The Impossible Trinity of Liberal Democracy

In the first part of my series on democracy published a few years ago, I made a distinction between four senses in which the term “democracy” is used. To briefly recap, I made they were: a) a term of empty political praise for policies which partisans like b) an institutional decision-making process emphasizing the primacy of majoritarian opinion c) a generic term for the type of procedures which have been prevalent in the west, and d) an overarching term for the ethical commitments of liberals. In that series, I focused on the tension b) and d), mostly ignoring a) and c). (For Present purposes, my highly speculative musings on anarchism are irrelevant.

In a recent podcast of the Ezra Klein show  (which I highly recommend) discussing his book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How To Save It, Harvard political theorist Yascha Mounk and Ezra Klein were debating how pessimistic we should be about the prospects for the future of American Democracy. I don’t really wish to comment on whether we should be pessimistic or not, but I want to make a further distinction that clarifies some of the disagreements and points towards a deeper issue in the workings of democratic institutions. I will argue that democracy consists of a liberal, majoritarian, and procedural dimension and these dimensions are not reconcilable for very long.

Mounk makes a similar distinction to the one I made between democratic majoritarianism and liberalism as a reason to be pessimistic. Klein tended to push back, focusing on the ways in which modern American political culture is far more ethically liberal than it has ever been, as seen through the decline in racism since the middle of the twentieth century and decline in homophobia since the 1990s. Mounk, however, emphasized how respect for procedure in the American political process has declined during the Trump Era, as evidenced by Trump’s disrespect for the political independence of courts and agencies like the Department of Justice.

However, throughout Klein’s and Mounk’s debate, it became clear that there was another distinction which needed to be made explicitly, and one which I have tended to heavily under-emphasize in my own thinking on the feasibility of democracy. It seems to me there are at least three dimensions by which to judge the functioning of democracies which are important to distinguish:

  1. Majoritarianism—the extent to which a democracy is sensitive to majority public opinion. Democracy, in this dimension, is simply the tendency to translate majority opinion to public policy, as Mounk puts it.
  2. Liberalism—this refers to the ethical content towards which democracies in the west try to strive. This is the extent to which citizens are justly treated as moral equals in society; whether minority religious freedoms are respected, racial and ethnic minorities are allowed equal participation in society (economically and politically), and the extent to which general principles of liberal justice (however they may be interpreted) are enacted.
  3. Legal proceduralism—the extent to which political leaders and citizens respect the political independence of certain procedures. This dimension heavily emphasizes the liberal belief in the rule of law and the primacy of process. This can include law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice or the FBI, courts, and respect for the outcomes of elections even when partisan opponents are victorious.

It seems that there are reasons why one would want a democracy to retain all three features. Majoritarianism could be desirable to ensure stability, avoiding populist revolutions and uprising, and perhaps because one thinks it is just for government to be accountable to citizens. Liberalism, clearly, is desirable to ensure the society is just. Proceduralism is desirable to maintain the stability of the society given that people have deep political and philosophical disagreements.

Klein and Mounk’s debate, considering this explicit triadic distinction, can be (crudely) seen as Mounk initially emphasizing the tension between majoritarianism and liberalism in modern democracies. Klein pushes back saying that we are more liberal today than we’ve ever been, and perhaps the current majoritarian populist turn towards Trump should be put in context of other far more illiberal majoritarian populist impulses in the past. Mounk’s response seems to be that there’s also been a decline in respect for legal procedure in modern American politics, opening a danger for the instability of American democracy and a possible rise of authoritarianism.

First, it seems to me that both Mounk and Klein overemphasize respect for procedure in the past. As Robert Hasnas has argued, it has never been the case that anyone treats the law as independent simply because “the law is not a body of determinate rules that can be objectively and impersonally applied by judges” and therefore “what the law prescribes is necessarily determined by the normative predispositions of the one who is interpreting it.” There is always an ethical, and even a partisan political dimension, to how one applies procedure. In American history, this can be seen in ways that courts have very clearly interpreted law in motivated ways to justify a partisan, often illiberal, political view, such as Bowers v. Hardwick. There has always been a tendency for procedures to be applied in partisan ways, from the McCarthyite House Unamerican Committee, to the FBI’s persecution of civil rights leaders. Indeed, has Hasnas argues, the idea that procedures and laws can be entirely normatively and politically independent is a myth.

It is true, however, that Mounk does present reason to believe that populism makes disrespect for these procedures explicit. Perhaps one can say that while procedural independence is, in a pure sense, a myth, it is a constructive myth to maintain stability. People believing that elections are not independent, Trump’s disrespect for the independence of courts and justice, allows for a disintegration of those institutions into nothing but a Carl Schmitt-style, zero-sum war for power that can undermine stability of political institutions.

On the other hand, it seems worth emphasizing that there is often a tension between respect for procedure and the ethics of liberalism. Klein points out how there was large respect for legal procedure throughout American history that heavily undermined ethical liberalism, such as southerners who filibustered anti-lynching laws. Indeed, the justification for things such as the fugitive slave law was respect for the political independence of the legal right to property in slaves. All the examples of procedure being applied in politically biased and illiberal ways given moments ago support this point There is nothing in the notion that legal and electoral procedures are respected that guarantees those procedures in place will respect liberal principles of justice.

I remain agnostic as to whether we should be more pessimistic about the prospects for democracy in America today than at any other point in American history. However, at the very least, this debate reveals an impossible trinity, akin to the impossible trinity in monetary policy, between these three dimensions of democracy. If you hold majority opinion as primary, that includes populist urges to undermine the rule of law. Further, enough ink has been spilled on the tensions between majoritarianism and liberalism or effective policy. If you hold respect for procedure as primary, that includes the continuation procedures which are discriminatory and unjust, as well as procedures which restrict and undermine majority opinion. If you hold the justice of liberalism as primary, that will generate a tendency for morally virtuous liberals to want to undermine inequitable, unjust procedures and electoral outcomes and to want to restrict the ability of majorities to undermine minority rights.

The best a conventional democrat can do, it seems to me, is to pick two. A heavily majoritarian democracy where procedures are respected, which seems to be the dominant practice in American political history, is unlikely to be very ethically liberal. An ethically liberal and highly procedural government, something like a theoretically possible but practically unfeasible liberal dictator or perhaps a technocratic epistocracy (for which Jason Brennan argues), is a possible option but might be unstable if majorities see it as illegitimate or ethically unpalatable to procedural democrats. An ethically liberal but majoritarian democracy seems unworkable, given the dangers of populism to undermine minority rights and the rational ignorance and irrationality of voters. This option also seems to be what most western democracies are currently trending towards, which rightly worries Mounk since it is also likely to be extremely unstable. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the injustice of American history and the rise of populism in the west it’s that choosing all three is not likely to be feasible over the long term.

Please keep it civil

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