The People Versus Democracy: The Rise of Undemocratic Liberalism and the Threat of Illiberal Democracy

Under Contract with Harvard University Press

German Translation Under Contract with Droemer

Korean Translation Under Contract with Mirae N

The economic and ideological preconditions that have allowed liberalism and democracy to hold together for the past century are rapidly eroding. As the living standards of average citizens stagnate and representative democracy’s claim to be the most feasible way of allowing the people to rule is undermined by new technologies, the people are less and less willing to give existing political players the benefit of the doubt. As a result, we are witnessing a polarization of liberal democracy into two new regime forms: “illiberal democracy” and “undemocratic liberalism.”

In an “illiberal democracy,” the will of the people determines public policy but individual rights are regularly violated. Forms of illiberal democracy are already apparent in Hungary and Turkey; if right-wing populists like France's Front National continue their recent ascent, they may soon spread to much of Western Europe.

In what I call “undemocratic liberalism,” by contrast, individual rights are respected but the mechanism for translating the will of the people into public policy has broken down—either because financial elites have outsized influence of the legislature, or because the will of elected representatives is checked by veto powers. On my view, much of Western Europe can currently be described as a form of undemocratic liberalism, a development which is owed not only to the influence of corporate lobbyists but also to the power of judicial review, the independence of bureaucratic decision-makers, and the growth of international institutions. 


The Age of Responsibility: On The Role of Choice, Luck and Personal Responsibility in Contemporary Politics and Philosophy

Forthcoming from Harvard University Press in Spring 2017.

The value of “personal responsibility” increasingly stands at the center of contemporary discussions about distributive justice and the welfare state. While deep disagreements about who is responsible for which acts and outcomes persist, a wide range of thinkers accepts the normative premise that an individual’s claim to assistance from the collectivity should depend, in part, on whether or not they have acted “responsibly” in the past.

Drawing on the recent history of moral and political philosophy, the social sciences, and political rhetoric, I argue that the growing consensus around what I call the “responsibility framework” is a recent phenomenon. In the postwar era, a conception of responsibility-as-duty emphasized each individual’s obligation to contribute to the community. Today, by contrast, the newer conception of responsibility-as-accountability emphasizes each individual’s obligation, insofar as they are capable of doing so, to provide for their own material needs without outside assistance. 

This changing conception of responsibility has, in turn, led to a significant—and normatively troubling—transformation of key political institutions. In particular, the welfare state, once conceived as a responsibility-buffering institution that was to provide a social safety net even to those citizens who have made mistakes in their lives, has been transformed into a responsibility-tracking institution, which denies citizens benefits if they are themselves “responsible” for being in a state of need. 

Among left-wing politicians and egalitarian philosophers, the most common reaction to these normative shortcomings has been to accept the punitive interpretation of responsibility outlined in the responsibility framework, yet insist that the threshold for ascribing responsibility to most individuals is extremely high—thus making responsibility largely inapplicable to everyday moral and political life. However, this “no-responsibility view” ultimately overstates both the philosophical reasons to apply a high bar to ascriptions of responsibility and the political feasibility of convincing people to abstain from holding their fellow citizens responsible for their actions.

Instead of dismissing the punitive, pre-institutional account of responsibility altogether, I therefore argue that we should construct a positive, institutional account of responsibility. Drawing on T. M. Scanlon’s work about the significance of choice, I give an account of the important self-regarding, other-regarding and societal reasons why we need to give responsibility a real role in our moral and political world. Building on these reasons, I sketch an institutional account of responsibility that helps to empower people to gain mastery over their own lives, and draw out this account’s implications for the design of political institutions, including the welfare state.



The Democratic Disconnect

Journal of Democracy: July / August 2016.

Winner of the Magna Carta Prize, awarded by the World Association of Public Opinion Research.


The citizens of wealthy, established democracies are less satisfied with their governments than at any time since opinion polling began. Most scholars have interpreted this as a sign of dissatisfaction with particular governments rather than with the political system as a whole. Drawing on recent public opinion data, we show this optimistic interpretation to be implausible. Across a wide range of democratic countries, citizens have become markedly less satisfied with their form of government and surprisingly open to non-democratic alternatives. A serious democratic disconnect has emerged. If it widens, it may begin to challenge the stability of seemingly consolidated democracies.

The full paper is available here.


Democratic Deconsolidation

In the famous formulation of Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, democracies are consolidated when they are the “only game in town.” Yet this metaphor is as elusive as it is evocative. What, in concrete terms, does it mean for a democracy to be the only game in town? On one plausible interpretation, the degree to which a country is consolidated depends on three key characteristics: the degree of popular support for democracy as a system of government; the degree to which anti-system parties and movements are weak or non-existent; and the degree to which the democratic rules are accepted.

This empirical understanding of democratic consolidation opens up the conceptual space for the possibility of “democratic deconsolidation.” In theory, it is possible that, even in once-consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe, democracy may one day cease to be the “only game in town”: Citizens who once accepted that democracy is the only legitimate form of government may become more open to authoritarian alternatives. Stable party systems in which all major forces were once united in support of democracy can enter phases of extreme instability or witness the meteoric rise of anti-system parties. Finally, rules that had once been respected by all important political players can suddenly come under attack by politicians jostling for partisan advantage.

It is at least plausible to think that such a process of “democratic deconsolidation” may now be underway in many seemingly established democracies in North America and Western Europe. In this paper, I propose a theory of democratic deconsolidation and show that the first stages of this process are now taking place in Western Europe and North America.


The Strange Afterlife of Theodor Lessing

Forthcoming from the German Studies Review


Over the last decades, Theodor Lessing has enjoyed an extraordinary revival. Most of his contemporaries considered Lessing a mediocre intellect and a “fierce anti-Semite.” Today, by contrast, most scholars hail him as a significant philosopher who was outspoken in his defence of the Weimar Republic and prophetic in his warnings about the rise of National Socialism. In this paper, I argue that Lessing’s recent hagiographers are seriously misguided. Though Lessing’s philosophy was eclectic, and even confused, his basic ideas were largely derivative. Similarly, though Lessing claimed to oppose the Nazis, his politics were deeply influenced by völkisch, racialist, eugenicist and even anti-Semitic discourses. So why has the largely German scholarship on Lessing adopted him as a hero? The answer, I suggest, lies in the fact that many Lessing scholars explicitly aimed to make a contribution to the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung: in their minds, to rediscover the thought of a Jewish philosopher who had been murdered by the Nazis was a way of making amends for Germany’s past. This may be a noble motivation for scholarly research; as Lessing’s strange afterlife reminds us, however, it has, in some instances, significantly deformed our understanding of the intellectual history of the Weimar Republic.


Political Theory, History and Truth: Why We Can Learn From the Past Even When We Get It Wrong (Under Review)


What role, if any, can the past play in helping us to think about politics in the present? On my reconstruction, Quentin Skinner offers persuasive reasons why the study of the past is an important part of political inquiry. In particular, three “uses of history” – history as antidotehistory as archaeology and history as genealogy – can generate insights we would be unlikely to arrive at by means of empirical observation or philosophical speculation alone. I also show, however, that the Skinnerian defense of the relevance of history does not posit a necessary link between historical accuracy and contemporary relevance. It leaves open the possibility that we could learn from the past even as we get it wrong. On my view, it therefore follows that we must distinguish clearly between the criteria appropriate for judging the work of political theorists on the one hand and intellectual historians on the other hand. In particular, political theorists can do outstanding work by drawing on historical texts even if they are mistaken about the meaning of those texts.


Public Writing:

For information about my public writing, including my op-eds in newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Nation and Die Zeit -- as well as my book on Germany-Jewish relations since 1945 and their lasting impact on German domestic and foreign policy -- please consult my personal website.