06 April 2010

Article: Democratic Polities and Anti-democratic Politics

David Plotke's article "Democratic Polities and Anti-democratic Politics" was published in "Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory", based in South Africa (53 [111], December 2006: pp. 6-44).

Abstract: "What if anything should democratic polities do with respect to political forces and citizens who oppose democratic practices? One strategy is toleration, understood as non-interference. A second approach is repression, aimed at marginalizing or breaking up non-democratic political forces. I argue for a third approach: democratic states and citizens should respond to non-democratic political forces and ideas mainly through efforts at political incorporation. This strategy can protect democratic practices while respecting citizens' rights; its prospects are enhanced by the diverse political composition of most contemporary anti-democratic projects and the integrative effects of democratic procedures."

The full text of the article can be read free of charge here:


Excerpts: "What if one imagines a polity with a large population of sincere and committed anti-democrats? [...] A democratic state is part of a constitutional arrangement that expresses a choice among citizens about how they want to govern themselves. What is the standing, in this context, of citizens who want a different kind of state, and aim to make the requisite changes? [...] The authors of the bombings in Oklahoma City and the al-Qaeda attacks deserve a large place in any account of the dangers of anti-democratic politics. Yet it is misleading to take such forces to exemplify anti-democratic politics in the contemporary world. [...] Opposition to democracy can be more or less coherent and committed. [...] Anti-democratic declarations are often complicated, and those who make them have more to say than proposing to wreck democracy. [...] Yet it would be wrong to abandon the category of anti-democratic ideas and projects on grounds of complexity. [...]

"Where democracies have achieved a significant degree of stability, anti-democratic forces do not normally threaten the general existence of a democratic state. [...] The contrast between incorporation and repression should be clear, although in practice a strategy of incorporation might include the repression of elements of anti-democratic political forces that radicalize and escalate their opposition to democratic practices. [...] No unconditional assent to the virtues of democracy is required. [...] It is reasonable to expect anti-democratic forces to start with a double strategy of participating in and opposing democratic procedures. Yet democrats can respond by naming this strategy and confronting it [...]. A strategy of incorporation, which aims to bring anti-democrats into normal politics while isolating a core of intransigent opponents of democracy, may reduce the frequency and scale of anti-democratic efforts."

In this overly wordy, highly speculative article, Plotke claims that most democratic societies keep "strict neutrality as between democratic and anti-democratic political forces". Examples of such countries would have been very welcome. I can't think of any. It also remains unclear why groups that are truly anti-democratic (rather than non- or not-yet-democratic) should wish or agree to be incorporated by democracy. His largely unsubstantiated "cases", among them the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale in Italy, the Catholic Church in the United States, and Islamists in Turkey contesting and winning elections, are not anti-democratic by any meaningful definition. They all belong at most to his category of "political hybrids".

David Plotke is Professor of Political Science at the New School for Social Research.

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