The Critical Infrastructure of Democracy

By Jan-Werner MüllerAugust 28, 2022

    The Critical Infrastructure of Democracy

    We’ve had well over half a decade of a very intense debate about what is nowadays often simply called “the crisis of democracy.” One of the peculiar characteristics of that debate is that, on the one hand, plenty of observers are willing to say that the crisis is ultimately the fault of — to put it bluntly — the people themselves. The great unwashed, so-called ordinary citizens (as if there were any others really) basically brought all kinds of political miseries upon themselves. After all, they voted for Brexit; after all, they voted for Trump.

    On the other side of this debate is of course the position according to which it’s not the fault of the people at all. The problem lies with nefarious or, as it’s often put, “corrupt” elites. Now, as different as these positions are, they do have one thing in common: they are both about groups of people — be it the many or be it the few.

    What this kind of framing of our political moment tends to obscure, in my view, is the role of political institutions. And in particular: the role of institutions which, ever since the 19th century, were deemed to be indispensable for the proper functioning of representative democracies as we know them: political parties on the one hand and professional news organizations on the other. I put these together under the heading “critical infrastructure of democracy”; they are crucial parts of that infrastructure, but, to be sure, other organizations, such as trade unions, matter as well.

    Of course, infrastructure has become a very popular term; in fact, repairing and improving roads and bridges is one of the things Republican and Democrats can still agree on (of course trains are already more contentious). But what is infrastructure really about? On one level you might say it’s about people reaching others and being reached by them or becoming reachable by them. That applies to roads, it applies to trains, but it also applies to something like the post office, which in the United States, under Trump, became highly politicized.

    Now, this core intuition about reaching others and being reached by them also has a political meaning, and a particular significance for the health of representative democracies. Because it facilitates and furthers our use of basic communicative freedoms, such as, to name just the most obvious, free speech, free assembly, and free association. I can write op-ed pieces and send them to friends and family, or to strangers, where they will probably end up in the spam folder. I can demonstrate all by myself on the street with a handmade poster. But if I can place my op-ed in a newspaper or if I can join a party or some other organization that helps me get out my message, chances of reaching others — and being reached by them — improve massively. In short, the ability to reach others and be reached by them is strengthened by organizations. And some of these organizations have deteriorated or are even threatened in their very existence: it is conventional wisdom that professional news organizations are in crisis; the same is true of many political parties. And yet the state of democracy’s critical infrastructure is a problem which receives far too little attention in the pervasive crisis talk of our time.

    To address the problem, we need a better sense of what parties and professional news organizations do for democracy in the first place. So, I’d like to remind us of two core functions which the institutions I’m referring to, political parties on the one hand, professional news organizations on the other, have for representative democracies overall. First, at the risk of saying the obvious, these kinds of institutions stage political conflict. Maybe it’s actually not so obvious to say this, given that today many commentators, as well as plenty of politicians, want to make us believe that, ultimately, democracy is really about civility or even about consensus. With all due respect to the (sometimes) noble sentiments behind such rhetoric, this is deeply mistaken. Democracy is about conflict. But it’s conflict within certain boundaries; it’s conflict regulated, and contained, by institutions.

    Democracy is also not — as many people in Germany like to say nowadays — about Zusammenhalt, or cohesion. The word Zusammenhalt has had an astonishing semantic career in the last five or six years. No political party will issue a program without stressing that furthering Zusammenhalt, cohesion, is one of their primary goals. But not only is it the case that, in democracies, conflict is legitimate; the very point of democracy, to a significant degree, is to enable us to deal with conflicts in a peaceful manner. What’s less obvious: if people manage to deal with conflict in a peaceful manner, it can strengthen the overall cohesion of democratic political systems. This is not exactly a new insight. You can go back as far as Machiavelli or, more recently in the history of ideas, you re-read the German social theorist Georg Simmel for instance, or even more recently, the great post-war sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf. They all emphasized that conflict and cohesion are not necessarily opposites, but that if conflict is done the right way, it can strengthen the overall cohesion of a democracy. That of course poses the question: what does it mean to do conflict in the right way?

    Here are two basic norms for doing conflict the right way. Obviously, conflicts can take all kinds of shapes; they are never just objectively given. It’s part of the art of politics to shape them in certain ways, to stage them in a particular fashion. This has a quasi-aesthetic dimension. And that’s what party politicians do, especially the more creative ones. It is also, less obviously, and more controversially, what professional news organizations can do, when they start a campaign to make an issue out of what they consider an overlooked social or political problem. But the crucial thing is that for these kinds of conflicts to be productive and ultimately strengthen cohesion, they need to remain within two borders.

    What do I mean? Well, for one thing those who engage in conflict must not do what I think especially right-wing authoritarian populists always tend to do, which is to question or outright deny the standing of their political adversaries. They insinuate, or sometimes just say out loud, that certain politicians, or, for that matter, particular citizens, don’t truly belong to the polity. When Trump in effect told some of his political adversaries that they should go back to their “shithole countries,” that was a way of saying “I don't even recognize you as a proper adversary and you don't truly belong here in the first place.” This is the kind of thing that one must not do in political conflicts, for various reasons. But one is that it makes it impossible to have any kind of cohesion emerge from conflict: after all, if I don’t even recognize the adversary or if I treat the adversary as an enemy, or as somebody who doesn’t truly belong, one cannot even really enter a proper conflict, let alone make that conflict productive. Secondly — and this might sound very naive, especially to any journalists who might be watching this video — those who engage in conflict must also respect a basic set of facts. I know, I know… it’s not always easy to agree on what the facts are, or to determine the line between fact and opinion. It’s also not true that the facts speak for themselves; none of us has ever heard the facts speak. Yet, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, politics relies on the distinction between facts and opinions; it does not require “truth,” which, Arendt taught, would end up being despotic in politics, as any kind of pluralism would disappear. For Arendt, politics was ultimately about the free play of opinions and political judgments — but opinions and judgments that respected, and were constrained by, facts. If you tell me that there’s nothing going on with climate at all or if you tell me that climate issues are an invention by the Chinese government to hurt the West economically, it’s very hard to see how we could possibly get into anything like a productive conflict. After all, on one level, there’s just nothing to talk about, as the problem is denied in the first place. There is no shared set of facts, there is no common understanding of the world to allow us then to disagree in a meaningful kind of way — there’s, again, no way to enter into a proper conflict in the first place.

    Allow me to add one other thought about the particular role of both political parties and professional news organizations. This point relates to the importance of pluralism. It’s obvious that in a democracy we need pluralism at the level of party systems. And it’s a banality to say that democracy requires media pluralism as well. It’s a hallmark of all the countries where democracy has been destroyed by right-wing authoritarian populists that they’ve also all attacked media pluralism and drastically reduced it. All that, you might say, is fairly obvious. It’s less obvious why we also need pluralism inside particular organizations, such as political parties and professional news organizations. When people talk about pluralism within parties, or what is also called intra-party democracy, some listeners roll their eyes. Peans to intra-party democracy remind them of Oscar Wilde’s quip that the problem with socialism is that it takes too many evenings. The idea being that nobody ultimately is all that fond of endless meetings and debates, in pubs, or at least in the old days, smoke-filled rooms where people — usually older men — endlessly pontificate about policies and principles. And where the person who either is the most educated and articulate, or who has nothing else to do and hence can stick around for the longest, generally tends to win the political battle.

    This sort of skepticism is certainly legitimate. But think of what happens if you don’t have any pluralism and no democracy inside parties at all. What you won’t generate is anything like a legitimate opposition inside an organization. It’s true that people join parties because they are partisans, not because they want to discuss political philosophy in an open-ended manner; they already agree on a broad set of principles. But no principle applies itself; there’s always room for debate as to how particular principles translate into particular policies at a particular moment. That requires discussion. The more discussion one has, the more ideas are on the table, and the more evidence can be brought to bear on an issue. And, importantly, people learn how to disagree with each other without calling each other traitors to the cause or anything of that sort. So just as democracies at large need a legitimate opposition, also inside political parties you need something like a legitimate opposition, as well as a stance of what you might call critical loyalty.

    If political parties are either one-man shows — think of Geert Wilders, the right-wing populist in the Netherlands, who effectively is the only member of his own political party — or if parties are effectively transformed into personality cults — think of what Trump did to the Republicans in the United States — then this sense of a legitimate opposition inside the organization or a legitimate stance of critical loyalty basically disappears. Why does that matter? It matters because once legitimate opposition and critical loyalty are gone, we are well on the road to January 6th. If you don’t have anybody inside your organization who can restrain you in the name of shared principles, if you are called a traitor to the cause as soon as you disagree with a leader, it’s not just a single organization that has a problem; it spells trouble for a democracy as a whole.

    As soon as parties give up on the idea of having genuine programmatic commitments — again, the Republicans are a prime example, you may recall that at their last major convention in 2020 they refused to formulate a new program, they simply added something along the lines of “whatever Trump wants, we will want to agree with and we are on board with” to the 2016 program — the meaning of elections changes: an organization can have a long-term time horizon and can afford to lose an election. If it’s all about one individual, the game changes, time horizons shorten drastically, the stakes become much higher.

    So, as conventional, or as outright unattractive, as it might seem to some people, internal pluralism and internal democracy are crucial for the overall health of democracies. When you think, one more time, of today’s prominent right-wing authoritarian populists, it’s not an accident that all of them lead their own parties in a highly authoritarian way, that they do not truly tolerate any internal dissent. So, constitutions, or at least party regulations, which make internal pluralism mandatory, do point us to something important. The same thought, I believe, applies to news media organizations. It’s not the same point as saying that the media must never be partisan. I don’t think that's right at such an abstract level; after all, we used to have for instance social democratic newspapers. Nobody thought that this spelled the end of democracy. As long as people knew what they are getting, and as long as the media organizations in question are committed to accuracy and respecting facts, a political orientation is a legitimate part of media pluralism.

    A free democratic society produces conflicts. There’s nothing pernicious about that, as long as conflict is conducted within certain boundaries, and, in particular, as long as citizens can always see each other as, ultimately, partners in a democratic project. Democracy’s critical infrastructure — some of whose crucial features I’ve tried to elucidate here — is crucial both to enable and contain conflicts in this process.


    Jan-Werner Müller is Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Princeton University. He works mainly in democratic theory and the history of modern political thought; he also has a research interest in the relationship between architecture and politics, as well as the normative implications of the current structural transformations of the public sphere. Publications include Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe (2011) and What is Populism? (2016). In 2021, Democracy Rules appeared with FSG, Penguin, and Suhrkamp.

    LARB Contributor

    Jan-Werner Müller is Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and Professor of Politics at Princeton University. He works mainly in democratic theory and the history of modern political thought; he also has a research interest in the relationship between architecture and politics, as well as the normative implications of the current structural transformations of the public sphere. Publications include Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe (2011) and What is Populism? (2016). In 2021, Democracy Rules appeared with FSG, Penguin, and Suhrkamp.


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