01 April 2014

Democracy or 'people power?'

Anne Applebaum shares the general American assumption that Vladimir Putin regards democracy as a kind of contagion that would prove fatal to him. "It is precisely because he understands the euphoric power of crowds," she writes in The New Republic, "and especially because he understands how they can embolden people cowed by an unjust state that Vladimir Putin ... is so determined to prevent Ukraine's revolution from spreading." To my knowledge, Putin has demonstrated no such understanding, and Applebaum offers no proof that he does. She's an expert on Soviet history, having written a best-selling account of the Gulag, but her portrait of Putin looks more like assumption (this is how a tyrant must think) than analysis. But that's because she's saved her critical analysis for the Ukrainian revolution itself. The next sentence after her sketch of Putin reads: "Yet a successful street revolution, like any revolution, is never guaranteed to leave anything positive in its aftermath -- or anything at all." Her article is a warning against idealizing "people power" revolutions like the Maidan uprising. She believes that "we often mistakenly confuse 'people power' with democracy itself." Her belief is that "democracy" is synonymous with "democratic institutions -- courts, legal systems, bills of rights," as well as regular elections. In other words, democracy means representative government and the rule of law -- but is that quite right, either?

A "democratic" government is necessarily a kind of institution, but "democracy" itself is a principle, not a thing. It's the insistence that "the people" rule. Labeling any institution "democratic" requires a theory of democracy, whether the constitutionalism of the American Founders or the more radical "general will" idea, that equates the delegation of power to representative institutions with the direct rule of the people. The people rule, for instance, if the people's representatives rule. Inevitably this is to some extent an appeal to faith. Democratic legitimacy depends on the people's faith that their representatives really represent them. So long as elections establish accountability, democracy is obliged to defer to its elected representatives during their term in office. "People power" signals a loss of that faith, but there is no true democratic restoration, in Applebaum's view, until the people again submit to elections and a rule of law. "The post-revolutionary moment is often more important than the revolution itself," she writes, "for this is when the emotion of the mob has to be channeled rapidly -- immediately -- into legitimate institutions." Ukraine must "discard the revolutionary romance, choose rigor over spontaneity and analysis over emotions. The crowd had its moment, and that moment has now passed."

Applebaum makes a reasonable argument for good or at least stable government, but despite the metaphysics of political philosophy these can never be absolutely synonymous with democracy. The principle of democracy is prior to any democratic institution, and a true believer in democracy must reserve to the people, even if law does not, the prerogative to rise and reject any representative system. The obligation to defer to elected institutions can never be absolute, and Applebaum herself recognizes this if she credits the Maidan with any legitimacy. Otherwise she'd have to counsel deference to Yanukovich's electoral legitimacy, and she hasn't. Instead, she concedes the legitimacy of revolutionary action, although she warns that its legitimacy is open to question where alleged authoritarians remain widely popular, as in Thailand and Venezuela -- and Russia? The tension between democracy and representation can't be resolved as neatly in every case as some liberals may hope. Revolutions and elections both come with risk -- both can result in tyranny. "People power" probably can't be a perpetual presence in public life, but it should always be a potential force, latent in a citizen vigilance that can demand accountability at election time but need not stop there. It may be wrong to equate "people power" with "democracy itself," but it's just as wrong to equate "democratic institutions" with democracy itself. Either way, democracy is reduced to who shows up and where and when. If democracy is more than that, no theory or system can encompass or control it. Democracy is a dangerous idea and a dangerous thing, but we probably couldn't do anything with it otherwise.


Anonymous said...

Applebaum - like so many others amongst the intelligentsia - can't seem to get it through their thick skulls that some peoples prefer to be ruled by a strong man. And as long as their lives are made more orderly and bearable under such rule, they are complacent.

On the other hand, some people who profess democracy truly lack the faculty of critical thinking and the motivation to keep tabs on their "democratic" government and would, therefore, be better off under a strong man rule. They're just too stupid to realize it.

Samuel Wilson said...

I suppose people like Applebaum resent having to defer to mass complacency the way others resent having to defer to traditional values -- another form of complacency. The problem for people like her is that individual rights never can be absolute in democracy, since submission to a majority is inherent even (or especially) in democracy's rawest form.