By Caterina Domeneghini
Jan-Werner Müller, Penguin, 2021
Our Own Worst Enemy
Tom Nichols, Oxford University Press, 2021
Men of sense often learn from their enemies. It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls and ships of war; and this lesson saves their children, their homes, and their properties.
(Aristophanes, The Birds 375-80)
Anxieties around democracy aren’t new. This form of government is at least as old as the criticism that has diagnosed its decline since the fifth-century BC. The Athenians had been the first to call their city-state ‘democratic’; yet, by 414 BC they could see the ground on which democracy had been established slowly crumbling beneath their feet. In the very same year, Athens witnessed the early developments of the disastrous Sicilian expedition against Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, and the sardonic denouncement of its operations at the City Dionysia festival by Aristophanes in The Birds. In the play, Aristophanes reflected on what had gone wrong and who should be held accountable. His preoccupations are not so different from our own moral imperatives: modern critics are still hunting for ‘enemies’ and ‘foes’. Their unmasking may shed further light on the origins of democratic paralysis.
For Aristophanes, the ‘enemy’ was often to be found within one’s polis, the charlatan who fattened himself on public funds and threatened just self-rule. But who is to blame for the alleged failures of democracy today? Jan-Werner Müller’s Democracy Rules and Tom Nichols’ Our Own Worst Enemy emerge as two voices in this dialogue, playing the parts of good cop/bad cop. Released two weeks apart in July 2021, the books offer a diametrically opposed vision of what, or indeed who, our democracies need to watch out for today.
To begin with the story of Athens and its faded glories may sound clichéd, but it is a useful indication of how the two scholars conceive of democratic participation in our present time. Müller draws extensively from the Athenian system of direct democracy to foreground the cornerstones that are still required from this political form: freedom, equality, 'institutionalised uncertainty' (democracy would not exist if political outcomes were always crystal clear in advance), and accountability.
In contrast, for Nichols, what we can take away from classical Greece is not so much an inspiring model of democratic self-government, as a comedic exercise in the wake of Aristophanes, whose plays feature the prototype of the professional jokers that we see nowadays on our political stages: Beppe Grillo, Volodymyr Zelensky or Donald Trump. However, Müller and Nichols engage less with ancient history and politics tout court: rather, they focus on how the past can teach us lessons without being prescriptive, resentful, or nostalgic. Moving against the early 21st-century trend for asserting parallels between fascism and populism – often not grounded in historical fact – both books remind us that to look back is instructive only if we are able to spot differences as well as similarities with the present. The causes that inform our democratic stagnation are modern, not ancient, and require acting outside ready-made models. The question of how to define agency, and what drives it in the context of self-government today, is the battleground for the two writers.
Jan-Werner Müller contends that we are wrong to assume that the populus inevitably clamours for authoritarianism. A Professor of Politics at Princeton University, he gained notoriety for his meticulous analysis of right- and left-wing populist movements in What is Populism?. In Democracy Rules, he turns to the infrastructure of democracy itself. Müller is still concerned with populists, to the extent that he can show how their rise to power has been facilitated in the West by the support of ‘established conservative elites’. Take Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. These autocratic leaders have been responsible for the formation of ‘mafia states’, employing technically legal instruments such as public procurement to secure protection for themselves and their enlarged political families in exchange for material rewards. This is condemned in the book as the ‘double secession’ of the very wealthy and the very poor, a phenomenon that increasingly characterises our fragmented and polarised societies.
In a vicious cycle, the less invested the citizens ‘at the lower end of the income spectrum’ become in political participation, the less parties will target and care for them. Instead, as the German political scientist Claus Offe has summarised, political elites ‘will concentrate their platforms, campaigns and mobilization strategies upon those segments of the citizenry who actually “count” and neglect others’.
Donald Trump is but a recent example. Publicly declaring that his mission was to ‘grab and grab and grab’, the former US President adopted an economic policy of individual and corporate tax cuts that allowed the most privileged Americans to opt out of standard fiscal obligations. It’s not only about having more money than anyone else, Müller explains, but also about having enough power to protect that money, so that democracy becomes complicit in what the American political scientist Jeffrey Winters has called a 'wealth defence industry'.
Centred on the overly generous concession that ‘everybody has their reasons’, a quotation he borrows from Jean Renoir’s film The Rules of the Game, Müller’s argument is a double-edged sword. His focus on the scaffolding of our democracies rather than select groups of citizens has the potential to offer concrete structural interventions and hope for a more inclusive social contract. He points favourably to experiments like the Citizens' Initiative Review in Oregon, where people can actively contributre to the process of preparing ballot measures. Critics who have moved in the opposite direction, including Nichols, have too often premised their analysis on very narrow views of the common good, which privilege some citizens over others. One of the salient points of Our Own Worst Enemy is that assaults on democracy, such as the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021, are not coming from the poorest in society but from a relatively affluent and bored middle class, because the most disadvantaged members ‘do not have enough of a voice to destabilize a government or a political system. They aren’t even likely to vote’. The problem is that Nichols does not conceive of this secession as a problem. Giving up on those who are already doomed seems to him to be the right thing to do if we want to ration our forces and try to turn at least who’s slightly better off into more civic-minded citizens.
What Democracy Rules offers, on the other hand, is the promise to leave nobody behind, to improve people’s circumstances and guide their political choices. Yet this promise fails to recognise the role the electorate can often play in the crumbling of democratic societies. Healing democracy for Müller means to heal, primarily, its intermediary institutions, conceived of as containers in which voters will magically act as they would always do - justly, he seems to suggest - once the infrastructure has been properly fixed. True, parties and media organisations are in a unique position to ‘help citizens associate with one another’ and ensure more diversification and pluralism within their ranks. But how, in concrete terms, is this to be done?
The author gives some suggestions towards the end of his book. We could fight the increasing disconnection of modern political parties from society and the undermining of independent journalism with greater public funding in order to promote more widespread democratic participation. Through 'democracy dollars', that is vouchers to be invested in the political and media outlets of their choice, ordinary citizens could counterbalance campaign financing by the well-to-do.
Müller also outlines a ‘public journalism’ initiative where practitioners ‘would engage with citizens first, find out more about the issues that concern them, and then press politicians to engage with precisely these issues’. The trouble, however, is that he does not tell us who would be responsible for deciding which civic inputs should be pursued in this new 'enlightenment' of reporters, or for distributing the resources at the voters’ hands. To imagine the best conditions for democratic commitment is not enough to pre-empt popular mobilisation.
The most striking element missing from Müller’s account is some honest civic introspection. At no point in Democracy Rules is there any engagement with an uncomfortable but necessary question: if we believe that democracy has failed us, couldn’t that be because we have failed its test? Here, Nichols’s Our Own Worst Enemy provides a useful foil to Müller’s analysis. A Professor at the US Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School, and a Republican well-known for having urged conservatives to vote for Hillary Clinton at the 2016 Presidential Election, Nichols is a writer with a taste for provocation. He achieved some notoriety in 2017 with The Death of Expertise, an account of modern campaigns against established knowledge, and perhaps even more so with his controversial tweet two years later on how we fool ourselves every time we pretend Indian food isn’t terrible.
In his most recent book, he explores some of the issues Müller himself discusses: the detrimental power of the media and the increased fossilisation of political parties. Unlike Müller, however, Nichols puts the blame of democratic failure on ordinary citizens from the start. Quoting from Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo, he grimly announces that ‘we have met the enemy, and he is us’.
We put populists in power, through absurdly inconsistent voting habits that prioritise attacks on those we don’t like and label as different. Take, for example, the ‘OOT (Obama-Obama-Trump) voter’, the person who supported Barack Obama for two consecutive presidencies and then switched to Trump. Nothing but a diagnosis of the electorate as capricious at best, and irresponsible at worse, can explain such a shift. Picking up on the notion of divisions and conflict, which Müller views as indispensable components of our democracies, Nichols argues that disagreement today is articulated less as a divergence of opinions on questions of substance, and more as pure sympathies and antipathies. To support his claims, he takes us on a depressing tour of present-day America, with an excursus into the little town of ‘Montegrano’ – a pseudonym for Chiaromonte – in Southern Italy during the 1950s.
The parallel is helpful to show that ‘many communities in highly developed democracies have regressed to the point where their social environment now resembles those found in the impoverished villages of an earlier time’. Just like the self-absorbed peasants and proprietors in Montegrano who refused to support their community with even the smallest charitable activities, people turning up at the ballot box today are driven by no sense of civic responsibility. A 2020 survey conducted by reporter Tim Alberta in Pennsylvania illustrates that voters' preferences are dictated by a cult of the personality of their leaders who star in TV shows, and by the privileging of their material interests, or someone else’s misfortune, over the common good. We live in what the American historian Cristopher Lasch, as early as 1979, labelled a ‘culture of narcissism’, further exacerbated in the 21st century by social media and hyperconnectivity.
Nichols also presents us with his own notion of ‘elite’. No longer the concrete establishment that Müller theorises, ‘the elite’ becomes the imaginary scapegoat of Our Own Worst Enemy, a dummy category meant to encompass everything populist parties present as detrimental to ‘The People’: ‘globalists, military officers, bureaucrats, lawyers, experts, intellectuals’. Both authors have their reasons for their distinct conceptualisations of the 'elite'. It is true that a typical rhetorical trope of many far-right parties in Europe and the US is the creation of categories of privilege labelled with derogatory augmentatives, such as the ‘intellettualoni’, ‘professoroni’, ‘giornaloni’, to which Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian Lega, mockingly refers. In the fourth chapter, ‘System Failure?’, Nichols engages with the view, more characteristic of Müller, that democratic decline results from bad policy choices made by incompetent ruling classes.
Here, inconsistencies start to arise: no matter how battered our world currently is, Nichols states, problems such as climate change or income inequality ‘are within the power of a democracy to solve’. But he refuses to tell us how. For him, it appears sufficient to scold readers into standing up straight and becoming ‘politically mature’ citizens. In so doing, Nichols' book downplays popular discontent, especially when moralism is used to promote a narrative of prosperity that dismisses any complaint, even legitimate or structural ones, as whimsical. It's not conducive to say that everyone’s better off now in comparison to their past condition. Increased economic activity is not necessarily a synonym for better living standards: or at least, not for everyone. Americans of colour, for example, are nowadays nearly five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites (The Sentencing Project, October 2021). One wonders for whom progress has truly come about.
Nichols warns us from the start that he will play the Cato, the grumpy moralist, on purpose. Nevertheless, this caveat does not excuse him from what often sounds like a pointless zealot’s talk, embroidered with void ‘kids these days’ invectives (‘kids these days’ might call Nichols a boomer). His analysis of the media is especially exasperating. The argument that ‘we are victims of disinformation because we have chosen that role for ourselves’ is laughably simplistic. We don’t need to be reminded that ‘connection, for all of its benefits … is destroying the culture and habits of a democratic society’; if anything, we need some guidance and comfort.
Müller’s observations on the ambivalent power of technology are more astute on this point. Whilst he condemns the infiltration of social media into our everyday and political lives – he gives the example of the use of WhatsApp as a vehicle for a massive disinformation campaign in Brazil, financed by corporations supporting Jair Bolsonaro – Müller makes it clear that the Internet by itself did not do all this political damage. Yet again, it is the economic measures largely favoured by the elites that have shaped the way that the media manipulate information today. British and Australian politicians have relied for years on the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who has famously exploited political influence to advance his business interests.
Nichols, on the other hand, neglects the fact that sometimes there is just no way that the electorate can exercise control over what we see on our social media platforms. Cambridge Analytica profiled Facebook users politically in order to understand their fears and better target them with fabricated adverts before the Brexit referendum. Those ads are nowhere to be found now, a scandal that led investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr to raise her voice against the Silicon Valley’s behemoths. In a Ted Talk in April 2019, she reminded the audience of how easily technology can disrupt our democracies when evidence is hidden from us and we are unable to keep track of what truly happened.
It is precisely in the face of such a reminder - a society that is not sure what is true cannot function - that the methodological flaws evident in both Democracy Rules and Our Own Worst Enemy become most striking. If Müller conducts a spot-on analysis of key infrastructural components, and Nichols of voters, neither is able to provide an adequate synthesis of both.
A good starting point for merging the two would be to resist the temptation of assuming that everyone in our modern societies has a drive, or enough time, to engage with the long and intricate process of telling truth from fiction. In the post-truth era, to borrow from the title of Ralph Keyes’ famous book, the boundaries between facts and lies have become blurry, and we no longer seem to know who or what to believe. It cannot be enough to exhort voters to read 'a reputable newspaper', as Nichols does, on the premise that to become better-informed citizens is ‘relatively easy’ if we are willing to change some of our ‘small habits’. It is not a question of habits. Many people today are utterly convinced that what they read is reputable. That’s why works like Alan Rusbridger’s News and How to Use It have recently entered the non-fiction market: to offer bewildered readers a practical glossary with entries for how to stay informed — from bias to the climate emergency to fake news.
Müller for his part goes no further than stating that opinions 'must be constrained by facts', while admitting that 'facts are always fragile’. Democracy Rules ends on the dubious remark that ‘democracy … is not about trust … it’s about effort’. But Francis Fukuyama already warned us in 1995 that without trust, democratic societies can hardly reap the benefits of political and economic stability.
A truly comprehensive account of the crisis of our democracies cannot fail to engage with the question of truth more seriously than Müller and Nichols have done. It should also reframe the symptoms of such a crisis - less investment in democratic decision-making, less faith in political representation, more populists - in a broader context, where differences at the edges of society have nowadays grown greater, contributing to the polarisation of an increasingly lazy electorate. Aristophanes was right when he warned his fellow citizens that ‘the truth is forced upon us, very quickly, by a foe’. In our modern quest for culprits, one thing perhaps remains as true to us as it was in antiquity: democracy offers no talisman, only a cautionary tale.
CATERINA DOMENEGHINI reads for a DPhil in English at Wolfson College. She was born upside down and still has no bearings.
Art by Thomas Hodges-Gilbert