Democracy has many enemies. Many who oppose and weaken democracy also declare themselves to be its friends, to be true believers in democracy. So defending democracy carefully and vigorously is always necessary.
Democracies die all the time. Some countries have gone in and out of electoral democratic practices many times. Other stories from this history have been studied in depth: Germany going from elections to autocracy in the 1930s is only one among many such narratives. Yet there are many ways to practice democracy beyond the electoral democracies of Europe and their imitators. And there are many histories to study when searching for effective ways to defend democracy.
What may seem like small compromises in organizations that see themselves as democratic may also mean the death of the belief among the members that they are in charge of their own affairs. That is another type of death for democracy, for government by the people. This type of death is surprisingly widespread, and indicates that some common assumptions about democracy may fruitfully be revisited.
Few societies that see themselves as democratic dedicate the needed effort and resources to train their members to defend democracy. This keeps democracy weak, a condition that benefits those few who do not wish to share power with the majority. Defenses that protect democracy from the many strategies and tactics deployed openly and covertly to weaken democracy must become more widely known.
This is Part One in an occasional series of discussions of major resources and practices useful for defending democracy. This post introduces some important assumptions and terms useful for beginning the work of defending democracy, with some ideas for joining the work that is always already ongoing. Future posts will explore specific resources and practices important to electoral democracies, followed by other posts on assembly-based democracies and other types of democratic practices.
What is democracy?
Democracy means many different things in different communities, organizations, and time periods. For some it means elections, and for others democracy does not exist without mass meetings like assemblies and town hall meetings where major decisions take place. For some specialized experts must craft policies and shape negotiations, while for others specialization is an opening to domination by narrow interests and must be limited sharply. For some elections are sufficient, but for others all adult community members and not just leaders must be very well informed and possess equal rights and equal education.
There are also many types of democracy. What satisfies a participant in an electoral democracy would not seem like democracy to those who practice direct democracy. The democracy of the eighteenth century appears insufficient to many who practice democracy in the present. What seems democratic for European nation-states is not accountable enough to all for many indigenous nations and participatory social movements.
So defending democracy changes depending on what democracy means in particular approaches and organizations, time periods and locales, national communities and local subcultures, global organizations and movements. There is no single approach for all forms of democracy. Democracy is not a unified, monolithic way to practice self-governance. Not all democracies are equal.
However, there are a few goals for those who defend democracy that are important to a broad range of democratic practitioners. One such goal is ensuring that government practice remains accountable to “the people,” the demos that founds democracy. Another goal is to educate young people to know anti-democratic behavior in their own society and to reject it in thinking and in practice. Another widely useful goal is to reduce the power and influence of those who serve the interests of the few rather than the many. There are many, many ways to achieve these goals.
Strong or weak democracies?
Some historians say that democracy has replaced monarchy as the main form of government in the modern period. In these perspectives, democracy can be understood as an alternative to royal and aristocratic forms of government, where leadership is determined by blood lineage.
Yet we also see that blood relations and multiple family members can rule in states that claim to be democratic. This seemed to happen in the United States, where a father and son both recently become President. It also occurred in Argentina and many other modern democratic states, where a husband and wife have both been elected as head of government at different times.
Democracy must displace not only monarchy and aristocracy but other forms of government opposed to democracy, such as oligarchy (rule by the few) or plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) or autocracy (rule by those with unrestrained power). As will become apparent in future discussions, these forms of anti-democratic governance and their practitioners frequently overlap, so oligarchs and autocrats are often wealthy while plutocrats are often few in number.
When some nations claim to be democracies but have put in place few protections from influence by the wealthy, or the well-connected, or family members, or capitalists, or men, then some say they have not defended democracy from narrow interests. When other nations claim to be democracies but voters are intimidated or turned away from the polls or unable to get off work to vote, then their democracy must be strengthened. When communities depend on strong men or patronage relations, then decisions are not made by the people but by the few. When organizations who see themselves as democratic allow certain participants to speak all the time and others are silenced, then democracy has not been defended.
There are many strategies to divert democratic decisions into narrow interests, many loopholes to circumvent democratic mechanisms, many avenues to reduce accountability to the people, many ways to reduce the influence of your opponents, many types of intimidation and fear mongering and trickery to narrow the seats at the table where decisions are made, many tactics to avoid sharing power, many ways to weaken democracy.
Are these democratic moments, or failures of democracy? Are these strong democracies or weak democracies? The existing scales for answering these questions often hide more than they reveal, since they operate within narrowly defined notions of democracy limited to electoral nation-states. Nearly all published studies of strong and weak democracy take European and U.S. national models as the only type of democracy, restricting democracy to the compromises and weak points of that particular history.
We will reconsider these assumptions to open up new terms for defending democracy. Proliferating defense tactics strengthens those who oppose democracy, those who benefit from the weak state in which it is often found.
Who are the enemies of democracy?
The twentieth century witnessed a dramatic broadening of support for democracy. In previous centuries, many educated social and political leaders opposed democracy because they thought it would remove them from power. That is why many of the founders of modern states, including the United States, France, and India, often openly argued that democracy was too radical a practice for governments. Instead, they believed that democracy had to be combined with oligarchy, the rule of the few, or other countermeasures, so that the citizens did not take full control of state government. Elections, beloved by many in certain democracies, were central to that compromise with oligarchy.
When the term democracy becomes popular even among political elites, it became much more difficult to openly oppose democratic practices, including electoral practices. So in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries many who oppose democracy do not do so openly. Others weaken democratic practices without even conscious awareness that their actions may damage and even destroy democracy in the long run. As a result, many enemies of democracy appear to be its friends and even its leaders.
One approach to this problem is to examine behavior in addition to listening to what people say. Those who wish to defend democracy must also examine the effects of policies and practices, instead of taking their rhetoric for reality. Some proponents of democracy may ask whether the behavior benefits all the people, for example, or just a few. Others ask whether decision-making power is being shared widely, or only among a select group of a political body, such as a community or a nation-state.
Another common enemy of democracy are those who speak as if they support democracy, but in their practices and policies promote other goals. These other goals may include exploiting popular topics to promote their own personal interests or narrow group interests, attacking the credibility of democratic institutions and its cognate practices and structures, and even weakening democratic institutions so that they may be toppled.
Some use the term “libertarian” or “neo-liberal” to describe those who would weaken democratic governance for budgetary or philosophical reasons. Others use the term “demagogue” to name this type of enemy. Some claim to be realists to portray defenders of democracy as idealists or ideologues. There are many such enemies with different characteristics to be discussed in future posts.
Those interested in defending democracy must sharpen their skills at identifying demagogues and oligarchs and plutocrats and autocrats. They must also equip themselves with a toolkit bursting with effective weapons for fending off attacks on democratic mechanisms. And they must learn the ways that the wealthy and other interest groups use the language of democracy while weakening democratic institutions to serve their narrow interests.
Enemies of democracy often must hide their goals and the impacts of their policies and practices, so developing independent judgement about their behavior is very important. Fortunately, there are many resources to make this work easier.
Since many enemies of democracy do not openly oppose it, one of the most important questions to ask is, “Who are the enemies of democracy?” How can they be identified? One well-known recent work asks, “Who hates democracy?” The answers may not be what you expect.
The discussions to come in coming months will cover these topics and more. Stay tuned so that democracy as you know it will grow stronger by the day, so it can survive the erosion and damage constantly inflicted by its many enemies.