William A. Galston, Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018)
The electoral defeat of Donald J. Trump may have raised hopes that the populist momentum in many Western liberal democracies is subsiding. William A. Galston's book, which was republished with a new preface just before the election, cautions us to not get our hopes up too quickly. By fruitfully combining theoretical insights and evidence from empirical and historical sources, Galston highlights liberal democracies’ contemporary weaknesses. He follows this up by offering a battle plan for those that seek to guide Western societies back onto a path of prosperity and to push back against the ongoing populist challenge.
As a starting point, Galston leans on the “crisis of democracy” theme. He provides empirical evidence to support the claim that democracies are in decline around the globe and further provides several compelling explanations for this development (chap. 1). Among them are economic effects such as highly imbalanced growth (15), social effects such as mass immigration (15) and the cultural divide between cities and rural areas (16), and political effects resulting from a persistent democratic gridlock in Western societies after the fall of the Berlin Wall (16). The result is an increasing demand for strong political leaders. Populists, Galston argues, have emerged to meet that demand (11). He continues by establishing four vital aspects of functioning liberal democracies (chap. 2): the republican principle (19), democracy (24), constitutionalism (26), and liberalism (27) as well as liberal democracies’ commitment to the market economy (30). This system is now challenged by populism. In line with the predominant conceptualization, Galston defines populism as a distinct set of claims that build on the apparent conflict between a homogeneous virtuous people and a corrupt elite (chap. 3). Since populists reject checks and balances as well as a pluralist understanding of democracy, populism and liberal democracies are fundamentally incompatible (39).
Galston proceeds by laying out a historical analysis of the rise of populist parties in Europe focusing on Hungary, Poland, and France (chap. 4). His inquiry leads to the conclusion that populist voters share a discontent with current economic developments, a desire to defend the Western culture against Islam, a general aversion to immigration, and deep skepticism toward EU bureaucrats. Given his analysis, Galston claims the cure to populism in Europe cannot be purely transnational but must instead include a decent (i.e., pluralist) understanding of nationalism (63). He then goes on to examine the origin of populist developments in the United States (chap. 5). Among these are recent transformations such as the economic divide between cities and rural areas and the stagnation in low skill labor's wages (68), which, combined with the emerging pressure from immigration and international trade, makes some citizens feel left behind (71). Galston further claims that political polarization is at an all-time high at a congressional level, rendering the government itself ineffective (72). Populist leaders can appeal to the electorate since they promise to break some rules to “set things right” (74). Although he concludes the part by observing that the American institutions lived up to the challenge Trump posed toward liberal democracy, Galston still insists that populism substantiates the claim that we cannot take liberal democracy for granted (82).
In the last part, Galston outlines a vast number of political actions that can be taken to mitigate the populist threat to democracy in the US. He provides a plethora of ideas for accelerating economic growth and distributing the resulting gains more fairly (chap. 6). Further, he argues in favor of targeting full employment (87), increasing wages via policy (89), raising a capital gains tax (89), and distributing broadband internet to rural areas (90). Also, aspects like boosting population growth via state-financed childcare (92) and copying the Canadian immigration model (96) are high on his list. In addition, he recommends various political reforms, ranging from adjusting the federal budget procedures to avoid government shutdowns (100) to the relocation of decision-making power to the local level (97). To make this possible, Galston hopes for a cultural shift in the American debate that allows the citizens to overcome deep polarization and then punish the officials most responsible for gridlock (101).
Yet, he also points out that this shift will require good democratic leadership (chap. 7). Strong democratic leaders, Galston claims, are not a paradox if their authority solely rests on a mandate by the people (109). He reflects on the actions of exceptional American leaders who managed to guide the nation through difficult times via skillful persuasion and a strong sense for when to act. Galston further points out that democratic leadership is apparently compatible with democratic principles but at odds with democratic citizens’ inherent aversion toward hierarchies. Going beyond this inherent friction point, which can also be found in populism's anti-elitist sentiment, he closes his book by discussing some further indelible yet manageable shortcomings of liberal democracy (chap. 8). Despite the flaws he lists, Galston points out that the biggest strength of liberal democracy is its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and requirements (136) and that this strength must be drawn on once more to meet the populist challenge.
Overall, Galston contemplates that liberal democracy's survival mainly hinges on its ability to produce substantial economic growth and to combine it with an adequate redistribution scheme. To implement the required policies, America apparently needs a shift in political culture that can be brought about by exceptional democratic leaders. In the way Galston lays out his plan, one cannot shake off the impression that he sees the salvation for twenty-first century liberal democracies in reproducing those economic characteristics that transpired in the “golden age of growth” from 1950 to 1970 (Piketty 2013: 98). While it is worthwhile to draw policy inspiration from positive examples of the past, Galston should have addressed some of the additional complexities of our time to make his policy prescriptions truly instructive. Take only climate change and increased global dependencies as examples. He does not even entertain the option that ecological factors may limit the nature and amount of attainable economic growth today, although this possibility is stressed by various scholars (see, e.g., Nordhaus 2018). Would this mean that liberal democracy is doomed? It is further questionable whether Galston's policy suggestions even stand a chance in the US without fundamental institutional reform. How would incorruptible democratic leaders willing to implement Galston's policy suggestions even come to power in a state that is structurally more responsive to the interests of the rich than to those of the poor (see, e.g., Schäfer and Schwander 2019)? Galston's pessimistic view on the capacity of US institutions to reform themselves (96–101), and his lack of innovative institutional propositions, leave me with doubts whether the outlined battle plan to save liberal democracy has any realistic chance of succeeding.
Leaving these concerns aside, Anti-Pluralism clearly offers stimulating insights for anyone interested in the concept of democratic leadership and for those that seek a short, grounded introduction to the complex problem of populism in the West.
Nordhaus, William. 2018. “Projections and Uncertainties about Climate Change in an Era of Minimal Climate Policies.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 10 (3): 333–360. https://doi.org/10.1257/pol.20170046.
Schäfer, Armin, and Hanna Schwander. 2019. “‘Don't Play If You Can't Win’: Does Economic Inequality Undermine Political Equality?” European Political Science Review 11 (3): 395–413. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1755773919000201.
Gergana Dimova, Democracy Beyond Elections: Government Accountability in the Media Age (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
Gergana Dimova's book is a study of media's role in the context of transformations of representative democracy and the multiplication of “forums,” that is, public, political, and judicial spaces used for debates about governments’ accountability. Based on a detailed and exhaustive review of democracy theories going from some fundamental authors (e.g., Jean-Jacques Rousseau) up to current democracy analysts and social theorists (e.g., Robert Putnam, Pierre Rosanvallon, Ulrich Beck), Dimova particularly asks what role media play in the public's capacities to check on their governments’ actions in this context. Her study focuses on three national cases, namely Germany, Bulgaria, and Russia. Based on these three examples, Dimova demonstrates the centrality and the complexity of governments’ accountability in current representative democracies. While these three examples vary regarding the level of control that the public has on their governments—higher control in Germany, relatively low control in Bulgaria, and very limited control in Russia—they also present similar features, which she discusses to illustrate her statements.
Central to Dimova's analysis is the notion of accountability and the hypothesis that since the end of the twentieth century, governments’ functioning and the public's political expectations have decentralized, ending up to the multiplication and diversification of “forums” aiming at checking on governments’ accountability. In this context, representatives must not only gain election but also demonstrate accountability when they are in place, in terms of their capacities to govern, their morality, and their ability to support the public in the complex, diverse, and unequal issues they experience. These changes transform our democracies, and particularly relations between governmental actors—mostly the parliament and the presidents or first ministers—and the public. Dimova focuses on three main dimensions of this new context. First, she underlines the proliferation of nongovernmental actors who contribute to governments’ decentralization trend. This results from structural transformations such as the raise of supranational political actors’ empowerment interacting in their own “forums” (e.g., the European Parliament) with which national governments must count; the fragmentation of traditional political parties that created “forums” accessible to a larger scope of political actors; and new ways to “do governmental politics,” particularly new public management trends that give nongovernmental actors the own “forums” (e.g., audit companies, think tanks, rating standard agencies) aimed at assessing governmental actors’ decisions. Dimova also underlines the role of prosecutors who can use judiciary forums to sanction governments regarding their accountability (and here, she points to the importance that these prosecutors are politically independent, as allegations provide more power to the public only when allegations can end up with sanctioning governments). In this context, accountability supply diversifies and includes not only elected representatives but a range of other governmental and nongovernmental actors, with their own spaces of debates and action.
Second, Dimova focues on not only accountability supply changes but also the public demand for governments’ accountability. Structural trends such as the globalization of capitalism, social and familial networks, and culture and values (cosmopolitanism (Beck 2012)) result in decentralizing and diversifying public's demand toward their political representatives. In this context, the public expects elected representative to address social, political, and economic issues that are more complex and include groups and social situations that used to be ignored (we can think of gender or race inequalities, for instance). While some authors see this as leading to the incapacity of current representative democracies to answer the public's needs—the “crisis of democracies”— Dimova rather sees here the transformations of representative democracies and their adaptation to the globalization of social and political issues and values.
In this context, media (i.e., traditional newspapers and new technologies of communication) play a crucial role and is the third major dimension of the study. In global and complex societies, they facilitate public, elected representatives and other extra-governmental actors’ capacity to interact, including regarding governments’ accountability issues. Dimova shows that these media often serve as a space where allegations towards governments’ actions are made public. This doesn't mean those who publish in the media (e.g., journalists) are themselves authors of these allegations; they rather provide other authors with a place to publicly formulate accusations. However—and Dimova presents this as a central tension for democracies at the Media Age—the role of the media is ambiguous. They can serve as platforms that governmental actors can use to their own purposes, to try to control political debates, including regarding governments’ accountability. (The case of Russia is an illustration of this trend in the book, with a president who tries to control the media and mostly uses them for his personal interest, to value himself and his government, and personally attack his opponents.) And so, in predominantly totalitarian—although democratic—regimes, elected representative can use media a tool for to manipulate the public. At the same time, governments can use medias to explain their actions and confront allegations—which the author shows to be typically the case in German government politics, where media serves to include the public into political debates.
In other words, media can also serve to make public the debates that take place in multiple “forums” and facilitate interactions between the public and politicians, typically in preelection contexts. According to the author, such debates can help the public not only express their ideas but also elaborate them. This conception of the role forums can play in democracy interestingly reflects Hannah Arendt's (1951) theories about democracy and totalitarianism—although Arendt is not mentioned in the book. Furthermore, because medias spread at the global level, these debates can made public across national borders (e.g., the author mentions debates that related to the EU elections, and we can also think of current conversations regarding governments’ abilities to address the COVID-19 pandemic).
Finally, Democracy Beyond Elections offers a detailed reflection about transformations of our democracies in the Media Age, based on a solid literature review, structured in three main sections: current knowledge and reflections about new supply and demands for governments’ accountability; a study of the German, Russian and Bulgarian cases; and a discussion on how these new trends threaten or transform democracies. In her conclusions, Dimova emphasizes the democratization of the access to political debate in the Media Age, and the globalization of democratic systems, but also their complexification and the risk that governments or other “forums” use the media for manipulation purposes. We might add to these considerations that while the media can serve to include a larger public into political debates and governments’ accountability controls, those who can access and have skills to use such media remain a selective part of the population (Roger 2016). As well, to be sure, globalization shapes people's culture around the world. But at the same time, cosmopolitanism remains an elected global culture and inequalities such as those of class, race, and gender still shape people's capacities to participate to social and political conversations and decisions, and certainly to governments’ accountability check.
Beck, Ulrich, and Grande Edgar. 2012. “Cosmopolitanism and Cosmopolitanization.” The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Globalization. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470670590.wbeog113.
Rogers, Sylvia E. 2016. “Bridging the 21st Century Digital Divide.” TechTrends 60: 197–199. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-016-0057-0.
David Stasavage, The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020)
David Stasavage's argument that early democracy declined only to rise again in the late Middle Ages may be treated as a development of his prior, shorter book for the Princeton Economic History of the Western World series in which he argued for the significance of representative assemblies in the emergence of a system of public credit. Whereas States of Credit (2011) was limited to Western European city-states, The Decline and Rise of Democracy expands and extends the scope of Stasavage's argument. The title of the book has a touch of paradox, but only a touch, since the referent of democracy is double and time-bound—elaborated, it would read “The Decline of Early Democracy and Rise of Modern Democracy” (see 4, 7, 258–259). The book is divided into three roughly equal parts of one hundred pages, titled “Early Democracy,” “The Divergence,” and “Modern Democracy,” each comprised of four chapters, complete with an extensive scholarly apparatus of endnotes and bibliography. Democracy is defined as a mixed constitution (8, 24) founded on “the idea of constraining rulers to obtain consent from their people” (102). It comes in two variants: the direct form Stasavage calls early democracy, which boasted constant if restricted political participation, and the indirect, representative government without mandates, dubbed modern democracy, with broad if episodic political participation.
The author sets out to argue for two, connected hypotheses: (1) democracy is, historically speaking, a natural mode of political development for human beings; and (2) the current distribution of democratic and autocratic regimes across the globe is explained by the deep history of the respective regions. Specifically, autocracies result where the state or the bureaucracy preceded democracy, whereas wherever rulers had to seek consent for their coercive and extractive purposes, democracies developed. If (1) and (2) are true, Stasavage infers, then we should reject the view that democracy was invented in the West and hold instead that democracy is natural to human beings; this could soothe us “in our current age of democratic anxiety” (xi).
It is Europe's lack of science and civilization that explains the political divergence between it and China or the Middle East (13; this is one of several ironies peppering Stasavage's history, see also 11, 18, 44, 46, 84, 217, 305). The deep history of early democracy and early autocracy shows that China is “simply an alternative route for governance and a very stable one” (26); in the Middle East, early democracy “died out under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates” (166) because rulers inherited a state bureaucracy, allowing them to pursue the autocratic alternative. Autocrats rule and dominate a population through “elements of civilization” such as writing, geometry, and intensive agriculture (9–10). By contrast, “Europe's backwardness” (4) in terms of science and civilization underwrote its democratic present and future. Europe and its progeny, the United States, are different to China and the Middle East, then, because “by the time [states developed strong bureaucracies] democratic practices had become very firmly anchored, and they had also been scaled up to operate in large polities” (12).
The language of “rise” and “fall” refers to the temporal theory of sequencing that Stasavage employs in his explanation, treating historical moments as critical junctures that create path dependencies and/or lasting legacies. For example, the US Constitution of 1787 “would complete the transition” (243) of that country from the early democracy of the colonial assemblies in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland (228–233) to its modern variant. According to the theory, in places where bureaucracy came first, autocracy followed; where democratic practices came first, bureaucracies could be run by rulers and ruled jointly. To the danger that a strong state can cause a democracy to slide into autocracy, “history [responds] … that what matters above all here is how political development is sequenced” (27). The theory of sequencing permits Stasavage to infer there is reason “not to fear, despite indications, for the future of democracy in the United States and Western Europe” (305). This narrative redoubles the hallowed opinion that Anglo-Americans are indeed exceptional; from Stasavage's talk of historical “peculiarities” (17, 208) and “difference” (197, 307) exceptionalism is easy to infer—in one instance, “exceptional” and “different” are synonymous (206). To be sure, sequencing is not predetermination, and in Stasavage's capable hands it does not turn teleological. The author grants a full-blooded role to contingency in his narrative: had Muslims conquered the Middle East before the Sasanians built a bureaucracy in Iraq, the “subsequent history of democracy in the Middle East might have been very different” (16); similarly, had William of Orange and his supporters failed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, representative democracy without mandates might have never taken root in Britain (212). Nonetheless, an explanation that cedes such “a large role” (16) to contingency may compound the view that modern democracy is an Anglo-American privilege. For it seems that the Middle East simply cannot be democratic in the manner of England and the United States: the “peculiarities of Anglo-American history provide much of the explanation” for the characteristics Stasavage attributes to modern democracy (17)—the “Anglo-Saxon Exception” (113) is just that. We may infer that, like the protesters at Tahir Square in 2011, today's democratic activists in Hong Kong are playing a fool's game, for China's political development “has its own logic and may well stay that way” (307). Deep history can remain deep and bequeath legacies from which it seems impossible to escape.
One of Stasavage's major claims is that “we will learn that the story of democracy has not only been one of great thinkers writing great books” (xii). This may disabuse anyone who thinks the rediscovery of Aristotle led to city republics (as Stasavage titles his graph at 122). It will also surprise political theorists who know full well that the voices we hear in the sources are overwhelmingly antidemocratic—Aristotle included. It is by way of response to this fact that English-language scholarship in the past 30 or so years has dedicated itself to motivating a democratic theory from the extant texts (see Farrar 1988; Frank 2005; Kasimis 2018). Stasavage's claim about the story of democracy also poses some difficulty with respect to what he categorizes as “European,” namely, the very same republics and city-states that identified with these traditions. The author excludes from this category the Byzantines, a multiethnic people who identified as Roman, no less inheritors of the once-unified Roman Empire than their counterparts in the West (Kaldellis 2019). If the Byzantines are Europeans who belong on the bureaucratic path of political development during the millennium-long history of their empire (105, 174–175), then the deep history of Europe may contain more multitudes than the book allows.
The Decline and Rise of Democracy succeeds in talking to scholars across disciplines, its author's wide-ranging curiosity honed to make it an accessible read. It should prove useful for anyone who wants a bird's eye view, across time and space, of the development of democracy and autocracy as Stasavage defines these regimes. Yet, one cannot shake off the impression that the argument of the book is informed by the author's unexamined conviction that “modern democracy is an ongoing experiment” (296). Consistent with other flashpoints in US history—not least a civil war that Stasavage bypasses—the insurrection of 6 January 2021 in Washington, DC is par for the course in the checkered history of modern democracy, and a sobering reminder that to conceptualize a regime as an experiment is to acknowledge the likelihood that it may fail.
Farrar, Cynthia. 1988. The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The Invention of Politics in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stasavage, David. 2011. States of Credit: Size, Power, and the Development of European Polities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
G. John Ikenberry, A World Safe for Democracy: Liberal Internationalism and the Crises of Global Order (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020)
This ambitious book offers a commendably concise account of two hundred years of liberal internationalism. It also offers a defense of an ideology widely viewed as in crisis today. The central claim of A World Safe for Democracy is that the legitimacy and sustainability of democracy and liberalism at home are best served by the constitution of a particular kind of liberal international order.1 This is an important argument that sets it apart from most other products of the “democracy-defense industry”—to use Jan-Werner Müller's (2019) memorable phrase—and deserves close attention from political theorists, who have tended to overlook the international sources of domestic political order.
An influential scholar of international relations (IR) and leading liberal internationalist in the US foreign policy establishment, John Ikenberry began this book as a lecture series in the wake of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential election. Its title draws on Woodrow Wilson's famous words, spoken in April 1917 before the US Senate to justify his demand for a declaration of war on Germany. Rather than read Wilson's plea that “the world must be made safe for democracy” as a call to promote democratization abroad, as IR scholars usually do, Ikenberry joins historians in arguing that it is better understood as a much broader vision of postwar world order (xi–xii). The point was not so much to spread democracy as to refashion international order in such a way as to create a friendly environment in which it could flourish. Like Wilson himself, A World Safe for Democracy places this effort in a longer tradition, rooted in the Enlightenment and the Atlantic revolutions, which achieved political hegemony in the wake of the twentieth century's global conflicts: 1919, 1945, and 1991. These years are symbolic founding moments of international orders dominated by Britain and the United States, the leading liberal states, or “hegemons,” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Ikenberry writes in the first two chapters, the international orders built in these moments differed from each other in many ways but shared four principles: (economic) openness; multilateralism built around rules and institutions; solidarity among liberal democracies and cooperative security; and the pursuit of progressive social purposes (33–42). This account builds on Ikenberry's (2000; 2011) earlier work on liberal hegemony and order-building.
About half the book (chaps. 3–6) contains an account of the rise of liberal internationalism. Particularly refreshing for a work of IR—a field that rarely looks back further in history than 1919 or even 1945—is that Ikenberry devotes serious attention to the ideology's origins in nineteenth-century movements like Cobdenite free trade, international law, or the transnational peace movement (chap. 3). These various strands were tied together into a coherent political project in the 1910s, during World War I, and, in Ikenberry's telling, primarily by the agency of one man, Wilson (chap. 4). This resulted in the creation of the League of Nations, which failed in the 1930s, leading to the reinvention of liberal internationalism, a process that Ikenberry names the “Rooseveltian revolution.” National and social security became the fundamental ends, and activism at both the national and international level the means to achieve them (chap. 5). Ikenberry makes no secret of his admiration for this model of liberal international order, which flourished in the Western Bloc during the Cold War. As in his previous work, he emphasizes that order's dual, liberal and hierarchical character (chap. 6): dominated by a hegemon, the US, but defined by rules, norms, and institutions, like NATO or the Bretton Woods system, that both tied the hegemon down and other members (Western Europe and Japan) to it.
The last third of A World Safe for Democracy offers a defense of liberal internationalism against many critiques. To a significant extent, this section revisits arguments first made in Liberal Leviathan (Ikenberry 2011), which argued that the liberal international order could persist even without US hegemony, weakened by the international aggression, treaty-breaking and economic fiasco presided over by President George W. Bush. Chapter 7, like Liberal Leviathan, considers liberal internationalism's problematic links to empire and war, as in the League, with its Covenant drafted by British imperialists, and its Mandate system of internationalized colonialism. Ikenberry concedes this but rejects the idea that this left a long-term legacy, pointing to the equally old tradition of liberal anti-imperialism, which, aided by US ascendancy, helped usher in a world order based on self-determination by 1950. This story is far too neat and US-centric. Few would deny liberal internationalism's mid-century transformation. However, this took place primarily in political economy, as chapter 5 makes clear. As Adom Getachew and many others have shown, it took until the 1960s and 1970s for liberal internationalists, including in the US, to fully come to terms with the end of empire, under constant pressure from anti-colonial nationalists (cf. Garavini 2012; Getachew 2019).
The final two chapters, again much like Liberal Leviathan, address the important question of how liberal internationalism could go from hegemonic ideology to crisis within less than 25 years, and what to do about it. Remarkably, unlike in 2011, Ikenberry now points to the international-political and socioeconomic bargains underpinning liberal international order as the problem rather than the solution. As the order expanded from the Western Bloc to the world, these were not adjusted to accommodate new, nonliberal members like China and Russia, or to protect labor and capital in the old Western core from global competition. The result was fragmentation, inequality, and, eventually, backlash in the form of Trump and Brexit. While he also notes that its fragmentation has increased the order's durability, as states can pick and choose where they engage, Ikenberry does advocate reform, primarily to make the order work better for democracies and their peoples. In essence, he proposes to restore some of the hallmarks of Rooseveltian internationalism, such as managed protectionism and greater unity against nonliberal states—without jettisoning cooperation with China and Russia on matters of common interest, like climate change. Unsurprisingly, his book was on the Biden transition team's reading list (Hirsh 2020).
That alone should make clear that liberal internationalism is far from a spent force. Ikenberry has clearly written an important book, which powerfully restates the case for liberal internationalism in terms of its ability to marry idealism to pragmatism, and domestic to international political order. It offers a simplified and overly sympathetic account of the tradition's history, especially of its dark sides, but one that would serve well as an introduction to the topic.
That is not to say the book is without its shortcomings. First, it tells an almost exclusively Anglo-American tale, which virtually ignores even the most obvious non-English-speaking liberal internationalists, like the French, let alone non-Europeans. A World Safe for Democracy does not try to be comprehensive, but it is hardly even representative. Second and relatedly, it completely ignores women, even though suffragists were among the first to theorize the symbiotic relationship between democracy and international order, to name but one example. But the book's most puzzling and problematic omission is democracy itself. Throughout, Ikenberry refers interchangeably to “democracies,” “liberal democracies,” and “liberal states,” implying that democracy is necessarily liberal and vice versa. But that simply does not apply to many liberals, from Friedrich Hayek and the “Geneva School” of neoliberalism (Slobodian 2018) to NATO (Sayle 2019). In reality, the relationship between liberalism and democracy is fraught and full of tension. The negative concept of liberty that is so influential in contemporary liberalism is in fact rooted in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century counterrevolutionary politics opposed to democracy, as Annelien De Dijn (2020) has recently shown (cf. Berlin 1969). The same tension applies to liberal internationalism, as indicated, quite beyond Trump or Brexit, by the European Union's democratic deficit or the highly problematic record of UN interventions in, say, Haiti. If Ikenberry is right that the future of democracy depends on the international order that supports it, then the kind of democracy that liberal internationalism promotes (not to mention opposes) deserves much closer inspection than he offers.
“International order” may be broadly defined as the bundle of institutions, rules, bargains, norms and materialities that structure international relations. Alternatively, more narrowly, it is “a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states” (Bull 2012: 8).
Garavini, Giuliano. 2012. After Empires: European Integration, Decolonization, and the Challenge from the Global South, 1957–1986. Trans. Richard R. Nybakken. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Getachew, Adom. 2019. Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ikenberry, G. John. 2000. After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ikenberry, G. John. 2011. Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Sayle, Timothy Andrews. 2019. Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Cristina Lafont, Democracy without Shortcuts: A Participatory Conception of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)
There is an ongoing concern in democratic theory with the state of modern democracy. As normative theories provide resources and guidance to strengthen democratic systems and practitioners are proposing new practices and institutions to alleviate the representative, participatory, and deliberative deficits, whether they can improve the quality of democratic life remains an open question. Moreover, how these practices and institutions can shape and reshape our understanding of democracy and its various principles entails a reflection on how these processes are interacting and could be interacting with one another. For instance, Michael Saward (2021) put forward a “democratic design framework” that highlights the open, systemic, and contextual relationship between practices and political principles and the possibilities and challenges for democratic thinking inherent to their interactions. In Democracy without Shortcuts, Cristina Lafont proposes a rich, thought-provoking, and important contribution to this discussion. Rejecting “shortcuts” that bypass processes of opinion- and will-formation, she defends a systemic account of democracy grounded in the ideal of self-government that is both participatory and deliberative. Her argument is not aimed at defending democracy against alternative forms of political organizations but rather at assessing the democratic promises of political reforms that “shortcut” participation: the “only road to better political outcome,” she argues, “is the long, participatory road” (4).
In the first part of the book, Lafont defines the ideal of self-government by relying on democratic control rather than political equality (chap. 1). Her interpretation stresses the importance of identifying with and reflectively endorsing political decisions. In doing so, she embraces a “diffuse” understanding of participation in processes of political opinion- and will-formation and a systemic frame to approach the connections between them and political decisions. Citizens should not blindly defer to others when there are “effective and ongoing opportunities” for them to shape the political process in ways that align the decisions with their views (23). The emphasis on fostering a sense of ownership of and identification with political decisions is key for Lafont's argument.
The question of how to capture that very ideal and avoid blind deference guides the rest of the book and provides the critical lenses by which the democratic potential of normative theories and political reforms are examined. Lafont first explores the argument that the participatory ideal can only be effectively defended through nondeliberative conceptions of democracy (chap. 2). She argues that “deep pluralist” conceptions of democracy fall short as their interpretation of legitimacy, based on procedural fairness and equal treatment of all views, provides few effective opportunities for minorities to shape the political outcome. Since these conceptions understand political disagreements as intractable, majoritarian processes emerge as the mechanism to settle collective decisions. Minorities are expected to blindly defer to the majority, alienating them as the gap between substantive justice and procedural fairness widens.
Building on this critique of processes that alienate citizens from self-government, Lafont moves to an analysis of the deliberative framework in the second part of the book as it provides “empowering resources to disempowered actors” (65). First, she turns her attention to epistemic (chap. 3) and lottocratic (chap. 4) conceptions of democracy. She distinguishes between elite and democratic epistocracy but argues that both bypass the citizenry in their search for the “best political answer” by elevating a different “set of knowers” (100). Regarding the lottocratic conception of deliberative democracy, she argues that empowered minipublics are problematic from a participatory perspective. Lafont argues that the main problem is that when a randomly selected body of citizens is empowered, there is an expectation that its outcomes have “prescriptive force” for citizens. (119) The shortcut of the “micro-deliberative strategy” amounts to “propagating more democratic illusions” (136) as it relies on the transformed views of the few rather than the views of the broader public, which, ultimately, undermines the democratic ideal by fostering the disconnect between the two.
However, Lafont's critique of minipublics is a friendly one, as she suggests using them as a resource for macro-deliberation instead of empowering them to make decisions. As such, she defends the goal of making political systems more responsive to considered opinions by relying on the “contestatory,” “vigilant,” and “anticipatory” use of minipublics (chap. 5). This proposition is embedded in the broader goal of improving public deliberation central to her “participatory conception of deliberative democracy” (chap. 6). Since “democracies are stuck with the people they've got” (167), the aim of public deliberation cannot be purely epistemic. It must allow processes of mutual justification for citizens to identify with and endorse policies. This principle is made possible by the presence of institutions and practices that provide effective and ongoing opportunities for citizens to “challenge the acceptability of coercive policies to which they are subject” (187).
In the last part of the book (chaps. 7 and 8), Lafont elevates legal contestation as a key component of a more vibrant democracy “without shortcuts.” This institutional device contributes to the democratic project by empowering citizens “to call upon the rest of the citizenry” to publicly debate the “proper scope, content, and limits of their fundamentals rights and freedoms” (238). As an inclusive process that structures public deliberation, the judicial review provides opportunities to find substantive agreement over time. Grounded in the principle of mutual justification, she presents this institution as a “conversation initiator” that allow citizens “to be listened to” but also “to open or reopen a conversation” in ways that “explicit and reasoned justifications for and against it become available for public deliberation” (230). Although Lafont recognizes the flaws of judicial institutions, her original normative argument positions judicial review as an empowering and citizen-led mechanism.
The argument persuasively emphasizes the democratic ideal of self-government and the need to overcome the pervasive sense of powerlessness illustrated by the growing misalignment between political decisions and the views of the citizenry. However, I want to raise two brief points regarding the notion of blind deference and the scope of the argument.
First, assessing democracy through the critical lens of blind deference is an interesting yet ambiguous suggestion. Given the complexity of democratic societies, Lafont recognizes that citizens can often defer to others, especially their representatives, but warns against doing so blindly (23). However, while people can defer to decisions made by others for a host of different reasons (e.g., partisanship, resentment, fear), some of these justifications can hinder the quality of public deliberation and democratic life more than others (see Mansbridge 2020; Warren 2020). As such, the capacity of the citizenry to judge the decisions both on their substantive and procedural merits is crucial. Regarding minipublics, accepting decisions made by a randomly selected group of citizens requires a context-based judgment about the features of this process, such as its independence and representative merits. Since political elites often initiate them, minipublics—particularly larger and more political iterations such as citizens’ assemblies—must justify both their recommendations and their process to the public and decision-makers. Accepting the outcome entails passing a judgement that is not necessarily present when citizens defer, for instance, to a figure of their preferred political party.
Second, the scope of the argument is narrowed by a statist framework illustrated by the emphasis on processes of opinion- and will-formation and the citizens’ right to legal contestation and the institution of judicial review (see Chambers 2020). However, under a more diffused and decentralized understanding of democracy, the logic at play with the judicial review could also be applied to a plurality of mechanisms, including but not only deliberative spaces. Amid growing calls for new forms of participation and representation, we could imagine these spaces as more diffuse citizen-led “conversation initiators” that shape public deliberation and political practices. For instance, we could imagine an institutional framework that offers a diverse set of “effective and ongoing opportunities” for citizens, which could then encourage the multiplication of sites of participation in which citizens can initiate and engage in deliberative processes outside of state-centric approaches. This diffuse structure could strengthen the sense of ownership and authorship in democratic politics, foster a sense of possibility, and give form to new and evolving forms of representation.
Overall, Lafont's timely argument recovers an empowering ideal of participatory deliberative democracy and powerfully conveys its political urgency. The normative defense of and commitment to the democratic ideal proposed in Democracy without Shortcuts is a refreshing and necessary theoretical contribution. In developing this deep ideal of democracy, Lafont reminds us that its touchstone remains collective self-government. It is a rich addition that raises ongoing questions, concerns, and challenges for both theoretical approaches of democracy and the design and implementation of political reforms (see Curato et al. 2020).
Chambers, Simone. 2020. “Citizens Without Robes: On the Deliberative Potential of Everyday Politics.” Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16 (2): 73–80. https://doi.org/10.16997/jdd.388.
Curato, Nicole, Julien Vrydagh, and André Bächtiger. 2020. “Democracy without Shortcuts: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16 (2): 1–9. https://doi.org/10.16997/jdd.413.
Mansbridge Jane. 2020. “A Citizen-Centered Theory.” Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16 (2): 15–24. https://doi.org/10.16997/jdd.411.
Warren, Mark E. 2020. “Participatory Deliberative Democracy in Complex Mass Societies.” Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16 (2): 81–88. https://doi.org/10.16997/jdd.395.