“Democracy Rules”, a recently published book by Jan-Werner Müller, Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University, is another contribution to the “democratic crisis” genre:
They do not all look the same; plenty of differences are obvious. But group them together and they clearly make up one political family: Orbán, Erdogan, Kaczynski, Modi, undoubtedly ex-president Trump, perhaps Netanyahu, but Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for sure. It is imperative to understand what is often described as a global trend in authoritarianism.
According to a review of the book in Financial Times, Müller is concerned about “performance legitimacy”:
As exemplified by China, that is the undemocratic bargain in which illiberal, one-party control is put up with in return for broader prosperity and rising wellbeing. Its appeal stirs fears that there are other attractive norms on offer and that history may not be cheering liberal democracy on.
Müller’s […] looks hard at how liberal democracy is going wrong in its historic core, Europe and the US. To judge that rightly, he sensibly insists, we need to be clear about what is valuable in liberal democracy and how well we should reasonably expect it to work.
If the review is to be believed, Müller thinks that the troubles of the Western system are due to failings of the “critical infrastructure” of democracy which is made of parties and media that criticises and mediates. Müller sticks to the beaten path by focusing his attention on campaign finance and social media:
How these vital organs are failing forms the core of the book. Key examples include the ease of forming but the difficulty of financing and sustaining new small parties. These can break the smothering effect of big party alternation and answer the cry that voters are not heard. For the press’s part, social media spreads unchecked, unedited content. The collapse of local papers robs people of a watching eye on government action that touches them most directly on matters they know most about.
He also offers rather well known remedies:
Having surveyed such flaws, Müller assesses recent academic work on how government might be made more “accessible, autonomous and assessable”. Ideas canvassed include universal vouchers for making campaign donations, picking certain officeholders by lot and advisory citizens’ assemblies, as tried with some success nationally in France and Ireland.
The review notes that economic disparities are mentioned as a problem, but are somehow not addresssed in the proposed remedies. Presumably those will be taken care of when the “democratic infrastructure” starts to function again?
Sortition – in a vaguely specified form, but clearly not as an independent center of political power – has become, like campaign finance reform, its seems, one of the standard remedies that are to be offered to those among the elite who are worried about the stability of the Western system.
For those who are more interested in policy outcomes than in procedural tweaking it seems that the choice is rather stark: elections or “broader prosperity and rising wellbeing”? Choose one.