A reader of this blog recently shared a column from the Washington Post. It warned that the most significant threats to democracy come from the internal inconsistencies of democratic ideology.
At least, I think that is a fair summary of the argument/analysis being put forward.
America’s democratic structure is indeed shuddering — but it is shuddering under its own weight. The threat to democracy isn’t (for now) a usurper system, but democratic ideology itself. At least that’s one way to read a significant new study on democratic attitudes published in the American Political Science Review by Danish academic Suthan Krishnarajan.
Talk of the “defense of democracy” in the United States evokes a conveniently sharp division between citizens who favor democracy and those who don’t. Krishnarajan takes a more subtle approach. He shows that citizens who self-consciously support democracy can simultaneously support undemocratic actions on a large scale when it suits their political interests — and not recognize the contradiction.
The author was disturbed to discover that foolish consistency isn’t the hobgoblin of American minds….
Partisanship, unsurprisingly, tended to distort respondents’ views of what is and isn’t “democratic.”
Democracy, of course, is a process defined by elements such as fair elections and free speech. Liberal or conservative outcomes — more or less immigration, or more or less social spending — can both emerge from the democratic process. In 2020 and 2021, Krishnarajan used a carefully constructed survey with “vignettes” designed to tease out how Americans’ views on democracy interacted with their partisanship. The result: Most people conflate the democratic process with their favored political outcomes.
Respondents “tend to delegitimize opposing views by perceiving them as undemocratic — even when they are not,” Krishnarajan found. “When confronted with a perfectly regular left-wing behavior” — such as implementing Obamacare — “48% of the right-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic,’ ” the paper says. “Conversely, when confronted with regular right-wing behavior” — such as repealing Obamacare — “46% of the left-wing citizens consider it to make the country ‘much less democratic.’ ”
There is considerably more, and if you find this “analysis” (note quotation marks) illuminating, click through and read the entire essay. My own opinion is that it belongs with the very large pile of irrelevancies regularly produced by what Molly Ivins called the “chattering classes”–and that pile contains an embarrassing number of supposedly scholarly publications.
Here’s my (admittedly crabby) complaint.
We Americans misuse and abuse terminology in ways that make it difficult to talk to each other. (There’s a great Facebook meme to the effect that “most people wouldn’t recognize socialism if it deposited a monthly Social Security check in their bank accounts.”) The imprecision of language–both “liberal” and “conservative” mean very different things to those employing the labels–makes “studies” of the sort reported in this column considerably less than useful.
What the respondents to the survey meant by “democracy” undoubtedly varied widely, but most of them probably use the term to mean the structure of America’s governance—including constitutional principles and democratic norms. Technically, of course, democracy simply means majority rule, although in the US, democratic processes are restrained /limited by the anti-majoritarian Bill of Rights.
It’s pretty clear from the examples in the column that the survey respondents didn’t limit their understanding of the term to its dictionary meaning.
The following paragraph is an example:
Norm-breaking behavior, in other words, gets justified within a democratic frame, not outside it. That finding is consistent with how U.S. politics is practiced today: To take one example, presidents of both parties tend to claim the mantle of popular authorization when they sideline Congress and expand executive power.
Is the expanded use of executive power “anti-democratic”? Yes, when it falls outside longstanding constitutional constraints imposed by separation of powers, no when it doesn’t. Yes, when executive power is used to impose a rule with which a majority of Americans disagree; no when it is employed to further the clearly expressed preferences of that majority.
Americans are fighting over competing visions of democratic governance. It’s an epiphany!
So the fight in America right now isn’t between democracy and non-democracy, but between two opposing visions of popular sovereignty. The concept of democracy, broadly agreed upon but fiercely contested in its particulars, never came with fixed guardrails. And the higher the perceived stakes rise, the more tempting the invitation to destroy political norms — and to rationalize their destruction as necessary for democracy.
In other words, it depends–and it’s both simpler and far more complicated than the author of the essay (and presumably, of the study he references) wants to acknowledge. Does the realization that Americans have different ideas about what democracy looks like really merit an anguished disquisition in the Washington Post?
But then, I told you I was crabby…..