Johns Hopkins University Press

Democratic self-rule is an unending argument about what democracy is. In normal times, democracy reproduces its legitimacy by its routine operation. In times of political crisis, however, the defining issue of an election can become the commitment of adversaries to the rules of the democratic game. At such times, polarization can become lethal to the very system that both sides say they are committed to maintaining. All democracies could use serious institutional reform, but we will not begin unless we abandon the illusion that democracy's problems would be solved if we could just defeat authoritarian populists at the ballot box. It is our institutions, not just the players, that need changing.

Democratic self-rule is an unending argument about what democracy is. Majority rule or minority rights? The will of the people or checks and balances? "Government of the people, by the people, for the people," or, as I have put it, power checking power to keep people free? Liberal democracy or majoritarian democracy? Who seriously supposes these are settled questions?

Democracy does have a basic constitutional structure—majority rule, balanced by the rule of law. But the balance between the two is contested ground.1 The fundamental question is who, in the name of the people, should rule: the politicians, bureaucrats, or judges? These clashes of principle and jurisdiction are permanent features, not bugs, of a democratic system.

To maintain normal operation, a democracy, as the philosophers say, "brackets" these questions. It does not dwell on these conflicts of high principle. Instead, it reproduces its legitimacy with voters performatively. When the system works as it should, all the players in their separate roles—politicians, lawyers, regulators, bureaucrats, journalists, and citizens—do their jobs, respect each other's prerogatives, stay out of each other's lanes, and when they clash, as they do from time to time, accept either a political or a legal resolution of the conflict.

Time and again, however, the performative legitimacy of democracy comes into question. Branches of government clash. Conflicts of principle, usually suppressed in the system's normal operation, surge to the surface of political debate. Settled constitutional provisions become contested. An institution of long standing fails to adapt and becomes a source of discontent with the system as a whole. When democracy's performative [End Page 17] legitimacy becomes the question, reform is the answer: Constituencies emerge to push for change, and over time, constitutions are rewritten, institutional balances are redrawn, old institutions are retired or refurbished, and the overall performative legitimacy of democracy is improved.

As an operating system, democracy is an improvisational concert of competing sources of power in constant evolution. How can it be otherwise if the freedom of citizens is its ultimate purpose? This contest-ability is a crucial strength, a key source of the adaptability that "brittle" authoritarian systems lack.

In normal times, we argue about what is democratic or undemocratic, and then we accept, more or less willingly, a legal or political resolution of the issue. We compete for power with each other, but we do not question the democratic bona fides of our opponents. We accept, sometimes through gritted teeth, that our opponent plays by the rules and accepts the outcome of elections, win or lose.

This is not where we are today—not in the United States, nor in other democracies around the world. The very rules of democracy are in question, and the commitment of key competitors to these rules is fiercely debated. In many countries, and some for the first time, democracy itself is on the ballot. Can democracy survive an election when those competing for power question whether their opponents are democrats?

Democracy is premised on the possibility of persuasion. It is about winning over opponents and building alliances with people with whom you disagree. The system works when we consider opponents not as enemies, but as adversaries. An adversary merely wants to defeat you and might be your ally tomorrow. In contrast, regarding your opponent as an enemy of democracy renders persuasion impossible and may, in the longer run, turn out to be dangerous for democracy itself.2

At this point, it is tempting to believe that we once managed democratic politics without demonizing our opponents. In the 1950s and 1960s, democratic debate suppressed reflection on social and ideological cleavages with a language of comity and common national purpose. However disingenuous this language was in relation to the real divisions in our societies then, it created a political system that rewarded bipartisanship and successfully pushed extremism to the sidelines.

Anyone who has been in politics, as I have, appreciates the hypocrisies that democratic politicians use to mask the hatreds at the heart of the game.3 But I am not calling for a return to the useful hypocrisies of the fifties and sixties. The politics of comity and bipartisanship, which we supposedly enjoyed in those distant decades, is overpraised. In Spain and Portugal, dictatorship suppressed any recognition or expression of society's divisions. In democratic Europe, male elites dominated the political game. In the United States, both major political parties colluded in suppressing black votes in the South, in marginalizing women [End Page 18] in public life, and in suppressing the right of gay Americans to openly affirm their identity. Our partisanship today reflects not the failure of our societies to heal their divisions, but their success in drawing into the political system groups who had been fighting against exclusion and silencing since the 1950s and 1960s. It is precisely this success that is now being called into question.

If one side takes pride in a vast social change and the other side fears it, there is no easy way back to the old hypocrisies of comity and bipartisanship. Truth about our divisions is better than false comity; but there is a price to be paid for truth, and there is a price to be paid for inclusion. Our newly empowered elites do not trust one another, and they actively distrust the older ones they are trying to dislodge. Liberal democracies are stabilized by complex institutional balances and organized hypocrisies, and sustained by tacit trust among elites. We are renegotiating all these balances for a new and unprecedented age of inclusion. When the defining issue of an election becomes the commitment of adversaries to the rules of the democratic game, polarization can become lethal to the very system that both sides say they are committed to maintaining.

It is obvious that democracy functions best when it is not on the ballot, when competitors' democratic bona fides are not in question. Democracy is not functioning normally when its rules become the main point of political contention.

When each side claims that the other side is a menace to democracy and neither trusts democratic institutions to regulate the dispute, we enter terrain that Europe has traveled before. It was this kind of impasse that led Weimar Germany's president to confer ultimate power on the "Austrian corporal" in 1933. Millions of Germans, tired of democratic crisis and unable to determine who was speaking truth, initially welcomed the unanimity that an exit into authoritarianism seemed to promise.4

The United States is not the only country where democracy itself has become a ballot question, or where an exit into authoritarianism is possible. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right coalition has legislated to weaken the rule of law, and despite months of mass protest and a full-scale war in Gaza, his government seems determined to persist in turning Israel into an antiliberal, majoritarian democracy. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used the pretext of a military coup in 2016 to round up political opponents, neuter the independence [End Page 19] of courts, universities, and media, and consolidate power in his own hands. In India, opponents of Prime Minister Narendra Modi claim that his likely victory in the current elections will put Indian democracy in danger.5 And in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Hungary, his dismantling of democracy will be the ballot question until he is defeated or retires.

In each of these cases, both genuine democrats and incipient authoritarians use the language of democracy to justify their actions. Democracy is "a promiscuous legitimizer," and this gives democracy a bad name. Yet it is the sole remaining source of legitimacy in the world today. Even Vladimir Putin requires a sham election to give autocracy the illusion of democratic approval. So democrats and authoritarians alike use its legitimizing power to serve opposing ends. Authoritarianism is a temptation and a danger precisely because it so often arrives cloaked in democratic garb.

In normal times, democracy reproduces its legitimacy not by means of rhetoric, but by its routine operation. Yet in times of political crisis, the system working as it should will not restore the losing side's faith in democracy. Those who lose may decide to take matters in their own hands, as happened on 6 January 2021 at the U.S. Capitol and on 8 January 2023 at Brazil's presidential palace, legislature, and Supreme Court .

For millions of Americans, the January 6 insurrection was a despicable assault on democracy. Hundreds of those arrested for offenses on that day have been sentenced to prison. But for millions of others, a lesser number probably, but still sizeable, it was a patriotic uprising to defend democracy against an unjust attempt to ratify a stolen election.

In democracies born of revolution—the United States and France, for example—the revolutionary tradition legitimizes insurrection when "losers" believe the political system has betrayed them. Those insurrectionists who wore eighteenth-century Sam Adams costumes on January 6—just like the gilets jaunes in France who wore the Phrygian cap of the French revolution—were not just donning costumes. They were seeking to invest violence with democratic legitimacy.

Echoing Juan Linz, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky argue that refusing violence should be the cardinal commitment of all democrats.6 The problem is that American democracy's most sacred utterance—the Declaration of Independence—can be parsed to justify insurrection: [End Page 20] "When a long train of abuses and usurpations … evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."7 Democracy's "promiscuous legitimations" help us to understand why some Americans feel entitled to celebrate the insurrectionists of 2021, now in prison, not as criminals but as martyrs to freedom.

Robert Kagan argues that the chief threats to U.S. democracy come from political movements committed to intimidation, and where that fails, to violence—a long tradition that includes Senator Joseph Mc-Carthy's Red Scare in the 1940s and 1950s, the venomous attacks on Jews by the Catholic priest and radio personality Father Charles Coughlin in the 1930s, and the South's racist proslavery secession movement leading to the Civil War in the 1860s.8 In Modi's India, radical sectarian Hindus claim the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi as one of their heroes, and Modi has never disavowed his party's association with political murder; Marine Le Pen's National Rally has authoritarian, antisemitic roots that make its attachment to the constitution of the Fifth Republic uncertain; Alternative for Germany's leaders cunningly play upon Nazi nostalgia while pretending to be democrats; and Italy's leading party in the ruling coalition refuses to disavow its lineage with Mussolini's fascists.

If we could just defeat these enemies at the ballot box once and for all, so the argument goes, all would be well. We all want to believe that authoritarian populism is the democratic crisis, and that the crisis can be solved with its electoral defeat. We need to consider the possibility that authoritarian populists are actually democrats who think that we—the liberal professional elites—are the threat to democracy.

We do ourselves no favors if we assume, ab initio, that there is no argument of principle on the populist side that needs to be addressed or refuted. The rule of law is not some sacred abstraction to which we all should bow down. It is a contested concept whose regulatory role in constraining majority rule and political power is never settled.

The rule of law's very legitimacy, the support it enjoys among voters, depends on how they see justice being done every day. After all, the rule of law is not such a sacred concept if your only experience of the law is ordinary civil or criminal court and the often ragged, incoherent, and downright arbitrary unfairness of many judicial proceedings. This is an important reason why courts, judges, and, above all, lawyers are unpopular professions, and why ultimately, the rule of law does not enjoy vibrant popular commitment. It is scarcely surprising that the venomous attacks by authoritarian populists on lawyers, the legal system, and the "deep state" enjoy a broad constituency of support.

Erdoğan, Orbán, and Trump have proved skillful in exploiting popular resentment toward countermajoritarian institutions and the professions—law, academia, and the press—that keep them functioning. Populism [End Page 21] mobilizes this social resentment, and it does so, as Jan-Werner Müller has taught us, in the name of "we the people" and majority rule.9

Democracy is in trouble, not just because it harbors enemies within, as Kagan's new book claims, but also because democracy itself is a promiscuous legitimizer, because democratic rules are contestable, and because both law and politics so often fail our citizens. Our problems would be simple if we could defeat democracy's enemies at the ballot box. But our problem is that even if genuine democrats triumph, democracy's promise still must be restored.

The great irony is that democracy should be on the ballot, just not as a weapon to demonize political opponents. All democracies could use serious institutional reform, but we will not begin unless we abandon the illusion that democracy's problems would be solved if we could just defeat authoritarian populists at the ballot box. For it is our institutions, not just the players, that need changing.

Political scientists, who think about the system for a living, have compiled a comprehensive agenda of reform: whether it is by institutionalizing citizen assemblies chosen by lot, or by giving citizens the chance to vote online to advise legislators on public-policy decisions.10 Many democracies, including Spain, need a new settlement between regional and national governments as well as ethics commissions to regulate public controversies about politicians' behavior.11 In other countries—Canada, for example—changes in voting systems from first-past-the-post to some form of proportional representation would improve regional representation. In other countries—such as Belgium or the Netherlands—changes in the thresholds at which parties can secure representation in parliament might help these democracies to form stable governments more easily. In the United States, reform or abolition of the electoral college is long overdue: The system must guarantee that the person who wins the popular vote actually wins the presidency. Term limits for Supreme Court justices would increase the rotational churn of appointment and possibly moderate the Court's polarization. Electoral primaries could be reformed to produce less extreme candidates. Nonpartisan districting commissions, a common feature in so many democracies, could help the United States to escape the increasingly grotesque gerrymandering of electoral districts.

From my experience, there are two substantial obstacles to democratic reform that matter. The first is that the popular constituency for reform is small—voters care about democracy, but do not engage with detailed proposals for institutional reform. The second is that everyone evaluates a reform according to whether it favors their side or the other. Paradoxically, the reforms that stand the best chance of becoming law might be those where neither side can be certain whom it will benefit. Reforming the system means keeping reform from being taken hostage in the war of parties. This requires a leader to have a legislative majority, [End Page 22] a concerted strategy to win over gatekeeper groups in civil society, and a great deal of political skill. Reform can only happen if we elect political leaders daring enough to put the system ahead of their interests, persistent enough to confront the public's suspicion of democratic reform, and far-sighted enough to believe that one day—long after they are gone—voters will thank them for making their system of government more accountable, responsive, and democratic. It was successful reform in the past that enabled an inherently contestable system to survive past crises—and with reform once again, it will surmount this one, too.

Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff is a historian and the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. He has served as rector and president of Central European University and is the author, most recently, of On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times (2021).


1. Dieter Grimm, "Rule of Law and Democracy," in Giuliano Amato, Benedetta Barbisan, and Cesare Pinelli, eds., Rule of Law Versus Majoritarian Democracy (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2021), 43–62.

2. Michael Ignatieff, "The Politics of Enemies," Journal of Democracy 33 (October 2022): 5–19.

3. Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

4. Frank McDonough, The Weimar Years: Rise and Fall 1918–1933 (New York: Bloomsbury, 2023); Eric D. Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

5. Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane, To Kill a Democracy: India's Passage to Despotism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).

6. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Tyranny of the Minority: How to Reverse an Authoritarian Turn and Forge a Democracy for All (New York: Penguin, 2023), 40.

7. U.S. Declaration of Independence (1776).

8. Robert Kagan, Rebellion: How Antiliberalism Is Tearing America Apart—Again (New York: Knopf, 2024).

9. Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016); Andreas Schedler, "Again, What Is Populism?" Review of Democracy, 1 February 2024,

10. Hél`ene Landemore, Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

11. Miriam González Durántez, "S´anchez Case Shows Spain's Ethics Code Vacuum Leaves Everyone Exposed," Financial Times, 28 April 2024.