Today, the idea of a loyal opposition might seem quaint. Is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a member of the loyal opposition? Do populist leaders like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban respect the loyal opposition? In “Democracy Rules,” Jan-Werner Müller lays out the fundamentals of democracy — liberty, equality and uncertainty — to answer the question of whether democracy is in danger. Unlike many others in the democracy-at-risk school, Müller provides a somewhat reassuring perspective by emphasizing that conflict and uncertainty are part of the dynamism of democracy itself. Drawing on ideas from John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls, Müller reminds us that “one of the most widespread misconceptions about democratic politics today is that somehow division and conflicts are inherently problematic or outright dangerous.” Democracy does not reflect fixed identities; nor do people have fixed preferences or opinions; parties are not permanently wedded to their policy positions. Democratic institutions both enable and constrain conflict, fostering debate and disagreement while preserving liberty and equality.
Müller has written extensively about the threat that populism presents to democracy. In “Democracy Rules” he turns his attention to democracy itself, and the threat posed by the disjuncture between citizens and the critical infrastructure of democracy. The citizenry today is characterized by a double secession — a retreat of both the wealthy and the poor from the democratic sphere. Under conditions of inequality, Müller argues, the wealthy become more invested in democracy as wealth defense, while the poor have little to gain from democratic participation. This produces an oligarchic tendency in democracy, creating incentives for parties to cater only to those with financial and political resources.
What democracy requires is better intermediaries, in the form of political parties and media organizations. Parties and the media provide what Müller calls the critical infrastructure of democracy. They turn grievances into concrete demands; they choose which conflicts to present to society. They “help citizens associate with one another,” even in today’s fragmented world. Müller is hopeful that “what politics has created, politics can undo,” since “polarization and tribalism are not givens of human nature but contingent outcomes of how conflicts are portrayed and fought.”
In order to strengthen the critical infrastructure of democracy, Müller rejects the anti-party sentiment that motivates techno-populist parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy. This party (and others like it) began as an online movement and rejects partisanship. Müller sees this as a rejection of representation and therefore of democracy. Parties should instead allow more internal pluralism, while exercising greater vigilance over potential anti-democratic tendencies within their ranks.
Müller notes the challenges facing the media today, including the collapse of local journalism, the spread of misinformation over online platforms and an over-commitment to objectivity that sets up false equivalencies. He calls for greater diversification of journalistic outlets, public financing of nonprofit media groups and the growth of public journalism. “For instance,” Müller writes, “instead of the typical horse-race coverage of elections . . . practitioners of public journalism would proceed differently: they would engage with citizens first, find out more about the issues that concern them, and then press politicians to engage with precisely these issues.”
Müller suggests that parties and the media need to be more accessible and accountable to the public, lest they become vulnerable to populist takeover. The final part of “Democracy Rules” lays out reforms designed to give people more influence over democratic intermediaries. Individual dollar vouchers for campaigns distributed to all citizens could provide a counterweight to campaign financing by the wealthy.
Citizens also have an important role to play. Müller points favorably to an experiment in Oregon that draws citizens into the process of preparing ballot measures. In operation since 2008, the Citizens’ Initiative Review involves 20 to 25 voters who are chosen by a blind sampling. Their job is to listen “to advocates for and against a particular ballot measure . . . [and] hear out experts,” Müller explains. “Then they put down in simple language what they regard as the major arguments for and against the proposal.” Voters receive in the mail a “document with these arguments — information by ordinary voters for ordinary voters,” and they make their final decisions “with the help of thoughts put down by people ‘just like them.’ ”
Müller also addresses the dangers of hard-right populists who claim unassailable truths based on demonstrable falsehoods. But he doesn’t answer worrying questions about what happens when basic facts lose their potency and the political parties and the media are unable to stand up to serious incursions on democracy.
It has now been more than half a century since the civil rights movement took steps toward making the United States a democracy true to the principles laid out by Müller. But since then, parties and the media have fallen into crisis despite greater levels of political engagement. When parties seem unable to deliver what majorities of citizens need, the uncertainty inherent to democracy can quickly develop into cynicism. Just as a joke about the loyal opposition turned into a tenet of democracy, the idea that people can stand up for democracy has become core to our beliefs. The worry, however, is that today, it might ring more like a joke.
By Jan-Werner Müller
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
236 pp. $27