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Has America Reached its Limit?
A debate between Wisdom of Crowds co-founders Shadi Hamid and Damir Marusic on whether "the people" are coming apart.
Welcome to a Wisdom of Crowds "Debate," our first since we launched on Substack. We’re excited to share more of these with you. The goal is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through tensions and contradictions in real time. We would love for you to take part, so don’t hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments!
Shadi begins, Damir responds. They go back and forth, not knowing quite where it will lead them.
You say you’re interested in exploring where “some sunny assertions about democracy” stop making sense. I presume here that you have me in mind. I’m overly optimistic about democracy. You are not, insofar as you are skeptical of the very idea of being optimistic about anything that is in the realm of the political.
What I really like about your recent essay “The Limits of Deep Difference” is that you call into question the very idea of the people. You take exception to my use of the catch-all term “Western democracies” and rightly note that this can elide the fact that American and British conceptions of peoplehood are quite different. Americans say (and act like they) actually believe in this uncertain something called the people even if it’s really a fiction. Reserved and preternaturally gloomy, the British can’t be bothered to sustain this fiction. I’ll be writing about the need for such fictions in my next Monday Note.
But for the purposes of this debate, Damir, I’ll drill back down to “first principles”: Why does it matter that American and British politicians and theorists conceived of the the people in such different ways? Is there any evidence that British citizens feel more alienated from government or that they share your assessment that they are somehow deprived of true people power? Is there any evidence, especially now, that Americans believe that “the American system of representation [is] fundamentally different from all the models that had come before?”
I’m sort of indifferent, myself. Obviously, I like America’s “model” more but if I’m being honest that’s most likely due to the simple fact that I can’t be objective on such matters. (As I wrote last year, to love a country is perhaps not so different than loving a person.) But either way the systems of representation that America and Britain currently have are the products of a long, iterative democratic process. Presumably, if British citizens really felt their system of temporary “elective dictatorship” was an affront, they would do something about it and vote accordingly. Presumably, if Americans really thought Congress was as horrible as some polls suggest, they’d stop voting for incumbents in their own districts. Presumably, if a majority of Republicans really believed the 2020 election was stolen, they’d translate that sentiment into actual, observed behavior. They did not.
In the end, if there exists a reasonably free and fair democratic process in a given country, citizens only have themselves to blame for whatever resulting system they have at any particular moment. The more extreme version of this argument—one that I’ve played with but never fully embraced—is that whatever the democratic process itself produces is in some sense democratic and that the people are right even when they’re wrong. Which, as it happens, seems to be most of the time.
I think you get at something important here, Shadi, when you write that “the systems of representation that America and Britain currently have are the products of a long, iterative democratic process.” I’d just amend that phrasing to say that “the people” in America and Britain are also the products of a long, iterative process.
Two things emerge for me from that. The first seems empirically sound: democracies, once established and entrenched, are in fact quite durable. David Runciman’s gloomy 2018 book, How Democracy Ends, is premised on this fact. In it, he argues that Western democracy may be entering middle age, and as a result may be showing certain debilities. But at the same time, it’s not likely going anywhere. A good chunk of the book is arguing that Trump and Trumpism are not really similar to the fascism that convulsed the West in the first half of the twentieth century, and that all the tumult we’re seeing is actually the product of completely different, modern processes, quite distinct from the forces that belched up Hitler. He wrote the book before January 6, but I did some searching and haven’t seen him walk back any of his conclusions since. I think I agree with him.
But the second is perhaps more of a direct challenge to your worldview. For young democracies, call it the “chicken and egg” problem. If “the people” in a plural democracy only emerge after a bunch of iteration, how do we get the process started? In the news these days is the collapse of the democratic process in Sudan, where an uneasy military government was supposed to cede power to a civilian administration this month. At the Washington Post, we ran a good piece by your Brookings colleague Jeffrey Feltman ruing the decisions by the international community to play ball with the warlords at the expense of the civilians. A deeper question remains for me, however: could it have been otherwise?
I suspect you’d say that with enough pressure and attention, the virtuous cycle can be kicked off. I archly raise my eyebrow and say, just as I did in Pittsburgh in our live debate, that democracy promotion is therefore not unlike communism: it just hasn’t been tried yet.
But beyond young democracies, I’m still not completely at ease, despite my most recent attempt to put myself into a more positive frame of mind. Yes, empirically, democracy as an iterative process seems to be stable. But what happens at the limit?
Here’s Runciman again, musing on the rise of social media, and the challenges it forces on modern democracies:
The premium democracy places on personal dignity has traditionally been expressed through extensions to the franchise. Giving people the vote is the best way to let them know that they count. But when almost all adults are able to vote, we inevitably look for new ways to secure greater respect. The rise of identity politics is an indication that taking part in elections is not enough any more. Individuals are seeking the dignity that comes with being recognised for who they are. They don’t just want to be listened to. They want to be heard. Social networks have provided a forum through which these demands can be voiced. Democratic politicians are struggling to know how to meet them.
At the core of modern democracy we find the necessity of representation, which I called “rhetorical sleight-of-hand” and which Edmund Morgan calls a “fiction”. So far, iteratively, we have been able to bring this “fiction” to better align with the promises that democracy has made to individuals. But what if that’s coming apart? What then?
I don’t know. But aren’t you spooked?
Am I “spooked”? I don’t know. My instinct is to shrug my shoulders and fall back on my favorite prophetic hadith “tie your camel and trust in God.” I do the best I can. But the best I can is almost certainly not enough. I acknowledge that and think to myself that it would best to live in a quiet life on a farm or by a body of water and occasionally write books and reappear to the world at medium-term intervals. This is almost certainly a better path for the pundit who fears that he might one day lose his opinions.
I jest, but only partly.
You raise a couple of questions-cum-challenges that are important to me and my deeper worldview. So I’ll try to answer them in turn, briefly. In reference to Sudan’s outbreak of violence after some amount of apparently undeserved democratic optimism, you ask: could it have been otherwise?
Of course it could have been otherwise. If different things had turned out differently, there would have been a different outcome. That which seems inevitable only seems inevitable after it’s already happened. This is not the benefit of hindsight, as the more common phrase has it, but rather the folly of hindsight. Before the “inevitable” occurs, individual actors have agency, and occasionally they have hope, and the collective sum of their decisions is what produces a final outcome (which is never truly final).
This relates to your other point, which naturally I don’t agree with. You say that “democracy promotion is therefore not unlike communism: it just hasn’t been tried yet.” Communism failed everywhere it was tried. Of course, communists will say that it wasn’t tried correctly, so, for them, the promise of communism never dims. It is just postponed to a future that will never come.
As I lay out in The Problem of Democracy, democracy promotion hasn’t been tried in the Middle East, at least not in any sustained way that lasts more than a year or two. So you’re right in that narrower sense. But it has been tried elsewhere, to varying degrees of success. We discount the role of outside actors at our own peril. In his book International Dimensions of Democratization, my doctoral advisor Laurence Whitehead noted that that close to two-thirds of democracies existing in 1990 “owed their origins, at least in part, to deliberate acts of imposition of intervention from without.” That’s an awful lot!
Democracy promotion can work. But someone—or some country—needs to actually do it. When we don’t do it, or don’t even try, we can’t then fall back on some version of the innocent bystander theory that it was out of our hands and that we (and they) were prisoners to the unkind forces of history.
As for what happens at “the limit,” I suppose there’s only one way to find out. At the same time, there’s no way to know where the limit actually is until you reach it. And then it’s likely to be too late.
I’ll save the back-and-forth on democracy promotion for another time. I’ll just say that I’m still not satisfied by where you end up. Does the existence of “the people” matter? We can both agree that a plural “people” can emerge over time in an iterative process, as evidenced by advanced, middle-aged democracies. But how do we get there at the start? I suppose you’re saying we need to impose democratic habits on them for long enough, until they learn to think democratically. I guess in a world in which we have infinite power, we can afford to be dreamers.
But like I said, let’s bracket that for another time.
I’m fine with your broad rejoinder to just not worry about the limit cases I sketch out. After all, there’s not much we can do about them even if we end up agreeing that they’re scary.
But I think that’s a dodge on the terms of your original essay, where you celebrate conflict. For me, at the limit, the concept of “the people” looks like it could be coming apart. And at that limit, the socialized antagonistic attitude you champion feels like it won’t hold up. It seems like you require a lot of reason from people—that they come to terms with “sobering realities” about final victory being impossible, and that they therefore deal with it by sucking it up and lowering the temperature of the fight.
I guess I’m just a lot less of a rationalist than you. The persistence of war in human history points in a different direction.
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