Populism and Democracy

What is democratic about "democratic norms"–in their breach?

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By Peter Stamatov · Jun 19, 2018

A consistent theme in opinion pieces on Trump's presidency has been decrying its breaching of democratic norms. This is a serious issue and that Trump and other emboldened authoritarians operate with impunity and even with something of popular acclaim is deeply worrying. As a student of history, however, I'm struck by how broad the definition of "democratic" in the concept of "democratic norms" is.

The norms commentators observe breached seem to fall into three categories. First, the violation of long-standing procedures in order to increase presidential or purely partisan power (as in absurd claims that the president can kill and then pardon himself, or as in the Republican Party's breach of parliamentary conventions to appoint a new judge to the Supreme Court). The second category includes actions that smack of or are corruption, as in Trump family's exploitation of political power for personal gain. The last category are actions that target and offend individuals or entire populations: from Trump's bullying every person doesn’t like to calling immigrants "animal" and displaying vicious insensitivity to human suffering.

All these behaviors are horrific (and I wish I could do something to stop them). What I want to point out here, though, is that the norms breached in these cases have, interestingly, relatively little to do with democracy in its classical Aristotelian definition as rule by the people. Perhaps the first category of behavior aiming at increasing a person's or organization's power and the drift towards Aristotelian tyranny or oligarchy is the most anti-democratic in essence. But even there what is breached is also long-standing conventions and rules. Yet such procedural rules have been adopted by many monarchical regimes in history: they are not the prerogative of democracies. Similarly, behavior of the second kind (corruption) would have been decried in non-democracies, too: as for example in the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings in eighteenth-century England. And the third category, the non-targeting of individuals and groups, similarly would have been in place in non-democratic environments. An important aspect of the Habermasian public sphere is precisely the norm of reasoned argument and civility and that emerged long before the ascendance of democracy in the late nineteenth century.

All this is to say that the beloved idea of democracy we operate with today is rich, complex, and multidimensional. It denotes not simply the rule by the many (however extensively the multitude may be defined) but a commitment to a set of legal-rational procedures and an etiquette of decency. And these latter are not, in themselves, inherently "democratic." The final irony is that in the nineteenth century, for example, it would have been the anti-democratic populists who would have been designated democrats (as, for example, Robert Saunders’ contribution to this volume shows) and not us, the defenders of today's democratic norms.

https://transpopproject.eu/news/what-is-democratic-about-democratic-norms-in-their-breach

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