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Backstage Politics
July 8, 2020

Carl Schmitt and democracy


Carl Schmitt was a fiery critic of the parliamentary system. He posed the existing contradiction between liberal institutions and democracy. Let’s see it.




Today, I want to speak to you about the point of view of Carl Schmitt on democracy and the contradictory relationship he identified between it and liberalism. The Schmitt’s analysis is creative and original, despite his conservative standpoint. However, many people noticed the value of his critic, and they recalled it from time to time. That has been usual in many different political and ideological circles, and that makes his comments on this topic appealing.

I want to address how Schmitt understood democracy and liberalism, and how he showed the inconsistency of liberal-democratic institutions by stressing the fundamental differences that ultimately make them incompatible. So, I’m going to set forth the main aspects of liberalism, which will lead us to examine democracy in Schmitt’s view and see his critic of the parliamentary system.


The parliamentary system


Several ideas define any parliamentary system. They are equality, liberty, individuality, and rationality. However, as important as these ideas are the way liberalism depicts them because it determines how the parliamentary system works and what makes it different from democracy in Schmitt’s view. Because this is not a thorough discussion on parliamentary system, I’m going to explain only a few fundamental traits of this political system.

As Schmitt himself claimed, the State in a parliamentary system plays a regulatory role by facilitating social interaction, rather than managing it. That links with the neutral character attributed to this institution, thanks to the rule of law. Hence, this principle ensures the State doesn’t go beyond its regulatory role and exercises it neutrally. That makes possible fairness and openness of society. In this liberal view, laws reflect the impersonal authority of universal reason and prevent the arbitrary rule as under an absolute monarchy. Then, all laws are applied impartially and equally, with no exemptions for particular groups.

In addition to all of this, the parliamentary system involves an explicit distinction between the State and civil society. This perspective rests on the social contract theory. Thus, the State is a voluntary association held together by the mutual consent of its members. Furthermore, that shows us the importance of consent as the bedrock of the parliamentary system. This notion connects with the role of debate and criticism in liberal political institutions, such as the parliament. In this respect, Schmitt maintained that for liberals, the legitimacy of parliamentary agreements comes from their truth and justice, rather than the parliament’s mere authority to command. So, in the parliament is where political debate takes place, and different points of view compete. As a result of the public deliberation or argument and counterargument, truth and reason emerge as the natural consequence that takes the form of law.

Besides, the parliamentary system entails the separation of powers with the existence of three branches of government, which supposedly preserves the impartiality and universality of law. This concept of division of powers aims to differentiate the framing of legislation from its implementation and interpretation. In this way, no group or individual has an incentive to make laws that suit their particular ends and interests. In this regard, the balance of powers within the legislative branch contributes to this purpose insofar as it fosters competition and discussion, and forces a multiplicity of differing opinions and interests to debate. It prevents any group having the power to impose its view on the rest. That makes the parliament be a deliberative chamber to reach agreements, rather than a commanding institution.

According to Schmitt, the conceptual, socio-economic, and political elements of liberalism are interconnected, and they form a single historical process. That led him to put them under question in the new historical context of the twentieth century. The leading role of large-scale corporations and other administrative organizations in a mass industrial society has changed the economic and technological conditions. Indeed, the emergence of new hierarchical structures of bureaucratic agencies has weakened the free individual agency that liberalism has advocated for historically. The consequence of this process has been the rise of administrators and professional directors as part of a managerial ruling elite. Moreover, technological progress and changes in communications have boosted the transformation of society, in which mass media develop a critical role due to their capacity to shape public opinion. In this context, the individual’s autonomy has been undermined. All of this links with the formation of the total State and shakes the liberal idea of a clear separation between the State and society. The State extends its presence and control to almost every realm.




Now, it’s time to see the main differences between the parliamentary system and democracy. In this regard, Schmitt stressed the different ways of understanding the principle of equality these two political systems have. From a liberal perspective, equality is considered in formal terms, so all individuals have to be treated equally by virtue of their common humanity. Therefore, our status depends on fair competition in which everyone has an equal chance to reach the top of society. On this interpretation, equality goes together with difference and produces differential outcomes. However, democracy rests on a principle of substantive equality. From Schmitt’s perspective, this substantial equality only is possible within the circle of equals. Then, equal rights make sense where homogeneity exists.

In this respect, Schmitt highlighted the differences between democracy and the parliamentary system. He remarked that the liberal conception of a contract involves differences and oppositions because it is an agreement between the diverse groups and individuals of civil society on a common framework. However, democracy has entirely different connotations. Schmitt took the radical model of Rousseau to set forth the fundamental differences between these two political systems. In contrast with liberalism, Rousseau referred to the existence of a general will. Yet, it requires the homogeneity of the common good for its realization. This model, in contrast with the parliamentary system, relies on the democratic identity of governed and governing. As a result, citizens’ unanimity is the general rule, and it makes laws come into existence without deliberation.

If liberalism includes the notion of the individual in political terms, democracy, on the contrary, lacks it. We are before a mass that is far away from the liberal idea of individual insofar as it requires a level of education and wealth to make free decisions. However, democracy resorts to emotions insofar as the masses are sociologically diverse. For this reason, democratic institutions become flooded by conflicting interests and passions that are incompatible with rational debate, as liberalism poses.

The emergence of mass politics has a relation to democracy in the historical context of industrial economies. In this situation, the so-called mass democracy threatens the main features of the liberal political institutions, namely, the parliamentary system. We see this phenomenon in the absorption of civil society into the bureaucratic structures of the total State. That’s something I spoke about on another occasion.

Moreover, there are increasing demands on the State from a variety of organized groups and interests. All of this entails the politicization of the whole society, and the classical role of the State as a neutral institution in charge of regulating a private sphere turns out to be impossible. So, the State is forced to intervene and take on a broader administrative role in many different realms. The generalization of the distinction between friend and enemy in mass politics leads to this scenario that destroys the viability of parliament. The deliberative nature of the parliament, and the antagonist relations between factions, lead to paralyzing the functioning of the polity, and ultimately to its dissolution.  Every political faction struggles with the rest in the pursuit of power, namely, the control of the State in their benefit. The exacerbation of this dynamic leads to the hegemony of one faction that imposes its uniformity to the whole society. In this way, it creates unanimity and identity between rulers and ruled. As a result, the parliament becomes redundant.

All of this is possible thanks to propaganda and manipulation of people’s passions. Insofar as rational debate vanishes, the formation of public opinion doesn’t depend on persuading anyone anymore. The parliament becomes the ante-chamber to the closed committees and bureaus controlled by the executive in the context of party politics. So, liberal society’s rational discussion perishes in the mass democracy, in which the homogeneous popular will prevails. This trend leads to forms of plebiscitary democracy and popular acclamation of a ruler, that has its reflect on Caesarist systems. That’s the logical consequence of this process because, with these procedures, the mass can express its will without intermediaries.


Question of the day


Question of the day! What do you think is the future of liberal-democratic political systems? Post your opinion in the comments section below, and I’ll check it out.

Bibliography used:

Schmitt, Carl, The Concept of the Political

Schmitt, Carl, On Dictatorship


Schmitt, Carl, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy

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