🦋 Democratising militant democracy?

In crisis. Regressing. Dying. Such unsettling assessments of democracy’s current state have sparked renewed interest in militant democracy – the ostensibly justifiable repression of anti-democrats. Given the idea’s troubled history, Patrick Nitzschner welcomes attempts to place militant interventions on a securely democratic footing, but remains sceptical of their likely success

Militant democracy’s troubled history

The idea that democratic regimes may pre-emptively repress political actors who seek to subvert democracy from within has regained currency as a response to a widely diagnosed crisis of democracy. It originates in a concept Karl Loewenstein coined in 1937 as ‘militant democracy’. Loewenstein referred to pragmatic responses to 20th century fascism, and did not provide militant democracy with systematic normative justification.

Because of its weak normative grounding, militant democracy is fraught with internal tensions. These tensions are illustrated by the oxymoron 'authoritarian democracy'. Loewenstein uses this as a synonym for militant instruments, and says that democracies should defend themselves using repressive, authoritarian means like rights restrictions and party bans.

Should democracies utilise repressive, authoritarian means like rights restrictions and party bans to defend democracy?

Militant democracy’s authoritarian tendencies are widely criticised. Indeed, many of the ideas advocated for in this series offer critical grist in this regard. The possibility of militant intervention has been shown to produce exclusion and domination. A further criticism of militant democracy results from its debt to the anti-democratic thought of Carl Schmitt. On this view, militant democracy is decisionist, meaning that it arbitrarily identifies and represses anti-democratic threats. This political process lacks democratic justification.

While it may have been reasonable to demand constitutional safeguards against interwar fascism, militant democracy also entered into post-war constitutions. Its impact today remains significant. Clauses of this type have been utilised to justify party bans in at least 20 countries in Europe alone.

This leaves an ambiguously democratic idea at the heart of liberal democratic practice. The question of whether it is possible to democratise militant democracy is therefore pressing. Can we detach this idea from its troubled history?

Contemporary solutions: minimal militancy

Over the last decade, normative theories of militant democracy have made laudable steps towards democratisation by providing the previously undertheorised idea with systematic normative grounding. Today’s militant democrats intend to ensure that intervention serves unambiguously democratic ends. To this end, they develop democratic normative justifications for actions that appear non-democratic.

Contemporary militant democratic theories converge on a minimalist strategy of democratic defence. They identify what is essential in a democracy and therefore worthy of being defended. Beyond this minimum, everything is up for political grabs.

One exemplar of such a minimalist democratic core is Bastiaan Rijpkema’s concept of democracy as self-correction. Democracy, for Rijpkema, is essentially an iterative process of making revocable political decisions. If this process is threatened in fundamental ways, Rijpkema considers militant intervention justified.

Contemporary militant democratic theories identify the minimum of what is essential in a democracy, and advocate defending it while leaving everything else up for political grabs

Alexander Kirshner’s theory instead centres on a universal right to participation, enjoyed by democrats and anti-democrats alike. Militant intervention may be justified once political actors interfere with the political participation of others. It requires that intervention be used to restore the participation-equilibrium, not to perfect democracy.

Today’s militant democracy, thus, rests on minimalist conceptions of democracy. These enable participation and democratic decision-making, rather than merely constraining it. This innovative minimalism sets contemporary theories apart from their forerunners, who inconsistently justified far-reaching interventions with substantive arguments. This occasionally provoked choices that are difficult to justify democratically, like Loewenstein’s praise for the militancy of autocratic regimes in 1940s Latin America.

The minimal democratic baselines of contemporary militant democratic theories, in contrast, offer well-defined boundaries for militant measures. Furthermore, these boundaries go both ways. They provide thresholds for intervention and restrict the use of militant measures to restoring democratic essentials. This may further render contemporary militant democratic theories less susceptible to decisionism – although some of their critics disagree.

Is further democratisation needed?

Contemporary theories provide an important corrective to political calls for more expansive uses of militant democracy. Given heavy-handed militant instruments, this is a welcome development. However, a question remains. Do contemporary theories achieve a sufficient democratisation of militant democracy by providing it with better justification?

One lingering problem is militant democracy’s institutional status quo bias. Although contemporary militant democrats try to limit and normatively ground interventions, they remain tacitly committed to particular institutions. Institutions that correspond to democracy’s minimalist core must already be in place to be defensible. This implies that a given institutional baseline is the basic realisation of democracy.

Once any given version of democracy is institutionalised, militant democracy would tend to repress radical transformation of the system

Contemporary militant democratic theories are in principle open to a variety of such baselines, as they are not institutionally prescriptive. However, once a baseline becomes identified with what is essential in a democracy, it becomes very difficult to revoke. Any fundamental transformation of this baseline would seem to pose a challenge to militant democratic theories.

In practice, this might mean that opposition to the institution of voting would become repressible. Rijpkema explicitly makes this argument. More generally, the militant core of contemporary militant democracy can only remain indeterminate in the abstract. After the core is identified in practice, militant democracy could end up admitting only incremental change that remains consistent with the institutional basic structure. Meanwhile, it would rule out radical transformation.

Uncertainty as a way forward

There are good substantive reasons for opposing radical challenges to institutions that currently enable democratic participation and iterative self-correction. None of those reasons, however, justifies an a priori prohibition of the radical transformation of existing institutional orders. In a democracy, the institutional question is never settled once and for all; it is continuously renegotiated. This principle should extend down to the most basic institutional choices.

While contemporary militant democratic theory has achieved an important feat in systematising its normative requirements, there is still some way to go to become consistently democratic. To do so, militant democracy would need to come to terms with the paradoxical challenge that a democratic defence of existing institutions must not presume them as unproblematic baselines. To be sure, this implies thoroughgoing normative uncertainty. However, we must manage this uncertainty without returning to arbitrary interventions. In the end, it might make militant democracy more democratic.

No.100 in a Loop thread on the science of democracy. Look out for the 🦋 to read more in our series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Patrick Nitzschner
Patrick Nitzschner
PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Lund University

Patrick is a political theorist with a background in political science, international relations, and modern history.

He works in the Carlsberg Foundation-funded research project Populism and Democratic Defence in Europe.

Patrick's work focuses on critical and democratic theory.

Currently, he is particularly interested in rethinking the idea of defending democracy.

He has previously published on Frankfurt School critical theory and on historical international relations.

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