For the first ten years of my former academic career I wrote a considerable amount about post-authoritarian democratisation thanks to the mentors that introduced me to the subject and my personal interest in Argentina and the Southern Cone. I alternated this interest with writing about various security related topics like terrorism and comparative civil-military relations, with the natural overlap being that the move from dictatorship to democracy would of necessity entail a move away from state terrorism as practiced by the likes of the Argentine Junta and Pinochet’s regime in Chile and towards civil-military relations that were dominated by civilians, not murderous men in uniforms.
In recent times I have returned to these subjects with some friends and correspondents who share my interest in politics. The erosion of democracy in the US and elsewhere and the rise of national populism, rightwing extremism and various other forms of authoritarianism in places like Brazil, Hungary, Nicaragua, Serbia, Turkey, the Philippines, Venezuela and countries that experienced the “Arab Spring” in the early 2010s has brought the subject of what democracy is and is not back to the forefront of my thought.
Most recently a good friend and I, both Americans by birth but living abroad by choice, have traded views on the rise of Trumpism and the sad turn towards MAGAist politics on the part of the Republican Party. Two areas that emerged as major sources of concern were the GOP stacking of local and state governments with MAGA believers pursuant to a program of gerrymandering and voter suppression that effectively disenfranchises demographic groups considered to be opponents of MAGA policy objectives (say, urban African Americans in Southern states or white liberals in Midwestern states). School boards, country clerk offices, electoral commissions–all of these have been targeted by the GOP as priority areas, something that Steve Bannon consistently advocated more than ten years ago, and in the measure that they have been successful (and they have in many instances) they have guaranteed Republican majorities in those states and localities. That it turn reinforces MAGA dominance over political discourse and practice in those parts of the country.
The second, deeper problem is abandonment of the notion that contingent political and economic compromise is at the heart of the democratic social contract. That causes political competition to be seen in zero-sum terms and opponents as adversary “others” who must be defeated at all costs and hopefully forever. It is this shift that lies at the root of the GOP turn to MAGA and the local take-over strategy.
Here is what I wrote to my friend when we discussed the issue. As friends often do in order to make a point, I began mine with an anecdote (my comment is edited and paraphrased for clarity):
“Two observations. 1) When I lived in Tucson in the late 80s-early 90s Mormons used to try to stack school boards and PTAs by running numerous candidates for every school in the district (in my case, the Amphi district where my kids attended primary and secondary school). This allowed them to shape individual and district-wide school policy wherever they won a majority of seats, but even as minorities they were influential in shaping school direction on things like prayer, the pledge of allegiance etc. This locally-focused “bottom-up” political strategy of organising to elect partisan adherents into grassroots, small-town offices was adopted by the GOP in subsequent decades and became a core strategic tenet in the 2010s. Rather than solely focus on federal-level offices, the Republican National Committee (RNC) also worked hard to stack local political decks with (increasingly MAGA) partisan adherents who then worked in unison to guarantee Republican dominance of state and federal electoral processes in their respective jurisdictions. That has produced permanently Red (GOP) electoral outcomes in states like Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Arkansas.”
“But there is more to this process than the “stacking” strategy, and we might call that 2) democratic socialisation. As (my friend) might recall, I was a student of the great generation of “transitologists” of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Schmitter, O’Donnell, Przeworski (all on my Ph.D. committee), Elster, Garreton, Rouquie, Stepan, Linz, Bobbio, et.al. One of the major points that they made was that democracy was the result of what was known as the mutual second-best game: no one could gain everything that they wanted all of the time in a competitive democracy, so instead everyone pursued “second-best” strategies based on mutual contingent compromise that allowed them to achieve some of their objectives some of the time. This turns out to be a Pareto optimal solution in game-theoretic terms since no one can achieve better individual outcomes without hurting those of others (where each has the ability to do so), and as an extensive form game where preferences and outcomes change based on prior outcomes, it laid the foundation for a durable compromise between class and non-class actors and their political representatives (as agents of sectorial interests).”
Of course, the democratic compromise only succeeds if it is respected and popular expectations are met with regard to it. If these are not met the compromise is broken, which paves the way for the imposition of zero-sum authoritarian solutions. That appears to be what has happened in, and to, the US.
“What the GOP stacking strategy has done, most negatively, is reject the notion of a political compromise (much less class compromise) grounded in mutual second best approaches to democratic competition. This is, to say the least, a profoundly authoritarian way of pursuing political interests and as such is inimical–and threatening–to democracy as a regime made up of institutions, norms and values. But it is where we are today, although I believe that the GOP may have taken a step too far in the dictatorial direction under Trump and will soon rue the day that it ever chose to go down the MAGA path because it has now become the province of sociopaths and charlatans.”
That is what has been lost in the US: the acceptance that democracy rests on a contingent economic and political compromise between the electorate and elites. Workers agree to accept capitalism in exchange for better wages, job security and living conditions, including educational opportunity and access to affordable housing, drinking water, transportation, power and the like. Elites agree to use a percentage of their pre-tax profits an/or increased corporate and individual taxation to provide the mass of wage-earners with the material conditions required for social peace. Regardless of partisan identity, governments mediate interests and administer the broad terms of the bargain.
That is a central feature. What brings this all together as a workable outcome over time is a regularly refreshed political bargain between agents of elites and workers in all of their guises–lobbies, unions, parties, non-profits, community organisations etc. They all have their specific interests that make for differences in priority and approaches to pursuing them. But they have a larger common interest in seeing the system work because it is the best guarantee that everyone comes away with something now and in the future. All political actors understand this and governments act accordingly.
Democracy may be transactional in practice but it is founded on a common understanding that the mutual-second best approach and contingent compromise are the best way to guarantee social peace. Needless to say, issues such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia and other instances of malicious “othering” are not reducible to game theoretic solutions, but the idea is to inculcate a polity with a political socialisation that places a premium on partisan and sectorial compromise and pursuit of mutual contingent consent as mainstays of both the political as well as social system. That in turn widens space for increased toleration of difference, horizontal solidarity networks between different groups of people, and inter-generational reproduction of political norms and value re-orientation focused on the mutual second best as the preferred collective outcome.
Needless to say this is just a distillation of what democracy is as a political form. It does not address the differences and relationship between procedural (electoral) and substantive (institutional, societal, economic) democracy. But is does reduce the concept to a fundamental core characteristic: contingent compromise.
The US is very far from this ideal at the moment, and even in places like Aotearoa understanding of these core concepts appears to have eroded considerably in recent years (perhaps as a result of the US influence on local political practice). In any event, rather than treat democracy as one means towards a desired partisan end, perhaps it is best for all to reflect on its intrinsic worth as the political aggregator of distinct and heterogenous material and ideological preferences in socially pluralistic societies.