This podcast is best thought of as an unexpected extension of the first piece I put together for the Religion, Race, and Democracy Lab, “Consider Hassan.” At first glance, there are only surface-level similarities between the two stories, but in fact both are driven by the same fundamental concern, which is that democratic rule is more erratic and unreliable than we sometimes realize, and as a consequence the democratic Western order is more fragile than many of us imagine. The instability generated by democracy threatens some groups more than others, but its weaknesses are structural and therefore systemic. Even a grand institution like the European Union—the great triumph of the postwar liberal order—could prove surprisingly brittle when placed under stress.
I came to this conclusion while working on my last podcast, which explored the refugee crisis in Europe through the story of an Iraqi asylum seeker, Hassan, attempting to resettle in Austria. As I worked to find that story, I recorded interviews with several refugees who resettled in Austria—besides Hassan, I spoke with a woman from Iraq and two brothers from Syria—and I also interviewed a few Europeans who had immigrated to Austria.
I interviewed Europeans on the theory that their experience would stand in instructive contrast to the asylum seekers’ experience. Unlike refugees, EU citizens have a right to work and live in any EU member state. They don’t even need to go through a pro forma procedure to secure visas or work permits. Refugees, on the other hand, have to endure a crushing bureaucratic marathon just to secure temporary residency.
These procedural differences are real and important, but the main issue I focused on is the vulnerability of refugees before the citizens of their newly adopted homelands. In principle, their residency status is always at the mercy of the people: if the populace elects a leader hostile to refugees, as nearly happened in the Austrian presidential election of 2016, there is little an asylum seeker can do to thwart the “mandate of the people.” For those without permanent status, deportation is only a vote away.
The lives of an entire class of people are therefore entirely subject to the whims of the populace. But the status of asylum seekers in Austria in 2016 is merely a dramatic example of a much larger issue, which brings me to my second podcast. Anybody can fall on the wrong side of a popular vote, and this of course includes Europeans living in the EU, but outside of their country of citizenship. Think of the disorienting experience of European citizens living in the United Kingdom, or of British citizens living in continental Europe, following the Brexit vote.
Thus, the Europeans I interviewed for my first podcast, although immeasurably more privileged than the refugees I interviewed, couldn’t actually serve the contrastive role I originally imagined. They too are subject to the whim of the majority, whether in Austria or their home countries. This realization brought the structural weaknesses of the EU into focus. Principles that seem sacrosanct to EU citizens, like the freedom of movement, rest on a fairly shaky foundation, and unavoidably so.
For my second podcast, then, I went back and interviewed more Europeans, this time focusing my efforts on two immigrants in Austria, one from Greece and one from Spain, both countries with a complicated relationship with the EU. Instead of merely asking questions about how their situation compares favorably with that of refugees (and, I must again emphasize, it does), I focused on their own vulnerabilities, and how the fragility of the European order is directly related to one of the principles it holds dear: democratic rule.
So, should the West abandon its commitment to democracy because it is an inherently unstable form of government? I think the obvious answer is “no.” Whatever problems flow from putting decision-making powers in the hands of the people, they would be made much worse if the people had no decision-making power at all. If the will of the majority can be misguided, the same is obviously true of the will of a leader or a ruling aristocracy. When citizens vote, at least they are expressing their preferences. Still, the hazards of majority rule are real, and their effects can be more widespread than one might initially suppose. Again, anyone can find themselves on the wrong side of a vote. This is the point I didn’t fully appreciate when making my first podcast.
What is the solution? In some sense, there is none, at least if we want to live in a democratic society. One cannot eliminate the problems of majority rule in a system that necessarily relies on majority rule. Nevertheless, citizens can be alert to the problem, and when they are, I think they will be less likely to pursue novelty at the expense of stability—less likely to seek change only for change’s sake. When one is sensitive to the vulnerabilities that democracies produce, it is difficult to be complacent. One wonders if the result of the Brexit referendum, for example, would be different if voters had been more wary of political chaos.
At one point in the podcast, one of my interviewees, Luis, describes the benefits of living in the European Union, and expresses dismay that people do not appreciate it. Apart from its many practical benefits, the EU has achieved something miraculous: peace on a continent whose history is written in blood. Only by lacking any historical memory can one be cavalier about this achievement. Yet people are cavalier about it, and the stability provided by institutions like the EU is often taken for granted. One purpose of this podcast is to show why it shouldn’t be.
Shadi Hamid. “The role of Islam in European populism: How refugee flows and fear of Muslims drive right-wing support,” Democracy & Disorder: The Struggle for influence in the new geopolitics, February 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-role-of-islam-in-european-populism-how-refugee-flows-and-fear-of-muslims-drive-right-wing-support/.
London School of Economics Religion and Global Society, Populism and Religion series, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/populism-and-religion/.
“Europe and right-wing nationalism: A country-by-country guide,” BBC, May 24, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36130006.
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