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‘Democracy in Crisis’

Later today, a conference on “Democracy in Crisis” will be held by the American Enterprise Institute jointly with Freedom House and the Center for American Progress at which Senator Ben Sasse will deliver the keynote address. It’s an unusual case of cooperation between the moderate Right (AEI), the progressive Left (CAP), and the left-leaning Center in the form of Freedom House.

It’s the (not quite) opening shot in what promises to be a battle of manifestos and new coalitions over the definition and meaning of democracy in American and global politics, which looks likely to pit most conservatives and mainstream Republicans against a coalition of progressives and liberal Republicans with the former supporting a majoritarian view of democracy (“populism” to their critics) and the latter a form of liberal democracy in which courts, international treaties, and bureaucratic agencies take decisions once under the control of Congress (“post-democracy” to their critics.) Meetings have been held in Washington over the past few weeks by both groups. Expect both “populists” and “post-democrats” to issue statements along the lines of “democracy is going to the dogs” while differing wildly on the identity of the dogs.

Today’s statement is the “not quite” opening salvo in this battle because most of the usual suspects in the post-democratic camp issued a statement in Prague in the middle of last year: “Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defence” ran the opening sentence of “The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal,” authored by 180 intellectuals, artists, and activists, including Anne Applebaum, Timothy Garton Ash, Shlomo Avineri, Francis Fukuyama, Richard Gere, Garry Kasparov, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arch Puddington, and George Weigel.

It got only modest and brief coverage, however, because . . . well, because there’s been a lot of political and international news in the last year to distract attention. And what attention it got was unwelcome. It came in the form of a sardonic analysis of its arguments in the Australian magazine Quadrant by Professor Ryszard Legutko, the distinguished Polish philosopher and member of the European parliament who edited an underground philosophy journal for Solidarity under Communism and more recently has written a book examining how “liberal democracy” in Europe has been transmogrified into a rigid progressivist ideology while conservatives weren’t looking.

Writing about the Prague Appeal, Legutko took on what he described as its main thrust: “democracy being threatened from within.”

“Examples? Not many, and not exactly supporting what they were intended to support. Only four countries are mentioned by name: Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, Venezuela “and other backsliding democracies”. Those other backsliding democracies are not named.

Again, this is sheer nonsense. Venezuela has been in disarray at least since 1998 — and that is a generous assessment — the Philippines since the very beginning, and Turkey has had a turbulent internal history since the fall of the Ottoman empire. To discover suddenly that those countries are now backsliding into something politically disconcerting and to make a big thing about it in 2017 seems bizarre. Surely, no one can believe that this constellation of public celebrities took such pains to gather together solely in order to express their concerns about internal developments in the Philippines, Venezuela and Turkey.

What was their purpose then? The answer is the last of the four countries mentioned — Hungary or, rather, Hungary and everything it has come to represent. But putting Hungary alongside Venezuela, the Philippines and Turkey is outrageous and shows intellectual dishonesty. In those three countries, one can find bloodshed and torture, death squads, demonstrators shot at by security forces, members of the opposition arrested, journalists imprisoned, open public debate muzzled, elections possibly rigged, courts intimidated. Which of these things happens or is likely to happen in Hungary? Even making a loose association between Hungary and those countries is an insult to decency. And this method of insinuation, of vile imprecision, of attributing guilt by such scurrilous associations pervades the entire Prague document.”

Legutko then goes on to examine the wider ambitions of the Appeal:

Hungary, of course, is a shorthand for what the bien-pensants of today regard as the political Mordor — Poland, Trump, the critics of the EU, Front National, AFD. Each of these is a specific phenomenon and has its own context, and the differences are often more important than the similarities. What unites them is that they distance themselves in various ways and degrees from the orthodoxy of the political mainstream, and this is enough to make them all, in the eyes of this mainstream, villains of such magnitude than no invective is unjustified and no insinuation shameful. Although no specific charge was formulated in the document, apparently the bien-pensants understand one another on a pre-intellectual level, because they seem to know who and what they are talking about when they write with indignation about the entire world being attacked by the enemies of democracy.

As far as one can pierce through these sweeping charges and dispel the haze of rhetoric, one discovers something that is even more damaging to the authors, namely, a lie or, which is equally bad, twisting the meaning of basic concepts. Take democracy which, we were told, is about to be brought to “a historic halt”.

What happened recently was that in several countries in the Western world, centre and right-of-centre parties have had political successes. Groups, movements and ideas that were not represented by the existing political establishments have been gaining increasing support among voters. Isn’t that what democracy is about — a possible swing of the pendulum from left to right and from right to left, and differences among political programs being settled by a majority vote?

The Prague document implies that it is not, and that those groups, movements and ideas are somehow illegitimate, that they are wrong not because of what they say, but because they undermine basic principles of politics which our civilisation chose “more than two centuries ago”. Among these principles are “the regular election of government officials through a truly free, fair, open and competitive process”. What the Prague document falls short of saying explicitly is that these groups, movements and ideas should be marginalised together with their social base, and that they represent a serious political disease that should be treated through stringent actions such as the punitive measures imposed by the European Commission on unruly governments.

In other words, the signatories defend democracy by denying legitimacy to those governments and movements which were democratically elected, at the same time reiterating their commitment to the democratic process. Logically it does not make sense; politically it does. What they say amounts to something like this: “Democracy is a fine procedure to the extent that its results are politically acceptable to us who are the genuine democrats; if they are not, we must question their legitimacy because the winners are, in their hearts, against this procedure anyway. And we, the genuine democrats, consider this procedure sacred.” If this is not an Orwellian concept of democracy, what is? Those allegedly anti-democratic villains, by the way, have a less crooked view of democracy and do not fall into hysteria when their opponents have electoral successes.

The learned philosopher goes on next to raise the question of what is missing from the Appeal. And he comes up, er, trumps:

There is no suggestion that liberty is gravely imperilled in what the signatories call the “established democracies”. In fact, defenders of freedom should be much more concerned about those than about Hungary or Poland, where the governments have never dreamt of launching the social engineering that one encounters in the “established democracies” today.

Take such acts as Canada’s Bill C-16, which makes it a criminal offence to use “words spoken or written or recorded electronically or electro-magnetically or otherwise, and gestures, signs or other visible representation”, which may be discriminatory with regard to “gender identity and expression”. Or take the recent law in France which provides a punishment of two years of prison and a fine of 30,000 euros for those who try to dissuade women from abortion. Both these laws — and they are unfortunately not exceptional in the “established democracies” — are insidious regulations of matters which in the past only despotic governments dared to regulate. One of the pillars of the communist system was the political control of the language and the replacement of morality by official ideology.

Why are the signatories unperturbed by these tendencies? A most likely answer is that they have exactly the same approach to freedom as they have towards democracy: they confuse liberty with the acceptance of their own ideology. Not only do they find these laws perfectly in tune with their ideology, but they consider criticism of these laws an assault on freedom. How else can one explain their appeal “to go on the offensive against” those who “seek to divide and defame established democracies”?

I wonder how much of this article they would regard as a pernicious form of defamation. And I would not be surprised if in the not-too-distant future some of the “established democracies”, in order to make freedom more secure, will pass a law making such “defamation” punishable by law.

I wonder too.

So listen carefully to today’s arguments, and see how many times you respond: “Aha . . . ”

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