New Book Looks at Political Ethics of Undemocratic Groups and Democracy

Alexander Kirshner on what happens when extremist groups win through democratic means

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Alexander Kirshner's new book looks at the paradox of allowing undemocratic political groups to work in a democratic system.

Is it ever OK to prohibit antidemocratic groups from participating in a democracy?

Yes, when their participation threatens the rights of others or jeopardizes representative government, argues Duke political scientist Alexander Kirshner in his new book, "A Theory of Militant Democracy: The Ethics of Combatting Political Extremism" (Yale University Press, 2014).

In the 168-page paperback book, Kirshner establishes principles for when it is reasonable to deny rights of participation to extremist groups.

Such groups and individuals violate the core rights of others by excluding people from their membership, using violence and intimidation to keep people away from the polls and undermining democracy. He lists as examples the Nazi Party and the American Democratic Party between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s.

Greece and Bulgaria are currently confronting the dilemmas raised by extremist political movements, he said.

Paradoxically, Kirshner argues that, where possible, every effort should be made to include these groups in the democratic process.

Drawing on the American experience, he argues that the United States has correctly chosen not to disenfranchise members of extremist movements – such as the Dixiecrats, a faction of Southern Democrats who in the late 1940s objected to the Democratic Party's civil rights program.

"It is said that to defend democracy, societies must behave antidemocratically," Kirshner writes. "In this book I have aimed to upend this paradoxical fragment of wisdom. Societies can keep faith with democratic principle; to do so, they must steadfastly defend the rights of both democrats (supporters of representative government) and antidemocrats."