In This Review

Democracy Rules
Democracy Rules
By Jan-Werner Müller
256 pp, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021

Today's antidemocratic leaders, like many of the fascists and authoritarians who caused havoc in the twentieth century, are using the tools and institutions of the democratic state to consolidate their power. A key to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s power grab, for example, was a change in civil service rules that allowed his party to place loyalists in supposedly nonpartisan government positions. Authoritarians also seek to gain control of the courts and intimidate the independent media (which they often deride as “the enemy of the people”). But as Müller argues in this important book, the forms of popular authoritarianism seen recently in Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, and the United States constitute a threat to democracy but do not herald a return to the fascism of the 1930s. With today’s authoritarian regimes, there is not the mass mobilization and militarization of societies, the glorification of violence, or the remaking of populations along racial lines that was seen in mid-twentieth-century fascist states. Müller argues that the genius of democracy is its constitutional principles, which offer a road back from populist authoritarianism. First and foremost is the nonnegotiable claim that the government cannot deny the standing of particular citizens as free and equal members of the polity. A newly elected leader cannot use the military to punish his rivals or use the tax system to destroy the opposition party. Losers accept their losses, with the understanding that they are limited and temporary. In elegant and incisive terms, the book makes clear that proponents of liberal democracy must reclaim fundamental democratic principles and values.