The article below first ran in the spring 2019 edition of Nonprofit Quarterly and was featured again last summer. In the wake of yesterday’s momentous events, including the election of the first Black senator from Georgia (and only the second in the South since Reconstruction) and the violent assault by right-wing protestors upon the US Capitol in an attempt to prevent the congressional certification of the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president, this article’s observations about the dynamics and democratic requirements of our time ring more true than ever.
In the United States and globally, there is much concern about both the devolution of democracy and the resurgence of racism and xenophobia. There is a sense that things are breaking down and the world no longer makes sense. But these challenges are intertwined and what are actually dying are the dominant narratives undergirding them. The bold-faced resurgence of some of their most extreme characteristics, while very dangerous, is also a testament to this final battle.
In 2019, as white supremacists balance entitled anger and outsized fears—deciding it is time to be more explicit (again) about the underlying goal of domination through an outright offensive for a white ethno-state, fearing the rise of people they consider different—we are still hailing too many firsts: the first Black woman, the first gay, the first Muslim, the youngest. These leaders are running and winning because things are increasingly not working for more and more voters. Inequality has risen. Most people can’t afford to cover basic needs like food, housing, education, and healthcare. And the earth is dying. The overarching task now is to construct a new narrative.
FIRST POINT: We urgently need a new narrative.
Democracy has been broadly defined as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”1
Even though many wonder why democracy looks the way it does today, for some of those who study democracy, it comes as no surprise. Many, like Chantal Mouffe, professor of political theory at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, are calling the current state of democracy in the West a “populist moment.”
In her new book, For a Left Populism, Mouffe argues that this moment has been brought to us by the centrist policies of neoliberalism, which sought to hide conflict and different political interests in the midst of increasingly plural democracies with a “blurring of the frontier between right and left.”2
Mouffe contends that the rise of right wing populism reflects a break in the story as non-elite whites seek to recoup what they perceive as decreasing political and economic power. She proposes what she frames as a new democratic project for our times—the left needs to offer a democratic alternative that also overlaps with the political interests of the excluded “other.”
To do this, we must center what Mouffe calls “the affects of democracy.”3 Our identities are comprised in large part by the groups with which we identify; in other words, our identities are built upon our emotional connection to other people. The new narrative must take into account that politics is not only what we think, but what we feel. The left, she says, must focus on offering new political identities that support pluralism.
SECOND POINT: The new narrative is about the deepening of democracy; to enact it, we must evolve identities that not only make us think but also care about the collective.
Where Mouffe goes wrong is in her admittedly controversial claim that pluralistic democracies must engage as legitimate all of the demands made by its populace, even the xenophobic. While “these will be fought with vigor,” the “right to defend those ideas will never be questioned.”4 Instead, she argues, we must focus on the democratic aspirations that exist across perceived political differences.
Mouffe makes the mistake many liberals make when she assumes a level playing field.
Michael G. Hanchard, Africana professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Marginalized Populations project, in his new book, The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy, describes how, rather than being new, Western democracy has always contained multiple regimes based on difference, known as racial democracies or ethno-regimes. The problem is that they are also unequal.
An understanding of this submerged history and its forces may lead us to conclude that this populist moment of mobilization against elites is also yet another half loop in the cycle of Western democracy that seeks to subordinate a portion of the social body for the benefit of the political elite, which in the West has been historically defined racially as white. Hanchard, having taken the time to understand this submerged narrative, starts not with an unexamined assumption but with a studied claim: that the practice of Western democracy has been one in which, from the beginning, “difference, figured as race, was rendered politically salient.”5
For Hanchard, tracking the organizing effect of race on the development of Western democracy hinges on the distinction between the ethos, or ideals, of democracy and the ethnos (the prevailing idea about who is the “highest, typical human being” in a nation) of its institutions and practices.6
He traces the concept of ethnos back to classical Athens, considered the font of Western democracy, where “Slavery was rationalized as a necessary institution that allowed citizens to fully participate in civic life without material constraints.”7 Aristotle articulated the tension this produced for the legitimacy of the developing institution of democracy. Hanchard notes, “Contrary to many of his peers, Aristotle questioned the justification for slavery and was concerned about its corrosive effects upon both the slaves and citizens in classical Athens.”8
Ethnos shows up as a claim of racial homogeneity and superiority in heterogeneous societies; it articulates difference (gender, geographic origin, race, culture), and then creates political institutions and practices to manage this difference in order to secure privileged access to social resources for a political elite.
The dual nature of Western democracy was embraced and further articulated by the main colonial powers in their day-to-day management of the colonies and responses to the anticolonial movements they engendered. Hanchard outlines this arc for us when he writes, “The most robust, long-standing democratic polities in the contemporary world—France,