One Damn Thing After Another

One Damn Thing After Another

The long roots of liberal democracy’s crisis.


The coronavirus pandemic reminds us viscerally of the original meaning of the word crisis.” According to the ancient Greeks, krisis designated a moment when a stark choice was revealed. In medicine, the patient is going to either live or die; in criminal law, the defendant will be found guilty or not guilty. And in politics? The past few years have seen a growing list of books produced by what skeptics might deride as the “crisis of democracy” industry. But are we dealing with a crisis in the sense of a truly make-or-break moment for the ideal of self-government? Or are we witnessing one of the regular ups and downs in political development—mild symptoms of a decay that could well be reversed?

Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe and Adam Przeworski’s Crises of Democracy both attempt to give us sober answers to this question. Berman’s book is an impressive, amazingly wide-ranging account of European political development since the 17th century. Analyzing the trajectory of the continent from the English Civil War to the current malaise of the European Union, she seeks to identify the political, social, and cultural preconditions for democracy.

Przeworski, one of the world’s most influential scholars of comparative politics, urges us to tone down the crisis talk, partly reflecting his minimalist understanding of what counts as democracy in the first place. Drawing on three historical examples—Weimar Germany, France’s Fourth Republic, and Chile in the run-up to the 1973 coup—he argues that a real crisis of democracy looks very different from the election of a reality TV star as president or a country deciding to exit the EU, as worrisome as those developments might be. Yet he also observes two long-term trends that do make him concerned about the fate of even long-established democracies: increasing instability in party systems and, on a less abstract level, the fact that large majorities in countries across the West expect their children to be worse off than they are. These trends, Przeworski warns, are deeply disconcerting.

Read together, these two books remind us that democracies are unlikely to last without citizens having a minimum sense of the same shared fate—the very sense that once animated social democratic parties (of which Berman is a distinguished historian). At the same time, contrary to American centrists who lament divisions as such, the books make it clear that democracy does not require consensus but rather the capacity of a political system to process conflicts in a peaceful manner and the willingness of politicians to see their adversaries assume power. The problem is that the facade of such a system can be kept up long after the underlying reality has disappeared.

In Democracy and Dictatorship, Berman doesn’t make any claims to historical originality. Her aim is to identify larger patterns on the basis of previous scholarship, and she does so through a series of stylized accounts (with helpful summaries at the end of most chapters) of the advances and, more commonly, setbacks of democracy in the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain, with occasional glances at Eastern Europe. Such a vast amount of material has to be fitted into a tight conceptual scheme. Berman’s wager is that what she calls her “conceptual brush-clearing”—cutting back
the thickets of misunderstanding that have engulfed terms like “democracy” and “liberalism”—will help us see patterns we missed before.

One potential misunderstanding involves our very notion of liberal democracy. Berman argues that this seemingly self-evident compound combines two concepts potentially in tension with each other. With its collective empowerment of citizens through elections, democracy is not the same as liberalism, which, she holds, is best understood as respect for the rule of law and minorities’ rights as well as a commitment to treat all members of the polity as equals. Specifically, liberal democracy, she continues, is a rare and relatively recent achievement in Europe. One cannot get to it fast, and there certainly are no shortcuts; as Berman puts it, we should expect a marathon, not a sprint. And she goes on to show in the book that the marathon is impeded by an obstacle course.

The obstacles are often a legacy of the past. Berman helpfully reminds us that those trying to build democracy never start with a blank slate. Absolute monarchies and dictatorships and even relatively moderate regimes like Wilhelmine Germany rule by dividing societies.

Berman’s presentation of 19th and 20th century German history backs up this point. After unifying the country and establishing a relatively wide franchise, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck waged an all-out kulturkampf against Catholics, about a third of the country’s population. He accused them of being loyal to Rome rather than the Reich; he also went after the Social Democratic Party, the largest and electorally most successful workers’ party at the time. The “Anti-Socialist Legislation” left a poisonous legacy for the Weimar Republic: Social Democrats were suspected of being traitors to the fatherland. Another lasting effect, not discussed by Berman but equally relevant to the trajectory of German democracy up to the present day, was that the SPD long felt the need to prove itself as staatstragend, a patriotic party that ultimately keeps the polity together. The party voted to enter World War I; in the conflagration’s aftermath, it rescued German capitalism by turning against the country’s more radical leftist forces. As recently as 2018 it saved Angela Merkel, as the party’s leadership felt compelled to enter yet another grand coalition with the center-right for the sake of German democracy’s stability.

Berman is blunt about her view that having some significant degree of consensus and sense of national belonging is critical to make it to the finish line of the liberal democracy marathon. Italy, she insists, is a good example of why. After the country was largely unified in 1861, only about 2.5 percent of the population spoke anything recognizable as Italian. Sicilians had no idea what the word Italia meant (some thought it was the name of the king’s wife); one figure who refused to use the country’s name altogether was the pope, who lost large chunks of the Vatican’s state to the new Italy and who proceeded to excommunicate the king, his ministers, and anyone else associated with what he referred to as the “Subalpine usurper.” Italy apparently lacked Italians, and a democracy without a proper demos, Berman argues, is not a democracy at all. Indeed, for decades, Italy remained deeply divided, the state functioned only intermittently—and hardly at all in the south—and ruling elites secured power mainly through patronage.

For Berman, the clientelism that came to be associated with democracy in those years only further divided society, making it difficult to broaden the expanses of solidarity and to form strong political parties—the latter being, according to her, indispensable for modern liberal democracies to work. For her, this sense of fragmentation, strongly felt in 19th and early 20th century Italy and Germany, helped facilitate the rise of fascism in both countries. The Nazi Party, which at one point counted 10 percent of Germans as members, and the Italian National Fascist Party were what later came to be known as people’s parties, which cut across various class divisions and created an image of national solidarity, albeit one strictly limited by racial boundaries. (Also, the reality of “social harmony” consisted in labor remaining subordinate to capital.)

According to Berman, the dangers of fascism point to the sense of solidarity and collective identity that liberal democracies need. Without them, polities can democratize too early and get stuck with mere “electoralism,” or regular elections that depend on the de facto exclusion of significant parts of the population and result in no real turnover in power (a situation all too familiar to students of the American South). Another fateful scenario: Countries might have to go through the upheaval of nation building, state building, and democracy building all at the same time. This, Berman asserts, is essentially the story of Eastern Europe after World War I, where liberal democracy struggled to take hold properly, with the possible exception of Czechoslovakia (a fact that casts doubt on her thesis that a common national culture is essential to democratic politics, since Czechoslovakia was the most ethnically diverse country in the region).

As Berman shows by examining the history of Eastern Europe, the persistent power of landed elites often proved the largest obstacle to democratization. Tocqueville warned that “an aristocracy seldom yields without a protracted struggle, in the course of which implacable animosities are kindled between different classes of society.” The only exception to this pattern—and an instance of “comparatively puzzling behavior,” according to Berman—is Britain’s gentry, which gradually extended the franchise in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course, it did so partly to avoid violent revolution. Faithful to Lampedusa’s famous line about everything having to change in order for everything to remain the same, its members ended up preserving much of their wealth and power. It’s a depressing thought that the persistence of inequality may have contributed to the fact that, during the interwar period, the UK was the only one of the states discussed in Berman’s book that could count as a consolidated democracy.

In Berman’s view, liberal democracy is ultimately possible only in strong states where there is a common sense of belonging and national culture. But her book also notes that behind such commonality lies long-forgotten and often brutal histories of violence. Because England went through a civil war in the 17th century, it had a much smoother political development in the 20th—or so the logic of Berman’s account suggests. Thus the reader is left with the question, What other paths are there toward collective solidarity that do not move in the direction of a violent majoritarianism? According to Berman, this is where France fits in. In her French story, the violent consolidation of the nation-state under the ancien régime left a pernicious long-term legacy. But France also shows that not all forms of state creation and nation building have to be brutal or defined by histories of suppression. The Third Republic, the longest-lasting regime since the French Revolution, made society more cohesive through a common republican school education (and military service) that helped establish liberal democracy in the country.

Even here, however, an irony lurks in Berman’s focus on the role a national culture plays in the formation of liberal democracy: It can read as if we get liberalism—which is to say, effective protection of minorities— only in circumstances in which there are no vulnerable minorities and hence no real need for liberalism to begin with.

In the last pages of Democracy and Dictatorship, Berman urges us to lower our political expectations and take leave of the naive post-1989 expectation that every nation would race toward liberal democracy and get there quickly enough. She writes that countries stumbling “along the way to democracy are the norm rather than the exception.” That’s not much of a consolation for the despairing Poles and Hungarians who saw their dreams of liberal democracy crushed in the past decade. Berman would tell them that democracy building requires two phases: a proper dismantling of the old regime and then consolidation of self-rule. It takes patience and time—to which they’d likely respond with John Maynard Keynes’s observation that, in the long run, we are all dead.

Young Eastern Europeans might further remind us that until recently, some social scientists had a politically hopeful message for their increasingly prosperous countries. One of them is Adam Przeworski, a Polish-born political scientist teaching at New York University. He still maintains that “we have known for some time that democracies are impregnable in economically developed countries.” He also suggests there is another empirical constant: The longer a country has been a democracy, the more likely it is to remain one. As he puts it, “The taste for selecting governments through elections is an acquired one, but it is addictive once acquired” (or as Berman might say, once you get jogging, you’ll just keep going). Citing the United States as an example, he notes “the probability that the incumbent would not hold an election, or hold one making it impossible for the opposition to win, is 1 in 1.8 million country years.” (Improbable is, of course, not the same as impossible; we’ll find out more this year.)

Przeworski opens his short, dense, but rewarding book with an appeal to tone down what Saul Bellow once called “crisis chatter.” According to Przeworski, surveys that show people longing for strong leadership do not demonstrate that democracy is giving way, nor do mass strikes or even riots (even if they were more frequent in countries where democracy eventually fell). Actual breakdown looks different, he insists, pointing to three paradigmatic cases: the collapse of the Weimar regime, which still casts the largest shadow over democracy studies; the ascension of Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s in France; and the military coup in Chile in 1973. The lesson is that crises lead to collapse only when the political system fails to regulate rivalry and resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner, and in nearly all liberal democracies, we do not seem to be at that point—at least not yet.

Even though Przeworski’s historical arguments are persuasive, sometimes the past might be just the past. As he acknowledges, “history does not speak for itself,” and we might simply be caught in webs of misleading but oddly comforting analogies. Until recently, the breakdown of democracy was almost always accompanied by violence. As he points out, “between 1788 and 2008 political power changed hands as a result of 544 elections and 577 coups.” But what about those democracies that were not destroyed by force but instead were undermined stealthily or just slipped away somehow? And in the latter cases, how would we be able to tell?

Przeworski’s previous work gives us a hint. At one point he offered one of the pithiest definitions of democracy: a political system in which parties can lose elections. This might sound not so much pithy as banal, but it contains an important insight. If there is no real turnover of power, it probably isn’t a democracy, which Przeworski also summed up, in an equally epigrammatic manner, as “institutionalized uncertainty.” Political outcomes have to be unpredictable (if you like complete predictability, North Korea is probably an attractive option); at the same time, this uncertainty needs to be institutionalized through constitutions and electoral laws that all of the contenders for power accept and that make what is unknown still nonetheless controllable.

Yet without any overt show of force, much of the uncertainty seems to have been taken out of politics in “autocratizing” (alas, an entirely appropriate neologism for our age) countries like Turkey and Hungary. The courts have been packed, the media brought to heel, and gerrymandering and all kinds of other political dark arts used to ensure that electoral outcomes aren’t much in question. The more that can be done under the color of law, the less needs to be accomplished through force of arms. Just think of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest brazen attempt—immediately approved by the Russian constitutional court—effectively to keep himself in power for life.

Is something similar possible in the democracies that Przeworski deems “impregnable”? Here, worries finally set in, and his tone changes. He identifies two current developments that are unprecedented and that he argues might signify that the supposed laws in democracy-promoting social science no longer hold.

The first is a level of pessimism never seen in surveys before. Sixty percent of Americans and 64 percent of Europeans think their children will be financially worse off than themselves. Przeworski observes with barely concealed alarm that “this collapse of the deeply ingrained belief in intergenerational progress is a phenomenon at a civilizational scale.” The second factor is less obviously threatening to democracy. He diagnoses an increasing fragmentation and instability of party systems. One of the remarkable empirical findings of his book is that, despite the enormous upheavals over the course of the 20th century, the dominant parties in many Western European countries remained ideologically consistent from the 1920s to the late ’90s. It’s not quite evident why that should be such a problem in and of itself. Think of left-wing newcomers like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece or, for that matter, the ideologically still somewhat indistinct Five Star Movement in Italy. They obviously made the formation of governments more difficult; Spain had caretaker governments for months on end. And in the eyes of admirers of the Westminster system, ever-larger coalitions also exact costs in terms of accountability: Unlike in a simple two-party system, voters have no real idea who’s responsible for what.

But consider what new parties have actually meant outside the abstract modeling of specialists in comparative politics. For decades, Spanish and Greek politics were dominated by two large and, to varying degrees, corrupt parties that, during the euro crisis, offered more or less the same cruel economic policies. Disillusioned youngsters—whose lives will forever be marred by this lost decade of austerity—returned to the voting booth once new, attractive options appeared on the ballot. True, neither Podemos nor Syriza was able to end austerity. But to read their rise as a sign of a “crisis of democratic representation,” as has been common, is to get things exactly the wrong way around. The crisis would have consisted in the old parties continuing to govern as a kind of cartel. As societies change and new conflicts appear, party systems should adapt and transform in sometimes surprising 
ways; they should indeed provide institutionalized uncertainty.

That still leaves us with the new wave of intergenerational despair. The danger is not necessarily that people will prefer authoritarianism over existing democracies, though the patently inadequate responses of many democracies to the coronavirus crisis might encourage that kind of thought. (But if it does, never fail to mention democratic Taiwan, which dealt with the pandemic much better than the mainland.) But that doesn’t mean the more plausible explanation of how despair could destroy democracy is necessarily any more reassuring. Many citizens seem aware that the Viktor Orbáns and Donald Trumps of the world are chipping away at democracy. Yet in highly polarized and increasingly unequal societies, they are willing to put up with the damage because of economic self-interest (whether illusory or real) or other short-term partisan advantages. As Yale political scientist Milan Svolik has shown, there is little evidence that people have had it with democracy as such—a major difference with attitudes in the 20th century, when plenty of people considered parliamentary democracy an obvious failure and embraced fascism as the way of the future. But today some citizens are willing to engage in a trade-off between what’s personally good for them—scrambling to provide a better future for their kids—and respect for institutionalized uncertainty.

Given that this problem is ultimately a matter of far-reaching changes in the economy and society, Przeworski can’t help but end up declaring himself “moderately pessimistic about the future.” What he’s afraid of is not spectacular coups but a stealthy, creeping authoritarianism that keeps diminishing institutionalized uncertainty. Many governments, from Orbán’s in Hungary to Narendra Modi’s in India, are following this path; the coronavirus crisis, if anything, makes them show their authoritarianism more openly.

Both Democracy and Dictatorship and Crises of Democracy, while not quite spelling out the point, remind us of the important link between liberal democracy and social democracy. Berman stresses at the end of her book that democracy in postwar Western Europe worked because the large political parties proved responsive to the citizens’ socioeconomic demands; Przeworski, in pointing to the perils of widespread pessimism about the economic future, effectively backs up that point. Both books also exhibit a healthy degree of skepticism when it comes to how much an overly abstract and quantitatively oriented political science, long driven by economics envy, can help us under the circumstances. Berman stresses the importance of historical contingency and what is sometimes called path dependency. History may be just one damn thing after another, but the sequence of these things matters in terms of some political possibilities opening up and others being foreclosed. Przeworski, no stranger to complicated statistical calculations, even goes on record with a remarkable admission. “The intuitions from memoirs and even novels,” he writes, “may be as illuminating as from systematic data: they tell us how individuals perceived and experienced the dramatic events in which they were protagonists and, in the end, it is their actions that determined the outcomes of crises.” Of course, this point about “action” is actually a hopeful message: It’s still at least somewhat up to us.

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