Michael Ignatieff is a historian and former Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He has served as rector and president of Central European University, and is the author, most recently, of On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times. He recently wrote, “The Politics of Enemies” in the Journal of Democracy.
Democracy is the stage in which we mount the battle for power and we fight out our competing visions of what would be good for a society. But at the same time, the most dangerous of all things we try to do in a democracy is argue about what is democratic and what is undemocratic.
- Introduction – 0:40
- What is democracy? 3:15
- Role of Politicians – 18:05
- January 6th – 21:06
- The Politics of Enemies – 23:51
- Consolation After Electoral Losses – 34:55
Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to think about politics especially American politics differently. Like many I had concerns about candidates who questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 elections. Many of those candidates raised concerns they might abuse their power if elected. It was particularly frightening for those candidates who campaigned to directly oversee elections.
Many began to say democracy was on the ballot in this election. It was hard to believe democracy might face American voters and lose. What would that mean? Would democracy come to an end? And what options would that leave for those who championed democracy?
Now I know many of the most outrageous election deniers lost. Even those who won largely underperformed expectations. But some did win. And it’s possible others will win in the future. So, I found I needed to reconcile my faith in democracy with the outcomes of democracy.
I was fortunate enough to talk to Michael Ignatieff the day before the election. He recently wrote an article in the Journal of Democracy called “The Politics of Enemies.” It was the rare article that really spoke to some of the questions I find myself struggling to answer. Michael Ignatieff is a historian and former Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He has served as rector and president of Central European University.
Our conversation asks us to toss aside our assumptions about democracy. It challenges us to think differently about our political adversaries. And it raises important questions about our own politics.
If you like this conversation, there is another ten minutes of bonus content available for paid subscribers on Apple Podcasts or at Patreon. We talk about Michael’s recent book On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times and its unusual lessons for how we approach politics. So, please sign up and support the podcast.
Like always there is a full transcript of this episode at www.democracyparadox.com. Here is my conversation with Michael Ignatieff…
Michael Ignatieff, Welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Nice to be here.
So, your recent article, “The Politics of Enemies,” was, in my opinion, really remarkable. It’s unlike most of the other articles that I come across in the Journal of Democracy. It’s unlike most of the other articles that I read about politics, to be honest. It also speaks to something that I think really needs to be said right now. It talks about issues of polarization, talks about important issues of politics, but in a lot of ways you removed a lot of the abstractions that we use, a lot of the terminologies that we use, to wall ourselves off from politics itself.
One of the lines that I found to be really interesting was where you wrote, “Actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Those who think of democracy as a way of life risk framing partisanship as an abnormal rupture in democratic practice, when in fact partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition.” It’s almost a challenge to people who write and think about democracy. So, Michael, what do we miss when we idealize democracy?
Well, I think we miss this. I think we miss the sense that it’s a competition for power. I’m glad you picked that little sentence out of the whole thing, because in some sense I’m speaking to myself. Look, I have a very idealized, hopeful view of democracy. I think at its best it brings out the best in people. The democratic ideal is the ideal that each counts for one and no one counts for more than one. In other words, at the center of this is this ideal that your vote matters and my vote matters, but my vote doesn’t matter more than yours. Yours doesn’t matter more than mine.
If you’ll allow a little interlude here, to explain where I saw that so vividly. I once was invited to dinner in a restaurant in a hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts where we were supposed to meet Senator Ted Kennedy. This was in 2000. He’d already been in the Senate for 40 years and we were standing at the top of the stairs. I saw him come into the hotel and I watched Teddy Kennedy shake every hand of every busboy, every waiter. They all just crowded around. He understood that he was coming to have dinner with a bunch of fancy professors, but he understood the people who mattered in that hotel were the people who were going to serve him dinner. That’s the democratic ideal right there in one little image.
So, we struggle with this image of what democracy ought to be and then see what it actually is every day. What it actually is is a struggle for power between two or more contending groups. It unleashes all the competitive passions and a lot of what we have to understand about democracy is how democracy, the rules of democracy, the procedures, the hypocrisies of democracy, keep democracy from degenerating into war. The problem right now in the United States is that democracy has degenerated and is something that’s quite close to war. I mean, it’s pretty obvious when the third in line to the presidency of the United States finds her home attacked and her husband bludgeoned with a fractured skull that you’re looking at something that is not unprecedented in American life, but very, very disturbing.
So, I think we all have a sense that one of our basic ideals of democracy is this ideal of equality. But secondly, it’s the best thing we’ve ever devised to keep our conflicts from becoming violent. So, the piece is trying to say over and over again, one of the reasons we care about democracy is not that it eliminates conflict, but it turns violence into politics and it keeps conflict from turning into the war of all against all. You know, one of the dangerous things about the way we think about politics, and you hear this every day when you’re in politics, your people tell you it’s war. Let’s go to the war room. Let’s war game this out. Take no prisoners. All the metaphors start to go here because it is a competition.
So, let’s not be fancy pants about it. Somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose. But then the challenge is to make sure that that battle doesn’t destroy democracy itself. At the moment, it seems to me America is really struggling with that problem.
One of the other lines that really spoke to me was where you wrote, “Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be.” And I’ve come across this idea that there’s a conversation that goes on about what democracy is and what it is that we want it to be throughout history, especially American history, but also throughout world history, to be honest. We’ve seen this happen time and time again. But I’d like to hear from you. What is an example that you think of throughout history where you think that there was a real debate about what democracy is and how it was resolved?
Well, I think that’s what is so important to understand about democracy is that democracy is the stage in which we mount the battle for power and we fight out our competing visions of what would be good for a society. But at the same time and the most dangerous of all things we try to do in a democracy is argue about what is democratic and what is undemocratic. We’ve been having that argument for an extremely long time.
You know, there’s a lot of talk about populism as if there’s been some new idea about democracy that’s suddenly threatening democracy. Well, no. We have been here for a very, very long time. There’s always been… Let’s just go back no further than the American and French revolutions. There was among the founding fathers a very, very strong argument about whether democracy was majority rule or whether it was majority rule balanced by checks and balances to make sure that majority rule didn’t menace freedom. We need to always remember that from the very beginning democracy frightened people precisely because it was majority rule.
If you look at James Madison’s famous article on faction in The Federalist, it says we have to be very, very careful here that we don’t have factions. That is partisan, fanatical people securing majority support for something that crushes the freedom of other people. Therefore, we have to have a constitutional system that makes sure that no faction gets too powerful. One of his defenses, for example, of the rights of states was the idea that power is then diffused throughout the American system, so you don’t have all power concentrated at the top which then reduces the risk that a faction will get control at the top and then damage the freedoms of other people down at the bottom.
So, you see right there at the founding of the American Republic is a huge debate about what democracy is. The constitution of the United States then enacts what they thought it was which was majority rule balanced by checks and balance, an independent judiciary, a Bill of Rights, the whole set of stuff. The hard reality of American democracy is that it’s one of the most counter-majoritarian systems of power in the world according to international comparisons. It’s one of the places where it’s toughest for the majority to rule because the courts have their say, there are two chambers, et cetera. There’s a free press.
All this stuff is designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority which is what Alexis de Tocqueville said worried him in the United States. If you go into the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville visits America. He’s enchanted with American freedom and American equality. He loves it in comparison to his much more class bound France. But he says the problem in America is while you have a constitution that has checks and balances, everybody is so equal in this society that it creates a common tendency of opinion and so everybody thinks the same in a way that makes it very difficult for anybody to dissent. That’s what he meant by the tyranny of the majority and he regarded that as a danger to democracy.
But if you go forward into the 21st century and you look now at the debates there are a lot of people in the Republican Party of the United States who feel deeply that majority rule has been thwarted by unelected elites in the universities, in the regulatory agencies, in the media. They want to have the people rule. That’s actually a vision of democracy. Then you have, on the other side, liberal progressives, and I would align myself on that side, who think democracy is not majority rule. Democracy is majority rule balanced by minority rights and an independent judiciary and a free press. In other words, democracy is a balancing mechanism. It’s not majority rule and majority rule is actually dangerous.
When a Republican on the right-wing listens to that they say, ‘Ah, that’s typical elitist talk. He just wants to push us around and tell us what we should think.’ And I say, ‘No. That’s not the story.’ The story is there has always been a debate about how far majority rule should rule and I’m of the view, and I believe it was the view of Madison and the founders, that democracy is majority ruled balanced by minority rights, a free press, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary. But this debate goes on and on.
If I had to say where there is a challenge to democracy right at the moment in Europe, and I’m speaking to you from Europe, it’s coming from people who are increasingly impatient with the restraints on majority rule. In Victor Orbán’s Hungary, Orbán is saying, ‘Democracy means majority rule so we want to reduce the power of the judiciary. We want to reduce the influence of Brussels because we’re part of the European Union. We want to reduce the influence of the free press. We don’t want universities in our way. We want the people to rule.’
So, with that argument, he’s created the most effective single party authoritarian state in Europe and that seems to me is what’s dangerous about majority rule. He uses majority rule to justify, in fact, the dismantling of democracy. But if we step back, this argument about what democracy is has been running as long as we’ve had democracies and it’ll go on.
At the same time, there’s a lot of layers to this idea between majority rule and minority rights even within the different factions within the United States and even within Hungary. In the United States, the Republican Party is very supportive of the electoral college right now that elected a president who received 2% less than the actual popular vote winner in 2016 to be elected. They were perfectly content with that and were not making a stand for majority rule at that time. Recently, Democrats have been pushing to eliminate the filibuster within the Senate, while Republicans have stood very firm that they support the filibuster as a very important institution within the Senate.
In Hungary another example is where Victor Orbán has been able to manipulate districts, able to do stuff, so that in past elections he’s been able to keep a two-thirds majority, super majority, within the Hungarian Parliament with only 43% of the vote at times. This past election he had 52%, so he has a majority, but at the same time, they’re making changes to the Constitution that lock in policies through the use of cardinal laws, through the use of constitutional amendments that make it so even when a new majority takes over within Hungary that it’s the old majority’s will that is going to be locked in for what they hope to be perpetuity. So, there’s layers to this onion about politics.
Absolutely, and you’re quite right. Your electoral college example is excellent. This is put there for a very good reason. It multiplies the political power and influence of smaller rural states and balances the preponderant weight of California and New York and all these places. So, there is a strong democratic rationale for it. But equally, as you point out, it then means that, you know, California and New York feel pretty effectively disenfranchised and we do have the increasingly ridiculous result of presidents elected with the minority of the popular vote. I just think this is unstable. I’m a Canadian. I’m an observer, not a citizen. It’s not my problem in a way, but as an observer I would think that this is unsustainable in the long term.
But the point you make is an important corrective to what I was saying is that these are arguments not between brute majoritarianism and liberal Democrats In fact, everybody has their pet way of protecting minorities, but it depends which minorities you’re protecting and what consequences of majority rule you think are the most serious. So, this is the debate we’re having. This is why some people are saying democracy is on the ballot. It’s on the ballot in the sense that there are differences between the parties, but there is also a fundamental difference about what democracy is and how democratic debate should or shouldn’t be conducted.
That is in some sense a good thing. It’s good for these things to be out in the open and it’s a phony form of nostalgia to assume, ‘Oh my God, we’ve never had democracy on the ballot before.’ My view is we’ve always had democracy on the ballot. That is the nature of what it is to be a democracy.
So, politicians, whether it’s on the right or the left, sometimes take stands or take viewpoints whether it’s about democracy or whether it’s about specific issues that seem contrary to their past statements, contrary to where they stand today. Politicians change. Politicians evolve. They have different interests at stake that they’re trying to defend. Do you feel like politicians themselves are shaping that political discourse or do you think that politicians are shaped by the public discourse itself?
Every time I go to academic conferences about this, I hear people say, ‘Is it supply side or is it demand side?’ Which is jargon for that kind of issue. I think that the easy answer is it’s a little of both, but I think there’s a dialectic, there’s a dynamic here. You know, if you look at the Trump of 2006 or 20007, he’s basically a New York Democrat. You know, rough and tumble. He’s pro-abortion. He’s secular as the day is long. His personal life is an open secret. He’s a New York guy. He then goes into the electoral maul and discovers that there’s some winning lines. So, he begins to try stuff out and begins to get a reaction back and that then alters his language.
So, the Trump, by the end of the 2016 campaign, is not the Trump at the beginning of the campaign, which means that he is both creating what he then responds to. It’s a complete cycle, which is to say this is a very effective politician. I mean, that’s what politicians do. They hear a noise that other people can’t hear or they hear a fear or a longing or an aspiration. They begin to ventriloquize. They begin to articulate it. You also see it on the other side. The Hillary Clinton who went into fight in Pennsylvania, by the end of that campaign, she was sounding very differently than when she started. She was drinking shots in bars and all that. I’m not saying that’s insincere. I’m not saying it’s insincere in Trump’s case.
It’s a case of that’s what politicians do. They are actors who inhabit roles. But unlike actors, they don’t read from a script. A lot of it is improv in the sense that it’s listening to what lines are working, where the applause lines are coming, where the boo lines are coming. When the audience hears Trump saying this, they think he’s listening to us. He heard us. Which is exactly what’s happened. He is listening. So, this supply demand stuff needs to be understood in much more dialectical terms. I’ve seen this with Victor Orbán. Victor Orbán creates a certain audience and then reacts to the audience he’s created. And because he’s the master of this cycle, he’s been in power for 12 long years.
Your piece touches on what happened on January 6th. It touches on what I consider to be uncomfortable questions that we really have to answer for ourselves. Let me ask you. How did the rioters on January 6th think about themselves and how they were responding to the idea of democracy?
I think that’s the question that has not been asked as clearly as it should be. One of the things I’m saying very directly in the piece is that some of these people, some of them, believe that they were acting in the best traditions of the American Revolution. I think we need to understand the degree to which Sam Adams and Tom Paine are in this story. The radical revolutionaries who say power comes from the people. When the republic is threatened with corruption, the people must rise. You know, America is a child of a revolution. It was a violent revolution and it was a revolution in which democracy legitimized violence. You can’t understand January 6th, 2021, unless you understand the vigorous strength of the American revolutionary tradition.
You can argue to the end of the day that these people were grotesquely, deforming the American revolutionary tradition. But they will claim, ‘I’m sorry, the Republic was in danger. The election was stolen. We had to take extreme actions to prevent the certification of the election.’ You can say they were diluted. You can say whatever you want to say. I don’t believe the election was stolen for a second, but I do believe that revolutionary traditions in America are a powerful source of some of the best things in American life. I mean, the people who marched across the Selma Bridge were marching in the best traditions of the American Revolution saying that tradition belongs to us. But you can’t pick and choose here. That same tradition was also used on January 6th, 2021.
It means it’s one of the biggest challenges all democracies face and this is not just a problem for America. It’s a problem for France. It’s a problem for all countries whose democracy is given birth in revolution The subsequent problem that all democracies have is how you manage that. How you keep the revolutionary tradition from inciting generation after generation to take up arms in defense of democracy. In other words, revolutions create democracy and revolutions can destroy democracy. So, the task of a great democracy is to not bury the revolutionary tradition, but just make sure it doesn’t get out of control.
The article that you wrote is titled, “The Politics of Enemies.” In the article, you do write, “What makes a politics of enemies seductive is that its ruthlessness is so often packaged as a defense of democracy itself.” So, as we talk about defending democracy and we talk about the idea of democracy, you make this link that we also have to think about this idea of the politics of enemies. Can you describe for yourself what the politics of enemies is?
Well, I’d like to make a contrast between two words: enemy and adversary. I think one of the key ideas of democracy is that democracy is a contest between adversaries. It is not a battle to the death between enemies. An adversary is someone who plays by the same rules you do. When you go into a boxing ring, he knows that you put the gloves together, you fight three minutes, you go back to your corner. He’s an adversary. He knows that he can’t hit you below the belt. He knows he can hit you here or there. He can’t hit others. He knows he can’t hold you in the clinch. That’s an adversarial competition. It can be bloody. It can be brutal. It’s not a defense of boxing. It’s just trying to illustrate these are adversaries.
At the end of the match, the adversaries embrace. It’s one of the rather touching aspects of adversarial combat and you see that in baseball. You see it in hockey. You see in football. Adversaries embrace. This is not the case with enemies. An enemy will destroy you if they can. An enemy does not necessarily play by the same rules because an enemy’s goal is to win at all costs. So, the rules are there to be exploited and broken. The language of enemies is properly the language of war. The language of adversaries is properly the language of all competitions that are bound by rules and democracies are competition bound by rules.
The worry that I have about politics is that the language, the metaphors of war, have so invaded our imagination and we think so much is at stake, i.e., democracy is at stake that we think rules shouldn’t apply anymore. We think that because the other side consistently breaks the rules, then we should break the rules too. So, we go in a downward spiral in which instead of having an adversarial competition according to democratic rules, we increasingly have a battle in which there are no rules. For example, there’s no rule about bringing in the personal backstory of your opponent. No rules, whatever now apply. Essentially, there is no rule about truth. Just say anything that’ll stick. What matters is what works, not what’s true.
This stuff is profoundly destructive to democracy itself. Now, I don’t want to sound holier than thou. I’ve run for political office. The passions that are stirred up in a political competition are pretty strong. But part of the discipline of democratic competition is to keep this side and play by the rules and understand that your adversary today could be your ally tomorrow. I mean, when the contest is over in a congressional system like the United States, you have got to go in there and get votes. So, the guy on the other side of the aisle, you want to get him over, especially in highly polarized congresses. But the problem we’ve now got is that when we wage campaigns that are battles of enemies, you then can’t make a congressional system work at all. There’s no fraternization across enemy lines. Fraternization between adversaries is crucial.
Joe Biden belongs to a generation in which you had Republican friends. The Republicans had democratic friends… or not friends, but just people you could sit on the train back to Delaware with. There is a problem that that has disappeared. I think I’m trying to say something about the ways in which democratic systems depend on a culture of what I would call hypocritical civility. It’s hypocritical in the sense you really don’t like the other guys, but the other guys are useful. So, you can’t take it too far because you may need them. A lot of democracies are held together by that code of hypocritical civility. But when that goes, all you have is warfare and there’s no bottom to that and it can end in violence. So, we’ve got partisan deadlock, but we’ve also had the collapse of hypocritical civility and that’s a loss to our democracy.
I think the article also emphasizes that the United States in particular is susceptible to a politics of violence. You actually write, “It is America’s very revolutionary traditions that will continue to provide justifications for the use of violence in the defense of liberty.” So, is the United States, is America particularly vulnerable to the politics of enemies?
I think so and this is a surprise to me. One of the things that’s been said about America all along is that it’s a mighty pluralist nation divided by regions, by classes, by races, but held together by a creed. You know, we hold these truths to be self-evident that All men are created equal, government by the people, for the people, of the people… The scripture of American democracy was always supposed to hold the country together despite its regional, racial, class, and other divisions. I think I’m saying that what has been a surprise to me is that it’s now the creed that is dividing Americans. They disagree about what the creed means. They disagree about what democracy is.
Something like a third of the people elected who are going to be elected in this midterm election believe the election was stolen in 2020. That is, they believe that the system has been so corrupted that it may not be able to be saved. If you seriously believe that, you may then believe that the safest way to save democracy is to just have an authoritarian leader who stays in power for awhile. In other words, something has gone, I think, pretty seriously wrong. In other words, the creed that used to unite Americans now I think divides them. It lays bare all the other things that are dividing regional, racial, college educated, high school educated people that’s become a chasm in the country.
All of that is the job of a democracy to hold together. Democracy’s job is to frankly paper over the cracks of social, economic, and racial divisions and provide just enough common ground for people to do business together. Now I think the Democratic creed is losing its capacity to paper over those cracks.
Now you’ve kind of called out the very far right Republicans that are election deniers and President Joe Biden has also called out those Maga Republicans as a danger to democracy. But by doing so, does Biden and the Democratic Party also risk falling into this trap that you refer to as the politics of enemies?
I think there’s no doubt there’s a danger of that. I think there’s also a danger that there are attitudes and views on the Democratic left that are also not terrific. I don’t want to make things worse by egging us into further demonization of each other. I just think the stubborn fact is that the election was not tampered and the reason we know that is that the elections results in key states were certified by Republican office holders who are then abused by their fellow Republicans for doing their job. That’s, I think, the clincher for me. I don’t deny that there can be all kinds of shenanigans in elections. I don’t assume that it’s always the responsibility of one party.
You know, democracy’s a funny little thing and all kinds of funny things happen to ballots. I understand. But I just do think that as a factual matter, the election wasn’t stolen. I don’t want to demonize those who believe it, but this has become the problem that when the president gets up and says our democracy is in danger because of these views that’s making it more difficult. I mean, I don’t know what else he can do. He’s the president of the United States and it is his responsibility to say, ‘Look we just can’t go on challenging the 2020 election result. It’s divisive for the country.’ But because he’s a Democratic officeholder, every Republican who hears that says, ‘Oh, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’
So, we are in a very, very difficult downward spiral. At the moment, I can’t see my way out of it. Fine words are not going to get us anywhere because the common creed is cracked. There is no common language here. What I worry about is that it will take some episode of violence to break the fever, but January 6th, 2021 should have broken the fever. It didn’t. So, I just don’t know where we are. But the country is full of people who disagree profoundly, but love the country and do not want to have it founder into civil war. I still think that’s a deep enough common understanding. We don’t agree. We don’t like each other. We don’t trust each other. But we do not want to have civil war. We did that.
We know about that. We’ve run all the experiments we need to run about what happens when political violence gets out of control in the country. So, that, I hope, is the common thread that still remains. That allows people to pull back and say, ‘Stop it.’
There’s a particular feature of this in the United States, which is armed militias. I think there’s a very strong case for saying that the Constitution simply does not allow armed militias of this kind. I’m not questioning the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment is fine. But I think there are rules in many state constitutions which outlaw armed militias and I think what we saw in Michigan can be properly outlawed and stopped. I think people should not be training for insurrectionary violence. I think the Army, the National Guard, the police are justly charged by the laws of the United States to prevent that and they should prevent it. If they do prevent that, then I think we can avoid the worst.
Michael, America is holding elections as we speak. Many politicians will be disappointed. Many voters will be disappointed. Some even fear those who are going to be elected. I want to come back to your book, On Consolation, and ask, how should we find consolation after electoral losses?
What a great question. I fought two elections and lost the third, so I know about how you have to seek consolation when you lose. I think that consolation does require you to think, ‘Well, there’s always a next time.’ You know, a lot of people lose three or four elections before they’re successful. So, for office holders who’ve lost, I think the consolation is, ‘I’m going to win next time.’ You go back and you fight. I think it’s terribly important for people not to give up on the Democratic process itself. But the most important thing, I think, is just not to give up on the American experiment.
I just think at some level, the thing that consoles you about America is the greatness of some of its political history. You know, I’m a Canadian. I’m not an American. But the mere thought of Abe Lincoln and FDR is moving to me. I’ve seen some great conservative politicians in the United States and some great liberal ones. Americans should never forget how incredibly inspiring the best of their politics has been to the rest of the world. I’m a kind of example of that. Keep the faith. But keep the faith in your past. Keeping the faith in your past is crucial to any faith you have in the future. The only thing that is consoling is not the future, which is often very frightening. What is consoling is the past. The ground that we’ve created under our feet over the last 200 plus years. Don’t forget that.
Well, thank you so much Michael for taking the time to talk to me. I’ve been really impressed by your recent article, “The Politics of Enemies” in the Journal of Democracy and very much inspired by your book On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times. So, thank you so much for writing those and thank you so much for joining me.
It was a pleasure. Thank you.
“The Politics of Enemies” by Michael Ignatieff in the Journal of Democracy
On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff
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