Image: Patrick Joust

As I write, the Capitol dome is shrouded in scaffolding. During the day, the iconic form is hardly discernible beneath the metal piping, lumber, and netting. When darkness falls and the lights come on, the obscured rotunda stands out once more. So, too, does the metal piping that surrounds the beautiful structure.

Restoration is underway, its conclusion in sight. Inside, however, repair seems a long way off, if it is even possible. The House and Senate are presently shackled. Paralyzed by party divisions, influenced excessively by moneyed interests, and perverted by the disappearance of civic virtue, representative institutions appear unable to identify and address our most consequential public problems, including the politics of distribution, racial equity, immigration, and the proper balance between liberty and national security. Like the dome, American democracy badly needs reconstruction.

These problems are not uniquely American. Across the range of established democracies, we see skepticism bordering on cynicism about whether parliamentary governments can successfully address pressing domestic and global challenges. These doubts about representative democracy speak to both its fairness and its ability to make good policy.

Since the late eighteenth century, liberal constitutional regimes have recurrently collided with forms of autocratic rule—including fascism and communism—that claim moral superiority and greater efficacy. Today, there is no formal autocratic alternative competing with democracy for public allegiance. Instead, two other concerns characterize current debates. First, there is a sense that constitutional democratic forms, procedures, and practices are softening in the face of allegedly more authentic and more efficacious types of political participation—those that take place outside representative institutions and seem closer to the people. There is also widespread anxiety that national borders no longer define a zone of security, a place more or less safe from violent threats and insulated from rules and conditions established by transnational institutions and seemingly inexorable global processes.

These are recent anxieties. One rarely heard them voiced in liberal democracies when, in 1989, Francis Fukuyama designated the triumph of free regimes and free markets “the end of history.” Fukuyama described “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,“ a “victory of liberalism” in “the realm of ideas and consciousness,” even if “as yet incomplete in the real or material world.” Tellingly, the disruption of this seemingly irresistible trend has recently prompted him to ruminate on the brittleness of democratic institutions across the globe.

Perhaps today’s representative democracies—the ones that do not appear to be candidates for collapse or supersession—are merely confronting ephemeral worries. But the challenge seems starker: a profound crisis of moral legitimacy, practical capacity, and institutional sustainability.

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E.M. Forster’s “What I Believe” hit the newsstands in July 1938, some four months before Kristallnacht and just year before the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the German breach of Poland’s western border. Bemoaning the absence of private decency from public affairs, and the prevalence of treachery in political life, Forster nonetheless offered “two cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism.” He celebrated elections, competing parties, and the legislative process—the arenas in which adversary politics is conducted peacefully through discussion.

Forster’s praise for political representation reprised John Locke’s. “The first and fundamental positive law of all commonwealths is the establishing of the legislative power,” he wrote in the Second Treatise of Government. Similarly, in 1820 James Mill described “the system of representation” as “the grand discovery of modern times.” With political representation, argument is institutionalized and decisions are the unpredictable and shifting outcome of conflicts. Disagreements are not eliminated but managed as collective choices to produce impermanent policy outcomes. Not surprisingly, the first acts of modern dictatorships, civil and military, typically include the suspension of parliamentary prerogatives.

Though it cannot mean less, political democracy should mean more than accountability of representatives chosen through regular, free, and fair elections. The late political theorist Robert Dahl argued that a decent democratic process also requires ample and equal opportunities for participation outside the voting booth, an inclusive adult electorate, and opportunities for citizens to gain enlightened policy understanding and form the policy agenda. Yet in large, complex, heterogeneous societies where direct influence is often elusive, legitimate collective decision-making requires electing representatives who consider, fashion, and authorize legislation and oversee its implementation.

Liberal states based on rights, law, consent, and representation were originally decidedly undemocratic. Membership was limited by property, gender, and race. With the development of mass participation, democracy bonded with liberalism. The legitimacy of mass democracy came to depend on strong barriers between unequal wealth, on one side, and equal citizenship on the other. It also rested on the recognition that, as civil society is plural in multiple dimensions, toleration must be added to liberalism’s core values. Long feared by elites, democracy was not only tamed but also extended and strengthened.

Democracy no longer has rivals, but its capacity to be fair and make good policy faces pervasive skepticism.

That extension and strengthening—the historically surprising marriage of liberalism and democracy—required rules for transactions linking the state, economy, and society. Rights were to be offered to citizens, and property would be protected. Government, based on consent, would not be closed or limited to a ruling group. Though not without limits, it would be open to members of civil society through means including electoral competition, a free press, the formation of public opinion, and, above all, representation in a legislature. Economic life would be regulated in ways that allow owners and managers of property and capital to advance their commercial goals within a framework of law aimed at the common good.

A recurring set of challenges is integral to this blend of liberalism and democracy. These include securing both economic growth and decent patterns of distribution, no mean feat under capitalist conditions; ensuring that the representative process is informed by civil society; deciding questions of membership where exclusion, not inclusion, has often been the norm; judging when threats to security, external and internal, justify exceptions to the polity’s liberal rules and procedures; and ascertaining when the conduct of foreign relations can be made consistent with, and advance, liberal democratic norms without entailing a radical shift in the balance between executive and legislative power. These dilemmas have never been decisively resolved, either intellectually or politically. They are the recurrent challenges faced by liberal-democratic states.

• • •

Forster’s two cheers came at a time when even the most committed adherents of parliamentary democracy were doubtful of the will and capacity of representative, liberal regimes to identify and address pressing public issues. Current anxieties may be different, but there are unnerving similarities of language and analysis.

In the interwar years, forms of tyranny marked by unchecked executive power—including Fascism, Nazism, Stalinist Bolshevism, Peronist populism, and Japanese militarism—grew in number and confidence, while democracies seemed increasingly precarious. A century earlier, Tocqueville had underscored how the United States and its young democracy was seizing the future. But by the early 1930s, zealous dictatorships were drawing mass appeal and a reputation for effectiveness. It seemed they, not democracies, would define the future. Political analysts as divergent as Carl Schmitt, soon to hook up with Nazism, and England’s James Bryce, a strong Liberal, questioned whether democratic regimes could resolve the day’s challenges to governance and legitimacy.

Many Americans embraced these views. In Reflections on the End of an Era (1934), Reinhold Niebuhr offered “the basic conviction . . . that the liberal culture of modernity is quite unable to give guidance and direction to a confused generation which faces the disintegration of a social system and the task of building a new one.” Looking across the sea at fascist ascendance and communist assertiveness, he warned, “a dying social order hastens its death in the frantic effort to avoid or postpone it.” The following year, philosopher William Ernest Hocking declared that the time for liberal democracy “has already passed,” for it is “incapable of achieving social unity.” Such government, he predicted, “has no future. . . . Its once negligible weaknesses have developed into menacing evils.” Even the relatively optimistic political scientist Lindsay Rogers believed, in 1934, that representative institutions “must reconcile themselves to laying down general principles within the limits of which they will give executives free hands.” Such “considerable revamping of the machinery of representative government [that] will come quickly is greatly to be desired,” he wrote in Crisis Government.

The era’s democratic governments looked vastly inferior to the instruments of mass mobilization and problem solving fashioned by the dictatorships. The pressures on all the democracies were intense. Writing in 1932 about “the breakdown of the old order,” “the immediate economic and social needs of labor,” and “the exploitation of the farmers,” economist and future U.S. Senator Paul Douglas exhorted fellow advocates of peaceful and democratic change that all had not yet been lost. But he thought he was pushing against the odds.

Mussolini’s confident assertion in 1932 that “liberalism is preparing to close the doors of its temples” has been proved wrong. Dictatorships in Italy, Germany, Japan, Spain, and Argentina have given way to entrenched democracy. Even an increasingly authoritarian Russia embraces democratic forms. With the exceptions of China’s large-scale experiment in autocratic capitalism and the surprising surge of theocracy in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, liberal democracy based on the rule of law, government by consent, individual rights, and political representation presently has no effective normative or institutional challengers in most of the world, and no effective contenders in countries with long-standing democratic regimes.

What saved democracy? Much credit goes to the New Deal. The greatest triumph of that project was not its individual policy successes—though there were many—but its demonstration that American representative democracy could, through lawmaking, cope with global warfare and the collapse of capitalism. The New Deal revitalized democracy, rejoined the claims of its enemies, and assuaged the doubts of its agonizing friends. The great practical and normative successes of legislative democracies after World War II gave lie to Schmitt’s claim that democracy possesses intrinsic and unresolvable contradictions requiring a radical shift toward executive power buttressed by the legitimacy of unmediated popular sovereignty.

Given this historical record, why is representative democracy again plagued by doubts about whether it can succeed?

Some two decades ago, Michel Albert astutely remarked that the most fundamental debate at any particular moment about political options is defined by the most extreme alternatives on a continuum, for example, Soviet Communism at one pole and representative liberal democracy on the other. The eventual downfall of the Soviet Union meant that democracy was no longer plagued by an external opponent but only had to reconcile with itself. Would the state robustly regulate capitalism to ensure public welfare, as in much of continental Europe, or would it take the Anglo-American approach in favor of business interests? Regardless of the answer, this dispute was not about whether to have liberal democracy but about what kind to have.

Now, however, that debate seems inadequate. Worry about democracy can be found in both types of representative regimes. Although liberal democracy is not up against the most brutal alternatives, its central institutions are distorted by unequal access and influence and especially by the troubling incapacity of national legislatures to make effective policy.

To be sure, the partial resemblance between the older totalitarian moment and contemporary dissatisfaction should be approached with great caution. But the current range of choices is wider and more perilous than Albert’s limited range, and liberal democracy’s central institutions are operating under a cloud.

The challenges take two principal forms. First is whether citizens can effectively access and influence political life or even develop informed views about key issues. The bedrock of representative democracy is what German sociologist Claus Offe has termed “the principle of non-convertibility”: the idea that unequal social and economic assets should not convert into unequal political influence. Where wealth is not separated from political influence, representative democracy lacks a fair distribution of citizen power. The United States presently stands out for blatant contradictions of Offe’s principle, such as voter ID laws that impose hurdles on poorer citizens and the immense flow of money from the mega-rich in a post–Citizens United (2010) campaign-finance environment.

But the United States is not alone. To varying degrees, every major democracy is bedeviled by increasingly porous boundaries between vastly unequal markets and putatively egalitarian politics. Under these circumstances, citizenship weakens. Members of the polity risk becoming an audience of passive spectators rather than community of active citizens.

Mobilized citizens are no substitute for failing legislatures. Democracy cannot do without political representation.

The second challenge focuses on the character, process, and capacity of the legislative arena itself—on the “physics of consent” and “the dignity of legislation” in Jeremy Waldron’s language. The legislative arena works best, he notes, when “the representatives of the community come together to settle solemnly and explicitly on common schemes and measures that can stand in the name of them all, and they do so in a way that openly acknowledges and respects (rather than conceals) the inevitable differences of opinion and principle among them.”

This ideal is increasingly out of reach thanks to arcane rules of procedure, a cacophony of partisan argument, obsessive protection of intensely interested minorities, poor legislative craftsmanship, and delegation to courts and executive agencies. These concerns are not as serious as those of the 1920s and 1930s, when dictatorships claimed to be more democratic because more direct. But there are parallels in present worries about the baneful effects of ideological division, the absence of a unifying public interest, campaign finance arrangements that advantage privileged persons and groups, and the limited time horizons of decision-makers who fail to deal effectively with such long-range challenges as climate change.

• • •

When legislatures fail to do the right thing, as judged by some particular preferences or ideas, there is a temptation to turn to executive decision-making or to the courts in the hope that they will transcend the representative process. Mixed motives may lie behind the denigration of legislative process: on the one hand, the desire to secure policy outcomes in one’s personal or group interest; on the other, a sincere concern for the collective good in light of the failures of “normal” politics, including ordinary lawmaking. At issue is less whether a breakdown of democracy has begun than whether the complex process Charles Tilly called “de-democratization”—perhaps more accurately “de-liberalization”—is underway.

In the established democracies in the age of Hitler and Stalin, many concerned critics tried to bypass the messiness of mass politics and legislative representation. They sought simpler, more direct ways to conduct public affairs. This search has been revived. As Nadia Urbinati argues in Democracy Disfigured (2014), the pursuit of “correct” outcomes in today’s anxiety-charged democracies often skirts political representation. But efforts to get around the messiness of representative democracy are unfortunate because parliaments are not just talk shops: they have the special virtue of combining opinion (competing policy ideas) with will (the ability to make decisions through legislative mechanisms of collective choice).

One alternative to representative democracy, Urbinati argues, is a model of deliberative democracy based on the idea that difficult problems would be solved and correct outcomes consensually discerned if only citizens were offered chances to reason together on the basis of an assumption of shared interests and information. Here, opinion transcends will.

Another option is robustly populist, privileging will over opinion by wagering that direct pressures can sidestep, rather than be a complement to, the disorderliness of normal liberal democracy. This populism has driven American politics on both the right (the Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street). Though disparate in their aims, these movements share the conviction that a mobilized people forces conclusions superior to those achieved by elites.

A third strand is plebiscitary, the kind of democracy that is practiced on a large scale in California, where policy choices are offered directly for the people’s approval. In contrast to the deliberative approach, these referenda are not opportunities for popular deliberation. Rather, the voters watch others argue, and then they choose.

These alternatives to representative democracy are united in their skepticism of a centralized legislature removed from citizens. In its stead, they rely either on networks of ordinary people in decentralized settings or their mobilization in the absence of mediating parties, elections, and representatives. Reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s version of republicanism, which abjured adversarial patterns of representation, these alternatives seek more democracy—more voting, more intense and direct participation, more sites of deliberation—divorced from liberal democracy’s main institutional underpinnings.

Yet, for all its discontents, democracy cannot do without political representation. This understanding was vital to the American founding. Like Rousseau, its key thinkers—as different as James Madison and Thomas Paine—took popular sovereignty as their point of departure. But unlike Rousseau, they stressed that the essential decisions of government must come from a legislature founded on political representation, not from an assembled people.

To be sure, deliberative, populist, and plebiscitary instruments can invigorate representative democracy. Think, for example, of participatory budgeting and planning initiatives, which are especially buoyant in Latin America and have brought long marginalized and excluded people into political life. But even such normatively appealing arrangements may become seductive substitutes for representative institutions, making national democracies weaker. When backs are turned on legislative representation, when alternative instruments are deployed not as partners but as replacements for electoral competition and parliamentary lawmaking, and when the institutional dimensions of democracy grow hollow, the risk of illiberal authoritarianism grows. It is the risk not of Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, but of Peronism.

Juan Perón built a massive following in 1940s Argentina by identifying pervasive corruption in parliamentary institutions and creating patronage networks to assist the poor. His Partido Único, fashioning unmediated links between rulers and the people, offered a certain kind of populist tradeoff: concrete goods were exchanged for restricted citizenship, hedged by illiberal means.

As one example of what Atul Kohli calls a “follower democracy,” Peronism kept mostly intact the forms of political representation that originated with the 1946 presidential election (the regime had been erected on the foundation of a 1943 coup) while defining democracy largely in terms of distribution to the people rather than government driven by a diversity of opinion. As a result, Peronist “democracy” lacked the spirit of criticism that had cheered Forster in the late 1930s. It also eliminated the conditions for effective democratic political participation. The resulting authoritarian form stopped well short of Nazi or Stalinist ruthlessness, but it did create what at best was an ersatz democracy in which the separation between the armed forces and civil politics eroded and in which executive power routinely trumped parliamentary procedures and democratic lawmaking.

Peronism is not some bygone fear. In July 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—with striking, if deeply disconcerting, honesty—offered a principled articulation of Peronist impulses. Stressing that the “Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed,” he declared that “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state.” Stopping short of Mussolini’s celebration of the total state, Orbán emphasized how this aim does not so much deny as downplay the “foundational values of liberalism. . . . It does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.”

When Locke set out to describe an appealing regime, he located the legislature at its core and charged the legislature with making laws that advance the general welfare. Locke’s confidence in the legislature was tempered by fears of how things might go wrong. He especially worried about excessive delegations of legislative prerogatives, arguing, “The Legislative neither must nor can transfer the Power of making Laws to any Body else, or place it any where but where the People have.” From Locke to the present, great democratic theorists have married their cheers for representative democracy with apprehensions about its fragility.

Going forward, the competence of liberal democracy will be decided by how it manages conundrums of participation and institutional robustness. Crucial, too, will be the legitimacy of an orientation to politics and policy that hinges on self-abnegation and “moral ambiguity” within “a political system that legitimizes decisions on the basis of formal, procedural correctness without distinction of content” and “with no reference to substantive justice and no link to a system of ultimate values.” A commitment to representative democracy, as Juan Linz thus underlined, requires a high degree of policy neutrality, a suspension of disbelief based “on a certain relativism” provided that primary liberal values such as civil liberty and the rule of law are respected, and an open and untainted decision-making process.

Arguably, much will depend on whether democracies find a broad willingness to live without a singular sense of the public interest and with the understanding that policy outcomes are provisional. The future of liberal democracy demands solutions to what Dahl identified six decades ago as the problem of variation in the intensity with which people and groups hold policy preferences. Democracies must reckon with what happens when “the underlying consensus on policy that usually exists in the society among a predominant portion of the politically active members . . . prior to politics, beneath it, enveloping it, restricting it, conditioning it” ceases to exist.

If representative democracy requires such background agreement, tacit or otherwise, as a condition of political compromise and legislative action, and if democracy must produce lawmaking that recognizes openness and contingency, what vulnerabilities arise in their absence? What mechanisms underpin these understandings, and which circumstances reduce the likelihood that such a framework can flourish? We badly need a robust debate about these questions. The quality of our political future depends on how we discern apposite answers.