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Democracy Means Not Knowing What Comes Next

You know you’re throwing a good party if everyone who isn’t invited keeps criticizing it. President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, which brings …

Democracy Means Not Knowing What Comes Next

You know you’re throwing a good party if everyone who isn’t invited keeps criticizing it.

President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, which brings together more than 100 countries for a two-day virtual forum starting on Thursday, has been derided by Chinese officials both as a “joke” and as sinister imperialism. The Russian ambassador joined his Chinese counterpart in charging Washington with a new “Cold War mentality.” Yet the real problem with the summit is more prosaic. It’s the framing of the contest between democracy and autocracy as one about which can deliver the goods of growth and stability.

Such a framing encourages turning a blind eye to business-friendly far-right leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, and plays into the hands of aspiring authoritarians in Western democracies, such as Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, who envision running states like a business. Most important, it sells democracy — an ideal based on freedom and equality — short.

The summit has set itself a number of tasks, among them fighting corruption and promoting human rights. Such goals are worthy, of course. But it should also aim to do something simpler, yet crucial in competition with autocracies: make the case for democracy in its fundamentals, as a sturdy system of equal respect for all, alive to the uncertainty of mass participation.

Democracy is not just instrumentally valuable — if that were the case, we might give it up for systems that deliver more. It is valuable in itself.

Hopelessly naïve? Well, it seems that argument has actually been won already. Even detractors of the summit do not denounce democracy in the abstract: Autocrats simply relativize it by insisting that no model fits all. Intellectuals from Budapest to Beijing stand ready to adorn such self-serving claims with fancy euphemisms for fake democracy, such as “illiberal democracy” and “whole-process people’s democracy.”

True, concepts central to modern political experience are subject to fierce argument. Yet judgments about democracy are not simply subjective. At a minimum, according to the Polish-born political scientist Adam Przeworski, democracy is “a regime in which incumbents lose elections and leave office if they do.”

Autocrats do their best to avoid either fate. They carefully stage-manage elections to leave no doubt about the results — and if their power is threatened, they are always ready to change procedures. Today, aspiring authoritarians within traditional democracies pursue the same strategy, as the Republicans’ gerrymandering and placing of partisans to subvert election outcomes not to their liking amply shows.

There’s more to Mr. Przeworski’s laconic definition. It points, in the first instance, to certainty. For incumbents to lose and leave office, there needs to be a common acceptance of democratic procedures, such as fair election laws, that underwrite the whole process. But it also means embracing uncertainty. The candidate who won last time could lose this time around; unpredictability is a feature, not a bug.

Uncertainty is not in itself a value — after nearly two years of the pandemic, we could be forgiven for wishing the future were more certain. Yet the uncertainty in democracy is, at root, a result of citizens’ freedom. We do not know what will happen, because people can change their minds or come up with something entirely new.

Underlying that is something intrinsic to democracy: faith in fellow citizens. You do not give up on people who count as your political equals. Of course, you must first recognize them as such: Among other things, many Trumpists tend to deny election losses because they don’t regard Black and brown people as part of a legitimate majority. But the sign of a functioning democracy is not that everyone is civil — conflict can be messy. It’s that no distinction is drawn between first- and second-class citizens, or between the “real people” beloved of right-wing populists and everyone else.

The marriage of certainty and uncertainty gives democracy its distinct character. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on the strange coexistence in democracies of chaos and commotion on the surface, and a bedrock confidence citizens have in one another and their political system. There are, naturally, no guarantees. One illusion plenty in the West shared after the Cold War was that democracies would always self-correct and renew themselves. Not only was that not the case, but also we have learned the hard way that authoritarians can learn from mistakes, too.

What they cannot do is assure citizens of equal political status. They might deliver prosperity, but no sense of an open future: The “social stability” promoted by intellectuals supportive of the Chinese Communist Party is one in which people can never truly enjoy their freedoms because the powerful might suddenly turn against them. The authoritarian figures who have been invited to the summit — such as Mr. Modi and President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil — should above all be criticized for inciting hatred against parts of their own populations. Short of declaring dictatorship, one can hardly get more undemocratic.

Longstanding democracies ought to be self-critical not because they lack stability or suffer from “excessive democracy,” as Chinese officials put it. They should worry precisely about the opposite: that too little can change in their systems and that some do not enjoy political equality. At home, Mr. Biden has his work cut out. The United States remains threatened by plutocratic populism, a toxic combination of culture war on the ground and the ultrawealthy trying to capture the political system at the top.

Anxious for the gathering not to turn into a photo-op plus three-minute pontifications by a hundred leaders, Mr. Biden is asking invitees to make specific commitments to be checked on at another summit in a year’s time. Even if it’s hard to imagine Iraq, Angola or, for that matter, Poland taking steps to make current rulers feel more uncertain, the United States should lead the way by strengthening voting rights and making political power less dependent on money.

Such concrete reforms would be especially powerful if combined with an affirmation of democracy’s virtues that goes beyond a predictable pep talk. Yes, democracy might not always deliver the goods immediately. But it’s the only system that can secure the political standing of all, as well as political contests that don’t always produce the same winners. You really can’t put a price on that.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton and a fellow at The New Institute in Hamburg, Germany. His books include “What Is Populism?” and “Democracy Rules.”

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