Democracy’s Crevices: A Response and a Wrap-Up

I am grateful to Brian Kogelmann, Jason Kuznicki, and Mike Godwin for their thoughtful responses to my essay. I wanted to wait to respond to all responses in one shot, though each thoughtful point made could merit essays exploring them on their own.

I want to start with Brian Kogelmann’s response, which in my view most strongly rejected the idea that restricting electoral participation can still be democratic. I agreed with most of what Kogelmann wrote; in fact, I would argue that managing economic inequality in the demos is far more consequential than managing political rhetoric and that my analogy does not fully map on to Dworkin’s. Kogelmann makes the point that in regulating money in elections, we do not create new inequalities in political influence. However, regulating electoral participation of antidemocratic candidates creates a new form of inequality where a specific group of people cannot influence the political decisions that bind them. This is a valid concern, and why I have argued for regulation that is both context-dependent and cautionary.

This is also why I would be reluctant to regulate the participation of simply anyone conceived to be as antidemocratic. The reason I brought up Kahane and his party—which Israel decided to ban—was not only because Kahane’s promises were antidemocratic. Rather, it is because his promises were playing off a power imbalance that already existed between the people his party purported to represent and Palestinians experiencing occupation and discrimination. As such, the analogy between regulating the participation of Kahane and regulating the participation of a billionaire abusing campaign finance have not seemed all that different. Like regulating the billionaire’s expenditures, preventing Kahane from enacting internationally illegal policies of forcible transfer need not level down someone like Kahane below the average democratic participant. Other options, such as Kirshner’s example of removing policies from one’s platform, could still exist. I have argued, however, that whether this is expedient is another question. There are likely better ways to combat forcible transfer than merely limiting the content of a platform, as platforms do not set policies; they merely impact the electoral environment (albeit in possibly corrosive manners).

This brings me to Jason Kuznicki’s essay, which rightfully points out that we cannot simply rely on democracy to protect vulnerable people from intolerance. Kuznicki’s view, to me, is reminiscent of Ronald Dworkin’s and Thomas Christiano’s debate with Jeremy Waldron over judicial review. That is, Dworkin and Christiano maintain that we need other safeguards like the constitution and judicial review to protect people against democratic decisions that could potentially harm them. The problem of course, as pointed out by Waldron, is that now we risk being antidemocratic in another way. Namely, we risk nullifying the democratic will via the decisions of unelected judges. I will not explore the intricacies of that debate, but I bring it up to note that there are other challenges when attempting to balance the maintenance of a democratic society with individual liberties.

Nonetheless, prevention through non-electoral constraints can often be more practical than restricting electoral participation. The only issue is whether it is more democratic, or whether it is democratic at all. It solves one problem; namely, the problem of threatening others’ basic rights that the antidemocrat may wish to undermine. But it does not solve the paradox; namely, the issue of using undemocratic means to preserve democratic society. Therefore, at some stage, there is still an action that risks reproducing a democratic paradox, whether it’s at the point of election or at striking down laws proposed by elected governments. When the courts struck down Trump’s Muslim bans, for instance, were they working against democracy by nullifying one of the promises under which Trump was elected?

One may bite the bullet in either direction. From Kuznicki’s perspective, where we would be inclined to create safeguards that protect the liberties of a small group of individuals, we may bite the bullet and say we do not value all elements of democracy. In another way, we can bite the bullet through permitting a nullification of the democratic will by permitting courts to strike down policies that may be in place through popular demand. We could say, for instance, that the highest priority is not democracy per se but the preservation of the individual’s rights.

My initial concern, however, was shorter term. In particular, I have been concerned about the actual electoral process eroding the health of a democratic society because of the power political campaigns have to constitute norms for others. If we have a strong judiciary but permit someone with a platform of forcible transfer or ethnic cleansing to run a public campaign, the concern is not only the actual realization of this goal but the message to the campaign’s targets: your livelihood is a choice-sensitive issue in the democratic process. This makes the participation of targeted groups in the electoral process unequal to the participation of those whose basic securities are not threatened on the ballot. Of course, the language here is vague: what does it mean to have one’s livelihood threatened? Must it be forcible transfer, or does economic austerity count? Perhaps there is no answer, making the contradiction only resolvable in theory.

This brings me to Mike Godwin’s response, which has a “don’t give up” message and claims we should still seek out a “principle for responding to antidemocratic individuals and factions.”

I first have to say that like Godwin, I found that Karl Popper infographic irritating and simplistic. The issue is certainly more complex than rejecting intolerance to preserve tolerance. I also agree with Godwin that in the future, there might be a political candidate that is more effective than Trump at undermining democracy, and so my point was not that there are no concerns to be had at all regarding Trump’s presidency. Rather, my point was that by general liberal metrics, Trump was not a huge deviation from the norm when it came to antidemocratic behavior. More importantly, I noted that Trump’s opposition willingly voted to give him powers that any democratic actors would be hesitant to give to someone they perceived to be an authoritarian. This may also give us the opportunity to bring in Kuznicki’s point that this problem goes beyond the electoral process. One of the primary issues in America (and here in Canada, for that matter) is that there is a bipartisan consensus on fundamentally antidemocratic behaviors such as war, mass incarceration, and mass surveillance. As such, what might be needed for a stronger democracy is simply better opposition, or stronger movements that are able to put pressure on politicians against antidemocratic behaviors.

Finally, I agree with Godwin’s invocation of the Popperian notion that reasoned discourse with corrosive groups can be productive. There are numerous issues I agree about with people that would be considered corrosively “far-right,” such as my opposition to reckless foreign interventionism (albeit for very different reasons than many of these people). As Godwin notes, the antidemocrat can be right twice a day and a democracy ought to respond with flexibility and adaptability. This is also an excellent point and underlies my reluctance to restrict speech in most domains. Trump’s critique of the media, for instance, could have actually brought forth fruitful discussion about oligarchy in media and actual “fake” or biased news. We could have discussed the media’s role in manufacturing consent for war or stirring discontent and rivalry among citizens for views. In my view, we missed out on this opportunity by dismissing critique based on who it came from, or by attempting to find common ground with people we would otherwise not attempt to find common ground with.

Ultimately, the maintenance of democracy is complex and difficult. It will involve many tries before even reaching the right track and striving for democracy is an endeavor far beyond the scope of the electoral process. I was happy to participate in this exchange, which has left me much to think about when it comes to building a healthier and more cooperative society.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Mila Ghorayeb looks at liberal polities’ use of antidemocratic tactics against illiberal groups. She concludes that it is not necessarily paradoxical to limit political participation with a view to preserving an imperfect democracy, but that whether it is desirable or feasible are different questions.

Response Essays

  • Brian Kogelmann says that a democracy shouldn’t compromise on democratic participation. Allowing antidemocratic groups to participate runs the risk that they might win and restrict the franchise, but restricting their participation creates a new form of political inequality. It is therefore preferable to allow them to participate.

  • Rather than restricting antidemocratic groups, Jason Kuznicki proposes to safeguard democratic and other rights by articulating them in an impersonal way and making it constitutionally difficult for anyone to change them. Under such conditions, open participation by antidemocrats becomes less risky, and persecuted minorities can organize for their own protection.

  • Mike Godwin argues that democracies should tolerate antidemocratic activism—at least as an initial response. Yet democracies’ responses to antidemocratic activism need not end there. He urges the defenders of liberal democracy to better articulate how to respond to antidemocratic critiques. Such critiques need not lead us to abandon democracy, and at times they might even draw attention to genuine shortcomings in a democratic polity.