Special Conversation Vol.77 For Revitalizing Democracy-Potential of Transnational Democracy

TadokoroThe Greek origins of democracy were not regarded as ideal, Thucydides did not highly regard democracy, and the high esteem for democracy is a relatively recent phenomenon. Is this esteemed view of democracy durable, considering current disillusionment and can we conceive of any alternative form?

WilliamsDemocracy is widely seen as 'the only game in town' in most countries around the world. The picture is a bit more complicated in East Asia, though, where research shows that there is greater ambivalence toward democracy than in other regions. There is less enthusiasm for democracy, and less of a negative response to authoritarian political orders, so that if these orders are seen as able to deliver economic, legal, and security stability, there is a lower demand for democratic institutions. This is true in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and to a lesser degree in Korea and Japan, Another puzzle is that while people will openly accept democracy as the ideal form of government, including today in Arab countries, which is a new phenomenon, if we probe people's conceptions of democracy we find that they vary quite a bit. Some identify accountable government as the core of democracy, while for others protection of basic civil rights, or even social welfare provision, are identified with democracy. Therefore people attach a positive valence to the term democracy but what the term individually signifies may differ substantially. We need a lot more research into the meanings people attach to democracy across different cultures and societies.

TadokoroIt is also surely true that democracy in the 19th century was associated with the despotism of the mass, and the modern universally positive associations of democracy are perhaps rooted in US perceptions of national identity as being innately democratic. This definition of national identity, by a political term rather than any other, as also seen in French references to the Revolution, surely results in confusion rather than clarity for our modern understanding of democracy. In East Asia it seems that we are relatively less enthusiastic about democracy, for it is seen as currently the most efficient or pragmatic of various system options, with Japanese identity, unlike that of the United States, not being innately dependent upon democratic governance.

WilliamsIndeed, and even in the US context, Madison referred to 'republican government' rather than democracy, which was understood in terms of mob rule and, as John Stuart Mill later put it, the “tyranny of the majority.” Fears of mob rule can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle, with that ambivalence continuing into the modern period. Democracy has become seen as legitimate and safe in so far as constitutional democracy places constraints upon the demos through the rule of law. However, these very constitutional democratic systems tend to undermine their own bases. This occurs either by developing a privileged elite undermines notions of democratic equality, as in the US system economic power has been perceived as becoming increasingly excessively powerful in the political process through vested interests, or by resulting in constitutional democratic gridlock. Politicians may therefore see more incentive in competition than cooperation, and thus the system is further tarnished.

TadokoroI'm glad that you mentioned inequality, as US perceptions of democracy are identified with checks and balances but also in terms of liberalism as an exercise in freedom. In the US this seems to be accepted as economic freedom, even if accompanied by increasing inequality, but it seems that this consequence of democratic freedom is far less acceptable in East Asia, certainly compared to Anglo-American societies, with Japan being closer to European standards. Japanese seem to be more concerned with the perceived loss of control of markets through globalisation due to weakened institutions regarding a faceless force, and this chimes well with your writing.

WilliamsYes, the sense of gridlock among political leaders in meeting such challenges is an important source of frustration with democratic institutions as they are now. Whether it is the Euro-zone crisis or climate change, the incapacity of elites to respond effectively to those challenges is very dispiriting. There appears to be a general malaise regarding institutions' ability to address the problems associated with this period of transition from a Westphalian political order to something that we are yet to clearly conceptualize through a process of the 'decentering' of the state, whereby the global economy appears to be an independent juggernaut possessed of its own momentum, and with little or no institutional restraint capacity. Europe is so important as it is a marker on the map of this journey, so that if Europe cannot control its destiny, and if European states are not willing to modify the structure of national sovereignty to meet these challenges at the European level then democracy as such may be in trouble.

TadokoroIt seems that I am rather more sceptical than you regarding the shift away from the Westphalian model, but its resilience is frankly surprising, and the nation state appears in many places to be in its prime. A more fundamental question relates to the nature of democracy. Many classical western political thinkers, such as Rousseau, regard democracy as working only in city states, and Montesquieu distrusted notions of universal order. Kant spoke of international federation but adopts a broad interpretation based upon each state becoming a republican democracy. It seems that they have different ideas regarding the optimum level or scale of the state, and the condition of the demos. In Europe, this issue of dispute regarding the demos of the EU, and the nature of internal relations between states within the EU, appears to be the crux of the issue of democratic institutions. How would you comment on this fundamental issue?

WilliamsThere are three basic positions on democracy on the global scale. One, as you have outlined, regards the national scale as the maximum possible. The two variables are institutional capacity within territorially bounded jurisdiction and a sense of common identity, and without these a demos may simply not be possible. A second position, that of cosmopolitan democrats, is often based on the Kantian model of each state as a republican democracy, resulting in an order of international democratic peace whereby the need for strong global institutions to provide order has been diminished by the natural decline in violence that comes with the spread of republican government. Cosmopolitans are generally optimistic about creating global scale democratic institutions, many concerned with protecting human rights but devolving responsibilities down to lower levels of government so that there is little need for strong, centralised institutions of global power.

TadokoroThis is the current notion of subsidiarity in the EU.

WilliamsThat's right. However, its conceptual basis is still the idea of the modern, territorial state, which can be more or less decentralized. The third position is transnational or polycentric, which sees a superstate and true global governance as so distant, blocked by the Westphalian system, that it is not worth considering. It therefore instead focuses on models moving from demos to a plurality of demoi, emerging constellations of interests and informal coalitions of norms that can create new realities on the ground. Benedict Kinsbury and others have focused on the formation of new rulemaking processes in this “in-between” space, such as international administrative law, as pointing away from the Westpahlian view of law reliant upon strong, coercive states. On this argument, coordination between mid-level decision makers leads to sector regulations that are relatively autonomous from state control. Combining transnational regulatory authority, and a developing bottom-up public movements which see themselves as affected by regulatory activity, what might be emerging is a transnational political consciousness that could, in theory, point toward the forms of transnational democracy.

TadokoroWe can be guilty of mythical nationalism, always assuming primacy of the nation state. However, you have noted cross-border activists, and how do we consider the relative lack of responsibility for cross-border actions, such as nuclear power issues in Japan being of immediate concern here, but less so further away. Therefore there is the risk that the transnational democratic idea may seem overly optimistic.

WilliamsYes, there is a real concern of excessive optimism regarding the 'transnational flow of the democratic no'. There is now an intensification of a democratic energy, particularly in Arab countries, in which people have begun to mobilise their discontent with existing political institutions, both democratic and non-democratic, as part of a larger political-economic order. There is a generalised discontent towards corruption or authoritarianism, or the lack of responsibility in politics, with declining electoral turnout and respect for political institutions. In 2011, The Arab Spring, the Indignados movements in Europe, and the Occupy movement were moments when many people in diverse locations recognised such failures of responsibility, in an almost subterranean discontent which flows like lava, erupting in different places at different times. We can trace the conscious interconnection of these movements through the cross-referencing between protests. That happened in 2011, and continues to the present, as in cross-references between the protests in Turkey, Bulgaria and Brazil this past summer. People have different complaints against their national governments, but they link these to other democratic struggles elsewhere in the world. These movements are simultaneously national and transnational.

TadokoroThere are opinions that this transnational democratic movement is dominated by western intellectuals, whereas many of those in China who oppose aspects of the political system are actually more nationalistic than the governing elite, and the well-connected commentators on events in Egypt may well not be representative of 'the street'. So, how would you regard this issue of the representative or elite nature of transnational democracy?

WilliamsYes, as these movements are primarily of the youth, and of the middle-class. The middle-class generally sees itself as being squeezed and shrinking, and this is a strong trend in Spain, Egypt, and elsewhere, so there is a class basis for this pressure. However, I would not accept that these emerging movements are not simply elite representatives, as they are diverse and differ between each movement and issue – and after all, the middle class is historically important as an agent of democracy. As this is still developing and emerging, who knows what will emerge next.

TadokoroIn reference to Europe, it seems that the integration pattern has stalled, and elsewhere is not being attempted, and may become neither a super-state nor international institution of government. Some critics, many from Germany, wonder why Japan does not form regional structures with China and other Asian states, but they perhaps do not fully appreciate the importance of inter-state relations and disputes, nor of the way in which EU inter-state relations had reached the point of crisis and resolution. Therefore there is some scepticism about the ability of transational movements to overcome such enduring disputes and to deal with crises. How do you think about this, and may transnational democracy reduce such tensions?

WilliamsThe scepticism you are expressing is pertinent. Crisis is something we have to be wary of, as it undermines democracy, and we saw this in the aftermath of 9.11 with a retrenchment and curtailment of democratic rights and the rule of law. There is not a dichotomy between democracy or authoritarianism but a continuum; crisis often moves us away from more democratic structures and systems and towards those of authoritarianism. I worry that alongside austerity measures and the fears of the collapse of the Euro we are seeing the rise of right-wing populism which is very worrisome. Democracy is in a precarious moment.

TadokoroFinally. Transnational democratic process seems to sound to many students of international politics as though it is partly medieval, with mixed allegiances and the potential for increased violence which is not overly appealing. The myth of the nation state created a space within which many could feel secure, although creating the possibility for persecution of minorities and expressions of nationalism. The basic question perhaps is that transnational democratic movements may protest and oppose, but can they govern? Government seems to have become increasingly difficult, and could amateur transnational movements increasingly take over the responsibilities of states without the capacity for governance?

WilliamsAt this historical moment, we have simply not reached the point where any alternative form of government is capable of exercising greater democratic legitimation than the territorially bounded state. We are not going to displace or transcend the state any time soon, nor should we want to for as Winston Churchill famously said all of the alternatives to democracy are worse. The question is not of replacing democracy, but that real democracy begins at home. Protest places pressure on our democratic governments to take responsibility and possibly overcome their endemic gridlock. Transnational energy is a way to renew democratic will, emphasizing the importance of democratic accountability from decision making institutions at the national, transnational and global scales. We are a long way from meeting that ideal, but the transnational energy of democratic protest is an important source of hope and optimism for democracy's future.

TadokoroMany thanks for all of your insightful comments and enduring optimism.

June 24, 2013
At International House of Japan, Tokyo


Masayuki Tadokoro photo

Masayuki Tadokoro
Professor, Faculty of Law, Keio University Chair, Asteion Editorial Committee.
Areas of Expertise: International Politics.
Publication: "The Media in US - Japan Relations: National Media in Transnational Relations" in Gerald L. Curtis ed., "New Perspectives on US - Japan Relations" (JCIE).

Masayuki Tadokoro photo

Melissa Williams
Professor of Political Science, and founding Director of the Centre for Ethics at the University of Toronto. Editor of NOMOS, the yearbook of the American Society for Political and Legal Philosophy
Areas of Expertise: Political Science and Democratic Theory.
Publication: Equality: A Critical Introduction (Routledge Contemporary Political Philosophy)