Opinion | Advancing democracy abroad requires defending it at home – The Washington Post
The oft-cited adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger isn’t really true. Some things that almost kill you (covid-19 comes to mind) can make you weaker over time.
Nonetheless, this notion reminds us of our resilience and the lessons we can learn from trials and setbacks. “We shall overcome” is a good impulse.
It’s thus possible that the challenges to democracy in our time, including some near-death experiences, might strengthen it in the long run. At the least, committed small-d democrats have shaken off the complacency that took hold after the fall of the Soviet Union. We now know, as we should have known all along, that the future is not inevitably democratic.
One positive result of our distemper is an outpouring of perceptive books about what ails democracy and what needs to be done to save it. Writers such as Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, Timothy Snyder, William Galston, Yascha Mounk, Edward Luce, Masha Gessen, Robert Kuttner and Anne Applebaum have offered thoughtful warnings and remedies.
A great virtue of the latest entry in this field, Jan-Werner Müller’s “Democracy Rules,” is its emphasis on how “losing is a complicated business in a democracy.” Donald Trump’s false charges of fraud reflect not simply his psychological inability to accept that he was, indeed, a loser in 2020. They are also a threat to the democratic system itself.
Müller, a social science professor at Princeton, notes that “certain forms of losing actively undermine democracy, while others can strengthen it.”
Losing can be a particular problem for parties and candidates who think of themselves as populist: “How can it be the case that the populists are the people’s only morally legitimate representatives and yet fail to gain overwhelming majorities at the ballot box?”
This logic leads to the sort of election-rigging now being undertaken by so many Republican state legislatures. It follows from the faux-populist claim that “only a vote for the people’s uniquely authentic representative is legitimate (and legal).” No wonder, Müller says, that Trump called the Jan. 6 crowd “the real people.”
But if winners in a democracy must resist the efforts of losers to undermine the system itself, they also owe the losers both the opportunity to win the next time and the freedom to keep making their case. The (temporarily) vanquished must have the chance to “set new terms for life in the polity as a whole,” Müller says.
It’s worth remembering, he says, that “devastating losses — if one loses in the right way — can turn into long run victories.” To make his point, he cites conservative Republican Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964 as laying the path for Ronald Reagan’s victory 16 years later.
Especially helpful is Müller’s emphasis on uncertainty as an essential democratic virtue. True, he writes, no one will march carrying banners declaring “We want institutionalized uncertainty now!” — certainly not after the pandemic or the 2020 election controversies. But he’s right that “uncertainty for winners is the same as hope for losers,” since “democracy makes no sense without the possibility of people at least sometimes changing their minds.”
He also cuts through anti-party cant by noting that political parties are essential to democratic rule. Parties, he writes, “are not automatically ‘divisive, distracting and dangerous’” but remain “the best way to realize the worth of individual democratic rights and deal with collective disagreements.”
Müller lifts up media institutions as part of democracy’s “critical infrastructure.” But he stresses that whether they are partisan or not, these forums for knowledge and debate must be devoted to “providing accurate information that can be checked (and double checked).”
As a result, he is critical of “symmetrical coverage” of politics in “situations of asymmetrical polarization” when “one party has turned against fundamental democratic rules or is misleading the public systematically about basic facts.”
Müller offers so many usefully provocative thoughts that most readers will disagree with him on something. I have taken issue before with his largely negative definition of populism, since I see populism as having both positive and negative — democratic and undemocratic — possibilities.
But he does great service to our understanding of the stakes in contemporary politics by making clear that democracy is about more than free elections. It entails both freedom and equality; open debate and an insistence that “people cannot have license to undermine the standing of their fellow citizens as free and equal members of the polity.”
This last point needs to be on the minds of U.S. senators as they contemplate the epic battle over voting rights and the filibuster that will confront them next month.
Our post-Afghanistan debates over U.S. responsibility for democracy in the world will be mere bluster if we allow it to be undermined at home. Foes of freedom abroad would like nothing better than for us to walk away from democracy’s rules.