The Biro Interview: 'Liberal Democracy is under stress. But there's reason for hope.'
13 questions for Peter Biro about his new book and the crises facing constitutional liberal democracies
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In this edition: An interview with Canadian lawyer and author Peter Biro on the book he edited ‘Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time For Heroic Citizenship’, which was published in August of this year.
*This is a full transcript. It has been edited, but not condensed.
Notes on the interview:
Peter Biro is a Canadian lawyer, founder of section1.ca, and the former chair of the Goodall Institute.
This is an interview based on the thoughtful book he edited Constitutional Democracy Under Stress: A Time For Heroic Citizenship, which was released in August. The interview was conducted over email at the end of August (The questions were presented in one email all at once, and then answered all at once).
The book itself is a combination of essays from variously placed contributors, mostly North American, on the stressors impacting (perhaps you guessed) liberal constitutional democracies.
In the usual language of political discourse, “liberal democracy” means something like western-style representative government (core features: universal suffrage, separation of powers, a commitment to rule of law, an independent judiciary, limited governmental powers, and so on), which is how I understand us to be using the term in this interview.
Importantly, it is arguable how much any given example of a liberal democracy will live up to any one of these metrics (suffrage, for instance, is pretty much always limited in some ways viewed as “acceptable”: in the U.S., to take one example, criminals are denied voting rights, and historically, I hardly need to point out, women and minorities and the poor were denied enfranchisement).
Biro’s book diagnoses the maladies of liberal democracy, which it describes as globally in convalescence, ultimately arguing for “heroic citizenship” as the balm. The book gives a rather broad definition of heroic citizenship, as the “actualization of every person’s civic potentiality, if not also the public expression of every person’s moral capacity to redeem freedom and democracy in the current historical moment in which these ideals appear to be so genuinely compromised.”
In these questions, we touch on the diagnosis and the cure.
Daniel Mollenkamp: Peter, welcome. Thanks for agreeing to this interview.
Peter Biro: I’m grateful for your interest in the book.
The broad picture
DM: Liberalism, broadly construed, has faced a series of challenges and, arguably, miserable failures over the past few decades. There has been mounting anxiety over the state of liberal democratic institutions across the globe. But this book is about persons as well as institutions, which makes it a little unique. It catalogues the various institutional failures of liberal democracy, but it also offers a view of what you call “heroic citizenship” as a salve. On the one hand, there’s a sense of anxiety, of decline and backsliding and uncertainty, but on the other, there’s a sense of cautious hope. Let’s start simply. Do you agree with that reading? And why, if you can sketch out some of the reasons for us, does heroic citizenship allow you to avoid cynicism on this matter?
PB: I agree wholeheartedly with your reading. The reasons for deep concern and alarm are— or should be— rather obvious. The package of assumptions and commitments that add up to the post-WWII program of political values and institutions throughout the West are now very much in question. As you point out, we devote a portion of the book to describing and endeavoring to explain both the causes and effects of this process of “democratic backsliding”. But there is also reason for hopefulness— if not for hope itself! Jane Goodall, one of the contributors to the book, always singles out the “indomitable human spirit” as the principle reason for hope. Indeed, when one examines the work of genuinely heroic citizens such as Jane herself, and other contributors to this volume— Mary Jo Leddy (refugee protection), Aube Giroux (food security), Rachel Parent (children’s rights and youth civic engagement), Irwin Cotler (human rights), Faisal Kutty and Karen Mock (religious freedom, pluralism and anti-defamation), Nathan VanderKlippe (honest journalism in politically hostile countries), to mention a few— one realizes that there is a great deal of human engagement from which we can take both inspiration and comfort. The notion of heroism that I try to articulate has to do with the potentiality for, indeed, the moral imperative of, civic self-actualization that resides in each one of us.
DM: What is it about our historical moment that has imperiled the ideals of this form of political organization, which you describe as “genuinely compromised”?
PB: I describe it as a kind of perfect storm of factors that have brought us to this moment; a convergence, if you will, of factors, each of which, in its own right, has dealt its own body blow to the viability of traditional liberal democracy (factors such as the exponential increase in economic inequality, the rise of right-wing populist politics, the resurgence of authoritarianism, the assault on truth and reason and the echo-chamber culture proliferated by social media and its consequential effect on an already increasingly polarized political culture). We are at a sort of historical tipping point at which our ability to address great, indeed, monumental challenges, depends on whether we will be able to generate consensus across ideological and partisan lines and, more than that, at a societal— indeed, a civilizational— level. The examples of such monumental challenges now confronting us, the COVID-19 global pandemic and the anthropogenic global warming phenomenon, both pose existential threats to our way of life, indeed, to life itself. And both require a degree of cooperation amongst communities and societies that we don’t seem quite fit to achieve. The rather alarming backsliding within Western democracies serves, in my estimation, as something of a canary in the coal mine with regard to our ability as a species to address the great existential challenges that lie ahead. Operating a liberal constitutional democracy should have been the easy part.
DM: This moment in history has often been compared to 1968, which was itself viewed as a chaotic and illiberal time. But commentators only a couple of decades later were very bullish on liberalism. Do you see reasons for bullishness now?
PB: 1968 was a break-out year for “liberalism”. Even as the Vietnam War raged on, the inherent evil and rank dishonesty that defined it were being called out by hundreds of thousands of young Americans. Even as MLK and Bobby Kennedy were taken down by assassin’s bullets, the civil rights movement was making important legislative and cultural inroads. And in the streets of Paris, the students of France were standing up to an old, classist, colonial hegemony and calling for a modern democratic culture. And the hippies were knocking down all of the pre-existing conventions.
A couple of decades later, Francis Fukuyama was declaring that the “end of history” was upon us, that liberal democracy had prevailed, that we had, with the fall of the Iron Curtain in the East, reached a moment of ideological perfection. Obviously, that declaration was somewhat premature! Fukuyama later acknowledged as much. What he and others hadn’t counted on was the destabilizing effect of monopoly capitalism, of crony capitalism and the rise of the plutocrats, of exponentially increasing economic inequality, of the rise and global impact of religious fundamentalism, of the assault on the traditional marketplace of ideas and the rise of the social media-fueled echo-chamber culture, of the consequences of global warming, of the rise of China…
DM: In the introduction essay, you write about the consolidation of power under the executive, as part of the erosion of norms. As you yourself say, this is a voluntary forfeiture on the part of many political leaders. It is also tied into questions of institutional corruption, as diagnosed by people like American legal scholar Lawrence Lessig. What will it take, in your view, to reverse this trend. And what can non-legislators do to aid that reversal?
PB: Executive power itself is both unavoidable and necessary in any effective system of government. It becomes a problem, indeed, a threat to freedom and democracy, when that executive power is unchecked and unaccountable. Lord Acton’s oft-cited observation about the corrupting effect of power— especially, of absolute power— is instructive here. As the institutions of accountability— the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and of the professional civil service, the authority of objective knowledge and truth-seeking (science, a free press, the marketplace of ideas)— are eroded and diminished, democracies fall prey to the inclinations of autocrats. A reversal of this trend requires a societal re-commitment to the core values, what I refer to as a “secular Decalogue” of the fundamentals, of a free and democratic society. And, unfortunately, there is no quick fix for this. The redemption of liberal democracy depends on what I refer to as “heroic citizenship”— namely, the widespread expression and actualization of the duty to defend political liberty broadly. And that is a duty that must be cultivated. What is needed is education for democratic citizenship— for “heroic citizenship”. That education has to begin very early in a child’s schooling— it requires an entirely different approach to civics education than is currently deployed in our schools. But it also requires a different kind of political leadership than we have seen in recent decades. Democratic leaders are pivotal in modeling the kind of citizenship that citizens will emulate. They have a vital moral and civic responsibility to shape the political culture of their communities and societies. That responsibility is not discharged by mere virtue-signaling. Leaders must invite the critical scrutiny of their citizens. They must, in a sense, become civic mentors and teachers of— not jingoistic cheerleaders for— the core values of liberal constitutional democracy.
The failures of liberal theory- ‘politics without persons’
DM: The failures of liberal democracy, which you catalogue, are in some sense, perhaps, a failure of liberal theory. I have heard you previously characterize this as a failure of liberal theory to account for the individual. Tell me about that.
PB: The failure, if you want to understand it in that term, of liberal theory in this area is not that it precludes an adequate theory of human nature and of some positive conception of “the public good” and, in fact, of “the good life”; it is that, almost by definition, it does not offer such a theory in the first place. But this is, of course, part of liberalism’s virtue as well. As the philosopher, John Rawls explains, liberalism does not impose what he calls a comprehensive moral doctrine. That is for individuals and intentional communities within the larger society to supply for themselves.
This only becomes a serious problem when societies face the kinds of existential crises that require societal commitment to a particular course of action, the sort of commitment that can’t simply be compelled or coerced from above, but which necessitates an authentic conviction and allegiance to common cause and purpose. Some communitarian thinkers have attributed the problem to liberalism’s “politics without persons”.
DM: Historian Yuval Noah Harari has written that the primary failure of liberalism is, in so many words, a narrative failure. Another way of saying that, from Harari’s perspective, is that liberalism’s story is no longer convincing for many people. Steve Bannon, who was just arrested for fraud, incidentally, was one of the challengers to liberalism, as such, who seemed to embrace this critique a bit. I wrote about him for my collection Invitation to a Sacrifice, focusing on those god-awful documentaries he made, one of which led to a landmark court case— Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)— which unloosed dark money on U.S. electoral processes, granting credence to counting political power in terms of net worth. The takeaway I left with was that his story was raw emotion, all counterpunch. There isn’t much logical connection, or coherent damnation of liberalism in his films, so far as I can recall, though one certainly could mount a critique of liberalism on that front. And he even once apparently described himself, to the shock and embarrassment of his allies, as the “Leni Riefenstahl of the GOP”. My question to you, and thanks for sitting through my windbag intro to the question, is whether you buy this critique (as a failure of story) and what you think about the story of liberalism moving forward.
PB: Well, firstly, I share your take on what Bannon is about. His narrative is the classic populist appeal to the resentment and bitterness of the many engendered by the self-dealing and power-usurpation of the few— mainly, by the so-called “liberal elite”. And the self-indictment implicit in his comparison with Riefenstahl would be comic if it weren’t also so terribly sinister.
As for the Liberal story or narrative, it clearly needs some updating and some upgrading. The story of civilization’s progress, not to say, its redemption, as being guaranteed by a set of abstract principles and corresponding laws and institutions, just doesn’t cut it. The road to perfection, or at least, to perfectibility, is not paved only with immutable rules that, if we simply police them, will deliver justice, fairness and prosperity. That approach would make our politics a slave to the mechanistic thinking that dominated at the time of liberalism’s philosophical nascence and that, to an extent, remains the dominant paradigm of our times, notwithstanding its theoretical regulation and displacement by Einstein over a hundred years ago. The “story” must also be informed by the heroism of individuals and communities who see themselves not merely as guardians of a value system or of a particular status quo, but also as purposive beings whose dominant mission must be their own self-actualization. The trick, of course, is for that “self-actualization” to unfold without impeding the self-actualization of others and without offending the core values— the secular Decalogue of fundamentals— of liberal constitutional democracy.
This un-cunning moment in history
DM: When would you date the beginning of the period of crisis which we are reacting to? I want to preface that answer by saying that it seems to me the specific mess started a long while back, basically at, or even before, the start of the new millennia. The main historical markers being: the rise of terror and repressive state responses to terror, the 2008 financial crisis (which left mixed economies better off than purely western democratic ones), and the rise of the digital economy that was certainly a fallout from investments in Silicon Valley, which were underway already at that point, and the re-entrenchment of right-wing views of immigration (which played a role in Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and, of course, the rise of the right in countries like Poland and Hungary), the continued inability to adequately address climate change, and, less often commented upon, peace-keeping failures (such as Malakal) and failures of nuclear nonproliferation (like the Iran Deal, torpedoed by the U.S., as well as the refusal to back the Ukraine from Russian aggression).
PB: I agree with all you say. The genesis of the problem was, of course, in the inherent imperfections in the original model itself, and in all subsequent refinements of it— up to and including the post-welfare state, the human rights revolution, and the explosion of consumer capitalism as the unfortunate hallmark of freedom and democracy. In recent decades, we have seen liberal democracies fall short of the mark in so many ways. The most obvious is in failing to keep its promise of economic equality— or rather, its promise to guard against unconscionable economic inequality. The so-called “middle class” is no longer even hovering close to the true “middle”. Economic prosperity can’t be guaranteed to all in a system that depends on perpetual growth and wealth creation. It is unsustainable. The pie cannot be made perpetually larger. And so what passes for record wealth creation— as evidenced by wild explosions in the stock markets— is really more a case of record wealth redistribution, but, unlike the New Deal’s promise to enlarge the lot of the many, it is redistribution in the other direction. And the promise of the human rights revolution is also backfiring in some interesting and, some would say, predictable ways. The result is a clash between human rights and civil liberties. The casualties, ironically, are both rights and liberties and also a vibrant, authoritative marketplace of ideas.
Stretch marks: language about liberalism
DM: I want to complicate the nature of our understanding of liberal democracy a bit. It seems to me— far less qualified than yourself, of course— that the term liberal democracy, as a careful term for analysis, has been overstretched. In other words, the success of the market economy has created an incentive to describe everything in terms of liberal democracy leading to distortions in the way we think about the term itself (leading, most outrageously, to Fukuyama’s infamous thesis). Are there necessary aspects to liberal democracy as a term for analysis which you think are indispensable? And can we talk about the form of liberal democracy you want to see re-entrench over the next decade or two?
PB: Firstly, I still believe that nomenclature— “liberal democracy”— matters. Words matter. I’m sort of a Wittgensteinian in the sense that how we think, what we are capable of conceiving is a function of our ability to articulate. There is a symbiotic relationship between language and thought. Unfortunately, this idea seems to be somewhat unfashionable these days. Liberal democracy, more fully identifiable as “liberal constitutional democracy”, is still a powerful ideal. It represents an entire way of organizing ourselves— of establishing our societal arrangements— and of determining how we ought to engage— and, conversely, how we should refrain from engaging— in order to preserve our liberties while meeting our needs and wants and maintaining some kind of order and stability. We have already touched upon some of the ways in which this ideal has been tested and been found wanting. But that does not mean that we should throw out the baby with the bath-water.
Liberal democracy’s insistence on the principle of equality of moral personality of all people, its implicit defense of pluralism (which is no less valid even in societies with culturally, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous populations) as a cardinal political value, its unconditional deference to the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary as indispensable institutions, its promotion and protection of free, fair, and meaningful elections for all positions of political power and authority, and its defense of both civil liberties and human rights, and, more recently, its commitment to fairness in the distribution of resources: these must remain unshakeable elements of liberal democracy going forward. This will remain true— and increasingly difficult to defend and promote— in the decades to come.
DM: I want to stay with the theme of language use for a moment. The journalist Masha Gessen— borrowing from the Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar— argues that we in the west have abused the phrase liberal democracy in applying it to historical contexts in which it doesn’t belong, distorting our understanding of the places which we are talking about. Using the language of liberal democracy to describe the states that emerged after the Eastern Bloc collapsed is one such example. This use of the phrase was convenient, but it also encoded a sort of “end of history” assumption. We ended up merely obscuring, they argue, what was going on there. I want to ask if you think that we somehow have obscured our understanding of liberal democracy in the west, as well, in the way we have approached international questions: mostly assuming that development across various spheres was “fixed” (“developing” nations were just poor nations that hadn’t evolved as much as “developed” nations, which suggests a “fixed” view of political economic development; it was assumed that we could simply institute elections across the globe and, therefore, we would institute liberal democratic elections, etc.).
PB: Masha Gessen is right, of course, on this point, as they often are. For reasons I have already touched upon, I would say that not only is our common understanding of “liberal democracy” obscured, as you put it, but any effort to understand it at all has been replaced by an effort to define politics in terms that are polarizing and ideological rather than explanatory. The line between scholarship and activism has become blurred, if not altogether erased. The line between partisan political identification and agreement on the idea of a broad community of interest has been sharpened to the point where the latter is now subsumed in the former with the result that there is practically no societal capacity for engagement across partisan and ideological lines. This has become one of the most troubling, possibly most intractable, problems in modern liberal democracies. Not only have some of the formerly Eastern Bloc countries failed the liberal democracy litmus test (I won’t restate here what that test entails), but the remaining countries that aspire or pretend to a democratic politics, lack the necessary foundations to support such politics. But there is another issue of which we ought to be mindful and that is that “we in the West” are in no position, morally, to be dictating the righteous path to non-Western nations. Firstly, our lack of humility makes us impervious to the wisdom that other civilizations have to impart. Secondly, all of our virtue signaling only serves to underscore our own hypocrisies and our relative historical and cultural points of failure and vulnerability. (In this connection, I would commend to you Irvin Studin’s brilliant chapter in my book on “Democracy as De Minimus— or the Problems or the Maximalist Approach”).
Liberalism in practice: policies
DM: Let’s turn to more specific policies. One of the things the current period of crisis has done is to crack open policy questions which some of us would have considered closed only a couple of years ago. For instance, overhauling policing in the United States. What’s your checklist of policy changes that would be desirable (or even necessary) to salvage liberal democracy?
PB: Education, education, education. But beyond that, it’s about a recommitment to the cardinal values, to the fundamentals. That is not so much a matter of public policy— or of discrete policies— as it is of civic culture. Liberal democracy per se does not contain the seeds of a sound climate change policy, except in the sense of the broad environmental claim that can be derived from the Lockean notion of leaving “as much and as good”— by way of natural resources— for others. But liberal democratic politics are premised on a regard for rationalism and for the importance of truth and of truth-seeking, in science as in political inquiry. So it would simply be self-serving and intellectually dishonest for me to answer your question by substituting my own policy recommendations for those that I would have you believe are sine qua non for the survival of the liberal democratic experiment.
DM: A realm where liberal democracy seems to have failed particularly miserably, especially here in the U.S., is in tech regulations. There’s obviously resistance in the tech world to whether it even should be regulated. Does the tech industry (in particular, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.) strike you as a particular challenge to this form of governance due to their relative size and power?
PB: Yes. Absolutely. In this regard, I commend Avner Levin’s chapter in the book, “Social Media and Technology Monopolies: A Call to Action”. The tech industry is responsible— not to say, guilty— on at least two counts, for the erosion of liberal democratic institutions and culture. Firstly, it has taken the concept of monopoly capitalism to levels never seen in modern history, with the result that there is no longer any sort of competitive “level playing field”, and with the even more pernicious result— exemplified by the concentration of capital and ownership resulting from the dot.com bubble of the nineties and compounded exponentially by the global domination of the field/s in the early 2000s. This has, among other things, resulted in the greatest wealth distribution from the middle class to the 0.01% since the Industrial Revolution. Secondly, the technologies themselves (the modern internet search engine, social media as de facto comprehensive internet experience, the rapacious internet retail machine, among other elements of these businesses— see Scott Galloway’s The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google), although democratizing in certain more obvious respects, actually contribute to delegitimizing the traditional marketplace of ideas because their effect is to undermine the traditional societal deference to the authority of facts, knowledge, and truth. I refer to this societal deference as a deference to our shared epistemological foundation. This has been devastating for liberal democracy and has produced rather fertile ground for the rise of populism in its many forms— all of which tend to challenge the authority of traditional sources of knowledge and expertise.
DM: I want to bring up Ezra Klein’s book, Why We’re Polarized, because I believe it raises some relevant questions for this topic. Klein’s big point, as much as I have understood it, is that political parties in the U.S. have come to a point of ideological sorting that is unusual. He has argued, for instance, that the “core institutional failure” in America happened when the Republican parties towed the line once Trump became their nominee, something he (extrapolating the probable consequences of that statement) thinks would have been less likely in other historical moments of American politics. What do you think of that argument? Does ideological sorting of this sort vitiate the potential for democratic functioning in the first place?
PB: Klein is onto something. But his book doesn’t canvass some of the issues that preoccupy me. He is right, of course, that the ideological sorting represents a fundamental failure of the political parties themselves. Indeed, the party system— and partisan politics more broadly— is/are shown to be wanting here. The failure of parties to fulfill their traditional filtration function— that is, to weed out the aspiring autocrats and those otherwise unfit for leadership roles— has proven catastrophic in the United States, where Klein writes, and elsewhere. Jonathan Rauch has written about the modern phenomenon, particularly in U.S. politics, of ideological incoherence, that is, of a political climate in which political parties adhere to internally inconsistent values or ideological positions and eschew traditional platforms. Politics has become more symbolic and less rational. Political parties have become more enslaved to the goal of obtaining power and of electoral success than of achieving any sort of programmatic integrity based on internally coherent principle.
DM: One of the failures— and sorry to keep recycling that word— that you observe is the erasure of the middle class and the its replacement by transient work (gig economy) and the working poor. Anthropologist David Graeber argues for a period of debt forgiveness, or “jubilee”, in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Others have pushed for higher wealth taxes and bigger antitrust efforts. Presumably, this sort of thing would help to reset some of the spiking inequality you have observed. What do you think of this sort of solution, and is it a necessary part of the liberal democracy you’re arguing for: liberal democracy with a human face (with a commitment to equity)?
PB: My short answer is that Graeber’s proposals deserve consideration. We now undertake discussion about a universal “basic income” more often than before. It is no longer seen a fringe or radical notion. This is not so much a function of the inherent soundness in the proposal as it is a reflexive and, indeed, desperate, reaction to the rising economic inequality and to its consequential destabilizing impact. Prosperity and social harmony are, inescapably, connected.
DM: Anything else you’d like to say?
PM: I simply want to thank you again for your interest in the book and for your excellent questions. For me, this is about our children’s future and our collective well-being. So I take it all rather seriously. Your readers can get ahold of the book at www.mosaic-press.com.
DM: Peter, thanks again for answering my questions. You’ll receive your sainthood in the mail for putting up with my interrogations.
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