Fascist populism and the threat to democracy

What features of a political regime contribute to political loyalty and commitment on the part of its citizens? Can a fascist dictatorship inspire political loyalty and commitment from the mass of society? And what about liberal democracy; can a liberal democratic regime maintain mass support?

We have the makings of an answer to the first question. A fascist dictatorship like that of Mussolini can indeed maintain passionate support through a powerful (often mendacious) ideology and value scheme — fatherland, church, family, scapegoating of “enemies of the people”; a social program that finds support (repression of immigrants and ethnic minorities); and a demonstration of competent governance (“the trains run on time”). This story identifies several factors — ideology and values, scapegoating, implementation of popular policies of repression, and efficient adminstration of government (economic growth. jobs, stable prices, …).

So what about liberal democracy: a maximal, extensive, and equal system of rights; and a legislative process implementing equal democratic rights to set law and policy. Does this system provide a basis for eliciting loyalty and commitment from all or most citizens? In particular, does it support a compelling value statement, a real principle of tolerance, and the capacity for achieving “good government” (efficient management of the public good)? Can the values of equal worth, tolerance of difference, and majoritarian decision-making lead to loyalty and commitment? Can a Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton create an inspiring vision of the future that mobilizes most citizens in support?

The prospects don’t appear to be very good. Anti-liberal political opportunists can always create a counter-narrative that directly or tacitly rejects equality and tolerance and seeks to create a basis for minority rule. Right-wing populism has shown itself to be insidious and virulent — very capable of winning support from large groups of anti-liberal activists and followers. The politics of division and hate are indeed powerful. Fascist ideology, values, and programs have great strength in the space of contemporary mass politics. The currents of hate, fear, racism, xenophobia, and the political maneuver of “group supremacy” have shown themselves to be highly potent bases for political mobilization.

There seem to be two levels of support for a regime that are in question. First is “rational/reasonable consideration” of which regime best suits my longterm interests. The second is “emotional/passionate mobilization” around the call to action by a highly persuasive leader — a Tucker Carlson or Mussolini. The first is a deliberative “all things considered” choice of a regime; the other is political marketing and propaganda.

What then are the prospects for continuing stable support for liberal democracy? First, it is clear that this kind of support is not automatic. There are powerful and compelling anti-liberal voices in the space of liberal democracy. Liberal democrats must compete vigorously or they will lose. They must articulate the value of liberal democracy and the very real dangers of the rise of populist extremism.

Second, liberal democracy needs to make credible the belief that liberal democratic government can succeed in creating laws and policies that genuinely enhance justice, equality, and opportunity.

And third, defenders of liberal democracy need to ensure that the institutions of the state continue to guarantee the rights of all citizens. The willingness of the far-right to use violent threats and actions against our institutions must be rebutted. January 6 is a dangerous and sobering precedent; so are the kidnapping plot against Michigan Governor Whitmer, the brandishing of semi-automatic weapons in state houses around the country, and the intimidation of public health officials during the pandemic. Violence and intimidation are inherently toxic to liberal democracy.

It seems very clear: Citizens must actively assert themselves in support of our liberal democracy, or we will go the way of Hungary.

Albert Hirschman on uncertainty

Albert Hirschman was a particularly important non-conformist in 20th-century social science. (Here is an earlier discussion of Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Hirschman (link).) Two of the things I admire most about him are his unwillingness to be bound by disciplinary divisions and his deep understanding of the uncertainty of virtually all social-science predictions. The social world is too complex, there are too many competing causal and agential factors influencing outcomes, to permit us to have confidence in the precise outcomes of social interventions in the future. The pristine mathematical theories of economics and the rational-choice models of political science alike provide a semblance of predictive precision; but upon examination, we discover that we can have little confidence in those predictions. The social world is orderly but contingent, and local differences in circumstances matter. (Here is an earlier post on social contingency (link), and another on path-dependence (link).)

Michele Alacevich’s brilliant intellectual biography of Hirschman (Albert O. Hirschman: An Intellectual Biography) provides new focus on these important insights from Hirschman’s intellectual itinerary. Alacevich is an expert on the history of World Bank policies and practices, and this leaves him well situated to assess Hirschman’s evolving views of the nature of economic development policy and large strategies of social and political reform. Simon Torracinta provides an outstanding and extensive review of the biography in Boston Review (link). As both Alacevich and Torracinta point out, Hirschman’s insights are in danger of being lost in the forest of ideas we have about the power and limitations of the social sciences, so it is worthwhile highlighting several of those ideas. Both Alacevich’s book and Torracinta’s review essay reward a close reading, but here I will pull out several central ideas that they highlight.

Alacevich places particular importance on Hirschman’s own experience in the field in projects aimed at stimulating economic development in Latin America (Columbia in particular). Hirschman witnessed the mismatch that so often developed between the goals and predictions associated with the grand strategies of development, and the actual experience as a particular project played out. Hirschman developed a deep skepticism about comprehensive blueprints of change, to be applied uniformly to the circumstances of various regions or countries. Rather, Torracinta emphasizes the aspects of pragmatism and piecemeal adjustment that underlay Hirschman’s view of how social progress could occur. “Try this, adjust, then try that.” Here is how Torracinta paraphrases Hirschman’s approach:

“A priori deductions,” Hirschman wrote in an assessment of Italian reconstruction in 1947, “while instructive, can only yield extremely rough guesses and are not able to replace as yet the method of trial and error.” He added, in a sentence that could just as well have been written by heterodox analysts of post-pandemic recovery, that looking for the “correct” aggregate volume of investments in reconstruction was a “futile search.” Instead, “one should concentrate upon locating those investments which permit the breaking of important bottlenecks and will thereby lead to increases of output and improvements of performances out of proportion to the investment itself.”

This is “pragmatic”, in the sense that it involves a process of informed trial-and-error, followed by assessment of the consequences; and it is piecemeal, in that it advises the reformer to engage in an extended step-by-step process involving adjustment and course-correction along the way. This involves an extensive reliance on decentralized decision-making, with — once again — the emergence of deep uncertainties about the consequences of various choices. Social change always involves uncertainty.
Here is how Torracinta sums up Hirschman’s intellectual legacy:

What are we to make of this complex legacy? There remain a few Hirschmanian figures still scattered across the academy (the probing economist Dani Rodrik comes to mind). But in retrospect, ambitious balanced and unbalanced growth programs had more in common with each other than with the ideas that succeeded them: consider the socially devastating “reforms” imposed on developing countries by the IMF’s structural adjustment programs in the 1980s. Ironically, given the abeyance into which they fell in that period, many foundational insights of high development theory have now been reincorporated since then—in appropriate mathematical form—into the models of development economics in recent decades. The great inflation debate of 2021 makes it clear, however, that no matter how sophisticated or powerful they may be, models remain a highly contested feature of contemporary economics. Given the theoretical rigidity, mathematical formalism, and fierce professional hierarchy of the mainstream discipline today, Hirschman’s early skepticism of these trends looks more prescient than tragic.

So Torracinta believes that much of the valuable insight offered by Hirschman about the policy process and the possibilities of guided reform has been lost — once again, deferring to the false confidence offered by formal economic models and rational-choice formalizations of political processes.Alacevich offers a penetrating account of Hirschman’s legacy that emphasizes the degree of contingency, creativity, and uncertainty that exists in the social world:

Hirschman’s emphasis on the concept of possibilism is arguably the most explicit statement of what he thought was his contribution to the deliberative process as reformist activism, and to the study of it as social science. Most social scientists, Hirschman noted, focus on explaining the regularities of social dynamics, and this is obviously an important task. But Hirschman emphasized the opposite type of endeavour: “to underline the multiplicity and creative disorder of the human adventure, to bring out the uniqueness of a certain occurrence, and to perceive an entirely new way of turning a historical corner.” This was particularly promising in seeking to explain the process of social change, for, he added, unless “novelty, creativity, and uniqueness” take place, large-scale social change cannot occur. In the first place, if all elements of social dynamics were already known, reactionary forces could easily foresee and preempt them. Second, he wrote, “radical reformers are unlikely to generate the extraordinary social energy they need to achieve change unless they are exhilaratingly conscious of writing an entirely new page of human history.” (250-251)

Hirschman’s attention to the possible over the probable, to the conjunctural over the structural, is the basis of yet another of his deep-rooted predilections and a fundamental element of his cognitive style—that is, the importance of history. In diametric opposition to the standards of social analysis that took shape after World War II, Hirschman considered the study of history an enormously rich and ineluctable source for understanding social change. (252)

There are several especially powerful ideas embedded here: “attention to the possible over the probable, to the conjunctural over the structural” and “unless ‘novelty, creativity, and uniqueness’ take place, large-scale social change cannot occur.” Both ideas emphasize key aspects of the social world and of social change: heterogeneity, contingency, and the importance of agency. To this we might add the importance of a pragmatic approach to social change that recognizes the limitations of abstract utopian theories of the future. (Ironically, in another recent issue of Boston Review Martin O’Neill reviews Ed Miliband’s GO BIG: How To Fix Our World, under the title “Against Incrementalism: Center-left parties should learn that small-bore solutions are a waste of time” (link). It is interesting to consider whether the impatience that many have with “incrementalism” is consistent with the valid insights and critiques offered by Hirschman of the ability of theory to guide comprehensive processes of change.) 

Hirschman was a singular contributor to the social sciences, and his work rewards close reading. Alacevich’s biography is an important contribution to understanding Hirschman’s legacy and his continuing importance for our understanding of the nature of the social sciences and social change.

(I took particular pleasure in meeting Albert Hirschman while presenting a seminar at the Center for International Studies at Princeton in the 1990s. I presented an early version of my research on what became The Paradox Of Wealth And Poverty: Mapping The Ethical Dilemmas Of Global Development. Hirschman was enormously generous and stimulating with his comments, and he was especially supportive of the goal of bringing normative thinking back into the field of development economics. It was a memorable intellectual pleasure to have spent half an hour discussing these ideas with him.)

Social change and agency

Much of the drama of history is found in processes of large social and political change, both slow and rapid. The sudden collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 and 1990, the success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the decades-long rise of the nationalist right in France and the United States, the rise of fascism in Germany, Austria, and Spain in the 1930s, the success of movements for female suffrage in most western democracies since the beginning of the twentieth century — these are examples of social and political change that are of great importance for the future of humanity, for better and worse.

There is a school of thought that wants to think of social change as being largely the result of human agency: parties, leaders, social movements, organizations, and social classes bring about changes that they “want” that they plan for. And sometimes this is true enough: the Republican tax-cutting policies of the past forty years in the United States have brought about a lot of social change, and a lot of that has been deliberate. Ideology and class interests, conjoined with a determined and persistent political party, have led to a substantial shift of wealth and income to an ever-smaller percentage of the population.

But much social and historical change doesn’t look like that story. The change associated with GOP tax activism is a large and important one; but it is a pretty simple one as well. It is more akin to a pirate band taking plunder from a defenseless coastal population than a long, complex process of engagement with social forces, groups, and structures aimed at creating change.

Unquestionably there is a vast amount of agency, both individual and group, in typical processes of large social change. But much of this agency is contentious and decentralized, with widely different objectives, plans, strategies, and coalitions associated with different configurations of actors. Groups set out with one set of objectives; internal conflicts lead to adjustment and re-prioritization of objectives; other groups hijack the activism and organization of competitors and redirect their efforts towards a different set of goals altogether. The result is a set of outcomes that often would create an enormous sense of surprise for the activists and actors who were involved in collective efforts at the beginning: is this what we were striving for?

This feature of the multiplicity of social actors is what makes the field of contentious politics so important and so interesting. Scholars like McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) have highlighted the complexity that underlies large social movements, and the social mechanisms through which multiple actors interact, compete, collaborate, and divide from each other. And it turns out that some of the same dynamics that are discovered in large processes of social movements are also found in more ordinary social environments as well; this is the special insight offered by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. Corporations, universities, and government agencies all embody some of the mechanisms of “contentious politics”.

But social movements represent just one important source of social change. In broad perspective, there are a handful of different kinds of social factors that are involved in important examples of social and political change. And, significantly, all of these mechanisms play out in a social world which also possesses some dynamics of its own that are largely beyond the reach of purposeful intervention.

Change through social movements

When major segments of a population are mobilized around an issue, they can become important sources of social and political change. This raises questions from several perspectives. First, what factors lead to successful mobilization of a group? Second, what tactics and strategies are available to social groups through which they can bring about change through collective action? And third, what tactics and strategies are available to “incumbents” — current power holders and the structures that they control — through which they can defeat the efforts of groups involved in collective action? Concerning mobilization: a group needs to be sensitized to an issue that it can be brought to care about, and this rarely happens spontaneously. Rather, leaders and organizations are needed to convey messages, gather resources, plan for collective action, and the like. As McAdam and Kloos show in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America, the Tea Party served such an organizational role in conservative mobilization in the 2000s. Concerning tactics: groups can exercise their political will through mass actions — demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, boycotts, and electoral contests. They can engage in “everyday forms of resistance,” in James Scott’s words. And they can support “ideological” campaigns, promulgating and legitimizing the perspective of their group to other non-committed social actors. Finally, incumbents (governments and existing power-holders) can use ideological means to discredit the insurgent organizations. They can use the legitimate enforcement of the legal system to interfere with mass actions. And they can call upon organized force — both official (police, military) and unofficial (militias, armed organizations) against the actions of insurgents. All of these dimensions have been visible in the collective actions and reactions that have occurred around the Black Lives Matter movement in the past year and a half.

Change through influential organizations

Social mobilization is rarely spontaneous. Rather, there is a need for organizations that have resources and capacities that permit them to rally supporters, conduct strikes and demonstrations, and coordinate efforts with other groups and potential allies. Coordinated collective action requires communication, confidence-building, and resources. Organizations like labor unions, political organizations, religious hierarchies, and kin groups are all able to fill these roles. Charles Tilly highlights the importance of the Catholic Church during the uprising in the Vendée (The Vendee); the Solidarity organization in Poland originating in Gdansk provided this impetus in 1980 (link); and SNCC was able to offer substantial organizational impetus to civil rights activism in the South in the 1960s. So organizations are a highly important ingredient of social mobilization; further, they can play an important role in determining the direction and strategy of a social movement. Labor unions in the United States in the 1960s played an important role in advancing the cause of civil rights, and much of this effort was prompted by the emergence of dissident union activism within unions like the United Auto Workers, including the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM). Activism by African-American auto workers pushed the UAW into a more active position on the struggle for racial equality. (Here is a brief description of some of this history; link.)

Change through state power

The New Deal and the social agenda of the Roosevelt administration were examples of largescale social change initiated by a government. FDR and his political allies were able to enact programs and legislation that profoundly changed the relationship between ordinary people and the economy in which they lived. A generation later the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, supported by the advocacy and political efforts of the Johnson administration, led to a significant change in the political status of African-American citizens. As McAdam shows in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, these changes would not have been possible without wide and persistent activism and mass mobilization of the civil rights movement; but equally, they would not have occurred without the political efforts of the Johnson administration.

Change through education, media, entertainment

Public perception and worldview plainly play a crucial role in social mobilization and engagement in a struggle for social change. It is evident, then, that the content and pervasiveness of the institutions through which the opinions and perceptions of ordinary citizens are shaped are significant factors in the impulse towards social change. If children and young adults are exposed to values of human equality, freedom, and democracy throughout their education, it is more likely that they will be responsive to issues of racism and authoritarian state behavior later in their lives. On the other hand, if the content of the educational system downplays the importance of equality and democracy and minimizes the history of racial and sexual discrimination, then many in the population will be unmoved by calls for mobilization for greater equality. The influence of right-wing media on political attitudes has been well documented for the past several decades, and this is intentional: the owners of Fox News and similar sources have a message they want to convey, and their programs embody that message. And social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or right-wing sites like Parler and Rumble have proven to have an enormous capacity for generating hate-based activism. The institutions of education, media, and entertainment must be counted as causal factors in the occurrence of social and political change.

Change through generational and demographic shifts

These factors serve to identify some of the direct and purposeful sources of social and political change. But, as historians like Emmanuel Ladurie and Ferdinand Braudel demonstrated (link), there are long waves of change in history that are only remotely related to the intentions and purposes of the current generation. Long, slow processes can lead to substantial social change over time (link). For example, Paul Abramson and Ronald Inglehart argued that a large factor driving change in post-World War II democracies was “generational change and value replacement” (link). Here the idea is that value change in a nation is less about individuals and more about the shifting mix of cohorts of individuals over time. Here is their formulation of this hypothesis in the abstract to this paper:

Generational replacement has had a major impact on the distribution of materialist/post-materialist values among Western publics. Between 1970 and 1984 the ratio of post-materialists to materialists increased substantially in West Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands, and increased somewhat in France. In Belgium and Italy materialist values increased as a result of short-term forces conducive to materialism. In Germany, Britain, and The Netherlands population replacement contributed to the rise of post-materialism. In France, it reversed short-term forces contributing to materialism, while in Belgium and Italy population replacement partially offset short-term forces that contributed to materialist values. Analysis of the impact of generational replacement sheds light on the development of value orientations in Western societies and on a process through which attitude change occurs among mass publics.

Inglehart extends this argument along with Pippa Norris in Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism to offer a degree of reassurance about the likely future of extremist populism: the tide of progressive attitudes towards race and ethnicity is very powerful, and right-wing extremism should be expected to decline.

A similar argument can be made about demographic change in the ethnic composition of a region or country. No particular individual needs to change his or her culinary tastes, in order for the ratio of Swedish restaurants to Polish restaurants to shift as a result of largescale immigration of Swedish families into the region. And if Swedish people are, on average, more liberal than Polish people, then the region becomes more liberal — even though no individual has become more liberal.

Other longterm causes of large social and political change

It is clear that there are longterm processes of change in the world that affect us greatly, but appear to be “systemic” rather than agentic. Did anyone intend the deindustrialization of cities in what came to be known as the Rustbelt — Cleveland, Peoria, Milwaukee, Flint, Erie? Was there a grand plan behind the sudden ubiquity of the Internet, websites, and social media? Does the shift in population balance between the midwest and the south and plains states reflect a plan or policy? In all instances the answer in “no.” These are extended, anonymous processes that result from activities aimed at other goals altogether — outsourcing of manufacturing to reduce labor costs, creation of new products like iPhones and advertising-supported websites to enhance profits, individual families and employers making decisions about where their economic and social lives will be best pursued. And yet each of these changes is highly consequential for the future. Justin Gest dissects the social and political consequences of deindustrialization in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality; the change in social and political life created by the internet revolution is palpable; and the political map deriving from the 2020 Census is discouraging to the current Democratic majority. Populous industrial states will lose seven seats (all but one in the industrial midwest), and southern and plains states will gain seven seats (all but Oregon in the southern or plains states). This is a very significant shift in the balance of political power between regions in the House of Representatives.

What all of this implies is that we humans can affect the direction of our societies through our actions and collaborations; but the certainty and power of our efforts are distinctly limited. There are large obstacles to effective social and political struggles for a set of shared goals; there are formidable resources available to the “incumbents” who oppose the achievement of our goals; and there are large, impersonal forces that are largely impervious to agentic intervention. This does not imply the counsel of despair; but it does suggest the importance of having a realistic and fairly modest expectation of how much success can be achieved in a foreseeable period of time. Two of my favorite aphorisms on this topic are from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Karl Marx, and they are contradictory. Dr. King wrote, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Dr. King’s sentiment is probably too optimistic; there is nothing inevitable about the achievement of a just society. On this topic, Marx seems to have the more realistic view.

(Here are several earlier posts that are relevant to this topic: real utopiassocial progress, social justice movements, progressive politics, purposive social actionprotest and dissent, power and social movements, corporate powerunintended consequences, and the civil rights movement.)

Making the case for liberal democracy

Recent posts have considered the question of whether liberal democracy is stable, or whether the assaults on liberal democracy by the populist far-right are likely to further undermine democratic institutions and values. In particular, I have considered the question of whether democracy generates its own supporting political psychology (as Rawls seems to believe), with citizens in a just society coming to have the moral emotions necessary to sustain robust public support for democratic institutions and arrangements. I’ve been using the phrase “civic loyalty” to capture the ensemble of political emotions that might serve to reinforce the stability of a democracy.

But there is a prior question to explore before we get to esoteric reasoning about democratic social psychology: is liberal democracy an attractive ideal for most ordinary people? Do the institutions and values of liberal democracy hang together as a durable system that would give virtually all clear-headed people a reason to prefer democracy over available alternatives — let us say, illiberal democracy or populist authoritarian rule?

Suppose we define liberal democracy as a political system in which there are strong protections for the rights and liberties of all citizens, including minority groups, and which embody effective institutions of electoral representative democracy and equal rights of political participation. Now the question is a relatively simple one: assuming this kind of political system is functioning as advertised, would citizens find these arrangements satisfying and fulfilling, and would they develop civic loyalty in their support? Are these institutions valued by the citizens who live in countries in which they are present? Would every citizen have an interest or inclination in supporting the continuing effectiveness of this set of constraints and institutions?  

The results of recent public opinion research are not encouraging. For example, a 2020 Pew Research study (link) based on a 2019 Global Attitudes Survey across many countries showed declining levels of satisfaction with democracy among citizens in numerous countries, with 59% of US respondents “not satisfied” against 39% of US respondents “satisfied”. And the “not satisfied” numbers are comparable or worse for France, Spain, Italy, UK, Bulgaria, and Greece. The highest levels of satisfaction with democracy found in the study include Sweden (72%), Netherlands (68%), Canada (66%), Poland (66%), and Germany (65%).

These levels of dissatisfaction are surprising and disturbing. For most of the decades since the end of World War II the common assumption among observers is that the great majority of the population are satisfied and grateful for the freedoms and the rights of political participation that we have in the United States. It is surprising to discover in the past two decades, then, that satisfaction with this system of freedoms and political participation has fallen in the general population; and it is ominous to recognize that there are well-organized political movements in the United States and elsewhere — right-wing populist movements — that reject the premises of human equality and democratic participation that underlie our political system.

This seems to imply that liberal democracy does not automatically generate the political psychology it needs for stability — at least not in a super-majority of its citizens. Instead, maintaining the conditions of a liberal democracy is itself a problem of democratic politics and strategy. And very deliberate conservative, anti-liberal politicians have been making the opposite case for several decades in the United States. The undermining of confidence and faith in democratic institutions by the GOP and Fox News did not begin in 2016.

In other words, the program of supporting liberal democracy and the political rights and liberties it encompasses is now just one more topic of political conflict. The values of equality, liberty, and unity as a nation are now up for debate. Democrats advocate for the institutions and values of democracy, and right-wing populists actively advocate for a vision of the future in which those institutions and values play a diminished or even vanished role.

Democrats and progressives have largely believed that the political contest in the United States between “liberals” and “conservatives” is over specific legislative policies: taxation, environmental regulation, use of force by police, limitations on the extent of inequalities, and so on. But actually, it seems apparent that the contest now must also include marshaling support for our constitutional democracy itself: the integrity of elections, equal voting rights for all citizens, constitutional protections of individual rights and freedoms. We do not currently have a broad consensus about the value and inviolability of our constitutional democracy throughout the whole population. We seem to have evolved into a country which is divided between the party of democracy and the party of minority rule by any means possible. This must be addressed through political means. 

Parties, politicians, civic organizations, and citizens who favor the institutions of liberal democracy must therefore take an active role in building political consensus around our democratic institutions. They must persuasively make the case to enough of the rest of the population to maintain broad and deep commitment to the values of constitutional protections of our rights and the institutional fairness of our electoral processes. They must build the case through mobilization, communication, and leadership in ways that inspire millions to share their cause. They must persuade other citizens to support the agenda of liberal democracy and to resist the suasion of the illiberal parties, the authoritarians, and the hate-based parties. (This is the thrust of the very interesting report released this year by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Our Common Purpose: Reinventing American Democracy for the Twenty-first Century (link).)

The election of 2020 has a clear lesson for people who care about democracy in America. We now need to actively build and mobilize mass support for our democratic institutions, across all segments of our population. It is an open question whether we will be able to succeed in doing that, and if we fail, the future of our democracy is in doubt.

But there is another important lesson about legitimacy that emerges from the recent fortunes of liberal democracy: that political justice — constitutional protections of rights and liberties — by itself is probably insufficient to generate strong satisfaction and civic loyalty among the great majority of citizens. People are concerned about economic justice and fairness as well as political rights and electoral democracy. American society (and perhaps French and British society as well) has fallen behind on issues of economic justice, with rapidly rising inequalities between rich and poor, declining availability of “middle class” jobs in an increasingly globalized economy, declining opportunities for social mobility for people in the bottom 50% or more of the economic ladder, and continuing discrimination and disparity across racial, ethnic, and gender lines. These are some of the factors that observers like Justin Gest have highlighted in explanation of “white working class disaffection” with the existing order, and it is hard to see how broad civic loyalty will be rekindled until there is a broader reality of social equality, equality of opportunity, and solidarity across all segments of society that would allow all members of society to believe that “democracy and wellbeing are for all of us”. Protecting our liberal democracy means taking concrete, meaningful measures through legislation to increase the basic economic fairness of our market economy.

The moral force of the US Constitution

Why should we revere our constitution as the fundamental set of political and moral principles underlying our democracy? Is it simply because it was written and adopted by the “Framers”? Is it because it has legitimacy as a whole by having been democratically ratified through our history? Or, most fundamentally, is it because there are compelling arguments of political morality for various of the individual stipulations of the constitution and the Bill of Rights? This latter view is essentially the position advocated by Ronald Dworkin as a fundamental premise of constitutional interpretation in Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution. Here is a clear statement of Dworkin’s view of the moral interpretation of the US Constitution:

The book … illustrates a particular way of reading and enforcing a political constitution, which I call the moral reading. Most contemporary constitutions declare individual rights against the government in very broad and abstract language, like the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides that Congress shall make no law abridging “the freedom of speech.” The moral reading proposes that we all–judges, lawyers, citizens–interpret and apply these abstract clauses on the understanding that they invoke moral principles about political decency and justice. The First Amendment, for example, recognizes a moral principle–that it is wrong for government to censor or control what individual citizens say or publish–and incorporates it into American law. So when some novel or controversial constitutional issue arises–about whether, for instance, the First Amendment permits laws against pornography–people who form an opinion must decide how an abstract moral principle is best understood. They must decide whether the true ground of the moral principle that condemns censorship, in the form in which this principle has been incorporated into American law, extends to the case of pornography. (2) 

Dworkin formulates this idea at the level of constitutional interpretation; but his view also extends to the issue of legitimacy and authority of constitutional provisions as well. 

Christopher Peters characterizes this topic as the problem of “constitutional authority” (link), and his major law review article on the subject is well worth reading. Constitutional authority is important because it is the feature that gives us a reason to consider a constitutional provision normatively and legally binding. Peters argues for a procedural theory of constitutional authority: a constitutional provision has authority if it was enacted in a procedurally correct way, and lacks authority if it was not so enacted (439).

I contend that the only plausible justification of constitutional authority is not substantive in this sense, but rather procedural: it requires obedience to the Constitution, not because of what it commands, but because of how it commands us—that is, because of the process by which constitutional commands are generated. (439)

He contrasts this with the “substantive” theory of constitutional authority exemplified by Dworkin, which he emphatically rejects. In particular, he argues for a condition of “content-independence” for constitutional authority: “An authority’s right to be obeyed also exists regardless of the moral content of what the authority is commanding…. A command possesses authority if it imposes a defeasible content-independent moral obligation to act as the command directs” (442, 446).

For a variety of reasons, I like aspects of both substantive and procedural theories about the authority of constitutional provisions. There is a special force to provisions like freedom of speech or freedom of religion that goes beyond the force of merely reasonable institutional stipulations. So it is pertinent to ask about the moral status (as does Dworkin) of various constitutional provisions. We might say, most generally, that there ought to be consistency between our constitution and our best understanding of the requirements of a just society.

If we take the moral interpretation of constitutional authority seriously, we are faced with a potential problem. What if we discover for one or more stipulations, that there is in fact no underlying moral consideration for that provision? What if one or more constitutional provisions appears to be entirely arbitrary from a moral point of view? And in fact, when we consider this question, we find ourselves in exactly this position. Some provisions — freedom of speech and religion, procedural protections against search and arbitrary arrest — can be justified on the basis of a more fundamental conception of the requirements of a society consisting of free and equal moral beings. Other provisions may be justified as reasonable institutional arrangements — right to a jury trial, right to stand for president at the age of 35, which seem to derive authority from the kinds of substantive reasoning Peters describes. These are provisions that Peters describes as legitimate procedural specifications. But others — like the right to bear arms or form a citizens’ militia — have no such basis. They are morally arbitrary, much as might have been a constitutional right to live near a grocery store. And yet other provisions are now seen to be flatly immoral — for example, the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, section 2). The inclusion of arbitrary or immoral provisions in the Constitution, we might say, was a mistake on the part of the Framers, and it should now be corrected.

Peters considers the constitutional authority of the Second Amendment in extensive detail through the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, the controversial Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of restrictions on firearms in the District of Columbia. He believes that a constitutional provision without authority simply does not bind citizens or lawmakers: “The Second Amendment thus brings front and center the question, not merely of how the Court should interpret constitutional rights, but of why— indeed whether—those rights ought to bind us at all” (438). His most extensive argument about constitutional authority is flatly contradictory to the idea of a moral justification for constitutional provisions (Dworkin’s position). So he considers instead whether there is a procedural justification for the Second Amendment.

The procedural approach requires showing that the provision reduces or resolves important public conflicts by reducing bias or entrenchment by powerful majorities. Applying this approach to the Second Amendment, Peters finds that, on the central public interpretations of the meaning of the amendment (individual self-defense and resistance to tyranny), there is no such justification. The first concern should be addressed through ordinary majoritarian legislation, and the second is self-contradictory. (How could there be a constitutional right to disobey the constitution?) Peters does find a procedural justification for the amendment, however, in Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion in the majority ruling. Stevens ties the amendment to the “public militia” part of the language, and argues that this entails that the amendment serves a narrow scope: to ensure that states are empowered to maintain their own armed “militia” forces. This interpretation would lend constitutional authority to the amendment; but it would strip the amendment of the implication that democratically elected legislators lack legal authority to regulate or limit individual ownership, possession, and use of firearms.

This line of thought leads to a fairly remarkable and simple idea: the citizens of the United States ought to amend or abolish the Second Amendment. We respect the Constitution as the law of the land, but we also stipulate a process for revising or amending the constitution. And we might hold that only those provisions that hold up as justified moral requirements should be sacrosanct. There is no moral basis for the right to bear arms, it does not express a reasonable institutional arrangement, and it has shown itself to lead to deleterious social effects.

There is another moral consideration for the authority of existing constitutional provisions that has force — the idea of loyalty to the constitution as the fundamental governing document of the United States’ democracy. Our democratic obligations as citizens entail our commitment to the rule of law, and the constitution represents the most general framework of law in our system of government. Therefore we are morally or normatively bound by existing constitutional provisions — which means that even though we may think that the Second Amendment is morally ungrounded and institutionally perverse, we are bound to accept its authority until amended. This does not mean we are compelled to accept the extreme reading offered by conservatives about the scope and implications of the amendment concerning unfettered gun ownership and carrying; this is precisely the question of interpretation that constitutional lawyers argue about. But the general line of reasoning has force; it is part and parcel of the idea of being bound by a system of law that citizens within a democracy are subject to the authority of laws (including constitutional provisions) that have been duly enacted. Individual citizens or legislatures do not have the legal option of picking and choosing the constitutional and legal principles that they will accept. And the remedy to constitutional provisions that we find morally or socially odious is clear; it is the mechanism of constitutional amendment (as the Thirteenth Amendment largely negated the Fugitive Slave Clause in Article IV, section 2 through its abolition of slavery throughout the nation).

The 2020 election

There is something encouraging about the health of American democracy on Election Day, 2020. That is the passion for our democracy that so many millions of US citizens have shown in coming out to vote — either through early voting or in-person voting on November 3. This is not an apathetic electorate this season; rather, men and women of all ages and races are engaged in very personal ways in this crucial election. Our fellow citizens care about the stakes in this election — government incompetence and inaction in this time of pandemic, horrifying signs of racism and authoritarianism in the president’s speeches, tweets, and actions, rising economic inequalities and limited economic opportunity, and the president’s visible disdain for the values and institutions of our democracy itself. And, by their determination to make their vote count, they express also their patriotic commitment to our democratic institutions and history. Current projections suggest that this week’s voter turnout, currently projected at 66.3%, is the highest we have seen since 1908. These are indeed echoes of the “mystic chords of memory”. 

Also reassuring is the fact that Tuesday’s voting appears to have been calm and peaceful in virtually all parts of the country. This is a happy development given the concern many Americans had about the possibility of voter intimidation, armed “poll watchers”, and civil unrest. No National Guard, no menacing truckloads of Trump supporters driving around on the highways, no Proud Boys. But of course that is before the final results come in.

The amazing number of early-voting ballots, including vote-by-mail, drop-box, and in-person early voting in many states is also an important development. This surge is a response to the pandemic, but it also suggests the possibility of a more permanent shift in voter behavior. It is the more remarkable in light of the full-court press mounted by President Trump and his supporters to undermine confidence in vote-by-mail ballots. This can be a very important shift in voter behavior by broadening voter participation and reducing some forms of voter suppression. Broader voter participation enhances democracy. 

Also noteworthy is the calm competence of state election officials around the country, persisting in their rigorous, fair, and legally governed work of counting ballots. This is part of the sinews and skeleton of our democratic system, and officials throughout the country have demonstrated their integrity and competence in carrying out the work of democracy. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has been especially noteworthy in her calm and judicious oversight of the highly pressurized work of ballot counting in Michigan.

What is grossly repellent, and yet clearly telegraphed weeks in advance, is Trump’s brazen refusal to accept the legitimacy of the electoral process, still underway, and his groundless demand early Wednesday morning that he has won the election. With millions of votes still to be counted, this insistent and ungrounded assertion — repeated still several days later — represents a fundamental assault on our democracy. And to assault our democracy is not only to dismiss the democratic rights of all Americans who had already voted and whose votes must be counted; it is to assault all Americans. Every citizen — whether Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Green — has a fundamental interest in the integrity of our electoral institutions. The president’s lies and his continuing efforts to undermine public confidence in the voting process show him to be truly antagonistic to all Americans, including his own party’s supporters. Can any person be said to be patriotic and loyal to our country when he commits such brazen, purely self-interested acts of sabotage against our most fundamental democratic institutions? Surely not. And the fact that at least two US Senators have supported the president in these claims — Senator Cruz and Senator Graham — will follow them with shame into the annals of history. Their support is craven; they surely know better.

The election is still unresolved as of this hour, though the signs point strongly toward a Biden victory. Biden currently leads Trump by 4,102,000 votes in the popular vote, and he is favored to win enough undecided states to win the Electoral College vote as well — a very strong mandate for change. The control of the Senate is unresolved, and depends on run-off elections in Georgia for two Senate seats in January. The Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives has narrowed, but it looks as though it will be sustained. So the coming years of government, especially in the circumstances of global pandemic, out-of-control spread of the disease in the United States, severe and very unequal economic harms to be addressed, looming crises having to do with global climate change, and international relations in shambles, will be challenging and unpredictable. But many Americans today are ready to take some greater optimism from the fact that the current incumbent is likely to lose his power to do further harm. 

Also unresolved is how the incumbent president will behave in the next two months. His anger at the increasing likelihood of losing the election seems unhinged at the moment, his desire to lash out seems strong, and he plainly has no awareness of the way that history will remember him: as a petulant, mendacious, hateful, incompetent, and authoritarian president who put American democracy into its greatest crisis in one hundred sixty years. Where is the statesman who cares more about his duty to the Constitution and the whole citizenry than about his own political power? There has been no such person of that description in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for four years. And now, it seems very likely, there soon will be.

Slipping towards authoritarianism

Many observers have raised concerns about the direction that American politics has taken in the past decade, and especially since the election of 2016. The concern is that conservatives in the United States, included elected officials and GOP leaders, have increasingly shown disregard for fundamental democratic values: the independence of the judiciary, the inviolable role in a democracy of a free press, the right of citizens to peacefully protest, and the right of all citizens to exercise their right to vote. 

A recent study by the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden (link) has given these concerns new urgency. V-Dem is a collaborative academic project involving a multinational group of social scientists, that is devoted to arriving at evidence-based assessments of the state of democracy in the world. Here is the V-Dem mission statement:

Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) is a new approach to conceptualizing and measuring democracy. We provide a multidimensional and disaggregated dataset that reflects the complexity of the concept of democracy as a system of rule that goes beyond the simple presence of elections. The V-Dem project distinguishes between five high-level principles of democracy: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian, and collects data to measure these principles. 

The Institute has released an important and evidence-based briefing paper reporting “New Global Data on Political Parties” (link) along with an annual report on the global status of democracy (link). The briefing paper provides very striking data about the transformation of US politics over the past several decades, and the findings are highly disturbing. Here are the summary findings:

V-Party’s Illiberalism Index shows that the Republican party in the US has retreated from upholding democratic norms in recent years. Its rhetoric is closer to authoritarian parties, such as AKP in Turkey and Fidesz in Hungary. Conversely, the Democratic party has retained a commitment to longstanding democratic standards.

This is a global trend: The median governing party in democracies has become more illiberal in recent decades. This means that more parties show lower commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence. (1)

Here is how the report defines the “illiberalism index”:

The Illiberalism Index gauges the extent of commitment to democratic norms that a party exhibits before an election. It is the first comparative measure of the “litmus test” for the loyalty to democracy, which the famous political scientist Juan Linz developed in 1978, and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have propagated in their 2018 book on “How Democracies Die”. Indicators comprising the Illiberalism Index are low commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence. (1)

Notice the features that are measured in this index: low commitment to political pluralism, demonization of political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights, and encouragement of political violence. These are the factors that are given greatest attention by Levitsky and Ziblatt in their analysis of the decline of democracies. Each of these features has been prominent in the Trump presidential election campaign — including rallies and campaign stops in the state of Michigan, where a right-wing extremist plot to kidnap and harm the governor of the state was recently uncovered.

The graph represents the positions of a dozen or so parties in Europe and North America, on a Left-Right scale on the X-axis and the Illiberalism measure on the Y-axis. There are many important things to notice on this graph, but the most important is the progression of the Republican Party up the scale of Illiberalism between 2004 and 2018. This is a steady march towards anti-democratic values on the part of one of the major parties in the US democracy. By contract, the Democratic Party has a substantially lower Illiberalism value, and a score that has not changed appreciably. The Democratic Party shows a continuing support for democratic institutions and values, and the Republican Party does not. As the report notes, “the Republican Party scores much higher than almost all parties in democracies on almost all of these indicators” (1).

The features of the Illiberalism index are broken out in Figure 2 of the report:

Here again the data are unsurprising for anyone who follows the discourse of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. These measures show a massive change in Republican Party language with regard to “disrespects opponents”, “encourages violence”, “anti-immigration”, and “espouses cultural superiority”, and a substantial difference between the two parties on all the other measures as well.

(The data underlying these calculations of Illiberalism are available from the V-Dem institute.)

This report — and the many books that have been published in the past few years about the decline of democracy — forces us to ask several pointed questions.

First, why are senior elected officials (senators, congressmen and women, and the president and the vice president of the United States) willing to sacrifice these irreplaceable values and institutions of our democracy for short-term political expediency? Do they in fact care nothing for the values and institutions of our constitutional democracy? Do they not understand the terrible harm they are producing? Has Trumpism so completely corrupted the culture of the Republican Party that its leaders no longer stand for anything but their own power?

Second, what can be done to reverse these trends within the political culture of the United States? The situation is not beyond repair, and a variety of smart defenders of democracy have sought to imagine effective ways for citizens and social movements to defend our democracy and our institutions. One such effort is The Democracy Playbook: Preventing and Reversing Democratic Backsliding (link), published in 2019 by the Brookings Institution. Here is a good description by the authors of the anti-democratic process of erosion of democratic institutions and values:

Once in power, illiberal governments capitalize on popular support to deploy a discernible toolkit and a loosely predictable sequence to chip away at democracy and build an illiberal state. As argued in a related Brookings report, The Anatomy of Illiberal States, “Liberal principles—political ideas that espouse the importance of individual liberties, minority rights, and the separation of power across levers of government—and democratic institutions—processes that translate popular will into public policy through legitimate elections—are being pulled apart.” At times, their efforts extend beyond attacks on liberal principles to include delegitimizing political opposition, diminishing fundamental political rights to free speech, assembly and media plural- ism, and clamping down on civil society—all of which are indispensable for a functioning democracy. (9)

To resist this process of right-wing populist authoritarianism, the authors suggest these ideas:

Be prepared for and invest in protecting against internal and external interference in elections. Elections are the foundation of a democracy yet advances in digital technology have rendered elections increasingly complex and vulnerable to interference. Governments should have a proactive and comprehensive deterrence strategy—with responsible actors in clearly defined roles—that will appropriately punish nations who interfere in democratic elections. Governments and political parties should invest in the people and systems necessary for the technological security of election counting, voter registration machines, and political campaign networks.

Enact policies that promote and protect broad access to the vote, such as automatic or same-day voting.

Regulate the role of money in politics to retain trust in the democratic system through the creation of such mechanisms as public financing of campaigns, disclosure requirements for donations, and limits on the amount of campaign donations.

Uphold institutional obligations and use their political power responsibly through “institutional forbearance” (i.e., politicians should refrain from using the full breadth and scope of their politically allocated power) and through “mutual toleration” (i.e., opposing sides regarding one another as legitimate rivals, but not enemies.) When these norms break down and authoritarian challenges emerge, further legal mechanisms should be considered to sanction extreme behavior.

Defend the independence of the judiciary by establishing public procedures for the selection, appointment, and promotion of judges, for the allocation of cases to judges, as well as codes of ethical behavior that protect the integrity of the judicial decision-making process from undue political pressure, intimidation, and attacks.

Implement judicial transparency mechanisms (e.g., opening up courtrooms, producing publicly available transcriptions of proceedings, and placing cameras in courtrooms).

What is alarming in reading these recommendations from 2018-2019 is that the Republican Party and the Trump presidential campaign seem already to have jumped over many of them. “Judicial independence” is now deeply compromised, given the highly partisan Federal judges who have been appointed in the past four years through an entirely partisan process; policies ensuring broad access to the vote are both crippled and discredited by Republican officials (including the president’s all-out assault on mail-in ballots); and the idea that Republican senators would “uphold institutional obligations to use their political power responsibly” is now entirely laughable. Senate Majority Leader McConnell shows no such restraint. And the very believable threat made by the president that he would have to “wait and see” whether he would accept electoral defeat is the most anti-democratic declaration of all. If we can’t count on candidates accepting the outcomes of elections, where is our democracy?

The moral emotions of liberal democracy

Recent discussions in a class on democracy and the politics of hate (link) have been very stimulating and thought provoking. We have spent several weeks discussing Rawls’s ideas in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (JF) about the features of social life in a just society that might serve to make a just democracy stable over time. Rawls explicitly raises the question of the stability of a just society — the question of whether citizens within such a society develop the social psychology necessary to support its institutions. Do just institutions work to create the moral emotions in its citizens that are necessary to sustain those institutions? This question seems to have two parts. Will citizens acquire the motivation to act in accordance with the requirements of justice and the constitution? And will citizens acquire the motivation to actively defend the institutions of democracy when they are threatened? The first might be thought of as a fairly routine duty of reciprocity, whereas the second is more demanding.

Here is how Rawls raises the question of the stability of a just society:

The second part of the argument concerns the question of the stability of justice as fairness. This is the question whether justice as fairness is able to generate sufficient support for itself. The parties are to ask whether people who grow up in a society well ordered by the two principles of justice … acquire a sufficiently strong and effective sense of justice so that they normally comply with just arrangements and are not moved to act otherwise, say, by social envy and spite, or by a will to dominate or a tendency to submit. (JF 54.2)

Rawls does not believe this is inevitable, because a liberal democracy is committed to pluralism and a diversity of “comprehensive conceptions of the good.” And some of those conceptions are fundamentally anti-democratic.

Given the actual comprehensive views existing in society, no matter what their content, there is plainly no guarantee that justice as fairness, or any reasonable conception for a democratic regime, can gain the support of an overlapping consensus and in that way underwrite the stability of its political institutions. Many doctrines are plainly incompatible with the values of democracy. (11.6)

But Rawls does believe that it is likely that a just society will create the basis for stability and continuing support by its citizens. Rawls’s ideas of the citizen’s sense of justice, the idea of an overlapping consensus, and the idea of a well-ordered society provide an embryonic theory of a political sociology for liberal democracy: citizens living in a society that they regard as just are likely (in Rawls’s view) to gain a moral psychology of trust and loyalty that leads them to act in support of the institutions of liberal democracy. He appears to believe that the conditions of justice — equal liberties, fair system of economic cooperation, limited inequalities that work to everyone’s advantage — work to encourage a specific kind of “overlapping consensus”. And he believes that these social arrangements will be respected and adhered to because they are seen to be good for each individual and good for society. Finally, he believes that this will contribute to a social psychology of cohesion and political commitment that will make a just society with a secure liberal democracy a sociologically stable set of arrangements.

When they believe that institutions or social practices are just, or fair … citizens are ready and willing to do their part in those arrangements provided they have sufficient assurance that others will also do theirs. (59.1)

A well-ordered society is stable, then, because citizens are satisfied, all things considered, with the basic structure of their society. (60.4)

Thus Rawls seems to advance the idea that children who are raised within a well-ordered society in which the requirements of justice are largely satisfied will develop into adults who have a sense of justice and a motivated and reasoned willingness to support the institutions of this society. But this idea raises a number of difficult questions. Is this a plausible view? Is it partially true? Is it just wishful thinking? And is this “moral emotion” sufficient to create the level of active support that a liberal democracy needs in times of stress?

So far we have an argument for the emergence of a set of moral emotions that produce actions based on reciprocity — compliance with institutions and laws that benefit us all. This is a limited view of what is needed to stabilize democracy in the face of anti-democratic attacks, however.

And what about the countervailing, anti-democratic emotions that are so evident today? Rawls refers to “special attitudes” like envy or spite that may interfere with the moral emotions supporting justice. But we must also consider special attitudes more specific to current concerns in a contested democracy: hatred, fear, mistrust, bigotry, and racism. These latter emotions are the building blocks of mobilization for social movements based on division and hate — the politics of the extreme right, and current circumstances in the world make clear how much of a threat to liberal democracy these movements are. Do ordinary human beings have these motivations? And do they undermine the stability of justice? Is there an ongoing contest within a pluralistic society between the emotions of justice and the emotions of hate?

There is another question to pose as well: are the political motivations that Rawls postulates strong enough to ensure the stability of democracy in the presence of militant attack by the political organizations of the extreme right? Do the emotions of fair reciprocity suffice to defeat the aggressive and violent groups of white supremacists we now confront in our society? Stability of a constitutional democracy requires a willingness of citizens to extend themselves in its defense, to act altruistically in support of principle, and to make sacrifices for its preservation during times of crisis or stress. The journalist in Turkey who continues to publish her investigative reports even in the face of threats and coercion from the state or non-state actors is an example. It would seem, then, that the motivations needed in support of democratic citizenship go beyond a simple disposition to act according to the law and constitution, which might be described as “duties of reciprocity”. There seems to be another aspect of the motivational relationship between an individual and the society in which he or she lives — what we refer to as patriotism, love of country, or devotion to the constitution and political institutions of a just society. What are these motivations? How do they arise within citizens?

Abraham Lincoln’s writings about democracy prior to the American Civil War evoke this question in particularly powerful ways. He captures effortlessly the idea of an individual’s moral allegiance to country, to fellow citizens, and to the institutions that establish the environment of “equality and liberty for all”. Especially memorable are the final lines of his first Inaugural Address in 1861:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

These are powerful words, and what they evoke is important: the moral emotions of patriotism based on a reasoned recognition of the justice of the constitutional arrangements and values of one’s country. This is not nationalism or an expression of ethnic loyalty; rather, it is an appeal to a powerful civil emotion — the emotion of commitment to an existing constitutional order.

It is evident, then, that this topic requires significant empirical and theoretical research. What kinds of moral emotions are needed to sustain a liberal democracy? What is “democratic loyalty and patriotism”, and how does it emerge as an active feature of the moral psychology of citizens within a democracy? What conditions are needed in society to lead to the cultivation and extension of these emotions? Will citizens nurtured within circumstances governed by the principles of justice acquire the motivations needed to sustain the institutions in which the principles of justice are embodied? When democracy is threatened, will its citizens come to its defense?

Mounk on the crisis of democracy

Yascha Mounk’s recent The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It is one of several important efforts to understand the crisis that right-wing populism is creating for liberal democracies in many countries. (An abbreviated version of Mounk’s analysis is published in his contribution to the Atlantic in March 2018 (link).) Mounk shares with Madeleine Albright (Fascism: A Warning), John Keane (The New Despotism), and Levitsky and Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) the concern that the political realities that brought Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States have the potential of profoundly undermining our democracy. I share that concern (linklinklinklink). And yet after reading the book, I’m not entirely convinced that Mounk has hit the target quite right. In the end, he sometimes seems to be more of a critic of liberal democracy than of radical authoritarian populism.

To begin, Mounk makes a determined effort to separate “democracy” from “liberalism”, where the former concept refers to any system in which the “people” rule and the latter refers to any system that embodies legal and institutional protections of the rights and freedoms of all — majority as well as minority. In this way he gives credence to the claim by Viktor Orbán in Hungary to have created the basis of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary (link). Here are the definitions that Mounk offers:

  • democracy is a set of binding electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy. 
  • Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press, and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).
  • liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic—one that both protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy.
  • Democracies can be illiberal. (27)

But democracy is not a single-stranded political conception. It is an “ideal type” that draws together several important ideas: self-rule, of course; but also the rule of law, constitutional protection of citizens’ rights, and a commitment to the neutrality of political institutions. Democracy is anti-authoritarian; and this means that there need to be principles, rules, laws, and institutions that protect the rights and freedoms of individual citizens. Therefore the only system worthy of the name as “democracy” is in fact what Mounk refers to as “liberal democracy”. And what Orbán describes is not democracy — any more than a counterfeit coin is a coin.

Mounk details the large decline in public confidence in the political institutions of liberal democracies across Europe and North America. He sees this as an especially worrisome feature of our current political realities: a rising percentage of citizens are willing to look with favor on “strong man” government or even rule by the military. And he recites the evidence of contempt for democratic values and institutions expressed by President Trump since 2016, and by the Republican Party for decades before that.

Over the course of his campaign, Donald Trump broke just about every basic rule of democratic politics. He promised to jail his political opponents. He refused to say that he would accept the outcome of the election. He bullied the press and threatened to expand libel laws. He invited a foreign power to sabotage his main competitor. He incited hatred against ethnic and religious minorities and promised to take unconstitutional action against them. (119)

What Mounk does not do is trace the connection between conservative Republican activists, their deliberate strategies aimed at discrediting and demeaning the institutions of government, and the resulting decline in public opinion that he documents. These shifts of public support for democratic values and institutions are not self-generated; they are at least in part the result of deliberate anti-government strategies of the right, in the United States and other countries. Figures such as Grover Norquist (“I simply want to reduce [government] to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”), Newt Gingrich (“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty” (link)), and the Tea Party had a very consistent and extended political message: government is not to be trusted, and the institutions and values of our political system are bankrupt. Surely this propaganda offensive — fueled by Fox News, talk radio, and social networks — has played an important role in the decline of trust (and adherence) in the institutions and values of liberal democracy. On this topic I find more to learn from McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America (linklink).

In fact, chapter 2 of Mounk’s book (“Rights without Democracy”) could serve as the letters of indictment of a fairly cerebral right-wing populist propaganda specialist. Much of the chapter seems intended to show that liberal democracy is a sham: “As long as you let us call the shots, we will pretend to let you rule” (53). Bureaucrats, judges, international lawyers, and the wealthy make the major decisions, in Mounk’s telling of the tale. Mounk gives the impression that the “founding myth” of American democracy (or British democracy) is exactly that — a myth. And here Mounk is unfair. It is of course true that citizenship was limited in the first century of the US democracy; but it is also true that, through struggle by African-Americans, women, and other excluded minorities, the political system and constitution expanded. We are not the political system we were in 1776 or 1789 or 1861. Nor is it obvious that representative democracy is less democratic than direct democracy — unless we take it as a definitional matter that democracy means direct decision-making by the population.

Mounk’s narrative here gives some credence to the radical populists’ claim that “elites are running the country” (in Britain, in Germany, in the EU, in the US), based on the extensive bureaucracies involved in modern government. He discusses bureaucrats and civil servants, judges, independent agencies, and international treaties and organizations as examples of “unelected elites making basic decisions”. But this claim is itself far too sweeping and simplistic. The fact that public health specialists offer scientific advice about wearing masks during pandemic — and governors act on this advice — is not elitism; it is the result of the principle that “good public policy should be guided by the best scientific understanding of the problems we face.” Yes, governments in liberal democracies deploy legions of “technical experts” or “technocrats”, and these men and women help to formulate public policies in directions that are often hard to sell on Fox News. But this is how governments should act; and it is part of the shameful performance of the Trump administration that Trump and his cabinet have done everything in their power to silence and ignore the advice of qualified scientists, from climate change to atmospheric science to global pandemic.

Mounk emphasizes the very substantial increase in “bureaucratization” that state agencies have undergone in western democracies — the creation of large agencies with substantial regulatory authority such as the Securities Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency (64). And he seems to suggest that this process gives some truth to the populist refrain that “elites are running our lives without control by the people”. But, as Mounk obviously agrees, a large bureaucracy is unavoidable in the administration and regulation of complex activities like the broadcast spectrum, nuclear power plants, food safety, or pollution. This is not an indication of elitism; it is rather a necessary consequence of highly complex and extended economic and social processes that serve to ensure the health, safety, and security of the public — the people. A democracy requires regulatory agencies, under the broad charter of legislative action. Government is “big” — big government exercises a great deal of decision-making authority. Of course! Democratic legitimacy requires that we make these processes more transparent to the public, but the fact of bureaucracy is not a legitimate complaint against liberal democracy.

Mounk gives an extended example from Switzerland to illustrate the way he divides “democracy” from “liberalism”. A local community sought to prevent a local mosque from building a minaret; the Federal Supreme Court declared in favor of the rights of freedom of worship of these individuals, including the right to build a minaret; and the populist right took up the issue, brought it to a national referendum, and were able to incorporate a restrictive clause  against Muslims into the Swiss constitution: “Freedom of religion and conscience is guaranteed … The construction of minarets is prohibited” (48). Mounk describes this as a case in which “democracy” and “liberalism” parted ways: “That is why I prefer to say that the controversy over minarets epitomizes the disintegration of liberal democracy into two new regime forms: illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism” (48). But the justices of the FSC are not elite technocrats substituting their judgment for the “will of the people”; this is exactly what a Supreme Court is charged to do within a constitutional democracy. How else are the rights and freedoms of minorities to be defended against the will of the majority?

Mounk notes that populist leaders and parties seek to undermine the press: “In the early phases, the war on independent institutions frequently takes the form of inciting distrust, or even outright hatred, of the free press” (44). He sees this effort as an attack on liberal principles. But the war waged by radical populist leaders against the press (including, of course, Donald Trump) is not merely anti-liberal; it is anti-democratic. Its aim is to disenfranchise the portion of the population that would oppose the populists’ policies and action by denying them access to information and fair interpretation by other intelligent, well-informed observers. It is to replace “freedom of thought and speech” with the power of propaganda, and the goal is not merely to deny information to potential opponents, but to shape “knowledge” and political discourse in ways that favor the political fortunes of the populist. Again — democracy without liberal institutions and values is only sham democracy.

Mounk is of course right in noticing that populists claim to advocate for democracy, by proclaiming to their followers that they are the true “people” and that their will is the political program of the populist movement. But this is charade, as Mudde and Kaltwasser (Populism: A Very Short Introductionlink) and other scholars of populism have shown. When Sarah Palin claims that the “real Americans” are those who live in small racially homogeneous towns in the Midwest, she is making an appeal to a minority segment of the American population. Her “real Americans” do not include people of color, liberals, urban people, gay people, or legal immigrants. This is not an appeal to democracy; it is an appeal to an exclusionary view of “good Americans” and “bad people living in the country”.

In brief, Mounk’s mid-semester grade for the American democracy is pretty low:

At a minimum, I suggest, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In the United States, these mechanisms are now significantly impaired. The country’s commitment to liberal rights remains deeply ingrained. But the form this liberalism takes is increasingly undemocratic. (92)

This is a C- when it comes to evaluating a set of political institutions; it suggests that perhaps the student should choose a different major. But actually, we have more to work with in our liberal democracy than Mounk believes. And there is a certain amount of risk of contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy here: part of the problem in our democracy is a declining level of confidence in political institutions and the worth of government — a decline very specifically and deliberately orchestrated by the right for the past forty years — and the C- hits us where it hurts.

This is not to suggest that liberal democracy does not need reform. The role of money in politics; the disproportionate influence of big business on public policy; the persistent and deliberate racism involved in voter suppression strategies of gerrymandering and discouragement of minority participation in elections — these are the fundamental flaws of our existing political institutions, and they clearly demand solution.

And yet — liberal democracy is the best we have to offer. Modern democratic institutions of government are not the key risk to human freedom in the twenty-first century; the real enemy of individual freedom and dignity is the sustained rise of powerful populist parties and bosses. Levitsky and Ziblatt are closer to the truth than Mounk.

Mounk has a response to these criticisms:

High-minded defenders of liberal democracy believe that there is something uniquely legitimate about the political system to which they are committed. 

Its democratic element, they claim, ensures citizens’ equality. In a monarchy, the king is elevated above his subjects by the accident of his noble birth. In a democracy, by contrast, all citizens get one vote without regard to the color of their skin or the station of their ancestors. 

Its liberal element, meanwhile, ensures citizens’ freedom. In a totalitarian regime, the government can regulate the lives of its subjects in the most minute detail and punish them at whim. In a liberal polity, by contrast, the reach of the law is limited, and citizens are protected against arbitrary interference in their lives. The peculiar genius of liberal democracy is that it is able to honor both of these values at the same time. 

This account of democratic legitimacy is a little too blithe. (129)

Really? Are we wrong to be “high-minded”? In its essence, this is precisely the defense that is needed for the institutions of a liberal democracy: it is a complex of institutions and values aimed at assuring a population of equal citizens the full exercise of their rights and liberties within a system in which they are guaranteed equal rights of political participation. The hard task is to reform, perfect, and preserve those institutions in the face of the forces of reaction.

The rhetorical structure of the book is “diagnosis, causes, remedies.” The remedies that Mounk explores include three major areas of progress that are needed for a multiethnic, multiracial democracy: a solution to the problem of “nationalism” (or more generally, of divided cultural identities); a more just set of economic institutions and opportunities for all citizens; and the rebuilding of what he calls “civic faith”. Interestingly, these areas of recommended reform align rather well with the list I mentioned in an earlier post:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are “one society” consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

The most substantial practical advice that Mounk offers as a strategy for lending strength to our liberal democracy (and resisting authoritarian impulses of some of our leaders) is popular protest and expression of our values in the public space — real, active political engagement on behalf of a just liberal democracy.

Thankfully, there is a lot that those of us who want liberal democracy to survive the dawning age of populism can do: We can take to the streets to stand up to the populists. We can remind our fellow citizens of the virtues of both freedom and self-government. We can push established parties to embrace an ambitious program capable of renewing liberal democracy’s promise of a better future for all. And if we do win—as I very much hope we shall—we can muster the grace and the determination to bring our adversaries back to the democratic fold. (265)

I find much to admire and learn from in Mounk’s book. The complaints offered here are aimed, really, at the lawyerly effort that Mounk makes to build the case against liberal democracy. Much of the narrative provided in the “diagnosis” part of the book is an impassioned argument aimed at demonstrating the correctness of many of the populists’ key complaints against the liberal state. And a lawyerly defense of the legitimacy of the institutions of contemporary liberal democracies is lacking. But this concedes too much to right-wing populists. Liberal democracy and right-wing populism are not on the same moral plane. And illiberal democracy is no kind of democracy at all; it is despotism.

Conditions for a resilient diverse democracy

Under what conditions can a modern mass society embodying differences of race, religion, wealth, and political ideology maintain a functioning commitment to democracy and its institutions?

The past fifteen years in Western Europe have witnessed an increasingly virulent threat to democracy in the form of the rise of right-wing extremism. Racism, hatred, and violence have come to play increasing roles in the politics and governance of a wide range of western democracies. And the experience of Trumpism in the United States since 2017 makes anyone who is paying attention rightfully alarmed at the future of democratic institutions in the US as well. Trump’s attacks on the Federal courts, his efforts to remove or stifle internal government accountability processes, his explicit politics of division and white supremacy, his demonization of the press, his open admiration of autocrats in other parts of the world, and his celebration of the use of police violence and military force against peaceful protesters make the security of the institutions of liberal democracy increasingly at risk.

Most fundamentally Trump has worked systematically to undermine respect, adherence, and confidence with regard to the institutions of government, and has consistently cultivated his “base” of extremist supporters through a rhetoric of anti-government slogans and racist antagonism. The gun-toting demonstrators against governors who had established sensible policies of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic are the most recent example (link), and their Boogaloo networks of violent partisans deepen the threat. And only a tiny number of legislators from the president’s party are willing to express their opposition to the key Trump messages.

So the situation in Trump’s America is alarming. But Trump is merely the spark. What were the circumstances that created an environment where his brand of toxic populist, racist extremism would find substantial political support? And what can be done to help bring the American public back to a strong adherence to our shared political and legal institutions?

John Keane examines the worrisome rise of authoritarianism within western democracies in The New Despotism. His basic thesis is that authoritarian leaders and parties have learned to mimic the language of democracy for their own purposes. Here is William Scheuerman’s description of Keane’s basic theory in his review of the book in The Boston Review (link):

John Keane’s illuminating study of what he dubs the new despotism persuasively argues that its momentum in China, Hungary, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, and many other countries offers evidence both for its viability today and its longevity in times to come. A novel political formation, the new despotism impersonates democracy as it feeds leech-like on its shortcomings. Perhaps most ominously, it threatens to make inroads even in long-standing democracies, where the political decay celebrated by Putin and others represents more than a debased, self-congratulatory fantasy. (Boston Review (link))

Here I would like to examine the symmetrical question: what kinds of activism, social reform, alliance building, and civil communication can work to build durable civic identity across groups? What concrete strategies are available, at a range of levels, to enhance the loyalty and commitment of all groups to the fundamental institutions of a liberal democracy? How can the United States — 330 million people, with huge regional, racial, religious, and social differences to potentially divide them — how can this highly diverse country build a common identity involving commitment to democratic institutions, the equal worth of all persons, and the rule of law?

There is a great deal of evidence to believe that Trump will lose the November election, and perhaps the Republicans will lose their majority in the Senate as well. Our democracy may be saved by the bell, just in time. But a successful transition to a Democratic president, though a crucial next step, will not suffice. We need to find substantial ways of reinforcing and reinvigorating a broad public consensus about the values of democracy and the crucial role that government plays in securing the conditions of justice and wellbeing for all our population. And this means finding ways of addressing the persistent underlying sources of discontent for a sizable part of our population. We must find effective ways of addressing racial inequalities, including the structural facts about our society that lead to police brutality and violence against people of color. We must address the very great inequalities of opportunity and wellbeing that exist in our society in the twenty-first century. Most persistently, we must find a political consensus around the urgency of addressing global climate change. And above all, we must reaffirm the crucial expectations and commitments that all citizens in a democracy need to share concerning the role of government in our public lives.

The elements of political culture that appear to be needed for a stable democracy seem to include things like these:

  • A broad consensus that all members of society are treated fairly
  • Confidence in a high level of equality of opportunity in social, political, and economic positions
  • Confidence that government institutions and officials are reasonably honest and transparent
  • Confidence that private influence does not unduly affect the content and application of laws and regulations
  • An overriding conviction that we are “one society” consisting of many communities, and that the wellbeing of all depends on the contributions and fair treatment of all
  • An effective interlacing of communities through cross-cutting political, social, and economic organizations

Robert Putnam has something important to contribute to a theory of successful multicultural democracy, including especially his analysis of civic organizations, cross-community collaborations, and cultivation of shared civic values (Better Together: Restoring the American Community). And John Rawls addresses the problem of a liberal democracy with competing conceptions of the good through his idea of overlapping consensus (Political Liberalism). Fundamentally Rawls’s view endorses pluralism across multiple conceptions of the good, unified by a common commitment to the fundamental values of equal worth, equal rights and liberties, and constitutional fidelity. He refers to these core commitments as “a political conception of justice,” and he believes that individuals who grow up in a “well-ordered society” will share such a conception.

Let us say that a political conception of justice (in contrast to a political regime) is stable if it meets the following condition: those who grow up in a society well-ordered by it – a society whose institutions are publicly recognized to be just, as specified by that conception itself – develop a sufficient allegiance to those institutions, that is, a sufficiently strong sense of justice guided by appropriate principles and ideals, so that they normally act as justice requires, provided they are assured that others will act likewise. (Rawls, “The domain of the political and overlapping consensus,” Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology, 165)

So we might say that a liberal democracy will be stable when it exists in a society embodying a limited range of inequalities, substantial equality of opportunity, equal rights and liberties for all citizens, communication and collaboration across different groups, and a political culture of shared commitment to the institutions of democracy that is cultivated by these enduring conditions. Under these circumstances perhaps we might have confidence that most citizens will come to possess “sufficient allegiance to those institutions” to allow democracy to continue to function.

This implies that our first task is to seriously address the inequalities and injustices that our society still embodies — racial inequalities, mistreatment of minority groups, lack of health insurance for millions of Americans, and extreme and growing inequalities of income and wealth. Second is to imagine and implement real economic changes that increase the opportunities that exist for the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum in this country. Third is to find concrete, impactful forms of collaboration across groups in ways that allow for progress on the challenges that we all face. The broad representation across race, age, and class that is found in the massive peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country provides an excellent model for this kind of collaboration around common demands for change.

The really hard problem is the fact that there seems to be a significant percentage of the American citizenry that rejects the “political and overlapping consensus” that Rawls postulates. The postulate of the moral and political equality of all people is inconsistent with the racism and white supremacy that Trump has encouraged, and many of his followers are receptive to these values. And yet the worldview of white supremacy is completely incompatible with democracy. Further, the appeal of the language of division and hate finds a ready audience with many of his supporters; so extremist organizations are able to build support through racist appeals. It is difficult to see how to build a democratic consensus that incorporates the 30-40% of voters who support the right-wing extremist agenda. And this seems to take us back to the dynamics of anti-democratic authoritarianism described by John Keane above.

We need a new generation of political leaders and political theorists who can offer new ideas about how to build an American consensus in favor of democracy. Here is how an earlier post on this topic closed back in January (link):

Perhaps the identity that has the greatest potential for success in the U.S. is a movement based on “reasserting the values of democracy and equality” within the context of a market economy and a representative electoral democracy. This movement would demand tax policies that work to reduce wealth inequalities and support a progressive state; environmental policies that align the U.S. with the international scientific consensus on climate change; healthcare policies that ensure adequate universal insurance for everyone; immigration policy that made sensible accommodations to the realities of the current U.S. population and workforce, including humane treatment of Dreamers; and campaign funds restrictions that limit the political influence of corporations. The slogan might be, “Moving us all forward through social justice, economic innovation, and good government.” This might be referred to as “centrist progressivism”, and perhaps it is too moderate to generate the passion that a political movement needs to survive. Nonetheless, it might be a form of progressivism that aligns well with the basic pragmatism and fair-mindedness of the American public. 

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In a different vein, here are several performances of Aaron Copland’s 1942 powerful and moving Lincoln Portrait (linklink). Lincoln’s words begin at about the 8:00 minute mark.