Democracy’s meaning has always been contested. The problem with substantive definitions of democracy is that democrats do not agree on what it is or what it should be. 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. Yet letting that struggle become a battle between existential foes risks upending the whole democratic project.
What is democracy for? A minimalist account defines it as a mechanism for making collective choices regarding the distribution of power, influence, and recognition. If this is all that democracy is, the definition fails to explain why some people have been prepared to die for democracy. Substantive definitions explain why we should care, but they have problems too. Those who want democracy to mean something more say it expresses a society’s belief in the sovereign individual citizen as the ultimate source of political legitimacy. John Dewey and others defined democracy as “a way of life,” a form of government that enables the members of a political community to share a common experience and live their moral values.1
The problem with substantive definitions is that democrats with plenty of substantive commitment to democracy do not agree what it is or what it should be. When conservatives talk about democracy, they often express the desire to use democratic institutions to contain and control change.2 When liberals and progressives talk about democracy, they turn it into a vessel of aspiration into which they pour longings for civility, community, and justice.3
What gets missed, in either side’s definitions, is that actual democratic politics is a fierce, no-holds-barred competition for power. Those who think of democracy as a way of life risk framing partisanship as an abnormal rupture in democratic practice, when in fact partisanship is the driver of all democratic competition. When we theorize civility as the norm and competitive partisanship as a threatening exception, liberals and conservatives alike risk being hypocrites about their own partisanship or being helplessly nostalgic, bemoaning the breakdown of a comity that may have been a fantasy in the first place. It is thus a mistake, with large practical consequences, to confuse what we wish democracy could be with what it actually is.
This elision between what democracy is and what we wish it to be occurs, in part, because the democratic theory we teach, and the civics lessons we imbibe in school, lift democracy into an abstract realm of ideal types and pious ideals that is indifferent to historical context. There is no such thing as democracy in a pure state. All actual democracies bear the contours of the historic struggles that gave them shape. While there is a family resemblance in democracy’s basic form—majority rule as the source of legitimate authority—this feature is enacted in and through institutions specific to the societies that created them. Democracy displays crucial historical variations over time and from one society to another.
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. Illiberal, populist visions have long defined democracy as majority rule backing up a strong leader, while liberal definitions have long insisted that majority rule must be balanced by minority rights and countermajoritarian institutions. This argument plays a central role in partisan competition. In the heat of partisan battles, it is a standard trope for one side to accuse the other of endangering democracy itself. For conservative Republicans in the 1930s, for example, Franklin Roosevelt was not democracy’s savior, but a court-packing autocrat. The illiberal authoritarians of our day, Viktor Orbán for example, are not the first autocrats to claim they are democrats, and they will not be the last. Authoritarian models of democracy have a long history and a likely future.4 It is fine to defend a substantively liberal conception of democracy provided you do not pretend that it is the only canonical possibility.
One salient feature that makes democracies differ from one another is the way each democracy has been shaped by its encounter with violence. Some democracies were born in the violence of revolution. Others that have replaced authoritarian or colonial rule with free elections have struggled to contain the violence unleashed once democracy was achieved. Encounters with violence are recurrent even in successful democracies. Violence cannot be understood as an exceptional irruption overturning democracy’s natural resting state. Many a democracy owes its birth to violence, and violent challenges to democratic order continue to defend themselves as necessary last resorts to save democracy itself.
All political systems that emerge from revolution have the challenge of controlling the violence they unleash. Modern China is the heir of the 1949 revolution that brought Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party to power. While in power, Mao unleashed the violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), but all his successors—and especially Xi Jinping, whose family fell victim to Mao’s purges—have sought to repress completely the revolutionary impulses that brought the Communists to power. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, likewise, is the distant heir of the October Revolution of 1917. Like Xi’s, Putin’s authoritarian rule uses violence to suppress the least sign of a revolutionary challenge.
Those democracies born in violent revolution, likewise, have had the enduring challenge of channeling the revolutionary fervor of their beginnings into the peaceful processes of democratic adjudication. While Thomas Jefferson did say, in 1787, that the tree of liberty needed to be watered by insurrectionary violence every twenty years or so, the rest of the Founding Fathers were revolutionaries who wanted to put an end to revolution once and for all.5 James Madison’s Federalist 10 argued that the new Constitution of 1787 would substitute peaceful democratic competition for the factionalism that had nearly torn apart the early republic, but the factionalism that followed, between Federalists and Anti-Federalists, showed that Madison had fallen prey to the hopeful illusions that beset many a constitution-maker.
In France, the radical Jacobin revolutionaries also sought to control the violence unleashed by the revolution of 1789, but they believed true democracy could not begin until they had purged its enemies. Their defense of la République en danger led directly to that republic’s collapse. In late 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte imposed authoritarian rule and led France into fifteen years of revolutionary war. After his fall, liberal constitutionalists such as Benjamin Constant crafted liberalism as an antirevolutionary doctrine designed to canalize the reforming energies of revolution into peaceful parliamentary channels. While conservative thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre or Louis de Bonald were militantly counter-revolutionary, seeking to return Europe to the authority of throne and altar, liberals were anti-revolutionary, seeking to consolidate the gains of democratic revolution in stable and lasting institutions. In Britain, liberalism succeeded in achieving stability, while in France, the revolutionary tradition recurrently blew French institutions apart, in 1830, 1848, and 1871.
In essence, European and American liberalism has remained a progressive but antirevolutionary doctrine ever since. Liberals, like conservatives, know what there is to fear: the fatal cycle that begins with revolutionary enthusiasm and expectation, slipping into violence justified in the name of a better world, followed by civil war, dissolution of the state, and the authoritarian reassertion of control.
Converting Violence into Politics
The modern version of democracy created by the American and French revolutions began its life, in other words, with the task of converting violence into politics. In our own time, national-liberation struggles in Africa and Asia have faced the same challenge. This has remained democracy’s core purpose ever since. When democracy achieves this, it realizes what defines it as a form of government. The prohibition of violence—whether as an instrument of politics or as an instrument of rule over citizens—and the related commitment that all coercive measures must be justified to citizens and receive their consent, are the core principles that separate democracy from all forms of authoritarian rule.
Nineteenth-century liberals came to these conclusions after bitter experience with revolutionary violence. In 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville favored a revolutionary restoration of the parliamentary democracy that had been degraded under the recently deposed King Louis Philippe, only to see democracy abolished altogether by the authoritarian rule of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (a nephew of the original Napoleon).6 John Stuart Mill favored democratic self-rule for the peoples of the Austrian Empire in 1848, but after the Indian Rebellion of 1857, he balked at extending democracy to the African and Asian peoples of the British Empire.7 In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European liberals, faced with working-class and feminist demands for the right to vote, reluctantly agreed that inclusion was the best way to maintain democratic order in the face of revolutionary challenge. These classic liberals accepted as a basic premise that societies are not natural equilibria, but sites of constant social, cultural, and economic struggle, with a potential to boil over into violence. Democracy’s function was to keep conflict political and to prevent the war of all against all.
Today, in democracies that are more diverse and pluralistic than anything nineteenth-century liberals could have imagined, the priority they placed on democracy’s role in preventing political conflict spilling over into violence is more relevant than ever.8 In this perspective, democracy’s ultimate purpose is peace rather than justice, or rather, sufficient justice to secure peace, defined as a minimal, constantly tested and renegotiated willingness by competing groups, factions, and parties, to obey the rules of the democratic game. When competitors accept democratic outcomes as legitimate, they accept closure, at least until the next contest starts. If they win, they do not seek to crush their opponents. If they lose, they do not seek to take revenge or seize power. Legitimacy is thus contingent and performative and always conditional on the willingness of political competitors to abide by the same rules.9
The saving grace of democracy is the possibility that losers get to become winners. Whenever a group, faction, or party believes that victory was stolen from them or that they are fated to be permanent losers, violence becomes a possibility in the democratic game. Successfully managing peaceful democratic transitions between competing elites is the sine qua non of democratic legitimacy.
This definition of what democratic politics has to do may help us to understand the insurrection of 6 January 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.10 There, clearly enough, a group of citizens sought, by violent means, to overturn the certification of a federal election. They did so in the name of democratic freedom itself, believing that violence was a necessary last resort to reverse a stolen election. It would be convenient, of course, to dismiss the rioters as deluded or demonic, but that only makes it easier to ignore the uncomfortable fact that many of them believed they were patriots rising to rescue democracy. Clearly, they did not believe democracy was just a decision procedure, but a sacred element of their identity as Americans. Their actions, however repugnant, were a demonstration of the truth that democracy is a substantive embodiment of deeply held values that people will fight to defend. The problem is that these values are not shared. Even if Americans agree about the procedural content of democracy, some apparently no longer trust their officials to carry out these procedures without fear or favor. What was unique in the American case was not the violence itself, since other capitols elsewhere have been stormed, nor even the insurrection’s justification in the language of freedom, but the willingness of some elected representatives inside the political system to side with insurgents and later to excuse the desecration of the Capitol that so clearly occurred.
Despite this, democracy held together: The election was certified and the right of the next president to take office was duly proclaimed. It was both a moment of supreme challenge to democracy and also a startlingly clear definition of what democracy is for: to guide democratic actors to closure and to prevent the degeneration of politics into open war. The episode also illuminates the reality that democracy’s chief threat can sometimes come from those who are claiming to defend it.
This is democracy’s critical vulnerability. Democracy is not a neutral procedural mechanism, but a site invested with “sacred” meaning: a secular “holy of holies” whose meaning is ferociously contested by both sides. Since it is a sacred thing, in societies which hold little sacred, violent defense of democracy is always easy to justify. This means, unfortunately, that there are no guarantees—no institutional guardrails, no civic virtues—to prevent violence from occurring again, except the conviction of a solid majority of democratically elected representatives, on both sides of the partisan divide, that violence should not prevail. Where this conventional understanding breaks down, where democracy’s own representatives collude with or excuse anticonstitutional violence—as occurred in Germany during the Weimar Republic’s dying days in 1932 and 1933—the way lies open to autocracy and tyranny.11
Equally, it is fanciful to suppose that January 6 was unique. Violent uprisings against the U.S. constitutional order date back to the time of the Articles of Confederation (Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts during 1786–87) and the early republic (the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791–94 on or near the Pennsylvania frontier). The temples of U.S. democracy have been profaned just as religious sites have been profaned, and for the same reason, because sacred values are at stake. When in 1856 a proslavery member of Congress caned the famous abolitionist senator, Charles Sumner, what was shocking was that it occurred on the floor of the Old Senate Chamber.12 Contemporaries rightly took this as a sign that a crucial convention, a shared belief that a democratic chamber should be a place of comity, had broken down. From the U.S. Civil War itself, to its continuation after 1865 in the paramilitary violence of the Klu Klux Klan and the officially tolerated and legally abetted lynching of black Americans, well into the twentieth century, violence has always beset the path to democratic inclusion.13
The Veil of Memory
It is thus a mistake to think that consolidating democracy in the face of violence is only a problem in Africa or in oligarchical societies of a Latin American type. There is a gauzy amnesia about the recurrent problems of democratic order in North Atlantic societies. Britain and the United States often claim to have invented modern democracy and to have a particular aptitude for its requisite civilities. For this very reason, politicians and theorists alike have difficulty accepting that violence is not an anomalous threat, but democracy’s constant challenge and sometimes even its accomplice. By accomplice, I mean that violence can be understood, not just as a threat, but as an escape valve, as the steam that rattles the democratic kettle, an excess of conviction, passion, or malice that blows the lid off democratic deliberation, but which can also—provided that the heat on the democratic stove can be turned off in time—allow democracy to come off the boil. If violent protest is endemic to democracy, we need to be clear what constitutes a systemic threat. January 6 was not just steam rattling the kettle, but an insurrection that threatened democracy itself.
It is important to note just how many functioning democracies have struggled to contain insurrectionary violence. Italian democracy was crushed by the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, who took power bloodlessly in 1922 after his Fascist Party’s March on Rome convinced the king that civil war could break out if Mussolini was not handed control of the government. Democracy was restored only after Italy’s total military defeat at the hands of the Allies in 1945. Even then, democratic travails continued to trouble the Italian Peninsula. From the 1960s into the 1980s—a period that Italians call the “Years of Lead”—the forces of democratic order found themselves hard-pressed to cope with bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations carried out by extremists of right and left. German democracy collapsed during the Weimar period and had to be rebuilt after defeat and Allied military occupation in 1945. German democracy stumbled again in the 1970s, struggling to contain the political violence of the far-left Red Army Faction.
Even in Canada, a country long entranced by its own self-image as North America’s “peaceable kingdom,” the October Crisis of 1970 saw Quebec nationalists kidnap a foreign diplomat and an elected provincial politician (the latter of whom they murdered), forcing the federal government to send troops into the streets of Montreal.14 The British likewise think of their political history as uniquely peaceful, forgetting episodes such as the General Strike of 1926 or the National Union of Miners’ 1984–85 coalfields strike, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher broke the union and deployed thousands of police officers to uphold the government’s authority by force. Nineteenth-century French democracy, as we have seen, witnessed three successive moments of revolutionary insurrection, in 1830, 1848, and 1871. Twentieth-century French history includes the collapse of the Third Republic following military defeat by Hitler’s Germany in 1940; the authoritarian, anti-Semitic Vichy regime of Marshal Pétain; the attempted army putsch of May 1958; and the establishment of the Fifth Republic that same year by an authoritarian-seeming general, Charles de Gaulle, who luckily turned out to be a democrat. In the twenty-first century, France has seen the 2005 riots and car burnings in troubled areas around major cities; Islamist massacres such as the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan Theater attacks in Paris and the 2016 Bastille Day truck attack in Nice; and the gilets jaunes insurrection that began in 2018.
That democracies have survived these moments of violent challenge suggests that democracy will prove robust enough, if elected politicians and citizens rally to its support in time. If democracy exists to keep society’s conflicts political, then democratic politicians, whatever else they disagree about, are bound by their constitutional oaths never to stand on the side of violence in civil disputes. By and large, democratic politicians have abided by that standard, though oath-taking never seems to prevent the more ambitious among them from explaining away violent acts by groups whose support they are courting. If a democracy’s elected leaders unite against violence, democracy tends to survive. Where elected politicians collude with insurrection, democracy is in danger. During the Cold War, it was the communists and socialists who had to prove their peaceful democratic bona fides; now the burden of proof is on the conservative far right to stand against any attempt to subvert democratic order by force, especially when it comes from the right’s own side.
A constitutional democrat is also committed to support the use of force, within the rule of law, if democratic order is threatened by violence. Using force to defend a democratic order wherein force is outlawed, is a contradiction on which democracy depends. Declarations of states of emergency, including suspensions of human rights and the writ of habeas corpus, are the states of exception needed to sustain the rule of law, but a constitutional democrat needs to be vigilant lest the cure prove worse than the disease.15 Without the protection of the countermajoritarian checks and balances of liberal democracy, democracies run the risk, in times of emergency, of killing the very freedom that they exist to defend. If these countermajoritarian institutions are weakened, or captured by a party or an authoritarian tendency, then democracy’s capacity to defend itself against its own purported defenders will be in grave danger.
Violence can flow up into the democratic system from extremist groups on the fringes, but it can also trickle down, from the violent language used by democratic leaders as they wage heated partisan conflicts. The question is why, given how dangerous this can be, elites resort to the language of violent incitement. Their usual answer frequently uses a democratic rationale: They claim that the times and their citizens demand it. In fact, the political language of elites is never a simple reflection of the social grievances and fears of their constituents. It seems reductive, for example, to blame political partisanship on the supposed rise of social inequality since the 1970s.16 Societies may be extremely divided, but the language of elites may insist that all is stable and calm. Conversely, when politicians are responding to inequalities by integrating disadvantaged groups or leveling incomes, as Tocqueville was among the first to see, rising expectations may only increase popular discontent with political leaders and in turn heighten partisan antagonism.17
There is thus no stable, one-to-one relation between rhetoric and reality in politics. Elected politicians generally, whatever their party, have no intrinsic interest in ensuring that democracy’s debates remain closely tied to actual social realities. Political rhetoric is all about creating plausible narratives in the hope that voters can be persuaded that they are true. The electorate, aided by a skeptical media, uses elections to make a rough-and-ready choice between the contending versions of reality put on offer by competing politicians. Voters, in other words, select not only representatives but representations of reality. Voters do so, moreover, by testing—again, in a rough-and-ready way—political visions against their own lived experiences. With alarming frequency, however, this correspondence approach to truth gives way, and voters chose politicians, not by checking with lived reality, but by selecting the rhetorical style that panders to their prejudices or confirms their illusions.
Social media reinforce this closed loop, so that the electoral choices of voters whose experience of politics becomes purely digital cease to depend on an exterior reference to reality and become captured instead by the exclusively partisan digital discourses flowing endlessly through smartphones and computers.18
The Dark Side of Anonymity
A particular feature of politics in the twenty-first century, one that heightens the risk of violent speech, is digital disinhibition. Social media allow us all to remain anonymous, but this severs our accountability for what we post. On the internet, as a memorable New Yorker cartoon caption once put it, “No one knows you’re a dog.” Anonymity, in politics at least, allows you to behave like one. Anyone who has run for public office has experienced the paradox that direct, personal contact with voters, even those who will never vote for you, is rarely unpleasant, while anonymous voter comments on a politician’s social-media feed all too frequently form a sewer of invective and abuse.19
When anonymous speech is severed from any residual responsibility to be civil toward the person being addressed, when anonymous speakers can swarm together in viral attacks on a politician, disinhibition can encourage ever more violent speech and violent acts.20 A disinhibited and anonymous electorate—one whose members feel no responsibilities of civility or decorum toward actual political candidates and may even have a diminishing degree of contact with their own lived reality—is an open invitation to the unscrupulous political leader to use language undisciplined by any concern for its effects on democracy itself.
It is not necessarily true, therefore, that when politicians use violent language, categorizing their opponents as enemies or traitors, these politicians are merely representing their constituents’ feelings or responding to injustices and divisions in society at large. The truth may be darker: It may be a language game not to represent grievance, but to create it, and to polarize for the sake of political advantage, with all this occurring in a digital space that has ceased to bear any relation to reality at all.
Once the leaders in a democratic system start resorting to a “politics of enemies,” the language, habits of mind, and tactics of partisan demonization practiced at the top of the system will spread out and down through media and the internet and begin to affect the political instincts of citizens at large. At first, members of the public may be wary of the leaders’ language and even resist its lethal simplifications, since these may fail to correspond to their own social experience. But over time, by dint of repetition, democratic leaders can take over and define the entire frame of reality used by their constituents and supporters to interpret their digital world.
A politics of enemies treats political opponents as threats who must be eliminated or destroyed. The core accusation is that the opponents aim to lay waste to democracy itself. Since the threat they pose is existential, all means that might be used to combat them are fair. Restraint comes to be seen as weakness, prudence as pusillanimity. The goal is “to crush your enemies and see them driven before you” while winning total victory for your own side.
A politics of enemies is venomously personal. Its purpose is to deny the opponent standing, that is, the right to be believed, even to be taken seriously. Attacks on the past, the character, the financial assets, and even the family of an opponent are designed to ensure that when an opponent speaks, listeners do not listen, because they have been persuaded that the opponent cannot be trusted. Attack a candidate’s standing and you do not have to bother with their ideas or campaign agenda. The crucial way to deny standing is to question the patriotism of the opponent, to raise doubts about their commitment to widely shared values. When standing is effectively denied, the opponent is no longer a competitor: They have become an enemy.
What makes a politics of enemies seductive is that its ruthlessness is so often packaged as a defense of democracy itself. Enemies are enemies because their actions threaten to impose tyranny, and thus, as Barry Goldwater said in 1964, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
While it is natural enough, at the height of democratic competition, to think of your opponent as an enemy and to see an electoral competition as a battle, democracy can be destroyed from within if the competition essential to it is modeled as war, and if political opponents are understood as existential foes. “We must not be enemies,” pleaded Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address, “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” There ought to be no enemies in the democratic house. The term “enemy” should be reserved solely for foreign foes and those who collude with them to betray the country. Democracy is not war by other means. It is the only reliable alternative to war.
A politics of enemies may have the false glamor of seductive simplification, but it comes with dangers for those who practice it. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. It is strongly in the interest of political competitors instead to model the struggle as a competition between adversaries. An adversary, after all, is an opponent who plays by the same rules as you do, accepts democratic outcomes, congratulates you upon your victory, and if they win, thanks you for playing your part in the contest. Moreover, an adversary today may become an ally tomorrow, or even a friend. An adversary is not necessarily nicer, more polite, more civil, or worst of all more “gentlemanly” than an enemy: An adversary is merely someone who understands the rationale for keeping electoral competition within bounds.
Carl Schmitt, the conservative legal thinker, writing in the fevered death throes of the Weimar Republic, argued that the primal division in politics is between friend and enemy, but it was precisely this view of politics that destroyed late-Weimar democracy, encouraging both Communists and Nazis, and everyone in between, to see their adversaries as enemies and traitors—in short, as people whom it was legitimate to take up arms against and eliminate.21
Adversary or Enemy?
In any competitive democratic system, the temptation to treat an adversary as an enemy is unavoidable, but it is a temptation that democratic systems themselves seek to control. Among the least studied aspects of democratic politics are the rituals, practices, and habits devised over the years to prevent competition from becoming destructive to the democratic system itself. These practices—everything from regulations concerning campaign spending and advertising to bans on defamation, customs of courtesy in debate, and legislative rules of order—have been developed by democratic competitors themselves to prevent mutually assured destruction. Where political parties are well funded and organized, they can be counted on to socialize prospective candidates in rituals of restraint, but where parties are weak, political socialization will be weak and the more likely it will be for political actors to think of themselves not as potential public servants with responsibilities to the democratic system, but simply as entrepreneurs in the struggle for power, “moving fast and breaking things.”
Democracy’s informal rules of engagement might best be described as a code of hypocritical civility. These rules seek to define how far you can go in political competition, whether in an election campaign or in a legislative chamber. Strong democracies answer this question for candidates by prescribing rules that prevent extremist speech and practices. Rules aside, candidates themselves quickly learn that there are costs to pushing competition too far. Competitors may know something discreditable about an opponent but choose to keep it quiet not out of high-mindedness, but based on the calculation that something discreditable may be found—or invented—about them.
Smart adversaries keep the contest clean to keep it under control. Obviously, many electoral competitions do degenerate into frenzies of venom, invective, and lies, but there are rational reasons for most competitors to pursue minimal restraints. When you “go low,” your opponent will do the same, with incalculable results, including driving potential voters, theirs or yours, away from the ballot box.22 If you “go high,” you may incentivize your opponents to raise their game and meet you on ground that you believe will favor your chances. If both sides “go low,” qualified and able contestants for office will stay away altogether and your party may have difficulty recruiting. In your own contest, voter turnout will fall, jeopardizing your chances. These are some of the factors that continue to force competitors to treat opponents as adversaries rather than enemies.
Once elections are concluded, competitive passions are usually spent, and tried and tested forms of decorum resume their pacifying role. Election-night rituals require the loser to congratulate the winner and the winner to be magnanimous in victory, assuring everyone that they will now seek to represent those who did not vote for them as well as those who did.
Once elected, members of democratic assemblies are required to call each other “Honorable,” must address the chair rather than each other in debate (making its form less personally confrontational), and are expressly forbidden, on pain of expulsion from the chamber, to say what they really feel about each other.23 Democratic restraint demands more dispassion than most partisan politicians are capable of. Hypocrisy—the respect that vice pays to virtue—becomes a necessary solution to the problem of keeping competition from endangering competitors and democracy as a whole.
Different electoral systems also play an important role in incentivizing hypocritical civility. First-past-the-post, winner-take-all systems, such as are found in the United Kingdom and the United States, do not favor cross-party fraternization in Parliament or Congress. Indeed, when parties are in full partisan attack mode, fraternization is seen as betrayal. Proportional voting systems, since they often require parties to form coalitions in order to govern, tend to encourage fraternization and thus tamp down partisanship. If securing ministerial office depends on forming a coalition with one or more different or maybe even rival parties—maybe even an opponent—there are substantial incentives to be civil and to model your opponent as an adversary, not an enemy.
It would be an illusion to suppose, however, that societies with proportional voting systems favoring coalition formation are less partisan or less prone to political violence than societies with first-past-the-post systems. Neither the French nor the Italian systems, which favor coalition formation in their legislatures, have had much effect in reducing extraparliamentary political violence. Even the Netherlands, which prides itself on the smooth operation of coalition formation among its political elites, has been unable to stop violent protests against covid regulations.24 The point here is simply that even when political institutions successfully manage to contain and control competition among elites in a democracy, this effect may have no impact in tamping down violent challenge from outside legislative institutions.
What this story about the vexed relation between democracy and violence tells us, in our anguished search for policy solutions to the ills of polarization, enmity, and violence in contemporary democracy, is that while there are plenty of reforms that would make politics more civil, including some that would take certain issues out of politics altogether—such as giving judges or panels of citizens the job of redrawing electoral districts—there are no institutional reforms, no new sets of rules, that can guarantee civility, comity, and social peace.
Democratic assemblies and elections have regulatory codes that restrain extremist speech, but such codes will always be vulnerable to being gamed and manipulated by scheming opportunists. Democratic systems are built to moderate political competition, but moderation sometimes surrenders to hatred. As Tocqueville warned us more than a century and a half ago, more social justice need not make us more civil.
Neither is it the case that virtue and courage can always hold the line when institutions fail. Men and women of both parties did their duty during the insurrection at the Capitol, while others betrayed their oath of office. The result, as the Duke of Wellington famously said about the Battle of Waterloo, was the “nearest run thing you ever saw.” The most effective measures taken since the insurrection have been the holding of Congressional hearings to establish exactly what happened, so there is a true record for the future, and also the prosecution of leaders. This should discourage others from a similar course.
Even so, it is America’s very revolutionary traditions that will continue to provide justifications for the use of violence in the defense of liberty. These traditions, whether we like it or not, will continue to give desperate and misguided citizens the belief that they must take the law into their own hands.
Democracy is fragile, because it is a sacred thing vital to our liberty, easily lost, easily damaged, and like all such sacred things dependent for its survival on prosaic, daily acts of faith and sacrifice that are made in its defense.
In the end, there are simply no guarantees of democratic order. There is only the inherited belief—transmitted across generations among citizens and politicians alike, reproduced election after election, vote after vote, year after year, in speeches, classrooms, media outlets, civics courses, and all the various fora that a free society uses to figure out what it is doing—that violence can kill democracy and that violence endangers everyone, especially those who would use it to defend democracy itself.
1. John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916); Robert B. Talisse, “Can Democracy Be a Way of Life? Deweyan Democracy and the Problem of Pluralism,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 39 (Winter 2003): 1–21.
2. Michael Oakeshott, “On Being Conservative,” inRationalism in Politics and Other Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1962), 168–96; Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (London: Penguin, 1980).
3. Teresa M. Bejan, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).
4. András Sajó, Renáta Uitz, and Stephen Holmes, eds., Routledge Handbook of Illiberalism (London: Routledge, 2021).
5. Thomas Jefferson to William Smith, 13 November 1787, www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/105.html.
6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath, ed. Olivier Zunz, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016).
7. Duncan Bell, “John Stuart Mill on Colonies,” Political Theory38, 1 (February 2010): 34–64; Mark Tunick, “Tolerant Imperialism: John Stuart Mill’s Defense of British Rule in India,” Review of Politics 68 (Fall 2006): 586–611.
8. Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure (New York: Penguin, 2022).
9. Arthur Isak Applbaum, Legitimacy: The Right to Rule in a Wanton World(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).
10. Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on United States Capitol, https://january6th.house.gov.
11. Martin Greiffenhagen, “The Dilemma of Conservatism in Germany,” Journal of ContemporaryHistory 14 (October 1979): 611–25; Sheri Berman, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics 49 (April 1997): 401–29; Peter Fritzsche “Did Weimar Fail?” Journal of Modern History 68 (September 1996): 629–56.
12. “The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner—May 22, 1856,” United States Senate, www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm.
13. See Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (New York: Viking, 2008).
14. Dominique Clément, “The October Crisis of 1970: Human Rights Abuses Under the War Measures Act,” Journal of Canadian Studies42 (Spring 2008): 160–86.
15. Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
16. Thomas Piketty, A Brief History of Equality, trans. Steven Rendall (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2022).
17. As Tocqueville put it in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856), “The French found their condition the more unsupportable in proportion to its improvement. . . . Revolutions are not always brought about by a gradual decline from bad to worse. Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter. The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor.” John Bonner translation, quoted in James C. Davies, “Toward a Theory of Revolution,” American Sociological Review 27 (February 1962): 5–6.
18. Jamie Susskind, The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21stCentury (London: Bloomsbury, 2022).
19. Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).
20. P.B. Lowry et al. “Why Do Adults Engage in Cyberbullying on Social Media?” Information Systems Research27 (December 2016): 962–86.
21. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996; orig. publ. 1932).
22. Jade Scipioni, “Michelle Obama: Why ‘Going High’ When Faced with a Challenge Is So Important to Her,” CNBC, 12 February 2020, www.cnbc.com/2020/02/12/michelle-obama-on-famous-catchphrase-when-they-go-low-we-go-high.html.
23. See, for example, U.S. House of Representatives Recommendations to Encourage Civility and Bipartisanship in Congress (2019), www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CPRT-116HPRT38772/html/CPRT-116HPRT38772.htm; Standing Orders of the House of Commons of Canada, Appendix 2, www.ourcommons.ca/procedure/standing-orders/Index-e.html.
24. Aleksandar Furtula and Mike Corder, “Thousands Gather to Oppose Dutch Virus Measures Despite Ban,” Associated Press, 2 January 2022, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-01-02/thousands-gather-in-amsterdam-despite-demonstration-ban.
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