book was how you dance through some of the issues in democracy and really kind of contemplate different concepts. For instance, majoritarianism is a theme that you talk a little bit within the book, because populism, I don’t want to say it’s a widespread majority in support of it. You’ve written about that. But it appeals to a sense of majoritarianism. That the majority should be able to make the decisions they’ve won the election. They should be able to do what they want to be able to do.
You have an interesting quote. You write, “While an opposition must have it say, a majority must ultimately get its way.” But does a majority still have an obligation to compromise with the opposition in a democracy? Is that willingness to have some sense of constraint upon itself, is that one of the key differences between populist leadership and more democratic leadership?
So I would say the real constraints are a little bit different. They’re not about always having to compromise. A let’s say losing side also has to be willing to say we really lost and the other side now has the right to govern as they see fit. Maybe we can think of examples where people sort of didn’t end up saying that and didn’t make that concession. But that doesn’t mean that, oh, now the majority can do whatever it wants. So the two constraints I’m thinking of, first of all, the majority has to recognize the legitimacy of an position. And again, this is something that, especially rightwing populists are not really going to do.
They’re going to say, ‘The other side is just, you know, corrupt or they’re all controlled by international elites. You know, we basically don’t really accept their place in the political game.’ And that can also have very concrete consequences. So, when they request information or they want to hold government accountable, they basically try to find ways of avoiding it. The other thing is that, of course, the majority also has to act in such ways that it doesn’t become impossible for losers to become winners again.
If you come to power with, let’s say, a large majority and all of a sudden you have the possibility of reshaping the system to your liking and you then do so in such a way that all the electoral districts are in your favor or media pluralism is disabled in your favor, et cetera, et cetera. That’s obviously also incompatible with democracy. So, it’s a, complicated set of requirements. It’s a bit of a dance. I’m not saying that all these constraints are always going to be super obvious to everybody. But after a while, in some cases, and in some of the countries we touched on earlier, the pattern is becoming clear that it’s not just the majority wants to govern, but a majority wants to perpetuate itself, while of course still saying that we are in favor of democracy and so on.
So again, not declaring authoritarianism openly or anything, but you see where something is going and we can see the distinctions and we can see the differences between different majorities acting in different ways.
You mentioned that democracy requires some opportunity for the opposition to be able to regain power. And I don’t think that’s controversial at all. That’s a pretty standard idea among democratic theorists, but an even more interesting quote in the book is where you’re write, “It’s not just that in a democracy parties lose elections. It’s also that in a real democracy, at least sometimes, powerful interests must lose in elections.” So, there’s a difference between the possibility of losing an election and the reality of truly actually losing the election. Is it necessary for powerful interests to lose before democracy is fully truly realized?
Again, very good, i.e. very difficult questions. This goes back to work by our colleague, Martin Gilens, and others who have basically shown that, yes, even if we don’t have shenanigans along the lines of voter suppression or election subversion or anything of that sort, it’s clear that the preferences of many, many Americans, in fact, clear majorities in some cases, is simply ignored and has no real chance in the system. So, this criterion was to get at that problem that basically there needs to be a sense that you might at least under some circumstances be able to mobilize majorities, such that to put it bluntly, powerful people can really lose something.
Now the danger is, of course, that we should make this into quasi-objective criteria, because democracy is so contingent and so chaotic in so many ways that I think we should be careful to say, ah, you know, I, as the outside observer, you know, have the perfect checklist and unless what I consider to be the major representatives of wall street lost 10 percentage points, I can safely say it absolutely isn’t a democracy. So in that sense, it’s looser than simply claiming that, oh, you know, here’s basically what you can always check on after each election. But in a general sense, yes. I think there needs to be a greater sense that in democracy, something is really at stake.
Of course, there are plenty of democracies around the world where something is at stake and sometimes the results of that are also pretty bad. I think it’s important having the discussion. Otherwise, we simply are too likely to sort of check the box as long as there was no obvious sort of rigging of the election on the day.
So, one of the things I found interesting in your book is, you know, how a lot of the authoritarian regimes or even leaders elected in democracies that then take on authoritarian approaches to governance like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, but we can also look at authoritarian regimes like Vladimir Putin, and we can go on and on and on. You note that a lot of these leaders govern kleptocratically. That this is the new style of authoritarianism. And I’ve heard others say this before and make very convincing points of this. But in democracies, people are actually voting for these people and oftentimes they’re voting for them in multiple elections, reelecting them back into power. Why do voters elect politicians that they know are both autocratic and, oftentimes, even have kleptocratic ambitions?
So, I think there is an important distinction between the initial election when these figures come to power and then, basically, the reelection scenario. So, in the initial one, I think there are very few instances where you could really say people were really aware of what these figures were going to do and that they were going to go down the path of kleptocracy. It’s important that in general quite a number of these figures were quite skillful at hiding parts of their agenda which is not to say that, oh, everybody was, you know, completely manipulated and so on. But, you know, Viktor Orbán didn’t say in 2010 I’m going to have a new constitution or I have some great, you know, also symbolic ideas up my sleeve about a new politics of history and so on and so forth.
So, people didn’t always really have a sense of what they were getting. In some cases, they knew these politicians. Orbán was a self-declared liberal in the nineties. I mean, lots of people had good reasons to worry, but it wasn’t so obvious that it was all going to go down this path. In some other cases, I mean, I’m not justifying it, but I could well imagine that some people in 2016 said, ‘Yeah, Trump has a point. He’s so rich. He can’t be corrupted and I buy that argument’ and then, you know, maybe they thought again further down the line. All I’m saying is I think it’s hard to generate an argument that people are sort of on one level sort of happy to bring these figures to power knowing full well that kleptocracy sort of might be part of the package.
Having said that and now at the risk of contradicting myself, In the next election, there are obvious issues. You know, let’s say once media pluralism has been radically reduced, some of these leaders have sort of done the work of all out polarization. It’s really a different kind of election. So, it’s no longer so easily compared to the initial one. But I think the really tough one to swallow is that maybe, sometimes at that point, people are quite aware of let’s say clientelism or maybe even something that to us outside observers, pretty obviously looks like corruption. And yet, they might be convinced by the argument that this isn’t really corruption or clientelism. It is simply the leader doing something for the real people, i.e., those who supported these leaders.
And the fact that then the leaders and maybe even their families also get some stuff, maybe it’s a bit distasteful, but they’ve done so much for us that, you know, this maybe is still acceptable. It’s really hard to explain otherwise why, for instance, Erdoğan, you know, who came to power as an anti-corruption crusader and who, from my point of view, I think, had a point when he initially said, ‘Look, there’s a kind of cabalistic elite, which ignores parts of the population. I want to give them a voice.’ I mean, all these are not sort of evil, populist claims. That’s normal and acceptable stuff in a democracy, but he ends up as somebody who engages in mass clientelism. There was some significant evidence for corruption as well.
And you would have naively thought, ‘Look, this must be, devastating for anybody who comes to power with a claim to legitimacy on the basis of being the great anti-corruption crusader.’ And clearly in some cases that’s not happening. And yes, some of it might be due to lack of media pluralism, but in some cases, I think it’s also very clear that people sort of know what’s going on. I mean, they’re not all deluded or manipulated or something. So, in that case, it does become more plausible, I can’t prove this to you empirically.
It’s more a hypothesis, but it becomes more plausible to say that people are willing to engage in a kind of trade-off where they basically say, ‘Look, it’s still okay, because they’ve done so much for us and it’s not really, you know, the kind of corruption where,’ I don’t know, international finance, capitalism pays people to do this, that and the other. So, that would be my tentative answer to this indeed tricky question.
I think some of the smaller countries interpret things very differently when contracts are given to people from within their own country, because oftentimes the alternative is to give it to some multinational corporation from the United States, from China or in the case of Hungary, they saw a lot of contracts, government contracts, going to German companies. And some of this, I think, stoked, the anti-EU feelings. They felt that a lot of the wealth was being transferred to these German companies. And so, when they kind of rig the system so that Viktor Orbán’s family or friends end up winning the contracts. I think some of the Hungarian people that support Fidesz look at it and say, ‘Well, that’s not corrupt. It’s going to the Hungarian people. It’s going to companies owned by Hungarians as opposed to companies owned by Americans or Germans or others.’
I think there’s a connection between some of the nationalist feelings and some of the other ideas. And even in a large country, like the United States, I can imagine that if the contracts are going to people that they identify with, they will say, ‘Well, the business isn’t going to these corrupt elites. It’s going to us.’ Even though it’s not literally. You have a great quote in your book where you write, “Involving others in criminality compels their loyalty to the regime.” And I think in some ways these leaders involve others in criminality, even when they’re not getting the gains of that criminality.
Yeah, let me just take slight issue with the point about the German car industry or other German industries. So, I agree that there was very, very strong investment in saying, ‘Look, we are reversing some of these sorts of sellouts to let’s say German, Austrian multinationals, banks, supermarkets, and so on. And this was a little bit like, you know, the early Trump days when you also basically said, ‘Look, I just called the company and I, you know, brought them back to Michigan.’ And so, this can be very effective because A people remember these strong symbolic gestures. B if it’s companies that you really interact with strongly, because they’re already going to the supermarket, all of a sudden you realize, oh, it’s now the locally owned supermarket. So that can be very effective to push the framing that you refer to at the same time.
The reality of course has so often been the opposite. Especially Orbán rolled out the red carpet for German industry, which have the side effect of pleasing a lot of powerful German politicians, Christian Democrats, who basically sustained them in power for a long time. He couldn’t have done what he did in terms of damaging democracy without their de facto consent. So, it’s a bit of a double game, which again, it’s not to say that, oh, everybody is, you know, totally unaware or manipulated and so on. But I think one again maybe has to realize that some of these leaders have become very skillful at sort of finding exactly the sort of right line between these different maps to basically consolidate their rule, which is not to say that these regimes are invincible or nothing can be done.
But my sense is that if in doubt, many of us still sort of tend to underestimate them, because we maybe deep down assume that, you know, everything is going to end like the Soviet Union in 1991, because the big lesson of the 20th century is that foreign authoritarians can’t learn from their own mistakes. They can’t admit mistakes. Democracies, of course, also make mistakes all the time, but we are the only self-correcting system, so we can lean back, fold up our tray table, relax because all the other guys are going to flounder sooner or later. And I think that is way too complacent as a view in 2021.
So, beyond voting, what is the role of citizens in a democracy as they see leaders become more autocratic, as they see leaders become more kleptocratic? What type of responsibilities do citizens have to take back their government and what kind of power do they have?
So, I would distinguish between particular, more individual let’s say, dispositions or thoughts on the one hand, and then more institutionally focused strategies on the other. So individually it will be very important that at least occasionally citizens are willing to recognize that somebody who in one form or another pushes their interests, be it material interests or other interests, nevertheless, at the same time might be damaging democracy. And then to basically prioritize democracy over their own interests. That’s a very idealistic thought, of course. Our colleague, Milan Svolik at Yale, you know, has a lot of evidence showing that well, you know, this doesn’t really happen all that much.
In fact, it’s one of the most promising strategies for populists to polarize the country such that, you know, people who have this sense that something isn’t quite right with my party, my leader, et cetera, feel that, oh, but you know, the other side is so dangerous or illegitimate or unacceptable that I’m going to stick with my guy. So that’s the one side. Which I realize, you know, can sound more like a sort of abstract moral demand. Wouldn’t it be nice if people, you know, put democracy first? But I think, it’s still important to sort of lay this out in the open and make people realize, okay, this is what’s actually happening. It’s your choice. Is it going to go this way or that way?
And then on the institutional side, I think by now we’ve learned at least a couple of things about what to do and what not to do. One is that, of course, you have to unite. I mean, a lot of these leaders have benefited massively from dividing oppositions, less obviously they’ve benefited from playing professionals off against each other. So, they first went, let’s say after journalists. And then many young people said, ‘Well, I’m a professional too, but I’m not a journalist.’ So, we see all things about first, they came for the communists, but I wasn’t a communist and you go down the list, then eventually, of course, they come for you.
At the same time, it’s also a mistake, in my view, if you don’t clearly communicate when some democratic fundamentals are at stake and when they’re not at stake, because if you constantly shout dictatorship and we are the resistance and so on, and you basically blur the distinction between normal opposition work in a still functioning democracy, on the one hand, and sort of real defending democracy stuff on the other. People eventually tune out. They’re going to find that, ‘Look, these guys are always shouting fascism and I don’t really see the arguments in some cases.’ You know, not every change in healthcare policy is the same as fascism, even though there might be very good reasons to argue against it.
So, that’s not a science, that’s a kind of art. But I think it’s important because you want to appeal to people who otherwise might not share all that much by way of policy platforms with you. You do need to sort of convince people that something really is a danger along the lines of imagine we did that to you or your leaders is doing to us. So, at the risk of saying the obvious, this is really difficult political work. And I think in some countries, maybe we’re seeing more of an ability to now engage in that work. But I think in other cases, we see that mistakes that were already made elsewhere are being repeated partly because people are so shocked that let’s say right-wing populists come to power and then they actually do go down the path of authoritarianism de facto without saying so.
So, Jan, your book is titled Democracy Rules and a lot of the ideas appeal to an idea that Levitsky and Ziblatt talk about in How Democracies Die regarding democratic norms. So, when we think about democracy in the end, we think about it as a theory and as a practice, do norms in the end matter more than the actual institutions themselves?
I don’t think you can put one over the other. The point of the book for better or for worse was among other things to say, yes, we need to pay attention to so-called guard, rails and norms are very important, but we also need to understand what these norms are ultimately rooted in, so that we avoid the mistake of sort of accepting certain established practices. For example, a certain type of bipartisanship, you know, old men getting together and supposedly getting stuff done in a way that look very compatible with democracy, but actually involve huge blind spots to certain issues.
So, it was an attempt to say, let’s sort of take a few steps back. Let’s also get maybe out of always being in immediate crisis mode, which obviously it’s important to be in the moment, but it’s also important not to lose sight of where we’re coming from and what the basics from which we need to rely. So, in other words, both with norms and institutions, in hopefully a quiet moment, we can pose the question. Do these institutions really reflect these underlying commitments to freedom and equality or are there problems with that?
And the same about norms, that you can sometimes say, yeah, that is something that’s very important to practice. In other cases, it might turn out, well, it was just a quarrel. It was sort of nice that people engaged in a certain type of civil discourse, but ultimately it wasn’t really that essential to realizing democracy in a more substantial way. And so, the hope is we get away a little bit from too much of a focus on civilized rhetoric, civilized behavior. All of which we all like, I mean, none of us goes out there and says, ‘Hey, let’s make life more difficult by being rude or aggressive or whatever. But still, you know, politics ideally is about these shared principles and that’s sort of the questions to which we should always come back to.
Well, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this. Your book Democracy Rules is really incredible. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on it.
Thank you very much for having me. Appreciate it. Thank you.
Democracy Rules by Jan-Werner Müller
What is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller
“False Flags” from Foreign Affairs by Jan-Werner Müller
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