Democracy: The Art of Compromise

Everything and more has been said about democracy. Yet it is a subject we have to return to, again and again. We have to keep trying to rethink what is democracy, as well as which institutions, behaviours and beliefs are friendly towards it, and which are hostile.
There are at least two reasons for this:

1.Democracy changes depending on time and place. In each country it is slightly different. Customs, in particular, vary: politicians’ behaviours that are considered normal in France, would be seen undemocratic in Sweden. Moreover, wherever democracy has been present for a long time, it is now different to what it was 100 or even 30 years ago. Voting and candidacy ages have been lowered. The gender gap is narrowing. The weight of public opinion has grown significantly.

2.More importantly, the debate on democracy constitutes an element of democracy’s life. Attempts to define democracy and disputes on how it should be defined are inseparable from democracy itself. For it has to be constantly revitalized and updated, if it is not quietly to wane in a climate of general indifference.

These universal reasons are supplemented in Poland by a third. Our democracy is young: it spans only 30 years for those alive today, because no one is left who was active in the period between the regaining of Poland’s independence in 1918 and the May Coup in 1926. When Western societies were learning democracy – because it has to be learned – Poland did not exist as an independent state. And from the mid-1920s the climate in Europe was not conducive to democracy; it was a time of triumph for authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that lasted up to 1989. Hence, although we do have democratic institutions in Poland, we lack a democratic political culture, as it evolves slowly. Democratic upbringing involves discussions on democracy, which are an important factor in shaping this culture.

We will be talking, here, about modern and contemporary democracy that has grown out of a soil ploughed by three revolutions: English, American and French, and – in different order – by the Industrial Revolution, or more precisely, its two initial stages. We will be discussing democracy that has achieved victory only in the second half of the 20th century, with the effective granting of full civil rights to women; although we can actually say it started in the second half of the 19th century, when one country after another was bringing in universal suffrage for men.

This is about democracy in countries with populations from several to hundreds of millions of inhabitants, with considerable territories and internal diversity encompassing different social classes, territorial communities, religious and ethnic groups, and followers of different ideologies, etc. In countries where nations are not only internally diversified, but also internally conflicted: the interests of employers somewhat contradict those of employees; the interests of landlords contradict those of tenants; Catholics’ beliefs, those of Calvinists; and socialists’ convictions, those of liberals. Modern nations are made of societies that are in constant conflict, albeit usually only on a local scale and within a legal framework; only exceptionally does it gain a global context and resort to violence.

Modern nations’ internal diversities and conflicts make maintaining unity their main problem. Diversity and conflict reproduce spontaneously. But unity requires maintenance. Especially because a nation cannot exist without it. Civil war or chaos inevitably lead to disintegration of social bonds and make it literally impossible to go about one’s daily life. Hence attempts have been made, sometimes effectively, to repress diversity and conflict, especially the latter, achieving apparent unity for several decades – as was the case in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, in its strict meaning, anarchy is a really exceptional and very brief state of things.

Democracy – and this is its peculiarity – is a form of government that maintains and replicates the unity of society, while at the same time preserving and sanctioning its internal diversity and conflictual nature. The carriers of this unity, which actively maintain and renew it, are the state’s administrative authorities and the law, enforced by the judiciary; also common symbols, procedures, memories and customs. Language and culture are also the bearers of this unity, but only to a certain extent. Diversity expresses itself in a plethora of political parties, trade unions and business associations; it manifests itself in the media and in representative bodies, like parliament and local authorities, although all these institutions jointly create the unity. Elections that define both the parliamentary and local majorities for the next term change, in a certain sense, the plurality into a unity, because the majority gives rise to a government that controls the state’s administration and passes acts that become law, after fulfilling some additional requirements.

But this peculiarity of democracy makes it stand out only against modern forms of government. Europe has had at least one form of government that maintained and replicated social unity, while at the same time preserving and sanctioning its internal diversity. That was estate monarchy in the 13th–16th centuries. It is worth exploring the differences between estate monarchy and modern democracy, because they reveal certain of the latter’s specific characteristics.

a)Under the former, the ruler made sovereign decisions (even single-handedly, at least in theory) about war and peace; under the latter, decisions on these are reserved exclusively for parliament, elected by all citizens authorized to vote.

b)Under the former, the main binding agent of society was loyalty to the monarch, who was perceived not only as a physical but also a supernatural entity, the embodiment of the nation’s unity. Under the latter, that binding agent stems from a sense of belonging to one nation, expressed on a daily basis by loyalty to the state; although in some situations – when the state loses legitimacy – it has to be opposed.

c)Under the former, the individual was a member of a community of subjects with limited impact on decisions concerning the general public, which were traditionally reserved for the ruler and the group of eminent persons appointed by him to participate in government. Under the latter, the individual is a member of a community of citizens who periodically make decisions regarding the majority in representative bodies (and also, in republics, directly, or indirectly about the president), and hence about the potential membership of the government and, generally, about its line of politics.

d)Under the former, we had a hierarchical society, with different rights and privileges granted to each estate; but under the latter all citizens have equal rights. In particular, the right of representation in estate monarchy is enjoyed by only three (and sometimes two) estates, with peasants having no representation; while under democracy, all citizens enjoy this right, as everybody may vote providing they fulfil formal conditions, and anyone may be elected as long as they meet certain additional requirements.

e)Under the former, the representative bodies (which, as we can see, were fundamentally different from contemporary ones) spoke on strictly defined subjects and did not take decisions, but only asked the ruler to do so. They were pressure groups, rather than power centres. Under the latter, the legislature, exercised by the representative bodies, takes precedence over the executive.

f)In state monarchies, the judicial system was a part of the apparatus of violence; in democracies this apparatus is subordinated to the judicial system, while the courts are autonomous (at least in theory).

This comparison is obviously very quick, schematic and idealistic. A lot could be said, for instance, about the autonomy of the courts. It is sufficient to note here that only in recent years has it really started to become a reality in such democratic countries as Italy and France. But this is not our subject. What matters to us, as the outlined comparison shows, is the fact that modern democracy is characterized by the presence of the following four institutions:

Autonomy of legal norms and rules regulating the functioning of public administration; these norms and rules do not depend on the will of any individual person.
Formal criterion of citizenship and equality of all citizens before the law.
Universal suffrage, guaranteeing representation to all citizens along with the concomitant freedom of speech and right to organize and demonstrate. Modern democracy is inseparable from liberal institutions. An illiberal democracy is no democracy.
Superiority of the highest representative organs (the parliament) over the government and the state’s administration, and the ensuing superiority of acts passed by parliament over all other legal acts except for the constitution.

What makes modern democracy similar to the estate monarchy of the 13th–16th centuries is the fact that both take into account the unity and diversity of society. This is what sets them apart from three other forms of government known in modern Europe: above all, absolutism, which was built on the ruins of estate monarchy and which eventually lost out to democracy. In its perfect form, wherever it achieved total victory, as in France, absolutism managed to abolish almost all representative bodies, or reduce them to a nodding-through role. The move away from absolutism was usually achieved through revolution, which happened by no means in a single surge, as is often thought; it was a multi-act drama unfolding over tens if not hundreds of years. Although absolutism failed to take root in Great Britain, the transition to democracy lasted there from the 1690s till the dawn of the 20th century. In France, this was from the 1790s till the 1870s, and in Germany, from the end of the 18th century till the fall of Naziism. There are many more examples.

Almost everywhere – except for the US, the UK, Belgium, Holland and the Scandinavian countries – the transition from absolutism (or from colonial dependency in the US case) to democracy was interrupted by periods of backsliding, when democracy collapsed and gave way to authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. What the two have in common, though, is that they both seek to establish social unity at the expense of conflict, which is violently repressed. Nonetheless, authoritarian regimes admit diversity, if only to a limited extent, but they try to constrain it in a hierarchical framework. Totalitarian regimes accept neither conflict nor diversity. They are intrinsically egalitarian. But their egalitarianism is of special kind: it excludes individuals and communities that have been irredeemably stigmatized by improper racial or social background, not only from the nation, but also from humanity, and, in practice, deprives the remaining members of society of their citizenship, because it turns them into subjects, who are made equal to one another by virtue of their absolute obedience to the group holding power and to its leader.

It is important, for our purposes, to stress that both authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are, in fact, reactions to modern democracy: they emerge to prevent or uproot it. Totalitarian regimes especially seek to replace democracy with a form of government that will seemingly eliminate divisions and conflicts and will create a homogenous and uniform society: a community purified of alien races in the Nazis’ version, and of alien classes in the Bolsheviks’. In both cases it led to a deepening of divisions and conflicts, and to violence on an unprecedented scale – to genocide.

This paper’s title includes the word ‘compromise’. It therefore heralds a discussion on politics, because a juxtaposition of compromise and ruthlessness makes sense only in this context. But if I started with a few historical comments, it was because one cannot discuss politics in a vacuum. Politics functions always within a definite system of government. It also always has its specific historical content. My position is deliberately contrary to the views of Carl Schmitt, one of the most renowned and influential political thinkers of the 20th century. His famous dissertation of 1932 presented his understanding of politics or, more specifically, of that which is political. In my opinion, Schmitt’s definition of what is political does not make some abstract essence of politics explicit, but presents an unambiguously totalitarian understanding of it. This is because democratic politics opposes totalitarian politics in almost every aspect.

Democratic politics seeks to maintain unity as well as diversity and conflict. Politics that aims only at unity, or that foregoes diversity and conflict in favour of unity, is authoritarian or totalitarian. Usually, and without admitting it, such politics seeks to bring the state’s administration, representative bodies and judiciary under the control of a leader or political body that is independent from society. It typically starts by aggravating existing conflicts to a point where they can be resolved only by force, with one side achieving victory over the other, and disarming or even annihilating the defeated.

Democratic politics does not exploit the friend/foe dichotomy. Its culmination is not war and its aim is not defeat and annihilation of the enemy. Democratic politics operates with a three-way division: the followers/the hesitant/the opponents. Its purpose is convincing the hesitant and gaining a majority. The friend/foe dichotomy appears only when democracy is threatened and a state of emergency has to be declared. Nevertheless, a state of emergency does not reveal a democracy’s true nature, but it does reveal that of a totalitarian form of government, which is essentially a state of emergency regime.

Democratic politics is not about ‘who gets whom’, to borrow a formula of Lenin, from whom Carl Schmitt was not far removed. It is not about ‘to be, or not to be’. To put things in such perspective – except for a situation of external danger – is to disavow democratic rules. Democratic politics seeks to influence decisions that modify the foundations of communal life, but never rapidly, never breaking continuity. It has to be tuned to produce gradual change, because only such change allows the link between unity and diversity to be maintained. Revolutionary politics is intrinsically anti-democratic, as it disrupts this link, unleashes civil war and chaos, and then offers a reconstruction of unity without any differences or conflicts as the only possible way of restoring ordered communal life.

Democratic politics is not about matters of life and death. Its repertoire does not involve unarmed or armed combat, or the killing of opponents, except, obviously, during civil or external war. Democratic politics seeks to present its programme, to convince new followers and to gain a majority that would allow it to win the elections. But first, majorities are, obviously, very different: 51 per cent of the vote is not the same as 75 per cent. Secondly, and equally obviously, a majority never means unity. Moreover, even if one gains a distinct majority, that does not mean one has gained acceptance for a full and resolute realization of one’s programme. We must always remember that voters often do not vote for us, but against the rest; they do not want our programme to win, but they want others’ programmes to lose. And they often vote not for a programme but for people. Hence an election victory in no way justifies the winners acting as if they have the backing of the whole of society. Such behaviour is usually severely punished in the next election.

In other words, democratic politics has to take into account not only the majority, but also the inimical minority. Forgetting this is a recipe for disaster, as was clearly demonstrated by French socialists in 1984, when they decided to implement their educational programme. It was equally clearly shown by America’s Republicans, when they decided to restrict, or rather wipe out, social care. They both found out the hard and fast way that yesterday’s minority becomes the majority of tomorrow. That is why, if democratic politicians want to last longer than one term in office, they have to practice the art of self-limitation, taking into account to a certain degree the opinions of the opposition. And that means they must have an ability to compromise.

What is democratic compromise? Politicians have to account for the fact that today’s public opinion is what it is. That does not mean they should give up their principles and aspirations. It does, however, mean that public opinion should get used to them, that it has to be persuaded of them, until it eventually becomes ready to accept them – even the opposing minority will come to terms with them, albeit reluctantly. How can we recognize the moment when public opinion has come round to our side, although still not unanimously? There is no single general answer to this question. Today, everyone relies on surveys and all manner of social research. This is undoubtedly very useful. But we must not forget that in a sense politics is an art, and that distinguished politicians are always artists to some degree. There comes a time when such individuals feel they can easily reach beyond a boundary that was till recently unsurpassable and do so with no damaging consequences for themselves or for their party, although some painful and irreparable mistakes do occur.

What is democratic compromise then? It is not, as I have said, giving up one’s principles and beliefs. It consists of actions that assume sufficient time at hand and a victory in the next election, or if not, then in the one after that. A party that does not take the next election into account and wants to realize all the points of its programme during one term, vainly hoping to succeed in making irreversible changes, inevitably ends up colliding with the foundations of democracy – and with an elementary understanding of history. For history teaches those who are willing to learn from it that there are no changes which cannot be wiped out, given time, although this usually meets resistance and leaves scars.

Everything I have said could be summarized as the understanding of democracy in terms of a form of government that maintains and replicates the unity of a society and at the same time preserves and sanctions its internal diversity and conflicts, as long as they stay within the law. Because such understanding of democracy assumes the necessity of looking for the point of balance between two opposing tendencies, out of which one prefers unity, the other one diversity and conflict. This point of balance is compromise, a concession that does not exclude maintaining one’s stance and convincing others to accept it. In this meaning, compromise is the soul of democracy.

But the understanding of democracy that has been presented here also points out that it is not something given once and for all, something that may be left to its own devices. Democracy has to be looked after by everybody who cares for it. Totalitarian regimes deprive people of their freedom and responsibility, and hence of their citizenship, for they deprive them of their right to decide for themselves. In democracy, decisions belong to a significant degree to citizens. So it is a difficult form of government to live in and a demanding one, for it does not allow avoidance of responsibility for public matters. And so, as Churchill once said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’

Krzysztof Pomian

Translated from Polish.

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