Do Political Ideas Still Matter?

Liberal democracy is under threat from two sides simultaneously. And it is far from obvious that the ideas which justify it are in good working order or that its defenders are doing the best they can to make it attractive.

I remember being invited to a conference called “The Return of Weltanschauungen?” The place was a well-known American university; the year was 1999. Given that during the middle of the nineties books with titles such as The End of Ism’s? were pouring off the presses, one has to wonder just when anybody ever really thought that doctrines had somehow become less important in politics, or that the proverbial “end of ideology” had arrived. Perhaps just a few years in the last decade of the twentieth century? But when one recalls, especially from a Central European perspective, that this period also saw the Yugoslav wars—often understood as a “return of nationalism”—it becomes almost impossible to see anything like white areas on the canvas of the recent history of political ideas. After all, nationalism is also a political idea.

Yet many people intuitively share the sense that political ideas matter less than they used to. To be sure, there could never be a politics without any doctrines at all, some pure pragmatism driven solely by “what works.” As John Maynard Keynes famously pointed out, those who think of themselves as being just pragmatists unconsciously follow the teachings of some long-dead economist (or long-forgotten political theorist, for that matter). Or, in the words of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: “Every action is the bearer and expression of more or less theory-laden beliefs and concepts; every piece of theorizing and every expression of belief is a political and moral action.”

So has nothing changed? I submit that there are three important differences between our present and the last century (often been dubbed “the age of ideologies”): first, the end of a global oppositional language through which the most diverse parties and movements could articulate their concerns and demands; second, a rather astonishing refusal among rising powers around the globe to create and promote doctrines for export; and, finally, the emergence of a fateful opposition between technocracy on the one hand and populism on the other, a phenomenon particularly pronounced in today’s Europe—but not confined to it.

A Look Back at the Twentieth Century

There is little doubt that at first sight political ideas seem to matter less than during the twentieth century. Those who lived through the interwar years, for instance, or the height of the Cold War, did not need reminding that political doctrines could literally become a matter of life and death. Czesław Miłosz once pointed out that during the mid-twentieth century “the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.” Around the same time, Nikita Khrushchev remarked matter-of-factly about the uprising against the Soviets in socialist Hungary: “None of this would have happened if a couple of writers had been shot in time.”

So what has changed? Here’s one thing: up until at least the 1970s, as Tony Judt once pointed out, Marxism remained available as a global oppositional language. The most diverse intellectuals, movements, and parties could put whatever they thought they were doing into a larger theoretical context—and a seemingly universal story of liberation. Europeans benefited from the sense that even as the continent’s influence declined globally, they remained part of a worldwide struggle; those outside Europe at least occasionally could use some philosophical back-up from Europe—and this was true even of anti-colonial thinkers (think of Sartre’s preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth). Yet with disenchantment about Cuba, China, and, especially, Cambodia, Michel Foucault had to concede in the late 1970s that “for the first time […] this entire body of thought of the European left, this revolutionary European thought which had its points of reference in the entire world […], thus a thought that was oriented toward things that were situated outside itself, this thought has lost the historical reference-points that it previously found in other parts of the world.” It is tempting to think that Marxism has been replaced by “human rights” as a universal language (and global progressive narrative), as the American historian Samuel Moyn has argued. But human rights do not come with political, social, economic, or any other kinds of theories that explain why things happen the way they do. The fact remains that we live in a globalized world—but no longer have a global oppositional language available.

This leads me to my second, related observation: as men and women in the twentieth century also hardly needed reminding, the struggle of political doctrines was global. This did not mean that every kind of political thought managed to have global reach—arguably only Marxism really did so throughout the century. But every set of ideas was meant to be for export, and enormous intellectual and material resources were expended on promoting such exports. Even those ideologies founded on some irreducible particularism—think of National Socialism and Italian Fascism—were often reshaped to appeal to those not part of the master race or heirs of the glory of the Roman Empire (think of Nazi conceptions of a united Europe).

Ism’s In One Country

Attempts to transfer political models have not entirely disappeared in our day. There is a global democracy promotion business (which, by the way, is no longer a monopoly of the West: as Thomas Carothers in particular has been pointing out, countries like Indonesia are now also in the business—with considerable success). But the notion of doctrines without borders, where potential adherents need to endorse a set of codified political principles, has virtually disappeared from the scene (an exception might actually be the EU with its “Copenhagen Criteria” for accession to membership—except that these are so general and, as we’ve learnt the hard way in the last ten years, so ineffective that they should probably not be dignified with labels such as “doctrine” or “theory”).

True, people around Vladimir Putin tried for a brief moment to theorize a model of “sovereign democracy.” Today, however, Putinism presents itself only vaguely as some kind of antidote to supposed Western liberal relativism, not a codified political model (which would actually limit Putin’s room for maneuver and hence is actually undesirable). Or think of the contrast between Maoism—which really was for global export—and the “Chinese Dream” propounded by Xi Jinping today: the latter is for domestic consumption, while the supposed Chinese ideal of meritocracy— in opposition to democracy—remains more of academic interest.

On the other hand, both Russia and China pursue a distinct combination of promoting nationalism and projecting soft power. Nationalism has two meanings here: both Putin and Xi Jinping stoke nationalist feelings and publicly justify their regimes as properly defining and defending the national interest. But nationalism is also a normative principle according to which national sovereignty is a prime, and in fact universal, political value—the most important implication of which is the principle of non-interference in countries’ domestic affairs. In other words, there is a universal right to be particular—and that, of course, includes a right to be non-democratic and illiberal. As Andrew J. Nathan has argued, China in particular does not want to offer a global model, but be left alone, while it pursues its material interests. The problem with its ally North Korea is precisely that the latter is far too ideological.

Of course, this contrast between ideology- promotion and pragmatism should not be overplayed. Both Russia and, especially, China today project soft power in ways that would have been virtually unimaginable in, let’s say, the early 1990s, when the globe was a “CNN-world” (less so a BBC-world). It’s hard to say how much influence CCTV and Russia Today really have—but their subtle and often not so subtle “what-aboutism” is arguably more effective than anything the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Confucius Institutes are being established across the West, and Russia is at least trying to gain a foothold in a Western media fixated on the idea of “balance” by having its pro-Putin experts and pundits ready in outfits such as the nicely named “Institute of Democracy and Cooperation.”

Populism versus Technocracy

As is well-known, parts of the far right in Europe are today supportive of Putin. What they all share with the Russian regime is, very broadly speaking, anti-Americanism, anti-Europeanism (in the sense of being fundamentally opposed to the European Union) and, philosophically most important, anti-liberalism. Do these anti-attitudes leave anything like a positive program, though? The answer is yes—and this leads me to my third and final observation: they all subscribe to what I would term an ideal of populism. Populist reasoning, as I understand it, always goes something like this: the populists (and only they) are the legitimate representatives of the people; all others are illegitimate contenders or usurpers. There is only one genuine popular will (or one ‘overwhelming majority’—one of Putin’s favorite phrases) and solely populists can implement it. Whoever disagrees must be part of immoral, selfserving elites or not properly belong to the people at all. Elites (other than the elite constituted by populists in power) are by definition corrupt and cosmopolitan. Thus, populism is always a moralizing and exclusionary form of public argument.

It is fateful that this kind of populism can look like democracy—and especially so in situations where elites appear to be imposing one technically correct policy solution without debate, let alone popular input, and where they are doing so across borders. This is the particular constellation in which Europe finds itself after half a decade of Euro crisis. Technocrats—who of course also adhere to “ideas,” usually neoliberalism or its German variant, ordoliberalism—are set in opposition to populists who claim to represent the genuine common good as willed by the authentic people. While the two sides look very different, they actually share one trait: both have no need for pluralism and, by implication, debate and political party competition. For the technocrat, there is only one rational policy; for the populist, there is only one popular will. Neither side is terribly interested in elaborate doctrines—but both still need ideas: populism is parasitic on an ideal of popular sovereignty; technocrats think they have objective economic theories to back them up.

Liberal democracy, in short, is under threat from two sides simultaneously. And it’s far from obvious that the ideas which justify it are in good working order or that its defenders are doing the best they can to make it attractive. For many years after 1989 there seems to have been an assumption that liberal democratic ideas explain themselves and need no embedding in particular contexts—no rational person could really disagree with them. But for those tempted by technocracy, chaotic real-world democracy seems irrational; while, among populists, there is a sense that citizens have been comprehensively disempowered as democratic actors. Those willing to defend liberal democracy effectively have to counter both trends. And the defense will necessarily have to include a new articulation of liberal democratic ideas.

Jan-Werner Müller

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent books are Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth Century Europe and Where Europe Ends: Brussels, Hungary, and the Fate of Liberal Democracy.

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