In their Memories from beyond the grave, the writer François-René de Chateaubriand tells a fascinating story about certain extinct languages in the tropics. Once all its speakers have disappeared, it turns out that some of its words continue to be heard among the lush vegetation of those areas where they used to be spoken. How could this be possible? The mystery is solved in no time. “Entire populations of the Orinoco – writes Chateaubriand – have ceased to exist; no more than a dozen words have remained of their dialect, spoken in the treetops by parrots returned to a state of freedom, like Agrippina’s thrush, which chirped some Greek words on the balustrades of the palaces of Rome. Such will sooner or later be the fate of our modern jargons … “From this suggestive anecdote, the French writer managed to extract a warning about the illusion of immortality that he frequently encourages in human language and in the works that this language can generate.
But if it is possible to represent the destiny of “our modern jargons” under the image of some birds repeating words that no speaker already recognizes as meaningful, then perhaps it is not untimely to ask what may be happening to the language with which we speak about democracy. Although this coexistence management system is usually approached in different ways and raises different expectations among citizens, politicians and theorists, the most basic consensus that they all share is the idea that democracy preserves political equality better than any other alternative political regime. Democracy is supposed to establish a framework for the effective participation of citizens in decision-making, universal and equivalent suffrage, the possibility of enlightening oneself about all the political options that concur, and citizen control of the agenda of relevant issues. . To ensure this, political institutions have been developed that are necessary to sustain large-scale democracy in modern times. A democratic polyarchy, to put it in the terms of political scientist Robert A. Dahl, requires six fundamental institutions: (1) elected public officials, (2) free, fair and frequent elections, (3) freedom of expression, (4) alternative sources information, (5) autonomy of associations and parties and (6) inclusive citizenship.
This crystalline theoretical approach does not prevent anyone from seeing that actually existing democracies are far from perfect. Even in consolidated democracies, countermajoritarian institutions are reinforced, the money invested determines the outcome of the elections, legislation is against freedom of expression, the parties are not organized internally in democratic terms, attempts are made to control the media underhand, and , sometimes, it is excluded de facto to sectors of the citizenry. Perhaps a statement such as the one that the sociologist Guy Hermet wrote in 2008 is no longer surprising or of course scandalous: “[…] the concept of democracy as a power referred at least symbolically to the people and exercised in their name is currently reduced to the rank of private naivety of serious justification. “However, apart from the difficulty of genuinely linking the concepts of the people and democracy, The most bloody contradiction that democracy has faced in recent decades is the emergence of autocratic or tendentially autocratic regimes born from the ballot box. The list of examples could go from the presidency of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, who came to power through the slogan “A president like you”, through that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Turkey, or that of Viktor Orbán, in Hungary, to the recurring presidencies of Vladimir Putin in Russia from 1999 to the present. In these cases, and in others, a characteristic combination is observed: an appearance of democratic institutionality, within which there is talk of free elections, separation of the legislative and executive powers, and independence of the judiciary, all in the face of the gallery. , and the fact that the same leaders remain in power for as long as possible. For this potentially autocratic combination to be effective, governments must strive to nullify all major sources of opposition, be they political adversaries or critical media. The usual strategy they have used, poorly illustrated, but nevertheless effective, has been to wrap themselves in the flag and then disqualify each other as enemies of the country.
Following cases like these, since the end of the 20th century, coinciding with the spread of democratic regimes throughout the world, but also with the political tensions generated by the various economic crises in the framework of globalization, it has been making its way into political theory a line of critical reflection on health and the perspectives of democratic systems. A brief review of a relatively recent bibliography confronts us with not very encouraging titles: Post-democracy (Colin Crouch), The Winter of Democracy: Rise and Fall of the People’s Government (Guy Hermet), Democratic impotence (Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca) or The people against democracy (Yascha Mounk). One of the last examples in this series of reflections is How Democracies Die, the book that Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published in 2018. The proximate cause that motivated its writing was trying to explain how Donald Trump, a outsider Politicians, with notorious authoritarian tendencies, who had never obtained an elected position, had managed to gain access to the presidency of the United States, surpassing all conceivable screening filters, not only institutional, but also partisan. While these filters have always existed, Trump’s victory certified that they were no longer as effective as in the past. Two elements had made a decisive contribution to this: first, the change in the financing system for political campaigns (as a result of the ruling issued in 2010 by the Supreme Court in the case Ciudadanos Unidos versus the Federal Elections Commission, whose opinion enshrined the consideration of companies as individuals, and which allowed, in practice, that such “individuals” could finance without limit the candidates of their choice); secondly, the new media environment, with news and opinion portals, blogs and Internet social networks, which allowed new candidates to make themselves known in these spaces and no longer need to enter the circuit of the radio and television stations mainstream where normally the candidates of the establishment.
Now, Trump is not an extemporaneous case in the political tradition of the United States, since, as Levitsky and Ziblatt show, public figures such as Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy or George Wallace maneuvered in a similar way in the past. , using the means available at each historical moment and achieving high levels of popular support, either with the aim of being a determining factor of influence in national politics, or with the idea of obtaining the supreme position of the presidency. Unlike all these characters, what makes Trump special is that, being very much like them, he got what none of them got. Now, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s review of the political history of the United States is intended to serve as a buttress for an exercise in political insight. They aim to show that there is a way to know with relative precision whether a candidate for prime minister or president of a country may be a potential autocrat. The test consists of determining if the candidate in question tests positive in one, several or all of these patterns: (a) does he show a weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game? (B) does he deny the legitimacy of his opponents? ( c) do you tolerate or encourage violence? and (d) are you predisposed to curtail the civil liberties of political adversaries and critical media?
One has the powerful feeling that it is not necessary to travel to the American Midwest, the Anatolian plateau or the Russian steppe to see that enough political leaders nearby will not pass this test. But the autocratic temptation is not a mere political whim. Its appeal responds to structural causes, such as the economic crisis, which usually leads to a political polarization that is experienced in terms of opposition to worldviews, such as acute existential conflict. As has already happened in darker times, the potential autocrats emerging today in imperfect liberal democracies no longer have any qualms about speaking of democracy in purely instrumental terms, that is, as the mechanism that will allow them to achieve power, settle in him as long as possible and carry out the policies “that the people want.” However, many of them have abdicated from considering democracy as a valuable system because of its respect for equality and pluralism. And, for the rest, in their speeches, the old words of democracy appear degraded to labels that no longer deserve examination (because they, and everyone else, think they know what they mean) or to projectiles that they launch at their enemies (because they they have no mere political rivals). Adorno already said that one of the clearest symptoms of the advent of fascism is the corruption of language.
The reason for this brief note has been to ask if the language of democracy can still be a meaningful and inspiring lexicon, one that we use deliberately and with meaning because it connects with an authentic democratic life or if, on the contrary, it is the lexicon of a time gone (if, indeed, such a time ever existed), one that is no longer consistent with the actual make-ups of our political life, and that we continue to reproduce mechanically and thoughtlessly. Of course, this approach was not intended to be aimed at the elected autocrats of our times, who actively collaborate in the decomposition of democratic language, but at citizens who still suspect that it is not worth it to exchange a permanently imperfect democracy for an autocracy. tendingly perfect. Because if citizens are not in a position to validate in their daily lives what the standard language of democracy seems to promise them and, in the event that this does not happen, vigorously protest against it before those responsible for public institutions, then I am afraid that it will end up repeating, like the parrots of the Orinoco or the Agrippina thrush, but without being free like them, concepts that many of its leaders no longer take really seriously today.