United States after the failure of democracy

Democracy is at risk in the United States. Why do leading political observers like Steven Levitsky and  Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) fear for the fate of our democracy? Because anti-democratic forces have taken over one of America’s primary political parties — the GOP; because GOP officials, governors, and legislators openly conspire to subvert future elections; because GOP activists and officials work intensively in state legislatures to restrict voting rights for non-Republican voters, including people of color and city dwellers; and because the Supreme Court no longer protects the Constitution and the rights that it embodies. 

Here is how Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize their urgent concerns about the future of our democracy in a recent Atlantic article (link):

From November 2020 to January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define prodemocracy parties. Because of that behavior, as well as its behavior over the past six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally. That’s why we serve on the board of advisers to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working to prevent democratic decline in the United States. We wrote this essay as part of “The Democracy Endgame,” the group’s symposium on the long-term strategy to fight authoritarianism.

Any reader of the morning newspaper understands how deadly serious this threat is. Many residents of Michigan find it absolutely chilling that the most recently appointed GOP canvasser for Wayne County has said publicly that he would not have certified the election results for the county in 2020 — with no factual basis whatsoever (link). With GOP officials in many states indicating their corrupt willingness to subvert future elections, how can one have a lot of hope for the future of our democracy?

So, tragically, it is very timely to consider this difficult question: what might an anti-democratic authoritarian system look like in the United States? Sinclair Lewis considered this question in 1935, and his portrait in It Can’t Happen Here was gloomy. Here is a snippet of Lewis’s vision of a fascist dictatorship in America following the election of the unscrupulous populist candidate Berzelius Windrip and his paramilitary followers, the Minute Men:

At the time of Windrip’s election, there had been more than 80,000 relief administrators employed by the federal and local governments in America. With the labor camps absorbing most people on relief, this army of social workers, both amateurs and long-trained professional uplifters, was stranded.

The Minute Men controlling the labor camps were generous: they offered the charitarians the same dollar a day that the proletarians received, with special low rates for board and lodging. But the cleverer social workers received a much better offer: to help list every family and every unmarried person in the country, with his or her finances, professional ability, military training and, most important and most tactfully to be ascertained, his or her secret opinion of the M.M.’s and of the Corpos in general.

A good many of the social workers indignantly said that this was asking them to be spies, stool pigeons for the American OGPU. These were, on various unimportant charges, sent to jail or, later, to concentration camps—which were also jails, but the private jails of the M.M.’s, unshackled by any old-fashioned, nonsensical prison regulations.

In the confusion of the summer and early autumn of 1937, local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists. (ch xvii)

But perhaps this is extreme. Foretelling the future is impossible, but here are several features that seem likely enough given the current drift of US politics, if anti-democratic authoritarian politicians seize control of our legislative and executive offices.

Undermining of constitutional liberties

  • weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other “chilling” legal mechanisms
  • weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines — “Critical Race Theory”, “Queer Studies”, “Communist/anarchist thought”, …
  • weakening of freedom of association through extension of police surveillance, police violence, “anti-riot” legislation limiting demonstrations, vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions

Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections

  • extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
  • unreasonable voter ID requirements
  • limitations on absentee voting
  • voter intimidation at the polls

The imposition of laws and mandates that are distinctly opposed by the majority of citizens by minority-party-dominated legislatures 

  • repressive and unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation
  • open-carry firearms legislation

Implementation of an anti-regulation agenda that gives a free hand to big business and other powerful stakeholders

  • weakening of regulatory agencies through reduction of legal mandate and budget

Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder

  • encouragement of social violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
  • persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities — immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, …
  • threats of violence and murder against public officials, journalists, and dissidents

These are terrible outcomes, and taken together they represent the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making. But what about the extremes that authoritarian states have often reached in the past century — wholesale persecution of “enemies of the state”, imprisonment of dissidents, forcible dissolution of opposition political organizations, political murder, and wholesale use of paramilitary organizations to achieve the political goals of the authoritarian rules? What about the secret police, the Gulag, and the concentration camps? What are the prospects for these horrific outcomes in the United States? How likely is the descent imagined by Sinclair Lewis into wholesale fascist dictatorship?

One would like to say these extremes are unlikely in the US — that US authoritarianism would be “soft dictatorship” like that of Orban rather than the hard dictatorship of a Putin involving rule by fear, violence, imprisonment, and intimidation. But actually, history is not encouraging. We have seen the decline of one after another of the “guard rails of democracy” in just the past five years, and we have seen the actions of a president who clearly cared only about his own power and will. So where exactly should we find optimism for the idea that an American Mussolini or Windrip would never commit the crimes of the dictators of the twentieth century? Isn’t there a great deal of truth in Acton’s maxim, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Here is Acton’s quote in its more extended context; and it is very specific in its advice that we should not trust “great leaders” to refrain from great crimes:

If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Would any of us want to trust our fate as free, equal, and dignified persons to the kindness and democratic values of a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump? 

The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of GOP politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the Trump years. This is not a struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.

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.

Tony Judt on twentieth-century Marxism

Tony Judt was especially astute when it came to linking history and intellectuals. One strand of thought in his collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, is a critical engagement with several twentieth-century thinkers associated with Marxism (and sometimes anti-Marxism), including Althusser, Kołakowski, E.P. Thompson (briefly), Raymond Aron (briefly), and Eric Hobsbawm. With the exception of Kołakowski, Judt’s perspective on these thinkers is negative, usually because of their failure to honestly reckon with the crimes of Stalinism (Althusser, Hobsbawm). And there is often a disparaging tone to his rhetoric.

In the case of Althusser Judt’s tone and critique are especially harsh. He portrays Althusser as an ignorant pundit rather than a serious philosopher, he finds Althusser to be contemptible for his efforts to gloss over the crimes of Stalinism, and he has complete scorn for Althusser’s “structuralism” as an explication of Marx’s theories. On Althusser’s ignorance of history and philosophy:

He seems to know nothing of recent history (among his howlers is an indictment of the “Polish fascist” Pilsudski for starting World War II). He appears only late in life to have discovered Machiavelli and other classics of Western philosophy, and he even admits to a skimpy and partial acquaintance with Marx’s texts (something one might have inferred from his published work). He is also unsophisticated to the point of crudity in his political analysis. He seems to have learned nothing and to have forgotten nothing in the last twenty years of his life. Thus there is much talk of “the hegemony of bourgeois, imperialist capitalism”; and he is dismissive of the dissidents of the Soviet bloc (“cut off from their own people”) and contemptuous of writers like André Glucksmann for “putting around unbelievable horror stories of the Gulag.” Those words were written in 1985! (p. 113)

Judt believes there is no content to Althusser’s “theory of structural practices”. And this shortcoming dovetails with the issue of Althusser’s failure to confront Stalinism:

This subjectless theory of everything had a further virtue. By emphasizing the importance of theory, it diverted attention from the embarrassing defects of recent practice. In such an account, Stalin’s crime was not that he had murdered millions of human beings, it was that he had perverted the self-understanding of Marxism. Stalinism, in short, was just another mistake in theory, albeit an especially egregious one, whose major sin consisted of its refusal to acknowledge its own errors. (p. 108)

I am inclined to agree with Judt’s assessment of Althusser’s structuralism. My own assessment in The Scientific Marx (1986) of Althusser’s structuralist Marxism was negative as well:

A second important example of this “theoretist” approach to Capital can be found in structuralist Marxism, particularly that of Althusser and his followers. In this case, instead of an economic interpretation of Marx’s system, we find an effort to describe Capital as a general theory of the “structures” that define and animate the capitalist mode of production. For example, Hindess and Hirst hold that Capital is fundamentally an abstract theory of the capitalist mode of production that derives the “logic” of the system from the concept of the mode of production. Here too the aim is to portray Capital as a unified set of theoretical principles, with the rest of the work being treated as illustrative material or derived consequences. This account shows the same predisposition identified earlier to construe Capital as an organized theoretical system, and the same reductionist necessity to downplay those portions of the work which cannot be easily assimilated to the theoretical model. (Scientific Marx, 17)

Judt’s discussion of Leszek Kołakowski gives special attention to Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown and is much more favorable. 

It is quite impossible to convey in a short review the astonishing range of Kołakowski’s history of Marxist doctrine. It will surely not be superseded: Who will ever again know—or care—enough to go back over this ground in such detail and with such analytical sophistication? Main Currents of Marxism is not a history of socialism; its author pays only passing attention to political contexts or social organizations. It is unashamedly a narrative of ideas, a sort of bildungsroman of the rise and fall of a once-mighty family of theory and theorists, related in skeptical, disabused old age by one of its last surviving children. (132)

Judt believes that Kołakowski arrives at a fundamental insight about the role of Marxism in 20th-century history — the propensity of his followers to regard Marx’s writings as total theories encompassing both the present and the future. These forms of dogmatism laid the seeds of the totalitarianism of Communism as a political-economic system:

Solving the problems of mankind in one stroke; seeking out an all-embracing theory that can simultaneously explain the present and guarantee the future; resorting to the crutch of intellectual or historical “systems” to navigate the irritating complexity and contradictions of real experience; saving the “pure” seed of an idea or an ideal from its rotten fruit: Such shortcuts have a timeless allure and are certainly not the monopoly of Marxists (or indeed the Left). But it is understandably tempting to dismiss at least the Marxist variant of such human follies: Between the disabused insights of former Communists like Kołakowski and the self-righteous provincialism of “Western” Marxists like Thompson, not to speak of the verdict of history itself, the subject would appear to have self-destructed. (136)

Judt also provides an extensive discussion of E.P. Thompson’s polemic with Leszek Kołakowski:

The “Open Letter” was Thompson at his priggish, Little-Englander worst: garrulous (the letter runs to one hundred pages of printed text), patronizing, and sanctimonious. In a pompous, demagogic tone, with more than half an eye to his worshipful progressive audience, Thompson shook his rhetorical finger at the exiled Kołakowski, admonishing him for apostasy: “We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956. . . . We both passed from a frontal critique of Stalinism to a stance of Marxist revisionism. . . . There was a time when you, and the causes for which you stood, were present in our innermost thoughts.” How dare you, Thompson suggested from the safety of his leafy perch in middle England, betray us by letting your inconvenient experiences in Communist Poland obstruct the view of our common Marxist ideal? (p. 136)

This portrait has much of the rhetorical excess from which Judt’s polemical essay “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) suffers in regard to Judt’s treatment of Charles Tilly (link), and seems to reflect intellectual animus as much as substantive critique. A clear indicator of the animus: after discussing Kołakowski’s response to Thompson, Judt writes a few lines later: “No one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again” (136). That is a bit hard, given that few historians would doubt the importance, rigor, and enduring insights of Thompson’s most important work, The Making of the English Working Class (link). 

Judt believes that Marxism was historically important in the twentieth century, but its importance was largely destructive. Judt believes that Marxism gave rise to social and political theories that led fairly directly to Communist totalitarianism. So he argues that it is of more than academic interest for us to try to understand the nature of Marxist thought throughout the first half of the century.

Marxism is thus inextricably intertwined with the intellectual history of the modern world. To ignore or dismiss it is willfully to misinterpret the recent past. Ex-Communists and former Marxists—François Furet, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kołakowski, Wolfgang Leonhard, Jorge Semprún, Victor Serge, Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Manès Sperber, Alexander Wat, and dozens of others—have written some of the best accounts of twentieth-century intellectual and political life. Even a lifelong anti-Communist like Raymond Aron was not embarrassed to acknowledge his undiminished interest in the “secular religion” of Marxism (to the point of recognizing that his obsession with combating it amounted to a sort of transposed anticlericalism). And it is indicative that a liberal like Aron took particular pride in being far better read in Marx and Marxism than many of his self-styled “Marxist” contemporaries. (137)

Marxism was important, Judt believes, because it gave a unified narrative that ordinary engaged people could understand about how society might move forward to a more just future.

The Marxist project, like the older Socialist dream which it displaced and absorbed, was one strand in the great progressive narrative of our time: It shares with classical liberalism, its antithetical historical twin, that narrative’s optimistic, rationalistic account of modern society and its possibilities. Marxism’s distinctive twist—the assertion that the good society to come would be a classless, post-capitalist product of economic processes and social upheaval—was already hard to credit by 1920. But social movements deriving from the initial Marxian analytical impulse continued for many decades to talk and behave as though they still believed in the transformative project. (138)

Most importantly, Marxism highlighted the features of contemporary capitalist society that were most visible and repellent to ordinary people: exploitation, alienation of ordinary life, inequality, and the indignities of class. However, for a number of years, the Marxist narrative appeared to be refuted by the postwar expansion in the standard of living, the accessibility of public education, and health and welfare protections.

Marxism, as the Polish historian Andrzej Walicki—one of its more acerbic critics—openly acknowledges, was the most influential “reaction to the multiple shortcomings of capitalist societies and the liberal tradition.” If Marxism fell from favor in the last third of the twentieth century, it was in large measure because the worst shortcomings of capitalism appeared at last to have been overcome. The liberal tradition—thanks to its unexpected success in adapting to the challenge of depression and war and bestowing upon Western democracies the stabilizing institutions of the New Deal and the welfare state—had palpably triumphed over its antidemocratic critics of Left and Right alike. A political doctrine that had been perfectly positioned to explain and exploit the crises and injustices of another age now appeared beside the point. (140)

But — as Judt recognizes in the final few pages of the essay on Althusser — twenty-first century capitalism persists in presenting humanity with many of the same crippling problems that Marx identified in the nineteenth century: staggering inequalities, extensive deprivation for working class and underclass men and women, and alienating forms of daily life. The seemingly unbridled power of corporations to have their way in the market and in public policy makes the language of civic equality seem hollow. And we now know the terrible potential of right-wing extremist movements — whether National Socialism in the 1930s or right-wing nationalist populism in the 2000s — to mobilize mass support for dictatorship and repression. The stability of liberal democracies is no longer assured; authoritarian leaders like Orban, Erdogan, and Trump have demonstrated their willingness to smash democratic institutions and norms. 

Judt argues that intellectuals and social change have always gone hand in hand; intellectuals help us think about the future and how to create a pathway of progress to better circumstances for humanity. Judt plainly rejected the notion that Marxism could play that role. But in the current moment, we have a deficit of convincing intellectuals and broad social movements that might help us envision and secure a more egalitarian democracy. We urgently need broad and appealing visions of a more palatable future for all members of society. Where are the social thinkers who will speak for progressive liberal democracy? Rejecting “Marxism” cannot be extended to intolerance of creative thinking by a range of democratic socialist theorists. Social democracy, democratic socialism, and non-Marxist socialist thought are broad and important ideas in our current context. Are there socialist thinkers in the past who gave greater attention to individual freedom and wellbeing whose work repays a rereading (for example, Alexander Chayanov, murdered by Stalin in 1937 (linklink))? Do contemporary thinkers like Erik Olin Wright and others associated with the Real Utopias project have important contributions to make in the current setting (link)? We need progressive public intellectuals who can speak to the disaffected in contemporary society; otherwise, the Orbans and the Trumps will pursue their politics of division and hate, and will determine our futures in quite ugly ways. (Quite a few earlier posts have addressed this problem — for example, linklinklink.)

(For what it is worth, the Democracy Index estimates that the most democratic nations in the world are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Australia, Switzerland. Significantly, the Nordic countries make up five of the top ten nations on this list — nations that have adopted strong versions of “social democracy” as a foundation for their social contract. This too is part of the progressive tradition of thought within which Marx did his work.)

Explaining GOP behavior

If only Chuck Tilly were still with us … I’d give a lot to hear his interpretation of the behavior of GOP officials throughout large swaths of the country, in state governments and in Congress. But I’d like to hear from Cicero, Machiavelli, and Hannah Arendt as well. Perhaps only theorists who have witnessed the collapse of a republic can find the words necessary to describe our current condition when it comes to the behavior of our GOP politicians. What has become of a simple and principled dedication to the principles of democracy? What has become of politicians who care more about the wellbeing of our country than about their own political fortunes? What has become of integrity?

Think of the range of extremism from the right to which our country is now subject: extremist elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, and other seemingly unhinged political voices channeling QAnon; servile compliance with the lies and authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump by establishment politicians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Kevin McCarthy; and the concerted efforts by Republican majorities in Red states to restrict access to the right to vote, aimed at communities of color. These seem to be separate manifestations of a broad impulse towards raging, irrational authoritarianism on the part of virtually all segments of GOP leaders and rank and file politicians. There are the small number of anti-Trump Republican leaders like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and others. But they seem to be almost invisible embers in the conflagration of our current crisis. 

So how should we understand the motivations of these various players? The first group seem easiest to understand. These are the political entrepreneurs selling their snake-oil to the extremist fringe, the base, of ideologically disaffected people on the extreme right. They both pander to these emotions of suspicion, distrust, antagonism, and hatred, and they fan them. This is the right wing extremism that Cas Mudde dissects in his books and writings about right wing populism (for example, The Far Right Today and (with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser) Populism: A Very Short Introduction).

The second group seems to fall in the obvious category of cynical, unprincipled, and craven politicians who have no commitments beyond their calculations about retaining their offices and keeping a majority of voters in their districts. His history makes it apparent that Mitch McConnell is nothing more than a cynical political operative in the strict Machiavellian sense. Manipulating outcomes in support of his party and his own personal political fortunes is his entire story. The Twitter hashtag #ProfilesinCowardice is entirely descriptive of this group.

GOP figures in the third group — elected officials holding majorities in legislatures in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, … — are also unprincipled, but their motives are clear and goal-directed. They are looking to change the rules of the game, through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and new restrictions aimed at reducing the votes going to their Democratic rivals. This effort has been underway for decades and has accelerated in the past two years. Their efforts aren’t about ideology or rhetoric, but instead aimed at securing a permanent grip on power. They are blatantly anti-democratic; they care nothing about the sanctity of the vote and the right to vote for everyone, irrespective of race, wealth, or political preferences. They care only about their own party’s ability to dominate their state’s legislature. And there is a sub-text: the shifting demographics of the US population towards greater diversity is profoundly unsettling to these politicians, and they are doing what they can to stave off the political changes that these shifts seem to imply. (For extended analysis, see Kloos and McAdam, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

The themes that cut across all three groups are insidious: white supremacy, xenophobia, rejection of the legitimacy of government, and a willingness to believe even the most absurd conspiracy theories. These themes contribute to a potent and toxic mix — witness the fantastically unconstitutional effort to enact legislation banning “Critical Race Studies” from schools and universities (link). How can such an effort be understood as anything but a totalitarian effort at imposing thought control on teachers and students? What became of our liberal conviction that independence of mind is a cherished part of a democratic citizen?

What is most worrying about these separate threads is how they converge on a broad and powerful assault on our democracy. And they come together as well in contributing to a broad anti-democratic constituency drawing large numbers of voters. 

Our democracy is at risk, and people of integrity need to speak up for our basic values: the rule of law, the fundamental equality of all, the inviolability of our rights and liberties, and the crucial requirement of neutrality of state institutions across persons and parties. Recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s fears for the trajectory and fate of contemporary American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

How can we find our way back to a shared social understanding — a social compact — about the framework of our democratic society and its crucial importance for the future of our country? How can political leaders and followers alike be helped to see that a democracy depends upon trust, upon dedication to the integrity of our political institutions, and a degree of good will by all for all? How can we reclaim our democracy from those who seem determined to destroy it?

The great threat to democracy

Democracies have fallen to strongmen, tyrants-in-waiting, bullies, thugs, spewers-of-bombast. But these powerful personalities are not the greatest threat to democracy today. The greatest threat is a loss of trust in the institutions and offices of a democratic society, on the part of the citizens of the democracy. And what are these institutions? Courts, judges, police; legislatures, representatives, agencies; election officials and procedures; tax authorities; presidents and governors.  

Here is a recent Pew survey on trust in government that provides disturbing reading (link).

As the report emphasizes, the current period is a low point in public confidence in government since the 1950s, with over 75% of the public expressing trust and confidence in government during the Johnson administration and under 30% expressing trust in government during the Trump administration. (At present only 9% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters express trust in government.) Here is a similar report from the OECD reflecting 2019 data (link), indicating a similar but less drastic fall in trust in European democracies as well.

In 2014 John Tierney undertook to analyze variations in trust in government across the states of the United States (link). The variation across the states is striking, from North Dakota and Wyoming showing levels of trust in excess of 75% and Illinois at about 28%. And Tierney tries to identify some of the factors that would help explain this variation. (It would be very interesting to re-examine Tierney’s analysis and the Gallup data for the past several years; it would seem likely that the data will have changed substantially since 2014.)

Why has there been such a precipitous decline in trust in our democratic institutions? This is not a mystery. Right-wing media, cynical politicians, lying youtubers, passionate conspiracy theorists … anti-democratic activists and opportunists have taken every opportunity to undermine, discredit, and subvert our political institutions. Right-wing politicians, cable news pundits, and social media voices actively seek to further their own careers and fortunes by actively generating suspicion, doubt, and mistrust of virtually everyone they can. Tucker Carlson is only the most visible example of this cynical and dishonest approach.

Why is the odious and deliberate strategy of cultivating mistrust so invidious to the future of democracy? Because our democracy depends crucially on the endurance and fairness of our institutions; but it is clear that institutions have no underlying, enduring source of stability. There is no solid granite underlying the judiciary or the system of voting; an institution lacks a “skeleton”. Unlike a towering modern building which maintains its integrity of steel girders long after its external architectural elements have degraded, an institution is more like a collective but real illusion. When we stop believing in the institution, it immediately begins to die. Institutions depend upon the continuing support and adherence of the individuals who fall within their scope. In a sense, institutions have more in common with the social reality of “money” than with that of a coral reef. In order for a paycheck for $1,000 to be real for me, I must also believe and understand that it is also real for other people — and that 1/100 of that check will buy a meal for two at Wendy’s and 1/4 of it will be accepted by my landlord as payment for a week’s rent. Without that collective ongoing belief in money, the currency has no social reality whatsoever. But likewise — citizens will engage in a system of voting only if they believe that the votes will be counted honestly and the candidate with the most votes will be sworn into office. 

What does it take to sustain trust in an institution? One favorable feature supporting trust is institutional transparency. “Blind” trust is hard to sustain; trust is more stable when it is based on a continuing ability for participants to see how the institution is functioning, how its actions and outcomes are brought about, how its officials and staffers conduct their work. This is the reason for “sunshine” laws about public institutions. And the less gap there is between private and public reasons for action, the more reasonable citizens will have confidence in their government.

A related feature of a trustworthy institution is the reputation for integrity possessed by its officers. If most citizens in a state have a fairly direct personal relationship with a handful of legislators, and if they believe, based on their acquaintance, that these legislators are honest and committed to the public good, then they are more likely to have confidence in the institution as well. (This is one of the arguments made by Tierney in the 2014 Atlantic article mentioned above.) Conversely, if legislators engage in behavior that makes the citizen doubt their integrity (corruption, lying, conflict of interest), then citizens’ trust in the institution is likely to fall.

A third feature of governments that instills trust in their citizens (highlighted by the OECD report above) is competence and effectiveness by government in performing the tasks needed to secure the common good. The OECD report summarizes its recommendations in these terms: 

OECD evidence shows that government’s values, such as high levels of integrity, fairness and openness of institutions are strong predictors of public trust. Similarly, government’s competence – its responsiveness and reliability in delivering public services and anticipating new needs – are crucial for boosting trust in institutions.

When governments fail in crucial tasks affecting the health and safety of large numbers of citizens — for example in managing COVID vaccination programs, or administering disaster relief after natural disasters — it is understandable that public trust in government would fall.

Several earlier posts (linklinklink) have explored the “moral emotions of democracy” and how to enhance them. Plainly, cultivating trust in our democratic institutions is an urgent need if our democracy is to survive. And, like a house of cards or a carefully balanced pile of field stones, our institutions will only be stable if there is a persistent pattern of mutual reinforcement among institutional rules, official behavior, and citizen awareness and trust in government.

(Pew has also done some important survey work on the challenge of regaining trust in democracy; link. Also of interest is a very interesting 2011 research conference paper by Juan Castillo, Daniel Miranda, and Pablo Torres exploring the connections that appear to exist between Social Dominance Orientation, Right-Wing Authoritarian Personality, and the level of trust individuals have in government; link. SDO and WRW are explored in an earlier post.)

(See Paul Krugman’s very ominous diagnosis of the state of our democracy; link.)

Remembering MLK

Our democracy is shaken by the extreme right today, and racism lies at the bottom of the fears and antagonisms that have been used to stir up violent actions and threats against our government and our democratic institutions. Republican leaders, Fox News executives and personalities, incendiary conspiracy-theory followers, ordinary Americans everywhere … step back from the precipice, recall for yourselves what our American democracy can be, and step back to embrace the democratic values that we all must share. Dr. King helped us with his vision and his activism. But more than fifty years after his murder, our country has not embraced the vision of equality and multi-racial democracy for which he advocated, and for which he gave his life.

Here is a beautiful contribution to the NPR Story Corps that records Clara Jean Ester’s memory of being present for Dr. King’s final speech in Memphis and his assassination at the Lorraine Motel (link). It is an amazing piece of historical memory and deeply moving. 

And here is a short excerpt from Dr. King’s speech at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, in which he speaks of the arc of history (link). It speaks to a fundamental confidence in the eventual triumph of the struggle for freedom and equality. Was Dr. King right?

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. MLK, March 31, 1968

Trumpism and Hannah Arendt’s reflections on totalitarianism

In a recent post I considered Hannah Arendt’s reflections on what she termed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Her observations in The Origins of Totalitarianism amount to less than a developed theory of a political system, and more of a case study of two unusual political regimes that did their ugliest work at roughly the same time in history. Are there any themes in Arendt’s observations that seem relevant to the current day, and the political experience of the last four years of the presidency of Donald Trump?

Plainly the United States did not become a dictatorship during the Trump years; it did not witness mass violence against “potential enemies of the state”; it did not result in the wholesale transformation of Federal police agencies into the private secret police of the Leader. The term “totalitarian” cannot be applied to the United States in 2020. The rule of law was repeatedly flouted by Trump and his administration, but in the end Trump did not prevail in his most authoritarian impulses.

And yet there are a number of worrisome parallels between Arendt’s diagnosis of the workings of the National Socialist and Soviet regimes and the political developments we have witnessed in the United States since 2017. Here are several that seem salient.

Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or world-view, often involving racism and social division. It is Arendt’s view that totalitarianism is defined by ideology, whether left or right, secular or religious, coherent or incoherent. Hitler’s commitment to world hegemony and his profound program of anti-Semitism constituted an ideological system which governed virtually all actions of the Nazi regime, according to Arendt. Likewise, the Soviet Union was guided by a mish-mash theory of communism that it pursued at all costs. It is plain that Trumpism possesses an ideology and a worldview, and that this ideology has substantial components of racism, division, and hate. Moreover, Trump’s coterie has included ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who actively worked within the administration to turn the details of that ideology into policies and actions. It hasn’t seemed to matter that the premises of this worldview are odious to the majority of Americans, or that the policies that emanate from this worldview are objectively harmful to US economic and international interests; the ideology drives the actions of this administration. And it is quite clear that Trump’s base of supporters — perhaps 40% of voters — have bought into the ideology, thanks to the persistent propaganda offered by right-wing social media, YouTube conspiracy videos, Fox News, and Trump’s own Twitter feed. 

Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions. Arendt documents the consistent strategies used by Hitler and Stalin to destroy institutional and legal obstacles to their will. Trump’s obvious and continuing contempt for the institutions of law, the processes of elections, and the judiciary makes plain his desire to cripple or destroy the institutions and practices of liberal democracy that interfere with his exercise of personal will. His willingness to assault the judiciary when it fails to support him and his relentless attacks on the press illustrate the same impulse.

Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives. Arendt documents the crucial role that violent paramilitary organizations played in the rise of Hitler to power, and to his continuing exercise of power. This appeal to illegal violent actions was subsequently incorporated into the workings of elite secret police groups like the SS. Trump’s unwillingness to denounce the violent behavior of white supremacist groups who use violence and the threat of violence to press for Trump-ideology policies is well known. It seems evident that he welcomes threatening demonstrations by armed groups like the Proud Boys in support of his groundless claims of “election fraud”. And his administration’s appalling use of armed and anonymous Federal officers in unmarked vans to quell protests during the months of Black Lives Matter protests is very reminiscent of both Germany and the USSR during the worst times.

Fundamental deference to the Leader. Arendt argues that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the USSR differed from other dictatorships in the extreme power and voice they created for the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. In Arendt’s view, both Hitler and Stalin were highly adept at preventing the emergence of possible coalitions of policy-makers, generals, or bureaucrats who could oppose their will; instead, the ultimate authority was in the hands of the Leader, and subordinates were subject to constant suspicion and threat of dismissal, arrest, or death. Trump hasn’t locked up his subordinates for perceived disloyalty; but he has taken consistent steps to take away the power of agencies (EPA, CDC, State Department, Interior, Voice of America), to appoint loyalists in every possible position, and to remove subordinates who failed to show the required level of deference to his Twitter preferences. His plain view is that he is “the decider” and that every office of government needs to follow his will.

Persistent use of lies and fabrications. Arendt refers to the worldview of the Nazis or the Stalinists as a false reality, a fake world, and the whole force of the propaganda tools of the party and state is devoted to making people believe the false narrative rather than the obvious truth. This is highly resonant with the experience of politics under Trump’s direction over the past four years. How many lies have Trump and his many spokespersons and advocates told since January 2017, beginning with lies about the size of the Inauguration crowd? The number is astounding. Some of the lies are laughable — crowd size, for example; and others are seriously dangerous to our democracy — lies about fraud in the 2020 election. Lying and fabrication are regarded as perfectly legitimate political tools by the Trumpist party, and the lies are believed by “true-believer” followers.

Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders. What about the other powerful actors in society — in the Weimar Republic during Hitler’s rise, or within the Communist Party before Stalin’s absolute hegemony was established? These independent sources of political power could not be tolerated by the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. They needed to be coopted, or they needed to be eliminated. Hitler and Stalin used both strategies. Trump has only needed the strategy of cooptation and intimidation; he has succeeded in threatening, intimidating, and coopting the members of his party to provide almost unconditional support for his most outrageous demands. This has been most evident during the period since November 3, when any honest observer will recognize that a fair election took place and Trump lost; whereas the vast majority of GOP legislators and other leaders have fallen in step behind Trump’s groundless claims about election fraud. (Here is an earlier discussion of the phenomenon of “collective abdication” in times of political crisis; link.)

Fellow-traveler organizations. Arendt maintains that Nazi and Soviet dictatorships differed from other forms of authoritarian states in their efforts to cultivate and convey power through “fellow traveler” organizations — social and political organizations that were not part of the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, that were not visibly committed to the most extreme ideological positions of the party, and yet that were supportive of its ideological goals and positions. Arendt believes that this was a key mechanism through which these parties gained mass following — even when their actions were contrary to the interests of many of the men and women who supported the “fellow-traveler” organizations. This feature seems relevant to our current circumstances when one considers the common view, “I don’t support all of the President’s wildest views, but I like his style.”

So it turns out that Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s highlights a number of important features that are familiar from the political strategies of Trumpism. Trump’s presidency has involved a mass-based movement mobilized around a unified ideology that isprofoundly contemptuous of existing political institutions and that embraces the symbols and reality of political violence. Further, this movement is organized around a provocative and boundary-smashing Leader who promotes lies and fabrications as basic tools of political advancement, and who makes racist antagonism against a part of the population a central theme of mobilization. And we have the phenomenon of moral abdication by other leaders and political power-holders in the face of the Leader’s will — perverse and anti-democratic as it may be. Thus Arendt’s inventory of totalitarian methods shines a bright light on the perils Donald Trump has created for our democratic institutions, practices, and values. Donald Trump did not create a totalitarian state in America. But he and his collaborators embodied many of the techniques and practices that resulted in anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes in other countries in the last century, and they have created genuine risks for the future of our own institutions of liberal democracy. 

Hannah Arendt was writing about other countries, and she wrote over fifty years ago about events that took place as long as eighty years ago. So maybe her observations are historically irrelevant to the politics of the present day. But recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contemporary fears for the trajectory and fate of American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

Here is Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism in his very good book on the origin and dynamics of twentieth-century fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (218)

Paxton’s analysis is drawn from the history of Italian and German dictatorships; but the terms of this definition are disturbingly contemporary. Only the goal of “external expansion” finds no real counterpart in Trumpism; it is replaced by an aggressive doctrine of “America First!” as the keystone of international policy.

Now is a good time to re-read Tim Snyder’s observations and advice in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Here are five observations from On Tyranny that seem especially pertinent.

1 Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

2 Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.

3 Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.

6 Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

20 Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Conservative and progressive forms of democracy

An earlier post suggested that we cannot really address the issue of the stability of liberal democracy without considering issues of economic justice as well. 

It is worth separating the features of a modern society into the “liberal democratic” cluster and the “social democratic” cluster for a reason that is familiar from Rawls (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement). Rawls argues that the stability of a just society depends on finding an “overlapping consensus” of values that converge to provide support for the existing system. Different groups have different “comprehensive conceptions of the good” which disagree with each other and give rise to different goals for legislation. But agreement about rights and democratic process may provide a basis for an overlapping consensus across these differences. In the United States and Britain it seems that agreement about individual rights and liberties and the institutions of majoritarian democracy are likely to fall within the overlapping consensus in those countries, whereas the social and economic assumptions of the “social democracy” cluster are likely to remain controversial and to fall outside the overlapping consensus. This seems to imply that the social-welfare and redistributive provisions of the social-democracy cluster are appropriate content for majoritarian legislation, not constitutional stipulation.

So let’s consider the issue in a broader canvas. Suppose that we are thinking of a just liberal democracy as including these elements, as outlined in the prior post: (1) a set of constitutional guarantees of equality and key individual rights, and (2) a set of social and economic guarantees establishing a reasonable level of human wellbeing for all members of society. Together these clusters of features establish the nature of a social democracy. These ideas capture the idea of equal freedom and rights within an overarching system of law, in which each individual is free to pursue his/her purposes as desired, limited only by the constitutional and legal protections of the rights of others, and the rights of the minority. Further they capture the value of the equal worth of liberty — the material requirements necessary for the exercise of freedom. And they conform well to Rawls’s principles of justice; the “constitutional guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the liberty principle, and the “social-economic guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the difference principle.

But here is the complication. “Liberal democracy” is best defined as a system that embodies a constitutional system that establishes inviolable rights and liberties for all individuals along with majoritarian principles in the establishment of legislation. The constitutional protections are prior to majoritarian legislation in the sense that ordinary legislation does not have the authority to create laws that violate the rights guaranteed in the constitution. (The constitution can be amended, of course, through a clearly defined process, and a process that generally involves a super-majority for completion.) But the “social democracy” provisions fall outside the overlapping consensus, and they would need enactment through normal majoritarian processes of legislation.

So the two groups of items do not play the same role within a given liberal democracy. The items mentioned under the list of liberal guarantees of equal rights are constitutional provisions, not subject to ordinary majoritarian legislation. But the items listed under the “social democracy” clauses are not constitutional provisions; rather, they would be established through ordinary political processes of legislation and majoritarian politics. This is because legitimate disagreement over these provisions persists among reasonable people, and therefore these provisions do not fall within the “overlapping consensus”. (This distinction parallels the structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in that the first batch of rights are “negative” rights, while the second batch are “positive” rights.)

And we are forced to ask the question: in a modern society much like our own, governed by constitutional protections like those listed in (1), would the provisions described in (2) ever be enacted through a democratic majoritarian process of legislation? It is clear that in most advanced democracies the statements under (2) fall at the heart of profound political and ideological disagreements: the idea of using the coercive power of the state to limit inequalities of wealth, the idea of using taxation (redistribution) to provide for basic amenities for poor people, the idea of establishing strong regulatory systems designed to protect the health and safety of the public — these are all policies that are strongly opposed by conservatives. These are precisely the kinds of issues over which parties of the left and the right disagree in many democracies; in Britain the Conservatives reject the redistributive policies advocated by Labour Party, in the US the Republicans reject “welfarist” or “socialist” policies advocated by the Democratic Party, and so on. The ensemble of assumptions listed here describes “liberal social democracy”, which is a substantively stronger assumption about a just society than simply a “liberal democracy”.

Crucial parts of a progressive agenda for a just society are encompassed by the constitutional assumptions listed here. Liberal democrats are anti-racist, anti-discrimination, political-egalitarian, and insistent on equal and neutral application of the system of law. And historically, many conservative leaders and parties have shared these commitments. But progressives and conservatives are likely to disagree strongly about the second batch of assumptions about a good society. And since we are committed to democracy, we are committed to the idea that a functioning democracy that respects the provisions of (1) but rejects one or more provisions of (2) is no less democratic for that difference.

So the question comes down to this: would the system that combines (1) and (2) — a liberal social democracy — find majority support in some or many existing democracies?

It would seem that there is nothing in the social-democracy list of conditions (2) that would be limiting or unpalatable for most ordinary people; on the contrary, these circumstances of an effective liberal social democracy would seem to be ideal for ordinary people to fulfill themselves and to live satisfying lives. And these arrangements seem to give a basis for confidence in the wellbeing of future generations as well.

But not everyone would reach the same judgment about these arrangements. Here are some likely exceptions.

  1. People who expect to be super-rich. Their wealth and their political influence are likely to be limited and constrained by these arrangements.
  2. People who want to exercise authority and privilege over others — based on race, ethnicity, sex, or other human categories. The arrangements described here are specifically designed to prohibit and deny practices that embody domination and control — racial, ethnic, or gender superiority.
  3. People who feel that their own value system, or their religious system, is inherently correct and privileged, and would not want important social decisions to be left to the rule of law and the will of the majority.
  4. People who are ideologically committed to the principle of a minimal state: no use of the coercive power of the state beyond the maintenance of order, defense, and the bare minimum of regulation for health and safety. 

These are the kinds of exceptions that Rawls attempts to head off using the idea of the veil of ignorance: if people don’t know that they are rich, male, white, Christian, or powerful, then they are well advised to protect their future selves by favoring principles of equal liberties, minimal inequalities, and strong guarantees of basic wellbeing. Rawls believes we get unanimous rational support for a just society if participants do not know their eventual position in that society. Behind the veil of ignorance everyone would support the arrangements of a liberal social democracy.

But real political disagreements do not take place behind a veil of ignorance. In realistic arenas of political disputes we have to accept the fact that individuals have full knowledge of their positions, including wealth, power, race, religion, ideology, and sex. Under those conditions we can expect that individuals will form their political beliefs and affinities in consideration of their interests, values, ideologies, and predilections (including possibly “social dominance orientations” or beliefs of racial and ethnic superiority). They will give their support to candidates and parties that best conform to those beliefs and affinities. And there are some configurations of interest and affinities that would lead individuals to support an authoritarian party or leader whom they expect to favor their interests (and whom they believe they can collectively influence and control). Given that the majority of voters are likely to support the institutions and values of a liberal social democracy, this means that these anti-liberal voters are inclined to favor the fortunes of political parties committed to minority rule over the majority. Here is the authoritarian impulse from the populist voter’s point of view: “This particular authoritarian populist politician shares my values and will act in such a way as to impose them on society; I can trust this politician to serve my interests and values.” 

Here is what the populist anti-liberal strategy looks like: identify groups of potential supporters, based on mistrust of other racial groups, antagonism towards elites and urban populations, as well as support motivated by fervent religious and ideological activism; identify potential sources of large-scale funding for political mobilization among the super-rich who will benefit from anti-liberal economic and tax policies (e.g. Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson); identify powerful communicators in media, social media, and other venues to craft and disseminate effective mobilization messages (Fox, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson); pressure and subvert traditional conservative political organizations in support of the radical populist agenda; and — as Steve Bannon said — “wage war on liberals”. This strategy isn’t likely to produce an electoral majority, but it doesn’t need to, if it is possible to suppress the votes of the other side and to achieve power through other means.

In fact, we seem to be in such a circumstance at the present moment in the United States. The presidential election took place more than four weeks ago, and Joe Biden has beaten Donald Trump by more than seven million votes, and has won a sizable majority in the Electoral College. And yet there appear to be many millions of citizens who continue to support Trump during his undisguised attempt to overturn this democratically completed election. Millions of voters are apparently untroubled by this authoritarian “strongman” effort to remain in office following decisive electoral defeat. For these voters the stability and persistence of our constitutional democracy is not of primary concern; rather, they believe the strongman will serve them well. And his willingness to subvert and destroy our democratic institutions does not discredit him in their eyes.

This line of thought leads to a nightmare possibility: neither “laissez-faire” democracy nor social democracy is politically stable. Neither traditional conservative Republican economic policy nor reform-minded Labour or Democratic policies can retain a majority. Laissez-faire democracy loses support because it creates increasingly intolerable conditions for a growing proportion of the working population; social democracy loses support because right-wing populist political movements are able to use their mobilization strategies to gain support from the less-well-off segments of the ordinary working class population. The winner? Right-wing populist illiberal democracy, with strongman populist authoritarianism in the driver’s seat. And we have precisely such examples in the world today, in the form of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

Social democracy, unbridled capitalism, and right-wing populism

An earlier post raised the question of popular support for — satisfaction with — the state of democracy in many democratic nations. It was noted that levels of satisfaction are low in many democracies — US, UK, France, and Spain, for example (link). There I defined liberal democracy in these terms: a political system in which there are strong protections for the rights and liberties of all citizens, including minority groups, and which embodies effective institutions of electoral representative democracy and equal rights of political participation. We were then led to question whether citizens in a liberal democracy would develop strong “civil loyalty” to the institutions and values of democracy.

But this is deliberately a narrow way of posing the question. It asks a question about the political institutions of a country, but is silent about the economic and social institutions. And it is possible, or likely, that dissatisfaction in the US, UK, or France is based on economic or social dissatisfaction rather than frustration with the system of individual rights and majoritarian government by itself. So, for example, Justin Gest argues in The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality that the marginalization and disaffection of white working class men and women in Youngstown, Ohio, and East London, UK, stem from social and economic causes as well as frustration with the system of electoral politics in which they find themselves.

There are at least two important schools of thought about the character of the social and economic arrangements suitable to a free society of equals. The laissez-faire philosophy — unbridled capitalism — entails that property rights should be subject to minimal constraint, and only for the purpose of fair taxation in support of legitimate (and limited) governmental functions. This philosophy depends upon a specific theory of liberty — liberty to own property as a fundamental aspect of one’s nature as a free human being. Freedom means pursuing one’s own plans in one’s own way, without unjustified interference by the state. This is an idea familiar from John Locke and Robert Nozick.

The social-democratic philosophy takes “freedom” in a broader and more comprehensive form: a person is free when he or she has both the liberty and the capacity to pursue important life objectives in an autonomous way. And having the capacity means having access to the basic essentials of a fully productive life: adequate income, effective education and training, decent housing, sufficient nutrition, access to healthcare, and security in the face of life’s common sources of insecurity. On this conception of freedom, the state needs to be organized in such a way that the political liberties of individuals are respected and — through one set of institutional arrangements or another — individuals have the ability to develop and realize their talents through access to these essentials of life. This positive conception of human freedom — “freedom to … ” rather than “freedom from …” — has its affinities with the political philosophies of Rousseau and Sen.

More specifically, the social-democracy philosophy holds that property rights can be constrained for two separate reasons: for the purpose of limiting “invidious and unjustified” economic inequalities, and for the purpose of supporting the costs of government programs that provide amenities to citizens: free public education, access to healthcare, unemployment and disability insurance, housing assistance, childcare assistance, nutrition assistance, …. There is also an underlying idea about society as well — not simply a neutral playing field where individuals compete against each other, but as a system of cooperation in which everyone gains from the cooperative actions of others.

Suppose that we are thinking of a liberal democracy as including these elements, with a choice in the “flavor” of economic arrangements:

1. Constitutional guarantees

a. a constitution establishing key human rights and freedoms — freedom of thought and expression, freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of association, equal rights under the law.

b. a political system of equal rights of political participation — voting, competing for office, advocacy of policy and legislative initiatives, …

c. an effective constitutional protection for full and fair equality of economic and social opportunity

d. a representative democracy embodying the principle of equality of influence for all citizens (no privileging of influence for one group or community over another through artificial barriers to participation)

2a. Social democracy

a. a social-economic system that limits the extent of inequalities of wealth and income

b. a social-economic system that succeeds in satisfying the basic human needs of all members of society — education, healthcare, access to decent housing, …

c. a system of law and regulation that ensures public health, wellbeing, and safety

d. a fiscal system that suffices to ensure limitations on wealth and provision of mandatory social services and benefits

2b. Laissez-faire democracy

a. a social-economic system that enables all citizens to purchase and sell capital and labor power through fair markets without coercion.

b. a minimal “social security” net to prevent starvation in times of dearth.

c. a system of law and regulation that maintains public order, enforces individual rights, and ensures the requirements of a fair market system.

d. a fiscal system that suffices to provide funds necessary for (b) and (c) as well as national defense.

Liberal laissez-faire democracy is characterized by (1) and (2b), while liberal social democracy is characterized by (1) and (2a), and the major ideological divide between progressives and conservatives involves disagreement over the choice between (2a) and (2b). 

Now we can ask two fundamental questions. Which system is likely to be supported by a majority of citizens through the democratic political processes guaranteed by a constitution along the lines of (1)? And which system is likely to give rise to strong sentiments among its citizens of civic loyalty and satisfaction for the resulting social-economic-political system?

Many people would argue that a society is unjust if there is such a division between rich and poor that — as a practical matter — the life prospects for the less-well-off are dramatically worse than those of the rich. The laissez-faire model (2b) is almost certain to lead to exactly such extreme inequalities between rich and poor, and to create a social and economic environment in which the wellbeing of the well-off is dramatically and visibly superior to that of the less-well-off. And, further, it can be strongly argued that the provisions of (2a) work to substantially lessen those unjust inequalities. 

This would be a reason for citizens in the less-well-off population to support legislation establishing the provisions of (2a); and given the relative sizes of the populations of privileged and non-privileged people, one might expect that there would be an electoral majority in favor of (2a). But the history of many western democracies suggests that the political consensus for the measures of social democracy — a strong welfare state — is difficult to sustain. Conservative and right-wing populist parties are currently in the ascendant.

So we seem to have reached a conundrum: liberal social democracy is likely to do a substantially better job of ensuring the freedoms and wellbeing of the great majority of the population than liberal laissez-faire democracy, and the level of satisfaction and civil loyalty of the majority of the population is likely to be higher under this system than its contrary. And yet the political strategies available to conservatives — including strategies of ethnic, racial, and regional antagonism and division — have often permitted them to gain electoral support for the provisions of laissez-faire economic arrangements. They can’t make their political arguments on the basis of traditional conservative economic arguments, which have all the persuasive power of a really great North Korean feature film — that more inequality is better for everyone because growth trickles down, or that corporations are naturally disposed towards enhancing the public good, or that “creative destruction” and loss of decent jobs is good in the long run; so they are forced to turn to “cultural” issues.

Seen in this light, the politics of right-wing populism make sense as a winning strategy through which economically privileged groups  are able to gain the support of working class voters in favor of economic and tax policies that objectively work to their disadvantage. Racism, nationalism, divisive demagoguery, and hot-button “social” issues like abortion, gun rights, and the Confederacy prove to be potent political motivators. But the irony is that a successful social democracy might well have created conditions of fairness and equality for all segments of society that would deflate the appeal of right-wing populism. 

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.