Thomas Meaney and Yascha Mounk argue in a long essay in The Nation that the democratic moment is passing if it has not yet passed. The sweep of their essay is broad. Alexis de Tocqueville saw American democracy replacing the age of European aristocracy. He worried that democratic equality would be unable to preserve the freedoms associated with Aristocratic individualism, but he knew that the move from aristocracy to democracy was unstoppable. So today, Meaney and Mounk write, we are witnessing the end of the age of democracy and equality. This is so, they suggest, even if we do not yet know what will replace it.
Meaney and Mounk build their argument on a simple critical insight, a kind of “unmasking” of what might be called the hypocrisy of modern democracy. Democracy is supposed to be the will of the people. It is a long time since the small group of Athenian citizens governed themselves. Modern democrats have defended representative democracy as a pragmatic alternative because gathering all the citizens of modern states together for democratic debate is simply impossible. But technology has changed that.
As long as direct democracy was impracticable within the confines of the modern territorial state, the claim that representative institutions constituted the truest form of self-government was just about plausible. But now, in the early twenty-first century, the claim about direct democracy being impossible at the national level and beyond is no longer credible. As the constraints of time and space have eroded, the ubiquitous assumption that we live in a democracy seems very far from reality. The American people may not all fit into Madison Square Garden, but they can assemble on virtual platforms and legislate remotely, if that is what they want. Yet almost no one desires to be that actively political, or to replace representation with more direct political responsibility. Asked to inform themselves about the important political issues of the day, most citizens politely decline. If forced to hold an informed opinion on every law and regulation, many would gladly mount the barricades to defend their right not to rule themselves in such a burdensome manner. The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves.
In short, democracy understood as self-government is now once again possible in the technical age. Such techno-democratic possibility is not, however, leading to more democracy. Thus, Meaney and Mounk conclude, technology allows us to see through the illusions of democracy as hypocritical and hollow.
The challenge posed by information technology lies not in the possibility that we might adopt more direct forms of democracy but in the disquieting recognition that we no longer dream of ruling ourselves. The very word “democracy” indicts the political reality of most modern states. It takes a considerable degree of delusion to believe that any modern government has been “by” the people in anything but the most incidental way. In the digital age, the claim that the political participation of the people in decision-making makes democracy a legitimate form of government is only that much hollower. Its sole lingering claim to legitimacy—that it allows the people the regular chance to remove leaders who displease them—is distinctly less inspiring. Democracy was once a comforting fiction. Has it become an uninhabitable one?
Such arguments by “unmasking” are attractive and popular today. They work, as Peter Baehr argued recently in a talk at the Arendt Center, through the logic of exposure, by accusing “a person, argument or way of life of being fundamentally defective.” It may be that there are populist democratic revolts happening in Turkey and Thailand, revolts that are unsettling to elites. Similarly, the democratic energies of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are seen by many as evidence of the crisis of democracy. Democracy, it is said, is defective, based on a deception and buttressed by illusion. But it hardly does a service to truth to see democratic ferment as proof of the end of democracy.
Meaney and Mounck argue that there are three main reasons that have brought democracy to the brink of crisis. First, the interrelation of democracies within a global financial world means that democratic leaders are increasingly beholden to banks and financiers than to their citizens.
[W]ith world trade more pervasive, and with the domestic economies of even the most affluent nations deeply dependent on foreign investments, the ideological predilections of a few governments have become the preoccupation of all. There is a reason why all mainstream politicians now make decisions based on variables such as the risk of capital flight and the reactions of bond rating agencies, rather than on traditional calculations about the will of their electorates. As the German economist Wolfgang Streeck has argued, this shift in political calculus occurred because the most significant constituency of democracies is no longer voters but the creditors of public debt.
Second, democracies have come to be associated not just with self-government, but with good government leading to peace and plenty. But this is a fallacy. There is no reason that democracies will be better governed than autocracies or that economic growth in democracies will outperform that of autocracies. This creates an “expectations gap” in which people demand of democracies a level of success they cannot deliver.
Third, democracy has largely been sold around the world as “synonymous with modernization, economic uplift and individual self-realization.” Democratic politicians, often an elite, wrapped their power in largesse and growth that papered over important religious and moral differences. Today populism in Thailand, Egypt, and Turkey clashes with the clientism of democratic rulers and threatens the quasi-democratic alliance of the elites and the masses.
Meaney and Mounk are no doubt correct in perceiving challenges to democracy today. And they are right that democratic citizens consistently prefer technocratic competence over democratic dissent and debate. As they write,
we live in highly bureaucratic states that require ever-increasing degrees of technical competence. We expect our governments to do more and to do it better. The more our expectations are addressed, the more bureaucratic and opaque government becomes and the less democratic control is possible.
The danger of representative democracy is that it imagines government as something we outsource to a professional class so that we can get on with what is most important in our lives. There is a decided similarity between representative democracy and technocracy, in that both presume that political administration is a necessary but uninspiring activity to be avoided and relegated to a class of bureaucrats and technocrats. The threat of representative democracy is that it is founded upon and regenerates an anti-political and apolitical culture, one that imagines politics as menial work to be done by others.
What Meaney and Mounk overlook, however, is that at least in the United States, we have never simply been a representative democracy. The United States is a complicated political system that cannot justly or rightly be called either a democracy or a representative democracy. Rightly understood, the USA is a federal, democratic, constitutional republic. Its democratic elements are both limited and augmented by its constitutional and federalist character as well as by its republican tradition. At least until recently, it combined a strong national government with equally strong traditions of state and local power. If citizens could not be involved in national politics, they could and often were highly involved in local governance. And local institutions, empowered by the participation of energized citizens, were frequently more powerful or at least as powerful as were national institutions.
Of course, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed a tectonic constitutional shift in America away from local institutions and toward a highly powerful, centralized, and bureaucratized national government. But this shift is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Indeed, largely driven by the right, the new federalism has returned to states some traditional powers. These powers can be used, however, by the left and the right. As Ben Barber has been arguing from the left, there is an opportunity in the dysfunctional national government to return power and vitality to our cities and our towns. Both Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party show that there are large numbers of people who are dissatisfied with our political centralization and feel disenfranchised and distant from the ideals of democratic self-government. The Tea Party, more than Occupy, has channeled that disenchantment into local political organizations and institutions. But the opportunity to do so is present on the left as well as on the right.
There is a deeply religious element to American democracy that is bound up with the idea and reality of American exceptionalism, a reservoir of democratic potency that is not yet tapped out. Meaney and Mounk see this, albeit in a throwaway line that is buried in their essay:
Outside of a few outliers such as India and the United States, where deep in the provinces one still encounters something like religious zeal for democracy, many people in nominal democracies around the world do not believe they are inheritors of a sacral dispensation. Nor should they.
We are witnessing a crisis of democracy around the world, in the sense that both established and newer democracies are finding their populations dissatisfied. While it is true that people are not flocking to technical versions of mass democracies, they are taking to the streets and organizing protests, and involving themselves in the activities of citizenship. Meaney and Mounk are right, democracy is not assured, and we should never simply assume its continued vitality. But neither should we write it off entirely.