Sunday, July 18, 2021

The critical infrastructure of democracy

Hans-Werner Müller, the political scientist that in my view has better captured the spirit of modern populism (in his 2016 “What is Populism?”) has published a new book, “Democracy Rules”, where he analyzes what he calls the role of the critical infrastructure of democracy, namely the media and political parties.

Although the new book is less compact and clear than its predecessor, the author gets deeper into some of his ideas about the dangers that populism poses for democracy (often in its name), as an anti-pluralist conception of politics which, to achieve a homogeneous representation of “the people,” needs to exclude from it those that may be a disturbance.

But in “Democracy Rules”, Müller explores possible solutions, which in the previous book could ony be hinted at. Exploring solutions is not the same as having complete solutions, and the author is open about this. At the end of the book, he expresses his hope (which is not necessarily the same as optimism) that political parties and the media, which are necessary infrastructures of democracy, can be reformed. The main source of hope is that most citizens still accept that democracy is necessary.

Political parties and the media are necessary because, when they are open to everybody, allow the formation of political issues to evolve, as democracy cannot be only a way to aggregate exogenous and given preferences on a close set of issues. This is the best part of the book, and could be a good supplement to theories of social choice, to which Müller makes little reference.

Elections as rituals and reference points (a contribution of Müller in this book) could precisely help explain one of the puzzles of social choice theory, which is the paradox of voting. If potential voters were rational in a traditional sense, the costs of voting would outweigh the individual benefits and no one would vote. However, many people do vote, which needs to be explained, for example with this idea of elections as collective rituals.

The global pandemic and the climate change-induced extreme whether events alert us about an existing global federalism deficit. The critical infrastructure of democracy must now be built at a global level. Warnings about how difficult this is are no excuse to address the problem, because without global mechanisms of collective action it will be impossible to address these existential challenges.

Müller quotes the French economist Thomas Piketty saying: “Everything depends on equipping groups of different origins and identities with the institutional, social, and political tools they need to recognize that what unites them outweighs what divides them.” Exactly.

A few days ago, I was strolling with my father in the northern Spanish city of Avilés (in the region of Asturias where he lives) and we saw a building that still had some signs of beign previously used by Podemos (“We can”), the left wing populist party that is also mentioned in the Müller book (as an example of “technopopulism”). The building now is empty and advertised as to be rented. We joked that perhaps now the party should more appropriately be called “Pudimos” (“We could”). But the fact that previous attempts to improve on the traditional tools have been at least partially unsuccessful does not justify passivity.

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