A bit more on democratic theory

Just a follow-up on my previous post… Reading the Economist over breakfast this morning (yep, that’s what I do), I was struck by this line (in an article that was actually about Ted Cruz):

Of the top two Republicans in Iowa, one is a universally recognisable type. Short on policy, long on ego and bombast, promising to redeem a nation he disparages through the force of his will, Donald Trump’s strongman shtick is familiar from Buenos Aires to Rome, inflected though it is by reality TV and the property business.

I like the observation that Trump is a “universally recognizable” type, a figure that would strike most non-Americans (e.g. particularly South Americans) as a normal feature of democratic politics. (Think also PKP in Quebec…) Indeed, in certain respects the Trump candidacy represents the normalization of American politics.

And yet, when I turn to (normative) democratic theory, I find absolutely nothing that is of any use in understanding the phenomenon, much less thinking about how a society might respond to it. Indeed, what I find is a discipline that seems to be in total denial about how democracies actual work. Or perhaps I’m wrong about this, and I’m just reading the wrong stuff. It seems to me that if one is worried about Trump, and Trump-like figures, then one should have something intelligible to say about the sort of institutional reforms that would make it more difficult for individuals like this to get close to political power, without compromising, as it were, the normative core of democracy. The only approach that seems to me to offer any traction at all on this question is Ian Shapiro’s so-called “competitive theory” of democracy (which is a better term than “neo-Schumpeterian”). But all of the other approaches — first and foremost, the deliberative — seem to me to have nothing to say (except for the usual blather about campaign finance reform, which the Trump phenomenon shows is not the issue). Seriously, is there something I’m missing?


A bit more on democratic theory — 12 Comments

  1. Hi Joe. I’m not quite sure what you are asking for, since you mention a gap in normative democratic theory, but seem to want policy prescription. Regarding the former, a couple come to mind right away:
    Pierre Rosenvallon important book, Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust (2008), has an interesting section on populism that posits it is not an exaggeration of democratic but of different forms of counter-democracy (social or institutional forms that resist democratic power). His next book, Democratic Legitimacy, has lots of historical analysis and policy implications to suggest how that tendency can be addressed.
    Suzanne Dovi’s book “The good representative” (John Wiley & Sons, 2012), which proposes clear normative standards to determine when representatives are bad for democracy, even when they (arguably) push for their constituency’s interests. Dovi has written elsewhere about institutional mechanisms to try to exclude bad representatives.
    A well-known democratic theory piece on populism is Margaret Canovan’s (1999) “Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy.” Political Studies 47: 2-16.
    I read a piece a couple years ago that reflected on populism, which i found interesting – normative theory but not just deliberative: Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira. (2012) The Ambivalence of Populism: Threat and Corrective for Democracy. Democratization 19: 184-208.

    In terms of institutional reforms, I’d say there are two areas of concern. One is on the imposition of harmful policies by an elected populist – and I would think these fears are addressed by most democratic theory and institutional proposals that focus on the possible harms of majoritarianism. So, there’s a ton of comparative work and policy proposals on constitutionalism and separation of powers, judicial review, civil service professionalism, the role of civil society and social movements, civil disobedience, etc.
    The other concern is what is populist rhetoric and demagoguery do to electoral processes themselves. I think there is a bunch of work in comparative politics on that, particularly regarding right-wing parties in Europe, but it’s not my bailiwick. I’d be interested to see if other people have recommendations here, along the lines of: how to inoculate citizenry during elections against getting duped by demagogues.

    • Thanks Chris. I’m actually half-way through the first Rosanvallon book — I checked those two out precisely because they seemed to be addressing the issues that are concerning me. Will check out other refs as well. This blegging is great!

  2. The closest thing I can think of is a reasonably substantive literature on the place of rhetoric in theories of deliberative democratic theory.

    This literature typically notes that philosophers have generally disparaged rhetoric as irrational (and demagogic), and then tries to show how rhetoric can be made compatible with deliberative democracy. So these authors seem to be saying: bad rhetoric is inevitable, and potentially dangerous; let’s try to counter it with good rhetoric.

    Here are two examples:


    Not sure if that counts as helpful or not.

  3. It’s because people are too naive (in the technical sense) about politics. We can all afford to be more cynical (again, in the technical sense). That is, our excessive naivete makes it hard for us to accept that we might have to design our institutions in a way to make it hard for a Trump to get toward power.

    This book looks like a promising corrective:

  4. A quasi-anthropological observation: amongst mediterranean populations, there often is a certain clownish quality (how better should I call it) in right-wing leaders that you don’t easily find in their nordic counterparts (compare people like Merkel and Cameron to people like Sarkozy, Berlusconi, or Greece’s Adonis Georgiades, recently conservative pretender, now party vice-president). America somehow is rather mediterranean in this.

  5. Presidential systems are worse than Westminster systems in this regard. Question period, in particular, selects for types that can actually answer questions.

    Presidential systems also select for bombast because Presidents become symbolic of the nation. In Westminster systems you have instead the King or Queen for that outlet of national pride.

    Presidential term limits are a last-ditch effort to avoid Caesarism.

    Linz offers more thoughts http://scholar.harvard.edu/levitsky/files/1.1linz.pdf

    • Yeah, I read that Linz paper last time there seemed to be an impending constitutional crisis in the U.S. :)

  6. Hi Joseph, I know your probably busy with your new book, but could you perhaps write a post about the idea of “Kluges” that you presented in your previous book? I liked the examples you cited and was wondering if you had some more of them that you had either scrapped from the book or have thought of since it’s release.

  7. It seems to me that if one is worried about Trump, and Trump-like figures, then one should have something intelligible to say about the sort of institutional reforms that would make it more difficult for individuals like this to get close to political power

    Here’s an idea: Eliminate the primary system, so that, for example, Republican candidates for Congress and the Presidency are selected by Republicans in Congress. They would naturally select people they could work with, and who were likely to help their collective goal of increasing the number of Republicans in the federal government. And if someone acts up,they could deselect him next time.

    That would make them more like a political party in Britain or Canada, with an institutional discipline that allows it to coherently work towards a goal or conduct a deal, and ignore gadflies like Trump.

    Someone like Trump would have to create a whole new party, and that takes time. By the time it had a credible shot at government, its founder would likely be dead.