Sam Seitz

How are democracies sustained? Is it primarily the power of democratic institutions, or is it instead the norms and traditions of democratic societies? This is becoming an important question throughout much of the world, as democratic states are now facing increasingly vitriolic populism and rank partisanship. Of course, both norms and institutions play an important role ensuring that democratic societies function. Moreover, the two variables are linked: Norms shape the kinds of institutional structures that are created in democratic societies, and institutions can influence the ways in which citizens come to think about how democracies should function. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that norms are far more important than institutions in guaranteeing the stability of democratic societies.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, David Hume makes perhaps the most compelling argument for why norms outweigh institutions in politics. Namely, contracts aren’t self-enforcing. One can promise to comply with a contract, but there is no reason that this promise cannot then be walked back. This argument holds in the context of political institutions as well: Institutions cannot function unless people choose to respect them. If a president refuses to step down after losing an election or a legislature ignores a court order, there simply isn’t anything institutions can do. Only norms of behavior and respect for the value of liberal institutions ensure that democracies continue to survive the challenges of authoritarian, illiberal forces in society. Norms are also important because they create the moral and philosophical framework necessary for generating democratic solutions to unforeseen problems. No constitution or political institution is perfect, and thus it is important to have embedded norms and conventions to help leaders and citizens come to decisions on how best to improvise and adapt institutions to novel challenges while preserving the spirit of democracy and pluralism.

History clearly demonstrates that one cannot paper over deficient civil society with institutional fixes. Institutions might suppress individual expressions of anti-democratic thought, but they are insufficient to radically transform society. For example, Weimar Germany possessed one of the most enlightened constitutions of its time. The political system of the newly democratic Germany was designed by leading political theorists like Max Weber, and it sought to enshrine liberal values and democratic thought in the German government. Yet, in spite of Weimar Germany’s progressive constitution and democratic structures, it eventually collapsed, morphing into the deeply conservative, militaristic, and authoritarian Nazi Germany. Yes, this transformation occurred in no small part due to the economic stresses of the Great Depression, but that was simply the proximate cause. The underlying reason for Weimar Germany’s reversion to militaristic authoritarianism was the entrenched conservatism and adoration of Prussian military values that continued to exist after 1918. German judges consistently ignored right-wing paramilitary units while aggressively sentencing socialist and communist groups, and the German military continued to propagate the Dolchstoßlegende, leading many in German society to blame political and economic problems on unpatriotic “traitors.” Ultimately, these underlying conditions proved too much even for the highly progressive and well-crafted political institutions of the Republic, and the whole project collapsed into tyranny and Nazism.

A similar story can be seen in Imperial Japan. Despite a relatively liberal and Western constitution drafted during the Meiji Restoration, Japanese society – particularly the military – continued to hold views that were at odds with liberalism. The primacy of the military over the civilian political leadership was justified by Bushido traditions, and even wanton acts of treason, such as the assassination of senior politicians and direct insubordination toward senior military leaders, were excused by the Japanese practice of Gekokujo, which sanctioned principled insubordination toward superiors for the greater glory of the state. In other words, junior military officers were effectively allowed to launch coups (as long as they claimed to be doing so to eliminate corruption or promote national glory) without facing any meaningful punishment. Inevitably, this led to an erosion of Japanese democratic norms and ushered in the age of Japanese imperialism that culminated in the Pacific War.

Modern Japan and Germany are vastly different from their interwar selves, and this demonstrates the power of normative evolutions in society. After all, the allies spent vast amounts of time and money promoting Entnazifizierung (denazification) in Germany, and the Americans worked hard to promote pacifism in Japan (even going so far as to place a ban on waging non-defensive wars in the Japanese constitution). Today, these countries are both stable democracies whose populaces are ever reticent to engage in militarized conflict. The political institutions remained largely the same in both countries, but the norms and accepted moral worldviews of their societies evolved significantly after the culmination of the Second World War, generating a greater respect for democratic and liberal institutions. As the older generations died out, these norms became increasingly entrenched in German and Japanese culture, and now both societies are far removed from their 1930s selves. Indeed, the recent drama over the publishing of Mein Kampf highlights the degree to which German society has evolved away from its Nazi past even as it struggles with resurgent nationalism and fears of Islamic terrorism.

In short, both norms and institutions are important in ensuring the durability of democracy. Institutions provide the structures and networks that make democracies operate. But norms are more important still. They create the underlying conditions needed for effective democratic civil society, and only this kind of respect for things like the rule of law and separation of powers enables democratic institutions to function effectively. Without a core societal worldview conducive to democratic principles, institutions will inevitably be battered down by authoritarian and populist forces, and democracy will be washed away in a sea of militarism and aggression.