Politics & Policy

Defining Democracy Down

Polling place in Stillwater, Olka., 2016 (Nick Oxford/Reuters)
Asserting its presence or absence has devolved into a political tactic.

Italy will soon have a new prime minister. Odds are high he will be someone nobody voted for.

In Italy’s political system, the prime minister of the country is a man or woman put forward by whatever coalition of political parties constitute a majority and desire to staff the executive branch. The nominee must be ratified by a vote of confidence in parliament, but there’s no guarantee the person will be particularly well-known to the Italian people — or even associated with any of the parties they voted for. The leading candidates for the job at the moment are said to be two professors holding no elected office of any sort, though the New York Times cautions the party bosses have “agreed not to publicly name their proposals for prime minister or other cabinet members.”

Italy, in sum, seems to practice a rather unimpressive style of democracy, yet it is not the sort of place we are used to hearing described this way. Though fretting about the state of foreign democracies is a fashionable pastime of journalists and politicians at the moment, such concerns no longer manifest as structural critiques of governance systems, but rather interests more narrowly partisan.

The procedure Italy is using to choose its leader seems considerably less democratic than the one Hungary used the other day, in which a politician who had actually run for the job, and elected the most supporters to parliament, was ratified by the chamber in a two-thirds vote. Yet we are constantly told that Hungarian democracy is actually Europe’s greatest sham, since regardless of whatever pretenses of elected government they enjoy, the country’s ultra-conservative political culture robs it of any right to claim the title. A recent essay by Andrew Sullivan (“A Democracy Disappears”) claimed Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán’s affinity for chauvinistic demagoguery, court-packing, and state-run media has produced a “de facto dictatorship.”

Perhaps. But here in Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau exerts even greater control over judicial appointments, and most of his conservative critics would argue Canadian state-run news propagandizes heavily in favor of the incumbent administration. In Germany and Britain, meanwhile, the state has been empowered to punish citizens for broad crimes of problematic speech and opinion, as the political philosophies of the ruling parties may choose to define. Is democracy disappearing in these places, too?

While democracy in theory has something to do with a government that is maximally accountable to a people’s votes and rights, in practice, asserting its presence or absence has devolved into little more than an ability to justify  a politician’s policy output or sympathize with his goals. Virtually identical institutions and laws will be portrayed in vastly different lights in the context of different countries as determined by outsiders’ perceptions of their relative goodness. A seemingly obvious democratic infringement in Sweden may be forgiven, or even applauded, when considered in the context of its progressive Swedish rationale. Bring the same rule to conservative Poland and it becomes an authoritarian monstrosity. It can work in the other direction, too, of course — how many conservatives were bothered by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent efforts to consolidate war-making powers exclusively in his office?

Even supposedly studious efforts to monitor democracy are scarcely more serious. The Economist’s Democracy Index, which has been calling America a “flawed democracy” for several years now, scores nations on the basis of yes-or-no answers it gives (but does not reveal) to a series of highly subjective questions. Say, “Is there a sufficient degree of societal consensus and cohesion to underpin a stable, functioning democracy?” Or, “Is the functioning of government open and transparent, with sufficient public access to information?” Given there is almost no country in the world in which questions like these cannot be answered in the negative depending on how unforgiving you’re feeling, it’s hard to know what makes America a “flawed democracy” with a score of 7.98 and Germany a “full democracy” with a score of 8.61, beyond the likelihood that the institutions and culture of the former were being judged with a more skeptical eye than those of the latter.

There will soon be no shred of pretense that ours is a politics built on anything firmer than the fights of the moment.

Such is the crux of the problem. Once “democracy” is twisted to mean merely “a bundle of political realities I can favorably rationalize,” those doing the loudest rationalizing will see their subjectivity triumph. Given the progressive dominance among those tasked with sorting the moral character of the world’s regimes these days, democracy’s definition becomes further cheapened into a crude philosophy of ends-justifies-the-means liberalism.

That a more neutral standard of democracy has failed to survive reflects a lack of appetite for one. Comparative study of constitutions has become a dead art. The fact that countries have different ways of organizing their legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and listing their citizens’ rights, is now often regarded as something as incidentally curious as the design of their flags, as opposed to a reflection of differing, debatable theories of managing state power. The ultra-polarized weaponization of political difference has likewise helped numb awareness that dogmatic ideology of any sort can threaten accountable government and civil rights. That Western leftists can employ tyrannical tactics should be apparent to anyone with open eyes, yet in an age where political science has itself become political, it is somehow only Trumpist Republicans and European populists who provide the anecdotes of authoritarianism.

Having “democratic” reduced to an opportunistic partisan compliment is bad enough, but the darker danger will be seeing the term so persistently and self-indulgently misused by the left that loyalty to it on the right begins to fade. If the slur of “anti-democratic” is exclusively leveled against governments of the right, but never progressive ones — or even just badly-designed ones, like Italy’s — then there will soon be no shred of pretense that ours is a politics built on anything firmer than the fights of the moment.

J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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