Stephen Holmes: Democracy Matters as an Ideology

Stephen Holmes, Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law at NYU, talked to Iivi Anna Masso in New York City on October 5, 2012. The interview was published in Diplomaatia 111 / November 2012.

“The function of a political system is to create a sense of a future and we’re not doing a good job.”

You have been a strong proponent of liberal constitutionalism, as opposed to collectivist and communitarian visions of society. Your two major books on constitutionalism have been written in the 1990s.1 Could we describe the United States, a country with a strong faith in its written constitution, as the promised land of the rule of law? Has anything changed in this sense since the 1990s?

I am not sure I ever saw America as the promised land of the rule of law, but the debates are still going on. There are various schools of thought, against which I have argued on a theoretical basis, that still have some political life in them. Whether or not they’re intellectually vibrant is a different question. My two opponents are on the one hand the communitarian, nationalist, traditionalist view that liberal secularism is in some way a sickness that needs to be cured by a greater attention to traditional values and roots. Today, one of the biggest paradoxes about the election is that Mitt Romney succeeded in his whole career because he was surrounded in Harvard Law School and in Harvard Business School by secular liberals, people who never asked what his religion was and did not care what his religion was. He owes his entire success to the secular liberal world. And he is now identifying himself as the spokesman of a kind of anti-liberal, anti-secular religiously oriented ideology which is very intolerant and aggressive against the very conditions under which he thrived.

American conservatism is very complicated, obviously, but there is a strand in it that is based on a kind of a homogenous community that is not open to incorporating those who are different from it. I would say that Obama, who has had an ambiguous presidency, nonetheless represents a liberal claim or a liberal promise, which is that America can be America even as it becomes more and more a mixed race country.

It is more and more a mixed race country. The Republicans who say, “If it becomes a mixed raced country, it will not be America,” are saying something that is only a recipe for violence because you’re not going to change the demography. The idea of America as a home of different communities who live together, intermarry, who aren’t at war with each other and aren’t using violence to solve their problems is a strong liberal and anti-communitarian idea, meaning that we are not looking for a homogenous community in which, for example, women who have children are of more value than women who don’t. That would be a very communitarian view, traditionalist, conservative, right-wing and Bible Belt. I still hold that liberal belief against this traditionalism – the rule of law – is a very different subject.

Your other central argument is more related to economic policies?

My other main argument is in the centre of my book, Passions and Constraint, and The Cost of Rights2 as well. These are books against the libertarian tradition and that is obviously still enormously alive: Ayn Rand and the idea that markets take care of everything, that you don’t need the state to compensate for market dysfunctions. Those two parts of my polemical writing still address two forms of conservatism in the United States, traditionalism and the market libertarian conservatism.

Liberalism, as I understand it, has various principles behind it. One is anti-communitarianism as an individualistic ‘you matter’ – the view that other people matter as individuals, not because they are members of some group, race or church. And it is anti-libertarian in the sense that it recognizes that equality of opportunity is a utopian fantasy, impossible ever to realize, as long as there are families that contribute differentially to the wellbeing of their children and the capacity of their children.

Liberalism says, stating equality as a norm, that the state or the community has an obligation to compensate to some extent – it can’t ever be perfect – for the inequality in opportunity for families to invest in their children. Children’s health care, education – these are all redistributive programs that you cannot object to on the grounds that a newborn is lazy and hasn‘t contributed to society. You can’t use the right-wing arguments against redistribution when you are talking about newborns. In a way, the liberal norm has a nationalist appeal because there are all these talented people who need to be helped, so they can contribute to society.

The economist Joseph Stiglitz just claimed that America has ceased to be the land of opportunity.3 Do you agree with him?

Mobility has slowed down. I admire Stiglitz very much and he does have his finger on some new change. I don’t think he has described it quite correctly, but he is getting close. So, the way I want to think about this is the following.

We have developed a new kind of economic elite that is somewhat different than previous gilded ages’ elites that were the captains of industry who were exploiting workers, etc. Our elite which includes the people who sat around with Romney, paying 50,000 dollars to hear him trash the 47% – who are those people and how do they make their money? – is an elite of extraction, spoliation and neglect toward the rest of society. It’s not exploitation the way the Marxists talk about it, meaning exploiting wage labor – they offload that on the Chinese. Basically, you have an elite that is detached, disconnected, the connecting tissue between themselves and the rest of society is very weak. They don’t see any interest in educating workers; they don’t need soldiers – you have volunteer armies and push-button weapons; they don’t need mass consumption because they are selling what they do all over the world; they are detached from their country; and they have managed to use their status to manipulate the rules. Stiglitz, as the head of the Council of Economic Advisors, talked about getting mining companies, at least on public lands, to pay more taxes.

Those guys are like the kleptocrats in Russia and other places who are just stealing the natural resources of their country and who don’t depend on the country. They don’t depend on the workers and they don’t care about anything in the rest of the country. It’s a kind of creation of a new class and I think our financial wizards are like that. The guys who are manipulating the rules are buying and selling and make huge amounts of money. They aren’t exploiting workers; they never see a worker. They are ripping people off and they’re stealing money from the budget by evading taxes and they’re playing games. One of the big ways to make a lot of money today is to fund foreclosed mortgages, buy them at very low prices and flip them for six times as much – if you do that on a mass scale, you can make millions of dollars. That is not exploitation; that is not repression; that is just kleptocracy. The reason there is a stagnation is that those guys are now so rich that they realize that if they don’t control the political rules, there is a chance that it will be taken away, so they will not let that happen. And who is president does not seem to matter.

So, the sense of being trapped is growing. The kids of my generation were protesting against our parents because we did not want to live like our parents. The kids today are protesting because they want to live like their parents – that’s a very big change – and they feel like they’re not going to be able to. All my friends are anxious about their kids – what is going to happen? Are they going to get jobs? Incredible stress about the future at whatever level below the multi-billionaire. It looks like it is going to be hard. So, the anxiety and stress are growing. The ‘99%’ really means that people who are pretty well off don’t see any place where they would stop if they started falling. The 1% are going to be OK, but the rest, even if they are pretty well off, feel that everything could collapse. So, it means no mobility, no hope.

I was told recently that in Spain 12-year olds are now telling their parents: “What’s the reason for working at school? Look what’s happening! There is no reason!” To keep kids working you have to show them that there’s a future. I think one of the main functions of any political system is to create a future – a sense that there is a future – and we’re not doing a good job.

Those problems seem to be very similar in Europe and in the US right now?

There is a similarity. The feeling that there is a way if you work hard is gone. Keynes said that if you completely dissociate monetary remuneration from any contribution to society, you get a sick state – it is not stable. There has to be some relation between contributing to society and being rewarded.

The rich today do not get rich by exploiting people; they get rich by firing people. It’s completely bizarre. And another bizarre thing about this elite that we’ve seen in Europe too: Berlusconi spent his life making money by hiding from the state, from taxes and regulators, and then he becomes the state. Also Romney has been hiding from the government, and then he becomes the government? It’s disquieting.

What is the one most important question related to the US 2012 elections? Is it the economy?

Of course, it is the economy. The main question is that in order for Obama to do anything, he needs a democratic support in the Congress that is very hard for him to get unless he wins by a big margin. That’s why the success of Romney is so devastating even if he does not win.

I don’t think it is any of these social issues – it’s the regulation of the banks, taxes on the super-rich, some kind of fairness, because these guys are really out of control. The very concept of too much inequality is not understandable to the right wing. So, inequality is the issue, inequality and unfairness. I don’t understand Obama’s politics. He should have picked up 10–20% of every sick mortgage in the country, kept people in their homes and he’d have had enormous popularity in the country, but he was doing what the banks told him to. The main issue is how we are going to treat the very well off and if they are going to be asked to make a contribution to the country or if you’re going to treat them like they are foreigners with diplomatic relations with the US.

Is this more so because it actually has an effect on the economy or because of recreating people’s sense of fairness?

Is it more about fairness. If you are having a worldwide contraction, which we are, it is very important that the sacrifices that are imposed under the conditions of contraction are distributed according to some principle, not according to who has power and who is connected. It’s a question of redistributive politics. There should be some principle of fairness when things are getting worse – managing fairness with a sense that we are still a country. What happens is the contrary: as there is a contraction, the super-rich take more because then they are more afraid, they need more insurance for their families, so you get the opposite effect. Unless the government says, “No, you cannot do that,” but this is hard to do because the Congress is a subsidiary of the American financial industry as far as I can tell.

One of your major research topics is the war on terror and its impact on civil rights.4 Is the war on terror still an important issue in these elections?

I think less so. Obama has been amazing. He has very enthusiastically involved himself personally and ordered assassinations, including of American citizens. I thought this was just political, that he had to show that he was fighting terrorism – and he got out of Iraq. The best thing he did was to close down the war in Iraq and get his troops out of Afghanistan. That was tough and he knew what he was doing. I admire him for this. But he loves the drama and his policy of executing people without any trial strikes me as a rather extreme problem from the civil rights perspective.

But it’s not an issue politically at all. There is no American political movement for civil liberties of any group that is vaguely, however unjustifiably, accused of being associated with terrorists. Then the American public is completely happy to deprive those people of every right. That’s part of our political culture that you get away with this. They have this weird idea: the amount of due process you get depends on the heinousness of the crime we suspect you of having committed. That’s a challenging kind of logic. Obama has continued the policy of Bush II. It’s not really an issue. The Republicans would make it an issue, if he hadn’t been so Bush II. He has been doing it in part to avoid the charges that he is soft on terrorism, but in part because he likes it.

So, the war on terror is no longer a political issue but your concern for the civil rights is still there. The dilemma hasn’t been solved?

It’s still going on, but it’s not a political issue at all. People re-elected Bush after we invaded Iraq. Guantanamo – no one cares. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the guy who organized 9/11, has never been tried. So, we don’t even know what happened because a trial is a way of learning the facts. This is a scandal, but it’s not a political issue. The political issue may be a bit of Israel. That is on people’s mind, not torture and terror.

Could it be claimed that the war on terror has been won – bin Laden has been killed, it is no longer a political issue. Is the war officially over?

People like to say it. There was never a ‘war on terror’ anyway. It kind of continues, but it isn’t part of our political culture right now partly because people realize that world economy almost collapsed and that’s serious. This toying around with a bunch of people in sandals, it was a momentary thing. If there was another major attack in the US it might come back, but it’s very distant now. It’s not on people’s mind.

The civil liberties issue – the torturers, the guys who destroyed the tapes of the torture – they’re not going to be prosecuted, there’s not going to be a prosecution of anyone who did anything. And people are happy with that. All they have to do is say, “This is a security threat,” and then the public says, “Do whatever you want, don’t tell me.”

One of your points of critique about the war on terror was that the threat was inadequately diagnosed and other threats were ignored or belittled. What were those neglected threats? What are the main security threats today?

The threat environment in which any country, the US included, exists is complicated. There are enemies and threats. The challenge for political rationality is to rank the threats in some way and to figure out how to allocate scarce resources toward solving them depending on their urgency and gravity. The decision to go to Iraq was not rational because there was not really any consideration about what it was going to cost, if it was worth it, what it added to our security, how it damaged our security. This wasn’t even discussed and the system didn’t work.

Among the other threats, the problem is: we don’t know. China is developing. There could be some kind of economic difficulty there – the military acting semi-autonomously – and you have clashes with Japan and Vietnam. From the point of view of global security, an unintended regional conflict spiraling out of control could be very bad. Then there is the Middle East. Obviously, that’s another big security threat. The other big threats are global warming and contagious disease – the things that are not enemies, but general threats that need to be attended to. Thinking who is more dangerous to mankind – Saddam Hussein or global warming? Saddam Hussein was a terrible person for sure and it’s good that he’s gone, but who knows? Maybe with the Arab Spring he would have gone anyway? This is all hard to know.

You have written that the response to 9/11 was partly shaped by theoretical attempts to define American identity after the Cold War. Did America have an identity crisis after the Cold War?

Al-Qaeda and the United States, we had the same problem – we both lost our enemy, the Soviet Union. Al-Qaeda did a lot better because they found a substitute, which was us. We did not do so well because instead of the Soviet Union, we got al-Qaeda, which was not really an equivalent of the Soviet Union. So, that was a problem. We were transferring our sense of enemy to this feeble, silly band of people.

And yes, having a clear concept of an enemy is a kind of source of an identity. So, I think we didn’t know what we were doing: we had this great power; we were using it internally in the US; local politics states’ rights politics became much more powerful because there was no Soviet threat. When the serious enemy disappeared, all of that craziness came out. When you have a serious enemy, you have to be more grown up.

Did the war on terror change America’s global role, its international identity?

It weakened us considerably because we spent so much money in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We invaded two Muslim countries. We managed to very seriously upset the balance in the Middle East by creating a Shiite Arab country, a Shiite Arab oil-rich country in alliance now with Iran. Together Iraq and Iran have as much oil wealth as Saudi Arabia. They’re Shiite, so this is setting a ground for a plausible Shiite-Sunni civil war, which could be disastrous for oil prices and other things. We have created it – it didn’t exist before. As long as Iraq had a Sunni majority, we wouldn’t have this. I don’t know if it’s a victory of democracy; we’ll see. Nouri al-Maliki lived in Syria. He is very much supporting Assad. He is a proxy working for Teheran in Syria, so the country we created is now supporting Assad, supporting Iran. It shows you that American foreign policy is not very far-sighted. That’s very dangerous.

The Israelis aren’t going to do anything to Iran, but I think the US doesn’t have a very strong strategic vision now of how to handle some of these greatest problems, but they have to be managed, for example, China. China is everywhere. China is in Africa; China is in Latin America. We need some way of thinking about what they are doing and how to manage it together with Europe. The greatest change in our lives in the last 30 years has been China. All this low-wage labor introduced to the workforce has destroyed the Western labor movement much more than the financial shenanigans. We cannot compete with that. We need to think about what to do about it and that’s what we are not doing very well, but this is relevant. I think the Chinese issue is really the big one. Water politics obviously is big. Israel never ceases to be a problem and we’ve got all the problems of technology that we’ve put in the hands of every man, which means the radical Islamic youth as well.

One of the big things about the success of America is how much we’ve given to allow very small groups of not particularly intelligent or even well organized people to hurt us. Obviously, we couldn’t have had 9/11 without ATM machines, cheap airline tickets, the Internet and GPS and such things. But also we’ve produced the Anglicization of the world. The dominance of the world by the English language has allowed South Asian Muslims and Gulf Muslims to talk to each other. That never happened before. It was a synergy created by us. This is our world that we created that makes that easy and we can’t change that. We can’t go back in these things. We’re not going to get rid of ATMs and GPS, but all that makes it very easy to do bad things. The question is: can we not become hysterical about it? Can we manage it when it happens and not go nuts, invading countries that we don’t understand?

Has the tension between liberty and security also moved to the Internet now?

This is a whole question of what the cyber world will bring as it develops and how it affects privacy and surveillance. I don’t think we’ve have a political grip on it. It becomes a vulnerability – that was shown by Wikileaks. The main thing here is that a good society has a balance between the privacy of society and the secrecy of the government. Governments need some secrecy and citizens need some privacy. What’s happened is that the secrecy/privacy frontier has moved. Citizens have less and less privacy, but governments are getting more and more secrecy. So, you don’t know what they’re doing; you find out only years later. If governments act in secrecy, it’s very hard to think of them as being our servants. This is very destructive to democracy to have this shifting of the frontier. We could use the technology to make sure that we know more, but that is dangerous, so they’re trying to stop it.

Will these elections have significance for the role of the United States in the world?

Oh yes. Obama is not interested in Europe particularly. He was oriented to places like Indonesia, Kenya; he’s not very Europeanist. This makes him very different in our foreign policy. I am very much in favor of the US and Europe working together – we are now 8% of the world population and we are the same civilization. We need this partnership because we have strengths and weaknesses on both sides and there is a way of correcting each other. It’s very vital to keep this alive. Obama is not so interested in the transatlantic relations. I think that’s bad because it makes us more autistic. For example, the reason we know what happened in Iraq was that there were British soldiers there, British journalists published it and then Americans picked it up. So, if you don’t have allies, your country knows nothing. We need allies even just to know what our government is doing.

But Obama has obviously got a decent respect for the opinion of mankind. Romney is strange – it is hard to have any idea of what he wants, of what he is after. I am fearful of the people he would bring in. Trying to start a trade war with China would be stupid. To treat Russia like an enemy is stupid. I don’t know what Romney’s government would bring but, yes, it would be different as he would bring in a different kind of people. Thank God that the Republican establishment is so financially invested in China, otherwise they could take the country to war, but that cannot happen because there are so many really rich Americans who’ve made their money in China.

Sounds like no outcome is very good for us Europeans?

Well, what are the good options in foreign policy? First, we’ve got to save the world economy and make sure it doesn’t collapse, to get through this and have some growth.

In Europe, there is much less interest in US presidential elections now than four years ago. Why is that? Four years ago Europe was very excited about Obama.

Europe has its own problems and America seems far away. Obama seemed to give Europeans some hope. There was a strong sense of wanting an America with which they could sympathize. In a way, Obama was a fantastic model because there is no European politician that I know who is a champion – in his person – of the success of a multi-ethnic nation. He is saying: “I am that and I am president; I am successful and we could be successful too.” I don’t think that there is any European like that.

Do you think Robert Kagan’s thesis of America as Mars and Europe as Venus, articulated just over ten years ago, still makes sense?

I don’t think it made much sense to begin with. I don’t think there’s a cultural unwillingness in Europe to be at war. Europe burned itself down twice in the 20th century, so probably romanticizing war is not really something you would do, whereas in the US nothing happened. We were never at war since 1865, so you can have a much more romantic picture of war. No, I think that book is weird because the way it contrasts with the Huntington book. Huntington says Europe and the US are one culture, opposed to the other cultures in the world – Chinese, Russian and Islamic. Then Kagan got a kick out of the difference between Europe and the US, that Europeans don’t go to church and all this nonsense. I think it’s perverse and I don’t know what it brings us. Definitely, the drifting away of the partners in the Atlantic alliance is inevitable once Russia disappears. In the First Gulf War, the European countries that participated understood that if Saddam Hussein controlled Saudi oil, they would all be screwed. So, they were willing to support stopping it: “Now Kuwait, what is he going to do next?” That was in their interest and there was a big interest in supporting the US and being together. But now they don’t. For what? Saddam Hussein wasn’t threatening to take over Saudi Arabia, so they weren’t going to participate.

You wrote together with Ivan Krastev at the beginning of this year5 that the Russian regime faced the ‘beginning of the end’. Now Putin has been re-elected and there is a crackdown on opposition. Do you still believe the end is near?

It doesn’t take a lot of strength to crush three girls. The Pussy Riot case is not really showing how powerful he is. He has problems. He is able to be cruel and arbitrary, but he cannot control the budget and he cannot stop people from stealing from the state budget. He has totally lost control of Chechnya – Chechnya is not part of Russia at all – and he can’t step down. The regime has no credible succession formula; there is no way of knowing what would happen; there is no idea who would decide.

It is not an authoritarian regime; it’s a kleptocratic regime – people are getting very rich. It has a lot of ceremony. They have done some things; it is not a wasteland. But I don’t see it is stable. Now he is very committed to paying rewards to people who supported him in the election against the Moscow protests, but he can’t afford it – he’s got a budget crisis. He could last forever, but it is not the same regime. Our main point was that the previous regime – up to this election, the way it worked – was that you would rig the election and no one would protest. So, that was legitimacy. But now that is not true. People are tired of him; they are kind of mad at him; they don’t respect him. It is a general feeling among the classes of people I know. But I think the system collapsed, the system he used to hold himself in power collapsed. They don’t really understand where they are going and they don’t see any future. So, it is a very troubled situation. It is hard to see what’s going to happen. I think the challenge for Putin is to control the conflicts within the inside of the elite.

How should America relate to Russia today? Do you think the ‘reset’ policy failed?

Of course, it failed. It was a kind of facade. Russia is not important to the United States. That’s what they think in Washington. They play things, one sort or the other. It makes the Republicans willing to challenge them – say, “OK, Putin, you must get down on your knees.” But Russia is not important. China is a problem and a big issue in Washington, but not Russia – only because of nostalgia. What should we do? Try to normalize as much as possible, but it’s hard to do when he’s putting people in jail.

Do you believe in promoting democracy out in the world?

Promoting democracy could be good or bad, depending on what those democrats do. I don’t think the United States is well equipped to do it; I don’t think the Americans know how to promote democracy. But it’s also true we did it with military force in Iraq, which is probably not a good model. We did it in Germany too. But there’s a problem which is the belief that any authority that is not democratically elected is not legitimate. The consequence of this was that in Iraq it took two years before we negotiated with the tribal sheiks. In Afghanistan which we knew well – we didn’t know Iraq – they knew every leader, they knew who to bribe, where the money would go and who to pat and flatter. So, they didn’t try to become democratic; they would just negotiate with different warlords and other leaders. That worked OK, but Iraq was a disaster because they were ideologically democrats: if you’re not elected, you’re not a legitimate authority. So, yes, democracy matters as an ideology.


1 Passions and Constraint, (1993); The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (1995).

2 The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (1999), co-written with Cass Sunstein.

3 At a talk at the New School for Social Research in New York City on October 4, 2012; see also a review of Joseph Stiglitz’s book, The Price of Inequality (Gustav Kalm, “Ebavõrdsuse hind,” Diplomaatia, No. 9, 2012,

4 See Matador’s Cape, 2007.

5 See Ivan Krastev & Stephen Holmes, “The Sense of an Ending,” Diplomaatia, No. 3, 2012,

This entry was posted in Foreign policy, Interviews, Politics, United States. Bookmark the permalink.