By Justin Kempf
The precise line between democracy and autocracy was never entirely clear. Part of the problem was the inability of autocratic government to govern autocratically. Even the most capable autocrats rely on advisors and civil servants to carry out their wills. Moreover, they find it necessary to delegate significant authority to others. But even more striking autocrats rely heavily on the support of the people. They then used popular support against powerful aristocrats who challenged their authority. Even today Vladimir Putin uses popular support to legitimize his rule and as a cudgel against elites who overstep their authority.
Autocracy, in other words, does not ignore the will of the people. Rather it weaponizes popular support. It turns it into a weapon against voices of dissent who threaten its authority. Autocratic government must listen to popular opinion. However, the intolerance of political dissent also shapes public opinion in ways that are sometimes intentional, but occasionally unexpected. In essence, an autocracy works to turn public opinion into an echo chamber. Inevitably, successful leaders like Putin will obtain excessively high approval ratings. It is inevitable, because the leader follows public opinion. But also because dissent never has an opportunity to offer an alternative perspective.
But is this democratic? Leaders like Putin think so. He refers to Russia as a sovereign democracy. Xi Jinping says China is a whole-process people’s democracy. The difference between autocracy and democracy is not whether the government takes public opinion into account. An autocrat can commission public opinion surveys and focus groups. Putin pays close attention to public opinion data from within Russia. Democracy, however, institutionalizes a means for political disagreement and dissent. It facilitates debate so people can freely govern their country.
The Politics of Ambiguity
However, this interpretation of democracy places outsized emphasis on free expression. It portrays liberalism as the magic ingredient for democratic governance. In other words, liberal values serve as the soul of democracy. It’s not enough to merely have elections. Democracy involves an intersection between institutions and political culture. Liberal democracy recognizes the distinct uniqueness of each person. But it also appreciates its citizens as a group capable of collective action together. It respects the differences between people, but believes they can still work together as a unit.
On the other hand, some right-wing intellectuals diminish the potential for collective action. Ayn Rand, among others, has celebrated the spirit of the individual. However, she viewed the state with nihilistic skepticism. Many intellectuals on the right question whether the state can do anything well. So, it’s not surprise that politicians have extended this presumption to elections as well. Donald Trump and Kari Lake can call elections rigged, because many on the right question the ability of government to govern. They doubt government can do anything including conduct a free and fair election.
Some politicians use the different values of democracy against each other. They create a politics of ambiguity where nothing is democratic, but nothing is undemocratic either. While they rely on elections for their democratic legitimacy, they question the fairness of elections when they lose. They rebel against efforts to limit their speech, but use firearms or violence to scare their political opponents into submission. It’s a politics of ambiguity that allows them to claim democratic intentions while threatening democracy itself.
Democracy involves the intersection of many different concepts and ideas. It is a mistake to reduce it to some raw notion of majoritarianism. Autocratic governments can govern according to majoritarian principles. This does not make them democratic. At the same time, democracy does not liberate the individual from the state. Rather it asks citizens to participate in the governance of the state. In this manner democracy relies on both liberal and conservative values. Theorists refer to liberal democracy, but I have argued we should think more about the meaning of conservative democracy.
Indeed, conservative values like personal responsibility, civic duty, and respect for institutions strengthen democratic governance. Democratic governments must ultimately govern. This requires a sense of responsibility and duty to look beyond differences and work together. Many citizens have lived under democratic rule for generations at this point. So, the conservative inclination is no longer towards dictatorship, but the preservation of constitutional democracy.
Nonetheless, the complicated nature of democracy opens the possibility for contestation over its meaning and purpose. However, the most common mistakes involve the focus on a single concept to the exclusion of others. For example, the singular focus on public opinion leads to a radical form of majoritarianism that can legitimize autocracy. An overemphasis on individualism diminishes the importance of collective action. Still, its complicated nature does raise many difficult questions. It makes it impossible to respond to a politics of ambiguity with a politics of certainty. As Michael Ignatieff describes it, “Democracy itself is not just an unruly contest for power, but also the site of an ongoing debate about what democracy is or should be.”
Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.
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