Democracy Without the People

Left populism vs. insipid pluralism

Valerie Hegarty, George Washington with Branches (detail). 2016, canvas, wood, paper-mache, acrylic paints and gels, wire. Courtesy of the artist.

Since Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, a steady stream of concern pieces has appeared across the national press: “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” “An Erosion of Democratic Norms in America.” “Will Democracy Survive Trump’s Populism? Latin America May Tell Us.” “Trump, Erdoğan, Farage: The attractions of populism for politicians, the dangers for democracy.” “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red.’”

The worry is obvious: democracy is under threat. Moving from headline to text, however, one perceives a shift. The basic meaning of democracy — the rule of the people, or popular sovereignty — is nowhere to be found. Instead, democracy appears to refer to a series of institutions and norms, not all of them obviously democratic.

In the New York Times, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write that Trump’s flagrant rejection of “partisan self-restraint and fair play” poses an existential threat to “our system of constitutional checks and balances.” In an interview with the Atlantic, the political scientist Brendan Nyhan says he expects Trump to be unconstrained by “bipartisan political norms.” Francis Wilkinson at Bloomberg slides from describing democratic institutions as anchored in elite bipartisan bonhomie to equating democracy with deference to the national-security state. “Trump has signaled clearly that he will deal with powerful democratic institutions as he dealt with his Republican rivals,” Wilkinson writes. “Look at Trump’s approach to US intelligence agencies.” Venerating the CIA as exemplary of democracy is symptomatic of a more general tendency — one in which even the most brazenly antidemocratic US political institutions are taken to embody democracy.

Among the confounded political analysts, what followed Trump’s victory was an epidemic of self-castigation. “We” had failed to “listen” to “white working-class” voters. Since the inauguration, however, elitism in the guise of centrism is once again on the move. Democracy, they say, is under threat from populism, and only a defense of norms and institutions can exorcise the specter of a reckless citizenry. But what if the truth is the opposite, and populism is not the problem but the solution?

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