12 June 2023
‘What is democracy.’
Um, democracy can be thought about in two distinct ways. One a banal way — which is really useful. It’s the most basic thought about democracy, and that’s that there are counter-majoritarian institutions, there are checks and balances that work. So a democracy is when you can vote the guys in power out, when you can go to court against the government and potentially win, and when the media is not controlled by the government. And a couple of other conditions — um, free universities exist, for example. There are hugely important institutions, um — one of the things that we have to get clear about is that a society without universities is as much of a democratic disaster — independent universites, free universities — is as much of a calamity as a society without courts that work.
That’s a banal definition of democracy that’s very politically useful. But then there is the inevitable aspirational, purposive definition of democracy, where we’re all in this together — not literally, because we’re in different countries, but if we were in the same country we’d be all in this together and we’d be striving for some destination, which we’re never going to reach and which we will always interrogate. So part of the journey is to never stop exploring and evolving our sense of where it is that we’re going. So that sort of telic sense of democracy is to do with the idea that we are moving somewhere, while together, through conflict, exploring where it is that we’re going.
Both senses absolutely are essential to understanding democratic life.
This is Vlad Vexler, congenial and (I think) very serious and generous issues-dialogue YouTuber — whose multi-channel video project I’ve called attention to in a couple of brief-items posts since beginning of the year — fielding a livestream-session attendee’s great big question submitted in chat just a few days back. If, as I’ve been doing for a few months now, you listen to Vexler often, you’re not going to find the answer he supplies, his quickie nutshell account of what we can say the label ‘democracy’ rightly attaches to, in any way surprising.
Vexler is for me an agreeable, healthy-vibes-inducing listen and also, at the same time, someone I find myself in regular disagreement with on various points not at all secondary to his pursuit. That’s worth some discussion. It’s worth indeed more discussion than I have time to take up. His material falls very much within the area I’ve bracketed for myself, here on the blog, for keeping of some ‘notes on fascism.’ His material’s of real help, to my mind, in virtue of a certain critical-posture companionship in perspective between it and the much more widely known public-conversation projects of e.g. Yale’s Tim Snyder and Jason Stanley — something I hint at in fun in the brief item highlighting him a month ago. So I enjoy a lot of private, personal benefit in listening to Vexler, but I don’t want to neglect to draw on the good I derive in that private way to open up the problem of the fascistic and the liberal I’ve said I want to be about exploring here.
Vexler’s material, I ought to offer for background, has the YouTube audience purchase it does at present in no small part because of Putin’s Ukraine war. I am in general accord with Vexler, and with Tim Snyder and so forth, on the importance of refusing the Putinist vision for an eventual full recovery of Russian dominance in Russia’s European neighborhood. To say so here, though it’s an acknowledgement that matters, is mostly an aside; and having said it, I can make the more immediately salient observation that Vexler’s relatively modest YouTube mission begins before outbreak of the long-running Ukraine conflict’s new stage a year and a half ago, evidently not from any great interest he may have in being a pop Russia-interpreter but from motives that have to do fundamentally with an understanding of Western political-world citizenship and with a set of views — thoughtfully acquired, richly developed — about what sustaining that political world depends on. I observe it in part because I want to say that I’m grateful for Vexler’s efforts in this even as I take occasion to turn from them in perhaps ultimately no minor disagreement.
Unraveling all that extent of disagreement isn’t going to happen in this post, naturally. It’ll have to come gradually. This post is really just to bring Vexler in (more expressly than a brief-items post serves for, I mean) and start to take advantage of some of the topical opportunities his video-channel work provides.
But I think Vexler’s going to be of use to me in what I suppose will be ongoing examination of the question I draw in on in the 22 February post, the matter of recognizing oneself liberal-by-default and having, then, to think about what to do with that, where one might hope to go from there. Vexler has a great way with articulating how liberal shared life in fact works, what you’d look for in it as a ‘working thing,’ in expectation of staying plugged in and meaningfully a participant with your world on its terms, or what you’d watch out for and seek somehow to address, conversely, in the case of its working poorly or on its own terms tending toward failure. Schematic principles or justification-chains propounded on the basis of abstractions and myths of origin, the kind of understanding people like Patrick Deneen want to see as liberal order’s heart — some shadow of a root liberal ism from notions of whose misbegottenness so much current enterprise of ‘post-liberal’ detraction is constructed — don’t seem to appeal to Vexler and don’t figure in his discussions. This is to his credit and certainly to the critical listener’s benefit.
That being provided: We should — by-default liberals like me should, in my judgment — shift to cautious footing, even skepticism, on hearing Vexler’s handling of the democracy idea. A Vexler, or for instance someone like the friend whose article about the minority population oppressed in a major non-Western country was spark for my 22 Feb. post, will talk about the liberal and the democratic as though they’re identical, will speak of the liberal-family countries as the world’s democracies, interchangeable categories. We should know better. The liberal and the democratic aren’t identical. A society’s or a polity’s belonging in the liberal-world fold doesn’t tell us that it’s more than superficially in encounter, historically, with democracy. Our instinct should be to listen with heightened care when we find the two things being run together.
Someone might want to misread me here as being prepared to hold the liberal and the really truly democratic in opposition. Don’t misread me that way. The liberal and the democratic go together, proceed together — somehow — in modern-era history. On that Vexler and I agree. And he’d object, no doubt, if I pressed a reading of him as though he means to overlap the liberal and the democratic absolutely. Even if he didn’t, that isn’t my reading of him. In the context of questions at hand, he and I diverge, as I see it, on how the liberal and the democratic proceed together through modernity’s half-millennium (or so) — a problem of historical interpretation.
Vexler’s appreciation of the history is by no means to be casually dismissed, it’s important to say. Listen to him on the very recent end of the period, the part we’re living, from an edited ‘main channel’ video put up in April:
So let’s break this down. You want to live in a normal country. What normal country? In 1989, Francis Fukuyama argued that the world was tendentiously converging on a species-wide civilization expressed in a kind of democratic capitalism. This idea was wrong in 1989, and since then most commentators have either given it up or allowed it to retreat into their subconscious. There is no normal society that Russia could converge on if only it got rid of Putin. There is no teleological pattern of history that Russians could turn to and say, ‘Yes we’ll sign up for that please.’
Nor can you just label Western countries ‘the civilized world’ and copy them. Western societies are themselves experiencing an historic crisis of trust in public institutions. Western societies are being pulled apart by economic flux. Western societies are being pulled apart by the divisive and disinhibiting shape of the internet. There’s breakdown of citizen belonging, breakdown of truthful public discourse, and even breakdown of faith in the possibility of truthful public discourse.
These are all challenges a modern democracy has to face, and if Russia is to become a democracy it’ll have to face them too.
So I’m hardly going to accuse Vexler of telling some crude story of a humanity whose only obstacle in the great progress to (Western) democratic destiny is the comic-book-villain fascist and authoritarian. That isn’t how he sees the world or wants us to see it. And this — again — encourages me to think with him.
It gets a bit easier to spot the frictions between my sense and Vexler’s of what we’re living out at our point in history, maybe, when the topical consideration is ‘populism’ rather than ‘democracy.’ Here, later in the same livestream from last week that we begin with above, he’s responding to an audience question about that:
‘Can you define a populist; I was a political science student and I still struggle with this. Is Putin a populist?’
Well, Putin certainly has, um, populist elements. Um, no you can’t define a populist, because it’s an historically contingent political category that helps us make sense of our world. So if somebody wants to give you an analytically transparent definition of a populist, you can’t go there. Let me give you a part, a very important part, of what must be inside that bucket. . . . So, one feature is that populists buy out of the idea that the liberal state must justify itself to itself in general terms.
Which means that — There is always a big gap between private discourse, private sentiment, and public discourse; and sometimes the gap is really big, sometimes the gap is smaller, but the way we talk at the kitchen table about something is not the way a state talks about it. Now, one of the reasons for this is that the state must justify things to itself in general terms. . . . What a populist does is bridge private and public discourse, that political conversation begins to sound like dinner-table conversation. Which is necessarily a misrepresentation of how a modern state functions.
But is it always unhealthy? No! I think it would be an extraordinary argument which claimed that being a populist is always unhealthy. In fact, one of the things we’re looking for . . ., what makes a uniquely healthy plus electable politician today, right? — it’s very difficult today to get a healthy and electable politician, virtually impossible, it’s like threading something through the eye of a needle — but it’s going to have to be somebody who speaks as though institutions aren’t defined by the processes they’re defined by and at the same time deeply respects these institutions actually.
In one part, my dissatisfaction with Vexler on ‘populism’ is going to stem from his missing, as far as I can tell, the American story Thomas Frank has been at pains for some years to dispel ignorance of. I won’t kvetch about that too much, among other reasons because Vexler of course isn’t an American. For this American listener, indeed, a good portion of the value in hearing him is in his cautions against mistakenly U.S.-centric interpretations of politics and political scenarios of our global moment. Nevertheless, the word’s place in our shared anglosphere-tilted international political language owes originally a lot to that American story of the 19th and the early 20th century, and Vexler does seem simply, for whatever reason, not to notice.
But the principal complaint over Vexler’s move respecting ‘populism,’ in my view, would be more general. In the end, the principal complaint is really restatement of the complaint over his moves dealing with ‘democracy,’ the same complaint seen in new light, reckoned from another angle. Vexler has some interesting things to say, handed opportunity to tackle an exceptionally problematic term like ‘populism;’ there’s certainly nuance there to be appreciated. But he’s guilty of misdirection, I think, finally — misdirection that isn’t so difficult to recognize and that can help us in thinking through what he’s about elsewhere in his efforts to explicate the good the bad and the ugly in relations between citizen and state. It’s misdirection in the effect of attention’s being diverted from the problem of where authority at last lies and how and to what extent real shaping power comes to be distributed throughout a polity’s constituencies, among members down to level of the individual — the problem that Vexler’s line characterizing ‘the most basic thought’ that might be said to attend democracy, in his response opening this post, indicates obliquely — or, putting it another way, avoids touching directly. Vexler would object to me here, I’m pretty confident. I think I have some idea of why he’d regard my misdirection charge as unacceptable. And on the matter of interpreting him, let me say, my mind could be changed. It’s not Vexler I’m here to wrestle with either way, you know. It’s myself. I’m the liberal whose way of seeing and approaching political things I’m unsettled about first of all.
This is not a post for promoting Thomas Frank’s view of American history or pitting his variety of liberal thought against Vexler’s. For present purposes, still, it’ll be appropriate to note that Vexler is undoubtedly closer in understanding to Tim Snyder than to Frank and that some indications of conflict between Snyder’s public project on behalf of liberal order and Frank’s are out there to be found. I may come back to it.
Here’s one of Frank’s 2020 appearances touting his The People, No, meanwhile: