What It Takes to Sustain Democracy

Mike Koetting November 23, 2021

What It Takes for Democracy

The ongoing news has me feeling like a passenger on a plane that has been hijacked—unable to really control the outcome, but with the strong sense this is going to end badly.

But who are these hijackers?

For many of us, the immediate response is “the Republicans.” Fair enough. But I don’t think that is a sufficient or complete answer.

It’s not that I am suggesting any exculpation for the Republican Party through rationalizing attempts like “Well, not all Republicans believe all that”. Or, “Not everything Republicans stand for is crazy.” At this point, anyone who still calls themself a “Republican” has either drunk the Kool-Aid or is well on their way to irrelevance in the formal organization that is the party. We are beyond protestations of that sort. The party is largely of a single mind. So my reluctance to label the hijackers as simply “Republicans” is despite the singularity of Republican purpose.  

But calling the source of the problem “Republicans” limits the issue too narrowly to the United States. Many of the major problems driving me to despair are as global as national. If there is a sense that the world is out of control, whatever affects the US must also be affecting other countries, beyond the Republican Party. Since Putin or the Taliban are only different in degree from the Republican Party, there must be a more universal description.  

I also worry that labeling “The Republicans” as the source of the sense that things are out of control sneaks into normalizing the behavior—as it is something that might happen within the bounds of a vigorously contested two-party system. What is currently happening in the name of the Republican Party is something much more, much worse, than two parties whacking at each other. It is a fundamental attack on the nature of democracy, similar to other attacks around the world. Allowing it to sound like it might be just another struggle between political parties isn’t sufficient. The degree of aberration from democratic norms gets lost once it is put in the context of a two-party system, where each party gets represented as holding a set of values that reasonable people might disagree about.

So if the hijackers should be labelled by something more universal, more generic than “Republicans,” what should it be?

After considering a number of candidates, what I think makes most sense is simply “anti-democrats.” Where there is democracy, one can imagine people striving, however erratically and imperfectly, toward improving the world. Where there is “anti-democracy,” some group has determined that its needs trump anyone else’s needs and whatever they can do to meet their needs is fair game.

Anti-democrats are ubiquitous in the world. In fact, the question is not why do anti-democrats thrive but why does democracy ever win out. After all, the anti-democrats by definition set no limits on what they will do to achieve their ends. So it’s no surprise that in most circumstances they do. Democracy wins out only in unusual circumstances.

Broadly speaking, I believe the two most important conditions for democracy to win out are a broad swath of the country must actively support it and there must be an appropriate vehicle for making the democracy function. Critically, it is very difficult to achieve these sequentially. Since they mutually support each other, they must both be operational, which partially explains why it has been so difficult to develop entrenched democracies outside of the general ambit of the Western Liberal tradition.

The remainder of this post will focus on the idea of popular support. The issue of an appropriate set of functional arrangements to support democracy will be the subject of a future post.

What It Takes for a Population to Support Democracy

As I look at the world, what I see is that in more or less every population there is a group who, for whatever reason, is anti-democratic. They believe they are entitled to anything they want. Ultimately, this is about power and, inevitably, the higher standards of life that comes with the expression of power. Some members of this group will have some skills that allow them to express their desires very effectively—in war, in business, or in politics. Virtually every country has a group like this.

Likewise, every country has a substantial number of people who can be led in pretty much any direction. Maybe that’s a lack of intellectual capacity, maybe it’s an overwhelming desire for a simply-ordered life, maybe it’s an intolerance of others not like them, maybe some other things, maybe all of the above. But they are ready to be led.

It is the size and commitment of a third, middle group that determines whether a country can function as a democracy. Specifically, whether their commitment to democracy is sufficiently strong to sustain political power to keep the anti-democrats from taking over and can keep the government sufficiently functional that those who can be easily led accept the legitimacy of the democratic order.

This is a much more dynamic view of democracy than we typically get in textbooks, which tend to define democracy as a series of structural elements, implicitly assumed to be static. But they are not static. They are inevitably in some degree of tension because there is always a group of people, usually with talents and skills, whose primary agenda is self-aggrandizement. If the rest of the population has set sufficiently clear boundaries, these individuals will largely confine themselves to working within whatever strictures are placed on them. They may try to push the boundaries and some will occasionally overstep. But the democracy will hold.

However, this happens only so long as there is a sufficiently wide-spread agreement about the bounds of acceptable behavior that these become a fundamental limit on the exercise of power. While part of these may be contained in law, it is not the laws themselves that preserve democracy. It is the wide-spread, shared sense of what democracy looks like and unwillingness to tolerate transgressions.

How that comes about is too complicated for me to address. But, off the top, two things seem critical to sustain it:

  • A middle and professional class, including many entrepreneurs and thought-leaders, who believe the country is fundamentally working and, that while there is room for disagreement about specifics, the general framework is solid and over time will produce a standard of living that allows most people to feel sufficiently satisfied with their condition in life. This group must also feel that the existing arrangements actually meet the abstract principles of democracy, which they fundamentally accept, in kind of a theological way, as a superior way to organize a society. This sentiment broadly in the population, supported by a functional set of governing structures, serves as the main brake on would-be anti-democrats.
  • That those who are less well off (and not particularly invested in the principles of democracy) nevertheless accept the existing structure as, at least, benign, if not salutary.  That includes sufficient material conditions, a sense of dignity, the promise of stability and some sense of the possibility of upward mobility, if not for them, at least for their children. The extent to which the existing political order meets their various needs is an important predictor of how volatile this sector might be. If this sector loses faith that the democracy can meet their needs, they become ripe targets for anti-democrats who are, of course, willing to pander. Then, the entire structure starts to wobble.

None of this can be measured by an opinion poll showing what percentage of the population supports this or that candidate. Who has a numerical advantage at any given point, while not irrelevant, is not the issue. The real issue is the context in which people cast their votes. If the people cast their vote with a sense that the democratic system is broadly working, then the democracy can be sustained. If the broad middle group starts to lose its commitment and if those who can be led start paying more attention to anti-democrats, the project craters. It is like the World Wildlife Federation campaign, “Love it…or lose it.”

In short, democracy is not, as Americans are implicitly taught to believe, the “natural order” of things. Rather, it is profoundly contingent. One of the most important contingencies is the strength of the popular will to sustain the democracy, in all its messiness. This is measured not in the number of patriotic speeches or the number of flags waved. Nor it is measured in the number of people who go through the motions of voting. It is measured by the willingness to constrain the anti-democratic tendencies that are latent in every society. When that will slackens, someone else will seize control of the plane.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “What It Takes to Sustain Democracy”

  1. That was a good one Michael. In terms of our political parties, if you don’t believe in vaccines and you do believe in Trump—yep—drank the Kool-Aid. OTOH the Dems gotta lose the elitism, expressed as a above it all culture of complaint. Bruce and I are reading about the Weimar Republic in our book club, and one of the takeaways from that history is that if you complain about where you sleep, someone will be happy to kick you out of bed.


    1. The question about how to avoid the appearance of “elitism” is a vexing one. We can all pick out some really examples of unnecessarily snarky or whinny behavior. But I’m not sure those are what really drives the impression. It seems that some of the accusation of “elitism” is is simply an attempt to duck the real, but the uncomfortable; some is a reflection of real cultural differences which are problematic because certain cultural preferences are inevitably tied up with economic differences; and some of this reflects a not-quite-inaccurate sense that there is scorn for people who believe in goofy conspiracy theories or have authoritarian leanings. None of these are easily fixed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: