Democracy as a general concept is now surely near its apogee: The notion that government must be “democratically” legitimated is nigh universally accepted. No one in a position of major governmental responsibility disputes the fundamental proposition that political legitimacy emanates from the people. Kim Jong-un may be the world’s last totalitarian dictator, but he leads a country called the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea and remains at least rhetorically committed to the notion of popular rule. In a sense, democracy has become a concept beyond dispute.
At the same time, however, democracy is likely spaghetti carbonara: There are a million forms it can take, not all of which are tasty. If you put a million voters in a room to choose what spaghetti carbonara essentially means, you’d get a bewildering profusion of conflicting visions. What’s more, you’d get the same if you put a hundred top carbonara experts in the room. And in the end both meetings would likely turn violent.
The broad latitude available to those who interpret the concept of democracy and apply it in practice has also allowed many manifestations of democracy that do not mesh with what has emerged in the second half of the 20th century as the mainstream model of western democracy. This is a not a new phenomenon; what is distinctly novel, however, is that recently the trajectory of global politics appears to be moving away from what we can now call the traditional western concept of democracy, even after this model emerged triumphant from the Cold War and seemed like the most successful “brand” of democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s. The new phenomenon challenging the dominant western version of democracy has been going by a variety of names, including, famously, the term popularised by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, who referred to building an “illiberal democracy”.
Does that make sense? What is liberal democracy? And while we’re at it, what is democracy? Any suggestion that this course – or any course – can leave you with any precise understanding of what democracy means would be hubris. What we will try to do first is to narrow in on the concept. While so doing, we will not take for granted the idea that democracy is good, and correspondingly we will briefly explore some of the rival conceptual foundations of political rule that democracy overcame on the way towards establishing itself as the global paradigm. We will then proceed to discuss what features – if any – are essential if we want to label a political regime as a democracy. This will lead us to sketching the contours of the most widespread version of democracy, the western constitutional model, also referred to as liberal democracy. Finally, we will turn to the contemporary challenges of western liberal democracy emanating from politicians such as Viktor Orbán, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, etc.
Nevertheless, while we will indulge in some discussions of contemporary politics, ours will be neither a course on current affairs nor on political activism. If you want to find out how to topple authoritarian leaders or would-be dictators, you will have to take a different course. For better or worse, you might actually find this course more useful if you want to build a dictatorship – or a functioning democracy. We will focus on conceptual issues, and we will mainly use the discussions of contemporary politics to crystallise our own understanding of what democracy entails.