The Hollowing Out of Democracy

Stephen Davies suggests that our apparent situation of chaos is neither new, nor, for that matter, nearly as chaotic as it seems at first sight. Instead of being a potential breakdown in democracy, it’s an issue realignment within democracy, where the old divisions that political parties and voters organize themselves around are giving way to new ones. We are bidding goodbye to a world where the big fights were over how much the government should intervene in the economy, and ushering in a “new and stable political alignment” where politics will be fought out between populist “national collectivists” on the one side and either cosmopolitan liberalism (who will prevail as the opposition in many countries) or the far left (who will prevail as the opposition in a few).

The hopes expressed in his essay are twofold. First – that the apparent chaos of current politics is merely temporary, as we move from one equilibrium from the other. Second (and this is not directly stated; merely implied) that the new equilibrium will be better for libertarians than the old one. Davies states that the dying structures of politics had no stable home for libertarians, although it did provide them with influence. Though he does not say so directly, liberal cosmopolitanism, which is “broadly free market, strongly cosmopolitan and globalist, socially liberal, and egalitarian,” seems far more congenial to straight-line libertarians. For better or worse, though, there are grounds to be skeptical of both claims.

What Davies gets right is the level that we should study these questions at – which is cross-national rather than America-centric. There are strong similarities between what is happening in the United States, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and France, and weaker but significant similarities to other countries where democracy is backpedaling rapidly, such as the Philippines. This is the product both of common shocks – many of these countries are experiencing similar problems – and of cross-national reinforcement, as various movements and parties look to their peers in other countries for inspiration. For sure, each squalid national jingoism makes its particular claim to uniqueness and exceptional status; that is, after all, what nationalisms do. Yet the family resemblances are undeniable.

What Davies arguably gets wrong though is the significance of these changes. Notably, he doesn’t provide any very specific theory of why we are changing from one alignment to another (perhaps it is just that he didn’t have room in this essay). Instead he describes in quite general terms how different interest groups, funders, and so on may shift from one alignment to another. This means that he doesn’t engage with any of the arguments that others have made about what is driving these shifts, and accordingly plausibly over-emphasizes the likelihood that we will return to a new, and stable, form of competition.

To my mind the most convincing of these theories is the one that was first articulated by the late Peter Mair (and, slightly differently) by Colin Crouch’s work on “Post-Democracy.” This identifies the shock to party systems as a result of the failures of systems of representation. Both Mair and Crouch point to the increasing enfeeblement of democracy in western European countries. Mair in particular identifies problems in political parties and party systems. Together with Richard Katz, he identified how political competition had given way to “cartel parties,” which increasingly declined to compete for voters across tricky political issues, instead delegating these issues to purportedly non-political bodies within the state (technocratic institutions such as central banks, which increasingly became independent), or above them (the European Union). This coincided with the fracturing of traditional class alignments, which made it harder for voters to organize according to their material interests, and for parties to compete for voters on the basis of those interests. Sam Rosenfeld and Daniel Schlozman’s work on “hollow parties” points to related albeit somewhat different phenomena in the US.

The result (as Crouch also describes) was the gradual hollowing out of democracy, as the votes cast by people were increasingly irrelevant to the actual political decisions that were made. Neoliberalism, in an important sense, involved the political project of removing political decisions from the national level, and subjecting them instead to international structures that were resistant to popular pressure (see also the important recent book by Quinn Slobodian).

The consequences of this are well described in an important new paper by Jonathan Hopkins and Mark Blyth. This old system of cartelization stuttered on until the financial crisis, and the European debt crisis revealed how threadbare it was. The old parties had no useful solutions to offer, while the real decisions were being taken at a level where voters had little influence. Under this account, populism is a “predictable reaction to the increasingly undifferentiated policy positions of the mainstream parties and the growing detachment of elected politicians from civil society.” For example, as Adam Tooze’s recent book on the economic crash discusses, countries like Hungary were hung out to dry by EU elites during the economic crisis, creating an opening that right wing populists like Viktor Orban were happy to exploit.

What this suggests is that the “new alignment” pitting liberal cosmopolitanism against national collectivism is not a stable one, but is itself a temporary conjunction as a different political structure emerges. The liberal cosmopolitans – at least as they have traditionally conceived themselves – are toast. They are the old tacit alliance between the center left and center right parties of the old regime become explicit and concrete, as they desperately try to protect the world that they thought they had built against the forces that threaten to overwhelm it.

Davies, for example, says that the new division in France is between “En Marche (cosmopolitan liberal) and the RN (national collectivist).” Given the events of the last few days (which have been foretold by Macron’s dismal approval ratings over the last several months), I would not want to put any money on En Marche’s survival as a long term political force. It’s a party without a constituency.

All these writers highlight the pertinent fact that the relationship between the nation state and international economic institutions and markets has changed radically. National level democracy has been hollowed out by internationalizing forces, with the result that major protagonists on both sides of the fight are uncommitted to democracy. Many cosmopolitan liberals are unenthusiastic about the potential unruliness of democracy, and would prefer to return to a world of technocratic management. Many of the nationalist parties that have revolted against the movement of political power from the nation state are not particularly interested in competitive pluralistic democracy, since they portray democracy as involving a more or less homogeneous “people,” whose interests are being undermined by a variety of internal and external enemies. When neither side is deeply committed to democratic competition, it is unlikely that any stable competitive framework will emerge. Instead, what we are likely to see is continued contestation over what levels of rule will prevail.

Some readers may object that this analysis is annoyingly leftwing, influenced by it is by suspect notions such as “neoliberalism.” Such readers should take themselves to Ernest Gellner’s last book, Conditions of Liberty, which made broadly similar arguments from a more traditionally liberal perspective with great perspicacity over two decades ago. Gellner perceived the importance of the basic cleavage that Davies emphasizes. However, he stresses its origins in a far older and trans-national set of disputes originating in the Hapsburg Empire.

[T]he nationalists were hostile not merely to rival cultures, but also, and perhaps with special venom, to bloodless cosmopolitanism, probably in part because they perceived in it an ally of political centralism, and felt it to be a support for the old trans-national empires against neo-ethnic irridentism. They felt special loathing for those they considered to be the principal carriers of such cosmopolitanism. (They were right in the end, the liberals committed to an open market in goods, in a sense men and ideas, were the last supporters of centralism, remaining faithful to it even when the old baroque absolutist partisans of the ancien régime had themselves given up the struggle. (pp.111-112)

The collapse of Hapsburg rule was indeed a transition, but not of the kind that Davies identifies. It was instead the collapse of an old transnational imperium, and its replacement was a new and often brutal logic that organized politics along ethnic lines. This was accompanied, as Gellner notes, by that particular loathing for the “principal carriers of cosmopolitanism.” Gellner, as an émigré Czech Jew, knew what he was talking about. The cosmopolitan liberals that he wrote about did not constitute one side of a new political cleavage. They disappeared, and very many of them were murdered.

This does not mean that we are staggering along the precipice, about to fall into a new age of violent irredentist and indeed eliminationist nationalism. What it does mean is that we cannot assume that forces which are at best indifferently committed to democracy will necessarily be contained within democratic institutions, falling along standard axes of democratic competition. Such optimism may not only be misleading, but actively treacherous.

I’m not a libertarian – far from it. But it seems to me that libertarians don’t have the happy political future that Davies predicts for them, and I’m not sure that they ever did; Davies’s claim that they used to be the key swing voters seems to me to be at odds with the political science. But they do face a difficult political choice. Either they can continue with their current approach, which seems likely to be even less likely to be politically efficacious than it was in the past. Or they can make common cause with pro-democratic forces, recognizing the value of the state, working to strengthen and bolster the institutions on which the open society depends. Here, again, Gellner’s ideas are worth taking up as a starting point to doing this right.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Stephen Davies argues that political realignments are regular features of modern democratic politics. In them, some longstanding issues lose their salience, while others rise to the top of the heap. Because the world is increasingly networked, our realignments are likewise increasingly taking place in concert, Davies argues; he goes on to suggest that nearly the entire industrialized democratic world is currently confronting a realignment that turns it toward questions of populism versus globalization.

Response Essays

  • Francis H. Buckley argues that American nationalism is nothing like the European variety. American nationalists stand for liberty under law, not an ethnic state. Libertarians, however, cannot easily be nationalists, because nationalism implies solidarity with citizens while denying it to others. On the whole, however, American nationalism is benign, and we should welcome its return to our politics, which began with the 2016 election.

  • Jacob T. Levy agrees with Stephen Davies that conservatives have recently moved away from moralism and toward national identity. But Levy sees national collectivism as potentially quite durable, a prospect that he does not welcome. He notes that authoritarianism and racism seem to be everywhere in contemporary populism, and he argues that attention to constitutionalism among conservatives has largely disappeared.

  • Henry Farrell argues that political bitterness across the world arises from a common source: neoliberalism. Domestic politics has been “hollowed out” in that all the real decisions are made by corporations or bureaucrats. Politicians prefer to compete on symbolic, highly contentious issues that are unlikely to be resolved. Liberal cosmopolitanism is “toast,” Farrell writes, because it lacks any significant constituency. As to libertarians, he argues that they should expect even less.