Last week the New York Times ran a story that has gotten much attention: “Ahead of Biden’s Democracy Summit, China Says: We’re Also a Democracy.”
The piece reports that the Chinese State Council released a controversial position paper a few days before. Entitled “China: A Democracy That Works,” the paper declares that “there is no fixed model of democracy, it manifests itself in many forms,” and proceeds to argue that the Chinese model is superior to the “Western model,” because it is more efficient, promotes solidarity, and is not “an ornament to be used for decoration.”
We must also reckon with the fact that millions of people subscribe to this authoritarian conception of democracy, and that for many millions more democracy is a vague term, an “ornamentation” that has little meaning for them.
The Times appropriately notes that this argument is being advanced by a highly repressive, Communist one-party state seeking to score points in a geopolitical rivalry with the U.S. And it ends by describing the particularly egregious persecution of Chinese human rights lawyers and activists, and by quoting an NYU Law Professor about how Chinese actions fit the definition of “totalitarianism.”
Most readers of the piece will rightly focus on the manifest hypocrisies of the Chinese power elite and its intellectual supporters who justify terrible violations of human rights.
But this rhetorical appeal by authoritarians to the values of “democracy” is nothing new. It has antecedents in the official rhetorics of Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Russian Communism—all of which claimed to represent a “higher form” of “folk democracy” or “proletarian democracy” or “people’s democracy.” In more recent times, Hugo Chavez presented himself as a proponent of an anti-imperialist “protagonistic democracy,” and Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian regime, famously declared in 2014 that Hungary was an “illiberal democracy,” pointing to Singapore, China, India, Turkey, and Russia as his models. And we must not forget, of course, that Vladimir Putin long extolled his regime as a form of “sovereign democracy” that placed national traditions above global commitments and regarded “human rights” as a “Western” abstraction.
These claims deserve to be strongly criticized and opposed, in the name of a robustly pluralistic and liberal democracy centered on a free civil society and the right to contest governing parties in free and fair democratic elections and peaceful transfers of power.
At the same time, these claims reveal something that political scientists have long observed—that “democracy” is a complex and “essentially contested” concept, that anti-liberals have often claimed “democracy” as their own, and that contests over the connections between liberalism and democracy have been central to modern politics.
But we don’t need to look to mid-20th century totalitarianism, or current-day anti-liberal authoritarians in China or Russia or Hungary, to see versions of this contestation. For it is taking place before our very eyes in the U.S., in the form of a Republican party that is deliberately assaulting core norms and institutions of liberal democracy and doing it in the name of . . . democracy itself.
That many important Republican leaders, from Tucker Carlson to Mike Pence, have been making pilgrimages to Budapest to commune with Viktor Orban has been widely reported as evidence of the party’s authoritarianism. But it is less frequently observed that Republican efforts to “orbanify” U.S. politics draw not simply from Orban’s legal tactics but from his rhetorical ones. Like Orban, Trump poses as a tribune of the people who despises liberals. As he stated in a recent, rambling rant: “They want to silence you, they want to silence your voice. Remember, I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy. I’m the one that’s trying to save it, please remember that.”
Of course, Trump and his supporters do not mean by “democracy” a liberal democracy. They mean the popular sovereignty of “true Americans.” They do not mean by this universal adult suffrage, they mean voting restrictions designed to limit the participation of “undesirable” and “un-American” people. They do not mean by this a system based on robust debate and free and fair party competition. They mean a system that opposes “fake news” and “liberal science,” that privileges their own media and their own academics and their own partisan advantage, and regards any alternatives as “enemies of the people.”
Trump does not say “stop democracy.” He says “stop the steal.” Ever since 2016, Trump and his party have proudly rallied beneath the banner of “election integrity,” and behind the spurious claim that “the Democrat party,” and “illegals,” “criminals,” and even “dead people” are attacking “election integrity” and diminishing the voices of realAmericans.
This may be bullshit. But it is very potent bullshit for many millions of Americans. And too many defenders of liberal democracy–and of the Democratic party, which alone supports liberal democracy—have failed to take the full measure of its potency.
Back in late October, the Washington Post ran a piece by Phillip Bump: “The Americans who see democracy most at risk? Republicans.” This has generated some real worry among Democrats concerned that too many Americans do not care enough about democracy and its vulnerability. But the problem is that too many Americans do care about democracy—a kind of democracy that is anti-liberal, authoritarian, xenophobic, racist, and fascist-leaning. These Americans sincerely and often fanatically believe that “the people”—their people—have been dethroned by nefarious liberal-Marxist elites like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Stacey Abrams, and the editors of the New York Times, and that they must reclaim their power in the name of American Greatness. These people worry about the vulnerability of democracy– to people like us, who support liberal democracy!
Saying that what the Republican party stands for is “antidemocratic” and authoritarian is in one sense both true and necessary. For their “democracy” is a project of excluding voters and silencing insufficiently “patriotic” voices and purging public institutions of professionals and demonizing the practice of political opposition and enforcing the power of a minority. This is a very perverse conception of “democracy” that flies in the face of civil and political liberties that virtually all Americans take for granted.
But we must also reckon with the fact that millions of people subscribe to this authoritarian conception of democracy, and that for many millions more democracy is a vague term, an “ornamentation” that has little meaning for them.
It would be absurd to imagine that defending liberal democracy right now must center on carefully parsing out different conceptions of democracy for the mass public. But it is equally absurd to imagine that simple accusations of hostility to democracy will be sufficient to explain to all of those who might be persuaded that Republicans must be prevented from hijacking the political system by making it more difficult to vote, placing election administration and vote counting in partisan hands, and exploiting the complexities of the Electoral College to ensure a Republican victory in the 2024 presidential election.
And so part of the public defense of liberal democracy must involve efforts to clearly explain why Republican efforts are so dangerous: why acrimony and violence are good for almost no one outside of a relatively small group of fanatics; why it is impossible for any one individual or group or political party to have a monopoly the truth, and the mere presumption of inherent rightness would be regarded as absurd arrogance in most normal contexts; why minority rule is inherently unstable; and why the kinds of effective governance on which we all rely require serious debate and not a politics of cynical denunciation.
In short, we need to be clearer about what it really means to have popular sovereignty in a pluralistic society, what it means to have free and fair elections—and why liberal democracy is worth defending.
Such clarity can be nothing more than one element of a much broader campaign to defend liberal democracy and to defeat the Republican party. But at the margins, this kind of clarity can help to energize activism and to persuade some swing voters who will matter in 2022 and 2024 that the defense of liberal democracy is an urgent imperative.