Staring down a big shelf of big Trump books, I’m beginning to wonder if — when it comes to helping us understand the full import of what happened during his four years in the White House — less may very well be more. The 400-page catalogs of ruthless betrayals, nasty insults and erratic tweets add to our store of knowledge mainly by compounding what’s already there; a slender volume of political theory, on the other hand, can prompt us to rethink our assumptions, raising central questions that we never properly asked before.
That’s only when it’s done right — which “Democracy Rules,” a lively new book by Jan-Werner Müller, generally is. Müller teaches at Princeton, and is the author of a number of books about political ideas, including “What Is Populism?,” which happened to be published in the fall of 2016, three months after the referendum on Brexit and two months before the election of Donald Trump.
Populists, Müller argues in that book as well as this one, like to present themselves as champions of democracy, but their notion of “the people” is cramped and exclusionary; critics, political rivals and immigrants are banished to a realm beyond the circle of concern.
It should be said that Müller’s concept of populism — as something that’s inherently opposed to pluralism and ultimately democracy — is pejorative and not uncontroversial, especially among those on the left who want to reclaim the word. But his definition also offers the benefit of a clarifying specificity. Viktor Orban of Hungary, Narendra Modi of India and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela are all populists in Müller’s cosmology; Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are decidedly not.
Müller begins by acknowledging the widespread fear that “democracy is in crisis” before pointing out that few people who aren’t political philosophers have given any sustained thought to what democracy actually is. He doesn’t want us to fixate so much on democratic “norms” — those informal rules that beguile and bedevil political scientists — as he wants to talk about the democratic principles that animate those norms in the first place.
In other words, if we’re fretting about the degradation of democracy, what exactly is it that we think we’re in danger of losing?
Jan-Werner Müller, whose new book is “Democracy Rules.”Credit…KD Busch
Müller says that losing is, in fact, a central part of it: In addition to the more familiar principles of liberty and equality, he encourages us to see uncertainty — including the possibility that an incumbent may lose — as essential to any truly democratic system. Winners cannot be enshrined, and losers cannot be destroyed. When the libertarian venture capitalist (and Trump supporter) Peter Thiel praised monopolies by declaring that “competition is for losers,” Müller says that Thiel was inadvertently right. It’s the kind of sly reversal that Müller clearly delights in; this is one of those rare books about a pressing subject that reads less like a forced march than an inviting stroll.
Preserving uncertainty means that democracy is inherently dynamic and fluid. “Individuals remain at liberty to decide what matters to them most,” Müller writes, but holding onto democratic commitments also means that freedom has to be contained by what he identifies as two “hard borders.” People cannot undermine the political standing of their fellow citizens (the growing spate of voting restrictions is a glaring case in point); and people cannot refuse to be “constrained by what we can plausibly call facts.”
Müller takes care to situate the United States in an international context, using examples from other countries to illuminating effect. Right-wing populists like to rail against neoliberalism, but Orban has been so accommodating of the German car industry — clamping down on unions and protests as zealously as any neoliberal shill — that critics have started calling Hungary an “Audi-cracy.” Political parties are an essential part of democratic infrastructure, but parties that are too homogeneous and intolerant of dissent are themselves problematic. Geert Wilders’s far-right party in the Netherlands contains a total of two members: Geert Wilders, along with a foundation whose only member happens to be Geert Wilders. What Müller calls “intraparty autocracy” tends to be a red flag, signaling “a profound aversion to the idea that the other side could possibly be right, for no other side is admitted to begin with.”
Writing about political institutions in a way that makes them sound vital is a challenge for any writer, and Müller’s method is to leaven abstract ideas with concrete examples of bad behavior — even if, as he himself says early on, we have a tendency to get caught up in outrageous stories about individuals instead of training our gaze on the less spectacular mechanisms of the system itself.
One of the hallmarks of the Trump years was that the president constantly said things that were startlingly bizarre or blatantly untrue — flooding the zone with what Müller (in a polite paraphrase of Steve Bannon) calls “info-feces.” The incessant clowning made it increasingly hard to draw distinctions between antics that were merely ludicrous and antics that were truly sinister; telling Americans they might consider injecting disinfectant into their veins may have caused terrible harm, but unlike the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, “lying about Lysol,” Müller writes, wasn’t about to “kill the system.”
“Democracy Rules” is hopeful, though its author cautions that he’s not particularly optimistic. Optimism is about a constellation of probabilities; hope entails active effort. This is a book that encourages thinking, observation and discernment as a prelude to action; Müller, who says that democracy “is based on the notion that no one is politically irredeemable and that anyone can change their mind,” holds out the possibility of persuasion.
But if this notion is what makes democracy such an appealing idea in theory, it’s also what makes it so difficult to sustain in practice — especially if there’s a motivated cohort that doesn’t care about Müller’s “hard border” of facts. He points to the right-wing media ecosystem that offered an alternative reality of the 2020 election, in which it was simply unthinkable that Donald Trump hadn’t won. At least some of the people who voted for Trump in 2020 hadn’t voted for him four years before. Persuasion, like uncertainty, can go any which way.