Democracy’s Horizons: Talking with Michael Hanchard

This is the fifth installment of Freedom Education, a seven-part series of conversations between graduate students and luminary scholars. Presented in partnership with Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, this series considers reading, learning, and writing as politics. Read series editors Stuart Schrader and Nathan Connolly’s introduction here.
“The question becomes, What can we do to make democracy more economically, socially, and politically just?”
Michael Hanchard

Michael Hanchard is a scholar of comparative politics and political theory interested in nationalism, race, ethnicity, and citizenship, as well as social movements and political culture in comparative perspective. He is currently the Gustav C. Kuemmerle Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and the director of the Marginalized Populations project. Prior to that, he was the SOBA Presidential Professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he founded the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program, in 2008. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2021. His scholarship has been published in books and in articles in leading journals in the field, like Public Culture, Political Theory, and Theory, Culture, and Society. His latest book, The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy (2018), provides a compelling account of the intricate relationships among democracy, citizenship, and ethnicity since Athenian times.

Julieta Casas (JC): Since I read your book The Spectre of Race, I’ve thought about it a little bit every day. You present all this evidence in which we can see that political inequality has been a constant in every democracy. Does this mean that we can’t have egalitarian democracies?


Michael Hanchard (MH): Based on my research, all democracies have had egalitarian and inegalitarian impulses. Law, norms, and the use of force encouraged democratic practices among certain groups while discouraging democratic practices among other groups within the same society. Terms like disenfranchised represent one way to characterize those who might reside in a territory where democracy is practiced, without themselves having the rights and privileges of citizens.

In the case of classical Athens, many of its inhabitants were not citizens. Slaves, foreigners, and, after the Greco-Persian Wars, women were denied citizenship. Among the excluded were classes of people who labored for the material well-being of Athenian citizens while they were themselves denied the right to citizenship.


JC: Does this fact—the exclusion of some defining the citizenship of others—continue even in present-day nation-states?


MH: We find most polities within the nation-state system adhere to the concept of sovereignty not only to claim a set of rights and privileges as nation-states but also to distinguish one citizenry from another.


JC: Can you provide an example?


MH: The nation-states most immediately identified as democratic, for example, have conferred rights and rules for their populations that at once distinguish them from other populations. Britain, for example, does not have a constitution and for a long time did not have a bill of rights. A bill of rights was drafted and introduced to British politics by the House of Lords. So the various ways people were included or excluded were often through immigration law.

The US, with both a constitution and the Bill of Rights, began as a republic and a representative democracy, not a full-fledged participatory democracy. The idea of popular rule or popular sovereignty—direct participation in the polity—was something that scared most of the assignees of the foundational document. This distinction has become a significant point of debate in the contemporary US as [groups with] hard-right or extreme-right tendencies remind liberals and the left that the US did not start out as a democracy and was not initially designed to be one.


JC: Defining democracy might be useful, to start. Most people consider that democracy means power with the people.


MH: If only this definition were an accurate representation of the type of democracy practiced in many nation-states and communities. Who, in fact, are the people, and which type of democracy are they upholding?

What we have in the US is a very limited, anemic brand of democracy. The question becomes, What can we do to make democracy more economically, socially, and politically just? When discussions of democracy are reduced to electoral competition, and matters such as a living wage, equitable housing, and comprehensive health care are considered marginal to a discussion of a more fulsome democracy in the US, then the US citizenry will always have to confront a form of democracy that abides by and in some cases encourages inequality.


JC: Of the cases analyzed in your book, Haiti is the one that most closely represents “power with the people.” At Haiti’s founding, in 1804, an egalitarian democracy seemed possible in the territory. But then the entire international system boycotted the country. Does this mean that even if egalitarianism is possible in the territory of a state, international forces may still be able to impede its full realization?


MH: Haiti is an interesting case. I understand your conclusion. But even in Haiti the first series of rulers were monarchs. If you read C. L. R. James’s Black Jacobins closely, James is clearly expressing lament and frustration at the moment of independence. For all of the possibilities and potential of the Haitian Revolution, [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines declared himself Haiti’s first emperor and “entered into his inheritance, tailored and valeted by English and American capitalists, supported on the one side by the King of England and on the other by the President of the United States.”1 James encapsulates not only the course of the revolution but also the new monarchy’s political imaginary, which did not emphasize democratic practice. It emphasized the legitimacy and rule of monarchy, not the rebellious slaves and their leadership who brought the revolution into being. Instead of social democracy, democratic socialism, or some version of communalism, Haiti and its leadership turned to the very modality of rule that kept people oppressed during slavery and colonialism.


The Long Road to a New Ideology: Piketty...

By John Plotz et al.

JC: As you show us, there is such consistent evidence of inequality being at the core of democracy. So, how should we reconceptualize democracy in our scholarship?


MH: Part of it requires emphasizing democracy’s many different forms. But we can also think about it in terms of the spatiality of democracy. That is: Which territorial spaces, and which types of rule and political life, remain in dynamic relationship to those spaces?


JC: Could you provide an example here?


MH: Hurricane Katrina, its effect on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast more generally back in 2005. We got a glimpse of the everyday life and conditions under which people on the Gulf Coast lived. The lack of infrastructure, the poor condition of the levees in many places. Local police and fire departments, but also FEMA, unprepared for and overwhelmed by the extent of the flooding; the loss of habitat; breakdown in telecommunications; the National Guard at several crucial moments pointing their weapons at the dispossessed citizens of New Orleans. When these events were televised across the world I received phone calls from Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean with some variation on the following question: Is this disaster actually happening in the US? Do places like [those affected by] Katrina really exist in the US?

In political science there was a moment not long ago when specialists in Africa, and to a lesser extent the Middle East, referred to this kind of dysfunction, incompetence, and unwillingness to take care of citizens in times of crisis as an example of a failed state. While there are certain limitations in deploying the failed-state concept, it does apply to the catastrophe and tragedy of Katrina, no less than the collapse of the Libyan government after the murder of Gaddhafi or the collapse of the Venezuelan political economy after the death of Hugo Chavez. There are portions of the US—West Virginia and the coal-mining region of the Cumberland Plateau; Flint, Michigan; and other locales—where people live under conditions that would seem anathema to whatever the US stands for, and anathema to how governmental representatives and much of mass media project images of the US to the world.


JC: You’re suggesting these disasters and flaws are only exceptional in the story we elect to tell about democracy.


MH: Exactly. If one occludes those kinds of phenomena, or the lack of functional institutions in our midst, then we also exclude as objects of analysis the people who are forced to live in those environments. And in that case, we’ll only get academic explorations or public accounts of democracy that tend to operate within a telos. Such narratives treat these tragic episodes as anomalies and claim we’re still on some track toward a better, more perfect Union. Just think about police violence and police killings, for example, when laws and coercion are often deployed to exercise arbitrary forms of domination, especially when we think about state-sanctioned or extrajudicial violence against Black and brown people. In order to see how democracies perpetuate inequality, we have to look at how institutions work and how leadership utilizes resources putatively accumulated for the public good to arbitrarily discipline and punish some populations more than others. Over the past several years, we have witnessed, often in real time, case after case after case where police officers don’t follow procedure, they don’t follow legal protocol, but they follow the norms, codes, and negative ethics of institutional racism.


JC: How do you discuss such moments?


MH: Many students of US politics have been hesitant to refer to, or even compare the US to, a fascist state or regime. But that’s where I ended the book, or where I pose some of these comparative questions.


JC: And in terms of method, where did those questions take you?


MH: In my book, I devised a comparative method that makes both international and subnational comparisons, or what I call “intraspatial” comparisons, comparisons within nation-states. Here, too, you can find different modalities of governance.

However, some scholars of the comparative method have criticized me for treating the nation-state as the only plausible unit of analysis to compare populations across national-state and geographic divides. I have never made this claim. My response is, the nation-state system is not dead yet. It doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. And unfortunately, sovereignty looms large over a range of questions and phenomena that nation-states remain unequipped to handle, like climate change, for example. It’s important to document those limits, across national polities and within polities.


JC: Your responses convince me that to fully grasp how democracies really work, we have to look at local-level institutions, their exercise of power, and how that power gets exercised unevenly at the subnational level. And it’s not only the deployment of power that is uneven but also the lack of deployment when certain populations need services.


MH: Yes, my book emphasizes the dynamic relationship between democratic and antidemocratic institutions, laws, and norms within democratic polities, and the implications of this dynamic relationship for interactions between citizens and groups.

In a series of lectures delivered by C. L. R. James, published in a book entitled Modern Politics, James makes a distinction between what he calls liberal-bourgeois versions of democracy and a classical version of democracy. In the classical version of democracy, the individual was not fetishized. The individual was not placed above the group, and particularly not the group of citizens, who were the classical leaders of democratic polities. I will return to this point momentarily about capitalism’s relationship to democracy. Capitalism is not some inherently democratizing force. James is underscoring one of the distortions introduced by liberalism into democracy’s evolution (devolution) with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois culture.


The Melting of the American Mind

By Maya Vinokour

JC: Is there a difference, then, between democracy and authoritarianism? In a way, we can think we can hold democracy to a higher standard, because of what it’s supposed to be. It’s supposed to empower people to choose policies. It’s harder to condemn open authoritarianism for being, well, authoritarian.


MH: This is an important point for considering the discursive and rhetorical influences of democratic discourse, and what distinguishes democratic discourse from other forms of political discourse. Governments and people make all kinds of claims about democracy’s capacities and prospects that people in many parts of the world consider preferable to or more plausible than discourses of fascism, totalitarianism, or authoritarianism. But that does not mean that advocates of these forms of political life don’t champion their virtues, which may be visible only to them. Another perspective on authoritarianism has been articulated by Stuart Hall in his explanation of the emergence and durability of Thatcherism, which he referred to as authoritarian populism, as a way to distinguish a particular form of right-wing populism from other forms of populism.

What we have not discussed, however, is the insidious way democracy and capitalism have been often trumpeted in the US as necessary, complementary features of democratic economic and political life. First, democracy predates capitalism, as do the conceptualization and discussion of liberty and freedom. How did people come to assume that capitalism begets democracy? Just because you have free markets (at minimum a debatable assumption)? China surely demonstrates that’s not the case, with its command economy and its repression of liberal democracy and nationalism in Hong Kong.

Authoritarianism and capital markets have coexisted for centuries in different parts of the world. Inequality and modes of unequal material capture can coexist with formal commitments to democracy, albeit democracy in very restricted spheres.


JC: Yes, I’m thinking of Lisa Wedeen’s work. She has an article that considers how Yemen is considered by many to be nondemocratic but uses important practices of participatory politics.2


MH: Jeffrey Winter’s scholarship on oligarchy draws connections between oligarchies and democratic forms of governance, with a focus on Indonesia. Cuba during what was known as the “special period” is also an example of authoritarian rule responding to social pressures from below. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy and the Cuban people experienced greater hardship. Castro responded to popular complaints and the effects that sanctions had on the Cuban economy and allowed certain small versions of capitalist and entrepreneurial enterprise to emerge. People created restaurants in their homes, rented out apartments, and engaged in other forms of very small-scale entrepreneurial activity. That was the only way certain commodities were going to be on the market for people.

This used to be a way to distinguish authoritarian regimes from totalitarian ones, by measuring the degree to which everyday citizens can make decisions and undertake social initiatives about the conduct of their lives at odds, at least in certain instances, with the laws and mandate of their governments. Not quite a fully participatory democracy, but not a totalitarian one, either.


JC: Can democracies coexist with egalitarianism?


MH: It depends upon what you mean by egalitarianism. There are several contemporary liberal thinkers who have advocated egalitarianism, which, in my view, does not preclude inequality but encourages positive affect and feeling among citizens. This would require a longer discussion of specific authors and positions.


Freedom for Whom?

By Michael Mirer

JC: Let’s come back to this question of infrastructure. I’m thinking here of Michael Mann’s concept of “infrastructural power.” There’s been a lot of talk about infrastructure as a consensus issue and as a place of broadly acceptable government spending.

But infrastructure has also been understood as a tool of exclusion and inequality. Going back to your point of looking at the local or subnational level—or your Katrina example—how does infrastructure shape racialized regimes?


MH: In my reading of Michael Mann, infrastructural power is a way of characterizing what social scientists would refer to as the polity, namely, the relationship between citizens and state power. You are raising what I think is a nuanced distinction between forms of infrastructural power that actually expand the access of citizens and in some cases noncitizens who are nonetheless members of a society, and forms of infrastructural power that underscore the disparities that actually distinguish certain populations as empowered by a state, which also includes local government, and populations whose existence is marked by the deferral or denial of access to rights, benefits, and, relatedly, goods and services that had historically been reserved for privileged sectors of a citizenry.

There is another dimension to Mann’s explication of state power, however, often neglected in analyses of democratic regimes or states and what they hold in common with nondemocratic states. Mann understands state power as fundamentally despotic, a view also held by Joseph de Maistre, an opponent of the French Revolution, participatory democracy, and popular sovereignty. For both Mann and de Maistre, state power represents not just a monopoly on force, in the Weberian sense. State power is also the use of force for which there is no sanction. It’s coercion that can be unleashed with impunity. The state does not judge or try itself. And so it’s impossible to have a state without a despotic component.


JC: So, racialized regimes need certain types of infrastructural power to be kept in place, but power is divided unevenly throughout the whole territory. How does that affect the enforcement of those racialized regimes in specific places?


MH: Think about capital punishment and other forms of state violence. Blacks, Latinos, and the poor in the US have disproportionate experience with federal, state, and local forms of infrastructural power, the violence involved in arrests, imprisonment, and executions. In cases like Ferguson, Missouri, the militarized weaponry used by police in Black neighborhoods was purchased in part with tax revenue extracted from those same Black residents. Leaving Michael Brown’s dead body in the street for hours is symbolic residue from slavery to remind Black communities of the consequences of disobeying the informal norms and formal laws underpinning white supremacy. It is important to understand that the violence meted out to Black populations in Ferguson was not an anomalous incident but one of the outcomes of what I have characterized in my book as racial regimes. Continuing the line of thought noted above, racial regimes can be understood as the unequal distribution of both infrastructural power and state power within a society.


Democracy, More or Less

By John Owen Havard

JC: This conversation makes me think about the Trump phenomenon and the impact that it had on studies on American politics. Before Trump, democracy, by many mainstream accounts, already seemed fulfilled in the US, so why take a comparative turn, why even study authoritarianism? Then Trump happens, and we get this turn toward studies of authoritarian politics. And the effect is interdisciplinary, not just in political science.


MH: So, Biden defeats Trump in this past election and asserts at his inauguration that the riots and disturbances were instigated by an assortment of alt-right, hard-right conspiracy theorists and outright white supremacists—“This is not who we are”—suggesting that there is some other US citizenry more representative of the country’s ideals. Biden’s statement was ultimately naive and served to elide, once again, the very real tensions within the country. Is the US ultimately some kind of herrenvolk democracy, or is US democracy populated with all kinds of members, not just white ones? Can one really accurately refer to the over 74 million people who voted for Trump, along with those who participated in the January 6 insurrection, as fringe elements within the polity?


JC: Where do you see January 6 fitting into your work in race and democracy?


MH: The events of January 6 congealed authoritarian populism, white supremacy, and participatory democracy. Many police officers attempted to keep the mob outside the Capitol building. Two died in the line of duty, or as a result of injuries sustained during their confrontation with violent protestors. There were police officers who gave members of the mob access to the Capitol structure and, by extension, the politicians, service employees, and police officers inside. Black and brown officers were often targeted by the insurrectionists for derogatory name calling and physical violence. The officers who were sympathetic to the insurrectionists helped them engage in violent acts that brought harm to their fellow police and potential harm to the government representatives the police were also supposed to protect, among them Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence.

Herrenvolk imaginaries of US democracy have been integral to the nation-state from its very founding, despite all amendments to the contrary. Consequently, this country has been fundamentally at war with itself, not only around race and racism but also around nationalism, patriotism, the rights of women, minorities, certain foreigners, and now LGBTQ-identified people.

The violent anger on display at the Capitol on January 6 represented, among other things, a sense of rage at the reality that some segments of the white working- and middle-class populations believe that they’ve been sold a bill of goods; that somehow they’re supposed to prosper under all circumstances, but they have not. And by their telling, it’s not only the government’s fault or the capitalist economy’s fault but the fault of those who, in their view, are supposed to be less well off than they are.


JC: In your book, you show how democratic polities have had undemocratic features throughout history. But you also show how in the contemporary world we’re seeing undemocratic elements being more and more contested by the citizenry.

What would have to change for democratic regimes to lose their ability to maintain these undemocratic elements? What do you think the role of human agency is in this dismantling? What types of social mobilization would help us create polities that expand the polis?


MH: Human agency is fundamental to politics and political change. I don’t believe in an immanent, teleological arc of history that bends toward justice. People have made and unmade systems of justice and injustice, equality and inequalities, from the very beginning of human communities. Think about Black Lives Matter, that’s now gone global, or events in places like Taiwan or Hong Kong. These are expressions for certain kinds of freedom; these represent moments of human will against arbitrary and nonarbitrary modes of domination. What we see in the case of Taiwan or Hong Kong is a direct exercise of brutal force to squash modes of political life that have much more potential for an actual practice of democracy than parliamentary, legislative procedure. The Chinese government crushed not just populations struggling against authoritarian rule and despotic violence but the very conditions of possibility for more egalitarian forms of politics, a politics of nonrule.


JC: So, are you suggesting that we’re more likely to see change occur from a bottom-up process rather than from the top?


MH: I wouldn’t make those kinds of pronouncements. The events of January 6, along with many atrocities across human history, have often been initiated by everyday people, not just elite leadership. Consider the Thermidorian Reaction in the French Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, white citizens violently rejecting public-school integration in cities like Boston in the 1970s, or white reaction to Reconstruction in the US South after the Civil War. Popular support of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy was not simply a matter of working classes acting against their objective class interests. Segments of those classes were imbued with notions of self-interest shot through with hypernationalism, antisemitism, and racism, some of the same barriers to broader cross-group alliances in the contemporary US.

These are some of the key impediments to a more expansive democratic practice, and not just in the US. Such barriers have served to limit the broader horizons that many of democracy’s advocates seek.


This article was commissioned by N. D. B. Connolly and Stuart Schrader. icon

  1. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage, 1989), p. 370.
  2. Lisa Wedeen, “The Politics of Deliberation: Qāt Chews as Public Spheres in Yemen,” Public Cuture, vol. 19, no. 1 (2007).
Featured image: Michael Hanchard. Photograph by Andrea Kane, courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study