Democracy without Solidarity

There will never be a good a solid constitution unless the law reigns over the hearts of the citizens; as long as the power of legislation is insufficient to accomplish this, laws will always be evaded.’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1772)


You can have the best political institutions in the world but if the people who live within them do not want to use them properly, then those institutions will not work. The challenge is to make people want to use common institutions properly and to agree on what constitutes proper use. This is the challenge that Jean-Jacques Rousseau tackled in his ‘considerations on the government of Poland and on its proposed reformation.’ It is the same challenge advanced industrial democracies face today – at all levels of government. Moreover, better institutions or ‘structural reforms’ were not the answer for Rousseau and they are not the answer now: ‘Although it is easy, if you wish, to make better laws, it is impossible to make them such that the passions of men will not abuse them as they abused the laws that preceded them.’

When I listen to politicians like Wolfgang Schäuble or Jeroen Dijsselbloem talk about ‘moral hazard’ and the need for everyone to ‘follow the rules,’ I can see immediately that they have not understood the problem that people have to believe in the rules first. And when I hear about politicians like the late Helmut Schmidt deriding the need for ‘vision’ saying things like ‘people who have visions should see a doctor,’ then I know we are in trouble. People have to want to follow rules or they will find a way around them. People only want to follow rules if they believe those rules are fair and just; they also have to believe that following the rules is useful. Moreover, ‘following the rules’ restricts freedom and requires discipline. This means that people have to have some justification for collective action and common sacrifice.

When you add this all up – fairness, justice, effectiveness, purpose – you come up with a pretty complicated set of ideas that people need to receive and accept if they are to make institutions function. Maybe ‘vision’ is not the most appropriate metaphor to describe this requirement to explain why politics works the way it does, particularly in a democratic system. ’Ideology’ is probably even more uncomfortable in the modern vernacular. But whatever we call it, we need to come up with some way to get people to believe they are all part of a bigger project. Democracy without solidarity does not work.

The examples of democracy suffering from a lack of solidarity are all around us. As someone who spent a long time studying Belgian politics, my first instinct is to point to the 550 days that the New Flemish Alliance complicated efforts by the country’s elites to form a government. That crisis only ended when the pressure in government bond markets was intense enough to focus attention on the very bad things that would happen if events spiralled out of control. The debate that took place in the United States Congress over the debt ceiling during the summer of 2011 is another illustration. But as we look more deeply into the functioning of the two Houses of Congress over the past few years, it is easy to see that the debt ceiling debate is just the tip of the iceberg. As Thomas Mann and Norman Orenstein describe it, the U.S. political system is ‘even worse than it looks.’

The Belgian and U.S. examples show two aspects of the pattern. One is the argument about legitimacy. This is where politicians or protestors claim that the current arrangement is unfair, unjust, ineffective, or headed in the wrong direction. Here you can think of just about any stump speech by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, or Beppe Grillo. Clearly these speeches resonate with some part of the electorate. Depending upon the country, you can usually mobilize between 15 and 25 percent of the vote around the general message of disenchantment; in some cases the appeal is even broader.

The second aspect is how the message translates into action. This is the part I try to capture with ‘solidarity’ (and its absence). When solidarity weakens or diminishes, people start breaking rules or reinterpreting them in ways that exaggerate the worst features of any institutional arrangement. They begin using exclusive (or offensive) speech patterns which they justify as a break from the confines of ‘political correctness.’ They start dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. And they find ways to hold the functioning of institutions hostage until their specific concerns are addressed. Such actions are standard practice for Beppe Grillo’s ‘Five Star Movement’ but they are also what brought Ted Cruz such notoriety when he entered the U.S. Senate (following Nigel Farage’s playbook from the European Parliament).

Unfortunately, democratic institutions are not very good at channelling or constraining this kind of disruptive behaviour. On the contrary, democracy thrives in a context where speech is free and institutions operate under ‘checks and balances’. This is the perfect environment for a loss of solidarity to spark a crisis of governance and yet we risk losing the essence of democracy whenever we try to use new rules to proscribe such unruly behaviour. It is a delicate and difficult balance – as you can see by looking at countries like Hungary, Poland and Turkey.

The balance is even harder to find when you look at federal countries or multinational arrangements. It is no accident that the two easiest examples of the problem we face (Belgium and the United States) are both federal countries. But the implications for the European Union are even more dramatic. In the end, I do not see a scenario where the United States collapses into a collection of smaller political units. Even Belgium is showing significant resilience and the New Flemish Alliance is participating in the federal government without demanding further devolution of power to Flanders (for now).

By contrast, the European Union is facing an existential crisis. The knee-jerk European response is always more rules, better enforcement, and structural reform. These are good responses in many situations. Unfortunately, this is not one of them. Too many Europeans do not believe that the rules are just or fair, they do not understand the need for collective sacrifice (or that the sacrifice is truly ‘collective’), and they do not think the solutions being offered are going to be effective. You can see this in debates about macroeconomic policy, financial regulation, migration, and the single market. You can see this in the language that is being used to divide Europe into north and south, east and West, creditor and debtor. And you can see that both protest groups (including anti-European parties) and national governments are starting to use the institutions of Europe to jam up the process of governance until they get what they want for themselves.

Europe as a whole is not a democracy but it shares many democratic strengths and weaknesses. Free speech, freedom of assembly, and institutional checks and balances are at the top of both lists. The collapse of solidarity in Europe is threatening to break the union into pieces. If Europe’s politicians don’t start focusing their attention on coming up with an argument to explain how Europeans are all in this together, why they need to work with one-another, and where this great project is going, then they will have to live with the consequences of their inaction. This is what David Cameron promised when he raised the whole prospect of a national debate on Europe in his Bloomberg speech. Unfortunately, that conversation has deteriorated into a debate about details rather than focusing on the big picture. National politicians need to tell the big story about Europe if they are to capture ‘the hearts of the citizens,’ in Rousseau’s turn of phrase. Whether we call that a ‘vision’, an ‘ideal’, or an ‘ideology’ is less important than winning the argument about Europe’s importance. The same is true for democracy itself.


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