The creation of democracy was inevitable

United States

Torben Lütjen

To person

is Professor of Comparative Political Science at the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel. In 2020 his book "America in the Cold Civil War. How a country loses its center" was published. [email protected]

At first glance, the matter seems simple: the fate of democracies is decided by the question of how many staunch democrats support them. Of course, the institutional order and the structure of the constitution play a role, as do sudden internal and external crises. In the end, the simplest equation is: where the majority of a society decides against democracy as a form of government, sooner or later it will fail. This equation is particularly familiar to Germans. After all, the failure of the Weimar Republic remains the central point of reference in all discussions about an alleged "crisis of democracy". [1] The advocates of the republic came under increasing pressure since 1930, especially on the right by the NSDAP, on the left by the KPD. In the end, it was virtually impossible for a shrinking political center to still organize majorities. Nazis and communists were mortal enemies, but they all agreed in their open rejection of the first German democracy. Weimar went down in history as a "democracy without democrats".

The only thing is, if you look at it from this perspective, you shouldn't really have to worry about the United States. Because democracy is widely accepted as a political idea there. It is true that many Americans - not unlike the citizens of many other Western democracies - express dissatisfaction with the way democracy is practiced and complain about the discrepancy between ideal and reality. Alternative forms of exercising and legitimizing rule only play a subordinate role in their imaginations. [2]

So is everything all right? The question is of course rhetorical, because after January 6, 2021, when a mob instigated by President Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol, even the toughest anti-alarmist can no longer seriously believe that US politics is still in the process Normal mode. And even if on that day and afterwards things went smoothly and succeeded what had worked for more than two hundred years in Washington - a peaceful change of government - the legitimacy crisis of American democracy is not over: the majority of those who you do Cross not with Joe Biden, but with Donald Trump, continues to consider the 2020 presidential election to be fake and thus, in a bitter but incorruptible logic, the new man in the White House to be an illegitimate president.

But how does that fit together: the fundamental support for democracy as the best form of government on the one hand, and the rejection of an election that is legitimate according to all logical criteria and the opinion of all election observers on the other? Obviously, the analytical patterns of the twentieth century do not address the crisis of American democracy. Even those who gathered in front of the US Capitol on January 6th, the majority should not have been dedicated anti-democrats. Rather, they saw themselves as the guardians and guardians of democracy, as the last contingent to defend themselves against what they saw as a corrupt system. Of course that is also extremely dangerous. And yet Trump's Republicans differ from those parties that the political scientist Giovanni Sartori in his concept of polarized pluralism as "anti-system parties" and identified as the potential gravedigger of democracy: parties with a revolutionary plan to overcome the existing order. [3] Trump's supporters did not dream of a new order; they dreamed that Trump won the elections.

So this is the contradiction that is to be resolved in the following: That the enemies of democracy today consider themselves to be its true guardians. One can, to put it mildly, consider this to be a misperception. But you should take it seriously if you want to understand what kind of spirit you are. Basically, three interrelated factors explain this contradiction: first the extreme and specific nature of the polarization of US politics, which has eroded values ​​without which any commitment to democracy is essentially worthless; Secondly the feeling among America's conservatives that all developments in the country run against them and therefore marginal means justify the end of cultural and political self-assertion; and third the fragmentation of the public, which has led to a complete erosion of common perceptions of reality.

Why democracy needs polarization

The fact that American society and politics are polarized has become a commonplace, just as the reasons for this have now been sufficiently explained. [4] So far, the question has taken up less space, and this applies not only to the USA, to what extent polarization is actually a problem for democracy. In the public discourse it is mostly perceived negatively, for example when it is mentioned in connection with fears of a "deep social division". Polarization sounds like dispute and conflict instead of consensus, like ideology instead of reason, like a troubled society that is not at peace with itself.

From the point of view of democracy theory one would have to counter this: What should be bad about it? Democracy thrives on strife and conflict and owes its continued success to its ability to endure fundamental conflicts and to settle them peacefully. In political science - in which the subject is increasingly being researched empirically, but there are few theoretical reflections on it - polarization is defined as a growing ideological distance: between the political positions of relevant parties or in the attitudes of citizens. But both are indispensable because democracy lives from competition and therefore needs alternatives.

Polarization often occurs in the course of social change, especially when new or previously excluded social groups demand more participation rights. The history of the polarization of US politics and society is the best example of this. After all, the culture of consensus that prevailed until the early 1960s was also due to the fact that the country's most pressing problem was ignored across all parties: the catastrophic conditions in the southern United States, where, even a hundred years after the end of slavery, there was no question of equality and where a de facto system of racial segregation still prevailed. It was only under pressure from the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King that the Democratic Party began, hesitantly under President John F. Kennedy, then energetically under his successor Lyndon B. Johnson, to address the problem. But that changed the statics of American politics from then on. After voters in the conservative south, up until then a stronghold of the party, left the Democratic Party in protest and switched to the Republicans, both parties became more homogeneous, the Republicans became more right-wing, the Democrats left - and race finally to the great divisive line of conflict in US politics. [5] The struggle of the civil rights movement is rightly regarded today as a heroic struggle for freedom, but one could also say that it was with it that the country began to polarize. But who would want to think that this is wrong today? From this perspective, polarization is simply the price to be paid from time to time for social progress, the inevitable consequence of new bursts of emancipation.

Ultimately, from the perspective of democracy theory, polarization should also be viewed positively because it often politicizes broader sections of the population and is associated with increased participation. Indeed, it is interesting that not so long ago polarization did not seem to be the cardinal problem of Western democracies. Instead, there was a lot of debate about the concept of "post-democracy": an only supposed democracy, whose backdrops (parties, parliaments, elections) are still in place, but the substance of which has long been eroded by an alliance of multinational companies and other global actors . [6] These actually determined the pace of politics - while the real sovereign, the people, turned away from politics with disinterest and apathy. Polarization counteracts such tendencies, because it strengthens civic engagement and also interest in politics, since it makes clear through sharp political contrasts what is at stake and thus increases the commitment for everyone.

When polarization hurts

So polarization does not have to be a problem for democracy per se. On the contrary: a minimum of polarization is even necessary. But it can become a problem if it takes on certain forms and develops into what the political scientists Jennifer McCoy, Tamina Rahman and Murat Somer call pernicious polarization denote: a "malicious" form of polarization, in which the other side is no longer seen as a legitimate political opponent, but as an existential enemy that must be fought down to the bone. [7] And unfortunately this is the very version of polarization that has now also spread to the United States.

But under what conditions does polarization take on these forms? The most important thing is what is being argued about and in what way. In principle, conflicts that can be classified along a socio-economic conflict dimension are easier to resolve than those that run along a cultural or even identity line of conflict. There is no question that the former, as material conflicts of distribution, can also trigger extreme hostilities, and of course some of their identity is also negotiated with them. Nonetheless, this gives rise to fights that are referred to as "divisible conflicts" because the subject of the dispute can be divided up: a little more or less taxes for some, a little more or less state benefits for others, and so on. One history of divisible conflicts, for example, is the history of the domestication of the revolutionary workers' parties through the creation of welfare states. [8]

The situation is different with questions of identity or cultural belonging, which produce "indivisible conflicts". With them it is much more difficult to find a "middle", for example in religious and ethnic conflicts the question of who is actually a legitimate part of a community and who is not. This also applies to conflicts in which fundamental and, from the point of view of those concerned, non-negotiable, because morally absolute values ​​are negotiated: Anyone who believes that homosexuality is a mortal sin, there is no compromise with the other side. And the US has undoubtedly been culturally polarized for decades. Not that questions of social inequality don't play a role there - but questions of race, Religion and immigration have long been more important.

Something else signals that polarization in the USA has entered a dangerous phase: the multiple cultural conflicts that all societies have to endure are gradually merging into a major bipolar conflict. [9] As long as this is not the case, citizens can remain ambivalent in their basic attitudes: just like the class-conscious worker, who at the same time defends his identity as a Catholic. Under such conditions, parties also have to communicate a certain amount of ambivalence and cannot make themselves clear representatives of a particular identity. The situation is different as soon as there is a clear dualism of two clearly delimited camps that unite all categories of identity such as class or religion. The respective identities then mutually reinforce each other, and instead of ambivalence they produce radicality.

This describes exactly the development in the USA. [10] Here's over the past few decades partisanship itself, i.e. party affiliation, has become the actual separation factor, a kind of "super identity" to which everything is subordinate. Stay of course race and religion and also the urban-rural contrast are powerful, but the parties now each embody a pole of these identities: the Republicans as the party of religious, white and rural America; the Democrats as a party of secular, multi-ethnic and urban America. As a result, however, the voters on both sides have become foreign to each other and no longer see themselves only as citizens with different opinions, but as radically different, with whom no more real life is shared. It is interesting that this polarization is not even primarily driven by growing differences in attitudes towards certain factual issues. US political scientists speak instead of an "affective polarization" a deep, emotionally anchored aversion to the other side. [11] In such polarized societies at some point, trust inevitably erodes not only in the institutions of the state, but also between fellow citizens, who sometimes assume the darkest intentions of each other. [12]

"Right or Wrong, My Party"

With that we have returned to the starting point of our considerations. The long-lasting polarization of US politics has not turned the Republican Party into a dedicated anti-system party - it lacks an intellectually consistent counter-draft for this - but it has reinforced the view of many Republican voters that they are in an existential conflict situation, which justifies the use of democratically marginal means. Ultimately, your own democratic principles, to which you can easily declare yourself verbally, are exchanged for advantages for your own group. To put it more vividly: Even if it was clear to many Republicans that there was a contempt for democracy in the White House from 2017 to 2021 - from the point of view of conservative America he was after all you A despiser of democracy and certainly better than anything the other side had to offer, who would wantonly drive the country to ruin through "open borders" and the "introduction of socialism" and who are themselves working to undermine democracy through electoral fraud. Because that too is one of the characteristics of this polarization: that the positions of the opposing side are always radically overestimated by supporters of both parties. [13]

The absence of an overtly anti-democratic ideology is why historical analogies with interwar Europe have never been convincing. The strange mélange of acceptance of democracy with simultaneous non-acceptance of its central rules of the game (such as the admission of an obvious election defeat) is actually much closer to the political constellation in countries like Poland and Hungary with their strong right-wing populist parties, Venezuela or the neo-authoritarian Turkey. There, political scientists like Milan Svolik encountered the same apparent contradiction some time ago: that democracy is being dismantled, although in surveys overwhelming majorities admit it. [14] This dismantling is being driven by legitimately elected heads of government, whose activities could actually be stopped relatively easily by having their supporters withdraw their trust at the ballot box. As Svolik's studies show, however, that is precisely what is often not the case: in his experiments, only very few punish their own candidates for violating the democratic rules of the game.

Together with Matthew Graham, Svolik replicated these studies for the USA and confirmed his findings: The stronger the party identification, the stronger the willingness to ignore clear violations of norms and rules. [15] Incidentally, this was true for supporters of both parties: Democrats were also ready to let a candidate who embodied their own values ​​get away with a lot. In fact, it was only a shocking 3.5 percent of potential female voters on both sides who would have sanctioned undemocratic misconduct by withdrawing their votes. The only ones who reacted relatively clearly to undemocratic behavior were moderate and independent voters, and presumably not because they would have reflected more thoroughly on the principles of democracy. It is more likely that polarization simply had not (yet) turned them into unconditional followers, ready to sacrifice their principles for a triumph over the other side. Anyone who does this will eventually end up with that unconditional loyalty that was previously expressed in the sentence: "Right or wrong, my country!", Whose contemporary equivalent would probably be: "Right or wrong, my party!"

Loss of status and echo chambers

With all due respect for the value of experiments in political science: In reality, the assumed equality between the supporters of both parties is not really reflected. It is true that both Democrats and Republicans migrated to their Poles ideologically (in this regard, the claim of "asymmetrical polarization", according to which only the Republicans have radicalized, is not very convincing). With regard to the attack on the democratic institutions in the country, however, one should not display false neutrality: This was almost exclusively due to Donald Trump and his willing facilitators in the Republican Party.

While extreme polarization can fundamentally spoil democracy on all sides, there are obvious reasons why Republican Party voters are particularly vulnerable. That has first to do with the objectively justified feeling of being on the losing side of history anyway. It is one of the paradoxes of the past decades that the "Grand Old Party" was always successful at the ballot box, pursued conservative politics and appointed conservative judges - socially, however, it was actually in a single battle of retreat. After four decades of the culture was the country has not become more religious, but has steadily secularized and liberalized.

Secondly US society has become ethnically more diverse, and although there have been other sources of Trump's popularity (as demonstrated not least by the fact that he was able to record surprising gains in ethnic minorities in 2020), his rise is not without the status fears of white America to understand: Because whites will no longer constitute the majority in the country in the foreseeable future, but will only be the largest minority. It is a feeling of cultural siege that has greatly increased the pain threshold for many in attacking the democratic order - if it is still there at all. Studies show that the preference for anti-democratic behavior in white and conservative Americans correlates strongly with racial prejudice. [16]

That Republicans are more susceptible to legends of electoral fraud has third also to do with the fact that there is now no corrective. Confidence in the political class, including in the politicians of one's own party, has long been eroded. And there is also, of course, the fragmentation of the American public, the echo chambers and filter bubbles of an ideologically segmented media system. Its influence on polarization tends to be overestimated, but there is no question that social media in particular provides an unprecedented resonance space for all kinds of conspiracy theories. The lie of electoral fraud would certainly not have fallen on similar fertile ground in the days before Fox News, Facebook, and Twitter. On January 6, 2021, a media fantasy world collided with reality.<>

Final consideration

For a long time after 1945, the focus of many social scientists was on the conditions for stable democracies to flourish. The political scientists Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba, for example, in their "Civic Culture Study" in the 1960s investigated the question of which historical and cultural foundations are necessary for democratic values ​​to assert themselves in a society. [17] After the totalitarian attempts of the interwar period and in the era of systemic rivalry with the Soviet Union (whose social model was at least attractive to a minority in the West), these were perhaps the right questions. Today, however, these questions only produce answers that no longer tell us much about the state of democracy.

To put it bluntly: the commitment to democracy is ultimately relatively worthless unless you stick to some of its elementary rules. What is currently happening in the USA gives the right to all those who have always assumed that democracy does not work because the members of a community have agreed in advance on its abstract principles and have agreed to a social contract. [18] In truth, what matters is the practice, not the theory, of democracy. And since this practice primarily includes disputes, it is precisely the conflict that is constitutive for democracy: through constant confrontation, in which one side wins and then the other, one accepts the rules of the game. And whatever else separates political opponents: Accepting these rules of the game always means recognizing that you belong to the same community.

Of course, this only works if you argue in the right way. The polarization of US politics, however, has long ceased to produce a productive dispute. It also takes place under conditions that make a dialogue between the political camps extremely difficult. Different perceptions of reality also mean that the dispute between supporters of Democrats and Republicans is no longer just about questions of identity and belonging - which would be difficult enough to resolve - but about the existence of fundamental facts.

That is why it is so difficult to predict the future of American democracy. The mixture of the commitment to democracy and the simultaneous disregard of many of the norms that are necessary for a functioning democracy is difficult to make sense of with established patterns of interpretation. Still, the lack of an openly anti-democratic ideology has saved the US from worse. Trump was not a fascist party leader who could have equipped the US state apparatus with his own people on the first day he came to power, recruited from a tightly organized cadre party with ideologically trained supporters. There was little that pointed beyond him as a person. The attack on the institutions remained erratic, poorly planned, always driven only by Donald Trump's sensitivities and instincts. That was America's luck. However, the fact that with Joe Biden as president something fundamental will change in the polarization of the country can only be expected to a limited extent - even if it is obvious that the new man in the White House, unlike his predecessor, is not a demagogue. But what is structurally laid out and has grown historically, no one can get rid of the world. In general, the formula of the great reconciliation is in a certain way insincere, because the question is whether anyone really strives for this beyond lip service. [19]