Dialogue

The rules of democracy: Princeton’s Jan-Werner Müller on populism and the importance of contained conflict in democracies

A voter casts their ballot at a polling location on election day during the 44th Canadian general election, on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Princeton University political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller on his new book, Democracy Rules. They discuss the case for democracy in our current moment, what populists and technocrats have in common, and why conflict is not only legitimate but can in fact strengthen cohesion in a democracy.

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SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Jan-Werner Müller, a political philosopher at Princeton University, and author of several books, including his most recent one, Democracy Rules, which sets out the basic case for democracy at a moment when it’s deeply needed. Jan, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: Thank you for having me, and thanks for the congrats. 

SEAN SPEER: A common yet somewhat contradictory narrative in popular discourse is that democracy is in crisis, and the source of the crisis is one of two forces. The first is the rise of populism, which implies a political movement of ordinary citizens motivated by anger, frustration, and even intolerance, or a second, which is a small yet powerful elite, who are the winners in the modern economy? So, just to start, how can we reconcile these competing claims about the state of our democracy? And do you think modern democracy is in crisis?

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: Allow me to say two things. First of all, I beg to differ from the conventional understanding of populism as involving so-called ordinary people, as if they were really any others, basically, finding fault with the powerful. I think, up until quite recently, actually, any old civic educator would have told us that citizens keeping an eye on the powerful is not somehow something dangerous or something that puts democracy into crisis. Quite on the contrary: it would have been a sign of being a good democratic citizen. And for me, populism refers much more to those who essentially claim that they, and only they, represent what they often refer to as the real people, or also, very typically, the silent majority.

So, populism doesn’t really have to involve large numbers of people. It’s much more about leaders or parties making a claim to what you may call a certain monopoly of representing other people. And if you sort of follow that logic, then it’s also not so surprising anymore that very often—not always, I hasten to add—populist leaders when they lose an election—you know, some of us might think of recent examples—basically don’t accept that. Because if you take this notion of a silent majority seriously, then by definition, if the only unique representative of the silent majority doesn’t win, it implies that we’re not so much talking about a silent majority, but a silenced majority. So, somebody or something must have prevented the real people from expressing themselves, and as hopefully you can see, you’re very quickly on a kind of slippery slope towards claims about fraud, and you know, this can’t really be happening, and so on. 

Again, I’m not saying that this inevitably happens, but there is a reason why it very often happens with populists who lose elections. Secondary mark, if I may. So, there’s some truth in both the kind of diagnoses that you put forward. I wouldn’t say that they’re completely wrong. At the same time, as different as they are—one basically blames the many; the other one blames the few—nevertheless, they do have one thing in common, which is that they essentially focus on groups of people, a smaller group and a larger group. And what both diagnoses, I would say, tend to miss is a focus on institutions, which it’s not exactly a wildly original point to say that they play a crucial role in democracies. 

And so, I think we should move away from what, especially among liberals in the widest sense of that term has, I think, been an unfortunate tendency to basically go back to what you might call sort of cliches from 19th-century mass psychology: the great unwashed; they’re all irrational; they’re all waiting to be seduced by the great demagogue; and so on. I mean, things which a lot of people lot of liberals would not have said in polite society, and all of a sudden after 2016, it’s completely okay, it seems, to talk like that about our fellow citizens. And I think that’s basically wrong. 

The tendency to also find fault with the powerful, I think is more justified, but in and of itself also doesn’t get us very far. I mean, this, again, is sort of typical populist talk, where we say, “Oh, they’re all corrupt; they’re bad characters.” This doesn’t help us, this doesn’t help us much. Plus, it’s not exactly new. I mean, people are not somehow more corrupt than they were 10, 20, 30, 50 years ago, and so on. So, my plea is to refocus on institutions, and not always just talk about groups, be it the many or be it the few.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll come back to your observations about institutions, which really run deeply throughout the book. But before I do, to follow up on my question. Another key idea in your book is what you describe as the double secession from contemporary politics. What is the double secession? And how does it relate to these broader trends? 

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: So, the double secession is not symmetrical. On the one hand, it refers to, for shorthand, to put it crudely, but not inaccurately, the wealthiest, the most powerful, those who can essentially afford to take themselves out of a shared social contract. And that, as well-known examples illustrate, that can literally mean, “Okay, I have a backup ife in New Zealand or I find ways of manipulating the political system to my advantage.” Or, as some of our colleagues in social sciences have been putting it, I can basically afford the services of what is sometimes known as the wealth-defense industry. So, you know, if I have enough cash to spare to afford that, Cayman Islands account, I really am looking at very different tax rates than anybody else. I mean, just maybe remember Mitt Romney, about a decade ago, people were shocked to learn how much PAC tax he actually pays. But to get to that, you basically have to have a lot of cash to spare to afford the necessary lawyers and accountants. 

Again, I’m putting it very crudely, very polemically, but just to get the main point across. The other secession, though, is not about the powerful, it’s not about those who take themselves out of a common social contract because they really have other options. It’s the opposite. It’s those who are basically despairing in certain ways, who feel that there are no options for them anymore in existing party systems; it’s not really worth it to go out there and vote. And that, in turn, can cause a sort of really vicious, vicious cycle, because parties don’t tend to care about those who don’t vote at all. I mean, why appeal to them? Why try to reach them? So, those who don’t participate anymore are also on a kind of downward slope towards a potentially ever worse off situation. And they in a sense, also succeed, but in this case, for very, very different reasons than those at the very top.

SEAN SPEER: Let me just ask one big picture question before we delve more deeply into the book. A big part of contemporary political discourse is a lament about polarization. And yet you argue in the book that one of the problems with this prevailing narrative is that it neglects the fact that politics fundamentally involves conflict about competing values and priorities. Do you want to just talk a bit about how we ought to think and talk about the role of politics in a liberal pluralistic democracy?

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: I think it’s a problem with our political discourse that we have to listen to so much, if you permit again a rather polemical formulation, so much kitschy communitarianism, which pretends that if only we could all come together, if only we found a nice form of patriotism, then you know, all would be well. Democracy isn’t about consensus. Democracy is about conflict; conflict is legitimate. It needs to be contained. It needs to be compatible with basic democratic principles such as freedom and equality.

So, I’m not saying we should celebrate conflict or accept that any sort of instance of people going at each other is automatically good. Absolutely not. But it’s really not a terribly new insight to say that if conflict is done the right way, it can actually, in certain ways, strengthen cohesion in a democracy. Not in the sense that in the end, everybody will agree. That’s not an expectation that’s going to be fulfilled. But if there’s a sense that yes, we can fight over certain things, but we can also accept the outcomes, we can give what, unfortunately, has become a rare commodity in a number of democracies—there will be losers consent because people have the chance, they can re-table the conflict, they have another chance to fight the battle. Then actually the institutions of democracy can be strengthened. 

But I hasten to add—and forgive me if I’m in danger of slipping into lecture mode here—I hasten to add that it’s also an art to make conflict compatible with democracy. And let me just mention two important, if you’d like, boundaries or borders here that have to be observed. One is that in a conflict, you should not deny the basic standing of your adversaries. This is again what I think right-wing populists in particular tend to do. They basically say—if you just think about Trump as not exactly an unusual example—that it’s not really even worth defending your positions, your policies, vis-à-vis your adversaries, you just from the get-go say, “They’re un-American. They should go back to their shithole countries,” if I may, quote that infamous line. If you do that, you can’t really get into a kind of conflict where you might possibly respect and recognize the other as holding a different view, of course, but ultimately also as a kind of partner in a shared democratic enterprise. That becomes impossible because the others don’t really belong here to begin with. They have no standing. 

And secondly, and you know, if any journalist is listening I know there’s a danger that they’re going to burst out laughing because it can sound so naive. But nevertheless, I’ll make the point that you also do need some sense of shared facts. We know this is very different. We know that the facts don’t exactly speak for themselves. None of us has ever heard the facts speak. Nevertheless, to get into a productive conflict that might possibly strengthen democracy at the end, we can’t be in a situation where I table a certain problem, and you tell me, “Look, this doesn’t even exist. There’s nothing happening with climate,” for instance. If that’s the case, we also have nothing in common, we have nothing to argue about really, and the potentially productive sort of side of conflict cannot really come out. 

So, again, I think it’s important to move away from a stance that constantly tells us only if everything is calm and civil, and everybody always agrees on everything is a democracy, that’s not true. At the same time, it’s also not true that any old conflict fought in whatever way is necessarily beneficial, but that we’ve seen so often in recent years, that’s really not sort of the unusual thing to say nowadays.

SEAN SPEER: To pick up on that answer. If the 1980s and 1990s were in part trying to resolve technocratic questions about optimal tax rates, the optimal size of government, the best way to structure the global economy, it seems to be these issues lend themselves to a degree of compromise. You could come down somewhere in the middle in terms of optimizing for liberty and equality. It seems to me that it feels increasingly like one of the challenges with contemporary debates wrapped up in culture and identity is that they don’t lend themselves to accommodation or settlement. They’re more zero-sum. 

What do you think of that point? And to the extent that there’s something there, what new challenges does it represent for democracies to resolve conflicts without undermining cohesion?

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: Forgive me if I take issue with both points. So, I think that if we take technocracy seriously, then I don’t think we should assume that technocrats are particularly tolerant or ready to compromise. If technocrats on one level tend to say there is only one rational solution to each policy problem, then those who disagree on one level are going to appear as irrational, as you know, not really understanding the complexity of the world, and so on. And maybe on a less obvious note, what we’ve also seen in a number of countries is a really faithful kind of dynamic, where technocrats precisely said, “Look, there’s only one solution to certain economic issues,” or let’s say, the euro crisis or the financial crisis. And hence populists very often said, “Wait a minute, democracy without the people, democracy without choices, that can’t be right.” So, technocrats, in a certain way, have helped populists. 

When populists then succeeded, they in turn have actually helped technocrats, because if you elect Trump or Bolsonaro figures like this, technocrats are going to say, “Look, you let the people speak, and they elect completely incompetent amateurs, and they only make everything worse.” And so, they can, in a perverse sense, help each other. But what’s more, even though they look so different, they also ultimately do have one thing in common. They’re both forms of what I would call anti-pluralism. The technocrat says only one correct solution; you disagree, you reveal yourself to be irrational. Populists says only one authentic understanding of the popular will and, by the way, only we understand it. If you disagree, you reveal yourself to be a traitor to the people. So, I think that dynamic we’ve seen in a number of democracies and I think it’s bad for democracy.

Second point, yes, many people assume that so we have it more difficult than previous eras because we tend to talk more about cultural identity and, and so on. I’m not so sure that this contrast ultimately really is plausible. For one thing, it’s not so obvious that identities are somehow given, are somehow quasi-natural, unchangeable. People look at themselves from different perspectives and in different lights, and in light of new experiences all the time. And in certain ways, it’s not so difficult to think of yourself differently in light of new information, new experiences, sometimes listening to particular victims, which I know nowadays tends to get derided as oh, this is—you know, I hate to even use the term—woke or something that. Is very problematic. But when you think about it, this happens all the time. And in many cases, people actually can construct a narrative around these experiences that is not obviously seen as loss or something that couldn’t possibly be open to compromise. 

I think we’ve kind of forgotten that when the chips are down, people are not really terribly interested in compromising on material interests. If you think about the 20th century, there are plenty of examples of groups of people who said, “Look, you know, yeah, okay, we can compromise up to a certain point. But, you know, only up to that certain point, and after that point, we’re going to defend our material possessions, with whatever we’ve got.” So, it’s true that there was a certain period when it seemed like a very broadly speaking, social democratic settlement had been reached under particular conditions: high growth, high productivity, high wages, still high enough profits for certain groups as well. But that was kind of unusual, and in many ways the much more typical thing was people are gonna fight very hard for the protection of their material interests. 

Plus, last thing if I may, it’s also not quite true that when you think of recent movements, which are often subsumed under again, quote, unquote, and I use the term also with a certain hesitancy, “identity politics,” that these issues are completely divorced from questions of distribution. So, just think of Black Lives Matter or Me Too, these were not really about telling people that we now must understand particular identities in all their complexity, whichin many ways we couldn’t really do anyway. They were basically just saying, “Look, there are certain rights which for certain groups are not real.” For some people, it’s, it is a real right not to be harassed, let alone be shot by the police. For some people, it’s not, for some people, it’s taken as a given that your, let’s say, superiors are not going to harass you in the workplace, let alone rape you. And for some people, that was not true. 

So, to think that this is sort of purely about identity, as opposed to saying, “Let’s basically distribute rights effectively, including many rights that already exist, that are not really in dispute,” I think, in a sense, is a question of distribution, and is not really, ultimately a question of identity or something that couldn’t be talked about rationally or that people couldn’t meaningfully deliberate about. 

Again, that’s not to say there aren’t going to be losers in these processes. It’s not like, “Okay, everybody’s going to immediately agree as soon as you as soon as you set things up this way.” But I think we’re not doing ourselves a favour if we basically constantly pity ourselves and say, “Oh, it’s so difficult for us now, because of all this crazy culture war stuff and identity, and if only all these people were to shut up again, then it would be so much easier because all we’d ever be talking about were working wages, and you know, better working conditions, ” and so on and so forth. I don’t think that’s a helpful way of looking at things.

SEAN SPEER: My next question is a somewhat different track but I’ve wanted to ask you it ever since we scheduled today’s interview. You’re a scholar of the controversial German thinker Carl Schmitt. There seems to be something of a Schmidtian revival in certain intellectual circles questioning the efficacy of democracy. What do you attribute that to? And what, if anything, does it tell us about the current state of our political debates?

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: It potentially tells us quite a lot. I would emphasize that Schmitt himself considered his thinking as primarily anti-liberal and that he in the interwar period also deployed a very particular understanding of democracy that occasionally also shows up among, to put it bluntly, far-right, populist actors, both politicians and intellectuals. It involves the kind of operation I was alluding to earlier. 

So, there is what Schmitt derided as this merely quantitative statistical approach to democracy where, God forbid, we count votes one by one, and then we’re going to have a number at the end, and that’s gonna tell us who won the election. Schmitt already in the twenties deployed a different understanding of democracy. He invoked a kind of mystical people who could have a sort of authentic will, and that he thought was much superior to this boring quantitative statistical approach And the invocation of the mystical real will of a supposedly real people, that has also been pushed by plenty of far-right populist politicians and intellectuals today. 

Many of these figures are not telling you anything new of course—also very explicitly identify as anti-liberal, and who argue that in many instances, liberals are always ready to abandon democracy, because they want to protect their favourite liberal preferences. But if you look at, for instance, a very recent election—so, Hungary, for instance, the outcome has been celebrated by many far-right, foreign intellectuals who never bothered to mention that independent observers all said, “Well, this wasn’t entirely democratic. This was a fairly free election, but it certainly wasn’t fair.” Many things happened which are incompatible with baseline understandings of democracy. Unless you want to say that, “Oh, it’s already democratic if on the day of the election the governing party doesn’t stuff the ballot boxes with fake ballots,” you have to take into account many, many other factors, including free media, effective exercise of basic communicative freedoms, and many others. 

So, even though these people think they’re actually kind of upholding democracy and deploying it against liberalism, what they’re actually doing is basically revealed that they’re quite okay with authoritarianism, as long as they get their favorite anti-liberal policy preferences on take your pick, abortion, certain so-called free speech issues, plenty of stuff, which, you know, again, I also add certainly can be up for debate in a democracy. 

I mean, you can have, you can have meaningful conflicts around these issues. I’m not saying that it’s somehow prohibited in a democracy to, for instance, make the case against immigration or have a view inspired by Catholic natural law teaching. All that can be talked about, all that can be debated. What I think you can’t do is say, “Unless I get my policy preferences, I’m not going to accept the outcomes. Plus, I’m potentially going to fiddle with the democratic process so that I always get my favourite policy outcomes,” because that is essentially then on the road to autocracy.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask the flip then of that question. You alluded earlier to what is sometimes characterized as a tension between liberalism and democracy. You often hear, for instance, American scholars and politicians emphasize that America is a Republic, it’s not a democracy. Is there anything to the idea that there’s a tension between liberalism and democracy? And how should we think about that tension in the modern age?

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: I agree that we should not collapse democracy and liberalism into each other, as if they were entirely the same concept. Certainly, historically, they have been in tension, depending on how you map them out conceptually. They can certainly be in tension. But again, I would insist that the operation we often see today, namely that certain self-consciously anti-liberal experiments, such as in Central and Eastern Europe, are then also sold as particularly democratic. That is a wrong move. Because basically, what the relevant actors do is really to mess with individual rights which are essential for democracy itself. 

We can have, you know, an emphasis for instance, on individual autonomy. That’s distinctly liberal in certain ways. We can think of other individual rights, which again, many people would not agree with, and yet they can be perfectly on board with democracy. We can have many disagreements about what ultimately constitutes a good life, and there can be non-liberal, even to some degree, explicitly anti-liberal voices in those conversations. And again, I would insist that we should not simply then say, “Oh, that isanti-democratic,” at the same time. But to basically pretend that you can cut down on basic communicative rights such as free assembly, free association, free expression and politics, and still invoke democracy and pretend that you can basically have democracy on your side, that I think is fundamentally wrong.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask about one other potential tension in this broader context. How can we on one hand affirm ourselves to the principles of liberalism and pluralism, and on the other hand, maintain a common sense of cohesion and purpose in this growing age of diversity and heterogeneity? Is there a risk that the trends toward diversity and heterogeneity come to be a challenge to the health of democracy?

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: So again, I would, I would slightly resist the tendency to invoke a golden age when somehow it was simpler. If you think about some conflicts in the 20th century, just as a more or less random example in a country that is often held up as a sort of prime example of supposedly homogeneity, and hence also all kinds of benefits that supposedly are derived from national homogeneity, I’m thinking of Finland which always plays a big role in debates and education. It sort of tends to be forgotten that the Finnish Civil War was one of the worst civil wars in European history. And it’s very hard to run the argument that somehow because people were kind of more the same in one respect that that also necessarily imply the politics that was more harmonious, somehow easier, and so on. 

So, I would agree with some of my colleagues who do point to basically the emergence of majority-minority democracies as posing particular challenges. I’m not saying that this is all made up or we shouldn’t give serious consideration to that as something that might pose particular challenges. But we should also not be defeated along the lines of okay, if you reach somehow too much, let’s say ethnic heterogeneity, your democracy must be in danger somehow. I mean, I feel that I shouldn’t be lecturing Canadians on some of these issues. It depends on how you deal with it, and again, it depends on how you set up certain conflicts. It’s, again, not the case that any tensions or conflict will spell immediately the end of democracy. If you do it in ways that respect basic boundaries of democratic discourse and conduct, it’s not true that there’s some fundamental or fateful challenge necessarily involved. 

Now, obviously, as with so many other areas, it would also be wrong to pretend that it’s all about people just observing these boundaries. I mean, vogue theory is not about policing boundaries. I mean, it has many, many other important aspects, and I don’t want to make it sound like—ideally, the philosopher patrols the borders and constantly says, “Oh, you’ve said the wrong thing, you know, step back from this border,” that doesn’t exhaust the job of theory. Plus, even if people are willing to recognize these boundaries, there are many, many other factors in place. 

So, I think sometimes there is an unfortunate tendency to pretend that some of the problems we are facing today could be fixed with one unique thing. There’s a magical trick or some kind of panacea, and obviously, there isn’t. We can all think of particular problems, but usually precisely because these are complex problems that look different in different countries. At the risk of saying the obvious, we also do need more complex approaches and not pretend that oh, if only this one thing were different, or if only people were nice enough to respect these boundaries, then all will be well. 

SEAN SPEER: I’d like to wrap up with a question about Canada and Canada’s political culture. But before we do, I just have to ask you about the comment you made earlier about the role of institutions and intermediary bodies or organizations in your overall thesis. 

One of the striking things about Donald Trump’s rise in American politics is how it demonstrated the weakness of American political parties. He essentially walked into a Republican party with whom he had virtually no connection and took it over. What do you think has led to the decline of the kind of strength and capacity of political parties, and what is the importance of political parties in managing the tensions that we’ve been discussing today?

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: Again, allow me to say two things if I may. So, one is simply that while I agree that we live in a sort of paradox, an age where we do have high levels of partisanship, high levels of polarization, it sort of paradoxically coexists with hollowed-out parties. And I agree that there was a problem with the way that Trump could basically enter the Republican field. 

At the same time, I’m a little, to put it mildly, opposed to this image that we’ve also occasionally had, that basically the Republican ship of state was gliding along nicely on the sea of responsible statecraft, and then this pirate comes along and hijacks this ship and steers it into the choppy and stormy areas of right-wing populism and so on. Obviously, the whole Republican Party has never been a completely homogeneous entity. That’s not what American parties are like, but I think it’s also not a completely crazy thing to say that, in many ways, the party was ready for him. 

If you think about some of the stuff that Newt Gingrich already said in the 90s, how he talked about his opponents, how he instructed fellow Republicans to basically attack Democrats in certain ways. I mean, this was going in a certain direction, and that undoubtedly, I think, made it much easier for Trump to enter a field that in many ways had been prepared for him, even if, of course, at the same time, it was highly contingent, and it could have gone a very, very different way. 

To the other part of the importance, but then also difficult question: so I think one of the important characteristics of parties is that they do have robust internal structures. And that also means that they allow for a certain internal pluralism, genuine possibilities of internal debate, which I know is gonna make many of your listeners tune out because they might remember Oscar Wilde’s famous quip where he said, “The problem with socialism is it takes too many evenings.” Yes, it’s true that we all know the image of party activists, policy aficionados, or what some of our colleagues would call political hobbyists, who just love talking about this stuff all night, and who also usually are very privileged, and will sit there until 2 am, and they usually have their way simply because nobody else has so much time and can afford to have endless internal debates, and so on and so forth. That’s all true. 

At the same time, we’ve seen what happens if you don’t have these processes, if you don’t have any kind of internal democracies/pluralism because then you also are not going to have anything like a legitimate opposition or what you might call critical loyalty inside a party. I mean, ideally, what people will find is that, of course, they’re in the same party because they are committed to similar underlying principles. I mean, debate doesn’t mean that oh it can go any which way; it’s not relativism, but no principle applies itself. So we can have meaningful debates about policy applications and how to change how we understand certain principles in light of new challenges. But if all that is shut down, and if you basically transform a party into a personality cult in the way that Trump de facto ended up doing, then you also are not going to have any internal restraints, and I think it’s fair to say that at that point, you’re well on the way to January 6th because nobody can hold a leader like that back. 

It also matters, if I may add one point, it also matters that a party that has become a personality cult really tellingly no longer has a real program. It’s not an accident that a lot of right-wing populist parties around the world have basically very autocratic structures. The leader is completely in charge, and at a certain point, they all basically stop publishing new programs. 

If you think of the Republicans in 2020, they basically said, “Oh, we reuse the old program from 2016, and we add that whatever Trump wants will follow.” That’s not what a real political party does, and it again has implications that should be clear in light of January 6th, because if you don’t have a real long-term program, then it’s also much harder to say, “Oh, we can lose this election, because we keep going with our program, and next time, we are going to convince people that our ideas and policies are better.” You have a long-term horizon if, to put it very bluntly, if your horizon is the lifespan of the leader, and the leader might already be pretty old, that changes the stakes, that makes it much harder to say, “Oh, this one we can lose. We’ll try again.” 

Again, I don’t want to idealize it. Of course, nobody likes to lose, and everybody is going to have a hard time accepting that. “Why didn’t we convince people? You know, what’s wrong, etc.” But losers’ consent is just incredibly important in functioning democracies, and it just is in and of itself a worrying sign that so many losers keep making noises that basically call the legitimacy of existing institutions into question. Which, if I may, one last point if I can add, is, of course not in and of itself prohibited. But it’s a question again of how you do it. 

So, if you simply say, “It’s illegitimate because I lost,” that’s not a very democratic position. If you say, “Well, there are problems with our system of campaign finance or gerrymandering,” I mean, these are perfectly acceptable claims that people can then debate and reject if they want to. But it doesn’t come down to any notion such as, “Okay, only I represent real Americans or real Canadians or whatever. And hence, any outcome that isn’t for me, is per se bound to be illegitimate.”

SEAN SPEER: Such a thoughtful answer, and there’s so much there, but I’ve taken up so much of your time. So, I’ll just wrap up with a question about Canada. Oftentimes, Canadians pride themselves on the stability of our democratic system. One expression is the ability of elected governments to implement their programs through our Westminster model, without the kind of gridlock that we see in the U.S. congressional system. 

Yet at the same time, we see parties forming government with a third of the popular vote; we have something like one-third of voters consistently not participating in our elections; we have parties winning five or ten percent of the popular vote and not finding representation in our parliamentary system. 

Is there a trade-off between political efficiency and political representation? And how should we think about those trade-offs and what they might mean for people for how people rather come to think about our democracy? 

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: You will be shocked to hear that I am not an expert on 180-plus countries, and generally very reluctant to lecture people about countries, which they clearly know much better than I do. So, forgive me if I confine myself to a more abstract claim that, however, tries to respond to what you brought up. 

So, I think it is it is true that in many democracies around the world, we have seen a tendency of fragmentation. I mean, we can think of democracies where you now easily have up to twenty parties in Parliament, where it can take many months, sometimes even years, to form halfway coherent coalitions where there is a sense of look, the system isn’t working terribly well because you cannot get to any level of effectiveness. Because everything has slowed down because of these new forms of fragmentation. 

And we certainly have colleagues in let’s say comparative politics who actually, when they think about what are real indications of crisis, would, for instance, put new instability in party systems among the top reasons that they are worried, and they say, “Look, don’t get hung up on Trump and all these individuals. It’s these underlying structural factors that we should be much more worried about.” 

My view on this is that yes, fragmentation can make life more difficult. There’s no doubt about it. But in certain ways, we also can turn back the clock and pretend that certain groups which are not present, certain interests, ideas, even identities, which we talked about earlier, which are now much more articulate, where they can make demands that we could simply magically make that all go away. Because I think that’s a question of justice. That’s also profoundly anti-democratic to say, “Oh, let’s just go back to a supposedly simpler age, where some people de facto have no voice.” 

So, the perhaps not terribly satisfying answer, in the end, is that look, we’re still learning how to deal with more fragmentation. Again, it’s a question of how you do this. It’s not that the thing itself is necessarily a reason to think that we’re all doomed. And I think occasionally we should perhaps reward those who really have mastered the art of compromise and who can really put together coalitions that in the end are stable, including coalitions that have defeated sitting right-wing populists.

I mean, it’s a complicated story, but for shorthand, let me mention Israel in this in this context, and say that look, this is also maybe part of the calling of a really good politician. That is far too simplistic as an answer, I concede, but I hope it’s not entirely meaningless.

SEAN SPEER: Now, there’s a lot of insight there, as there is in the book Democracy Rules. Jan-Werner Müller, thank you so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues.

JAN-WERNER MÜLLER: Thanks for having me.

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