Democracy Is Dying by Natural Causes

From Nazis to Newt Gingrich, a brief survey of the many ways government-by-the-people can perish from the earth.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich introduces Donald Trump during a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio. (John Sommers II/Getty Images)
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich introduces Donald Trump during a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio. (John Sommers II/Getty Images)

Toward what, exactly, are we plunging? We feel that the momentum of events is carrying us down toward something dreadful. Is it a return to fascism? Or will our future look something more like the Eastern European present — illiberal democracy? Or is technology so rapidly inflecting our lives that democracy is likely to give way to thing for which we currently have no name? And who is “we”? Is that the United States, which alone among Western nations has placed an enemy of individual freedom in the highest office? Or will a wider view show us that much of Europe is heading in the same direction? (Sunday’s election in Italy may serve as a weathervane.)

I have been reading the end-is-nigh books that the publishing industry has been pumping out recently like so many donuts. There’s How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt; How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman; The People vs. Democracy, by Yascha Mounk; and On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder. (I have written elsewhere of the kindred what-of-liberalism books.) You’d have to go back more than a century, to the 15 years before World War I, to find another moment when so many leading thinkers — Herbert Croly, Walter Weyl, Nicholas Murray Butler, and others — questioned democracy’s future. But at the time, nations had not yet surrendered to ideological totalitarianism. Whatever America and the West might have been plunging toward then was much less terrifying than it is today.

The most obvious and dismal analogy to our current moment is 1933. That is the premise of Snyder’s book, which is actually the sort of pint-sized impulse purchase usually put next to a bookstore cash register — the apocalypse reformatted as a gift concept. Appropriately enough, Snyder has 20 democratic lessons ranging from the fairly self-evident “Defend institutions” to the corny “Make eye contact and small talk.” He has written the Tuesdays with Morrie of anti-fascism.

Snyder draws on his immense knowledge of 20th century totalitarianism to offer parallels between those moments and our own. He quotes a German Jewish newspaper in the days after Hitler’s rise to power smugly rejecting the view that Hitler will do what he said he would do, since “a number of crucial factors hold power in check.” So, Snyder observes, many “reasonable people” think today, little reckoning how swiftly authoritarian leaders can turn on the very institutions that brought them to power.

We all think about 1933, of course. Isn’t that precisely the lesson of German acquiescence with Hitler’s rise? And just as Pascal argued that we’re better off betting on God’s existence than not, because the consequences are so much worse if we wrongly disbelieve than if we wrongly believe, so we’d be foolish to think, as the Germans did, “it can’t happen here.”

The problem with the Pascal analogy is that there are very real, and sometimes ruinous, consequences to betting on the unspeakable. When right-wing Jewish leaders, and their evangelical followers, say “never again,” they are trying to bully their opponents into defending Israel at all costs, preparing for war with Iran, abandoning the Palestinians to their fate, and so on. You do not negotiate with fascists; you armor yourself, and your institutions, against them, as Snyder advises. But it is a serious mistake to allow the very small possibility of catastrophe to obscure the far greater possibility of lesser ills. To say “1933” is to say to the people who voted for Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen or Brexit, “You are brownshirts.” But that eliminates many options.

Is it really 1933? Donald Trump would plainly like to be an authoritarian, and some fraction of his supporters would egg him on if he began dismantling key institutions. Fortunately, Trump has neither a plan nor the evil gifts required to sustain one. What’s more, American institutions are far stronger than those of any European country in the 1930s. Levels of political violence are much lower. As David Runciman notes, countries like Egypt and Turkey look much more analogous to Germany between the wars, while the European countries that succumbed to fascism have built up powerful immunities against it: Look at French voters’ passionate reaffirmation of “republican” values in the face of Le Pen. Runciman argues that Trump is never going to turn into Hitler, and probably rightly so. At the same time, Trump may represent something equally insidious, if less dramatic.

Insidious erosion is the leitmotif of How Democracies Die. Levitsky and Ziblatt (let’s call them L & Z for short) also scare us with tales from the fascist past. But the story they tell is one of a sapping of faith slow enough that it may pass unnoticed at the time. Democracies have “gatekeeping” mechanisms that keep anti-democrats from power; think of the center-left/center-right coalitions that now fence out far-right parties in much of Western Europe. How, L & Z ask, do those mechanisms come to fail? In the United States, they write, the Constitution filtered the choice of a president through an electoral college made up of political leaders. That role passed to the parties, which kept out right-wing cranks like Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. But party hierarchies began to collapse after the 1960s. In today’s Republican Party, the gatekeepers are Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and the National Rifle Association. They filter cranks in, not out. In Europe, charismatic individuals can create parties of their own, as Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the Le Pen family did in France. In the United States, where the electoral rules disfavor third parties, such an individual can conquer a party from the outside — at least he can if it’s the Republican Party. The gates stand open.

In Democracy in America — written at a time when the prospects of American democracy looked a good deal rosier than they do today — Alexis de Tocqueville observes that laws do more to shape the American republic than do the accidental benefits of geography, but that “custom,” which he defines as “the various notions and opinions current among men,” whether in the sphere of religion or civic life, has more influence than either. The word we use today for that mass of unexamined opinion is “norms.” Here L & Z make what seems to me a very important contribution to our understanding of why we’re heading wherever it is we’re heading. Functioning democracies, they argue, depend on two norms: mutual tolerance and forbearance.

The first, and more obvious, entails according legitimacy to our opponents. The populist hatred for elites has made this principle feel as archaic as the code of the World War I flying ace; a remarkable number of people on the right really did believe that Hillary Clinton is Satan. Republicans have been mining this vein since the party was taken over more than two decades ago by Newt Gingrich, whose famed soundbite rhetoric inspired the 1990 “GOPAC memo,” which urged GOP legislative candidates to use language to highlight their “optimistic positive governing” — flag, family, child, jobs — and “contrasting” vocabulary for describing their Democratic rivals: anti-, betray, cheat, corrupt, punish. Should the 1933 meme become general on the left, mutual intolerance will reign supreme on all sides.

Forbearance is a more elusive idea; L & Z describe it as the principled decision not to use all the powers at one’s disposal — to eschew “constitutional hardball.” When forbearance fails, democratic restraint comes to seem quaint. The authors describe the events leading up to the Chilean coup in 1973 as a mutually escalating game of constitutional hardball, each side doing everything in its power to block the other. In more advanced democracies, the failure of forbearance renders democracy increasingly nonfunctional, as it has with the rising use of the filibuster in Congress. The decision of Republican leaders in 2016 to refuse to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, constitutes an almost unprecedented breach of forbearance. And one failure inflames another, for a rival deemed illegitimate can hardly be afforded space to carry out his malevolent designs. Ultimately, the consequences may go far beyond gridlock.

This, then, is how democracies die: through the slow erosion of norms that underpin democratic institutions. Or perhaps we have the disease right, but the patient wrong. What does it mean to say that democracy is endangered when Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Law and Justice party were elected fair and square? Maybe the something that is dying is not “democracy.” According to Yascha Mounk, who is on the faculty at Harvard just like L & Z, democracy, understood as a political system designed to assure majority rule, is doing just fine, indeed all too well; what is under threat are the values we have in mind when we speak of “liberal democracy.” (The People vs. Democracy is an oddly misleading title; Mounk’s actual subject is “the people vs. liberalism,” or “liberalism vs. democracy,” though some editor must have prevailed on him to swallow the Godzilla vs. Mothra version.)

Mounk traces the rise of populist parties across Europe. What these parties have in common, he writes, is an eagerness to seize on majoritarian mechanisms — above all, the ballot — in order to promote a vision hostile to individual rights, the rule of law, respect for political and ethnic minorities, and the willingness to seek complex solutions to complex problems. This is illiberal democracy. “Democracy without rights,” as Mounk also calls it, is both a reaction to, and a provocation for, “rights without democracy,” or “undemocratic liberalism” — a formulation first made by the Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, though not credited here. Where majorities do not support liberal rights, or where it is reasonable to fear they won’t, elites create mechanisms, including judicial review, federal bureaucracies, international treaty bodies, that are only indirectly answerable to the public. Is that good, or bad? L & Z’s “guardrails” are Mounk’s abridgements of democracy. How, then are we to think about the relationship between liberalism and democratic majorities?

Liberal principles are not intrinsically majoritarian. John Stuart Mill, the eminent Victorian liberal philosopher, never trusted the broad public to protect individual liberty, and thus was quite content with an electoral system that denied the franchise to nine-tenths or so of English adults. Yet in the 20th century Western nations became both liberal and democratic. Why, today, do we see these two principles delaminating? Mounk concludes that liberal democracy flourished under three conditions: a mass media that filtered out extremism; broad economic growth and social mobility; and relative ethnic homogeneity. All three of those solid foundations have now crumbled away. And as they have done so, illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism have increasingly squared off against each other. The Brexit vote, to take only one example, posed liberal cosmopolites and European Union technocrats against “little Englanders” who longed for a world of vanished traditions and stable jobs. Mounk says that the time has come to reconsider the shibboleth that liberal democracies become “consolidated,” and are no longer at risk of backsliding, after two consecutive peaceful exchanges of power. Poland and Hungary, he observes, are “deconsolidating” into illiberal democracies before or eyes.

I am very much of Mounk’s mind, and have written extensively about the rise of illiberal democracy in Eastern Europe and here. But I wonder if, in fact, failures of liberalism and of democracy are reinforcing each other. Determined minorities have increasingly learned how to prevent majorities from turning their will into legislation. In the United States, this takes the form of business interests or groups like the NRA using their financial muscle to block popular legislation, and to advance their own interests. In France, by contrast, unions have been able to paralyze the country in order to kill labor market reforms. The state’s inability to govern alienates citizens from government itself and fuels anti-system parties. Voters turn to a figure like Donald Trump who claims he can solve the problem by himself. Plainly, he can’t. And yet in France, Emmanuel Macron, another anti-system leader with “Jupiterian” tendencies, is fighting an epic battle to show that democratic mechanisms can lead to real economic and social change. So far, he’s winning — a rare ray of hope in the West.

Is the liberal democratic spirit subject to renewal? We say that it is because we cannot bear the thought otherwise. But maybe it’s not. David Runciman approaches democracy not as a gifted surgeon trying to reattach a severed limb, but as a cultural anthropologist scrutinizing what may be an archaic civilization. Runciman questions the premise of “modernization theory” that democracy is the end point of political development. Perhaps democracies, like all things made by men, are mortal objects that age and die. Twenty years ago, the journalist and historian Robert Kaplan set the bien-pensant world on its ear by writing an essay titled, “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” In fact, democracy was then gathering speed. But perhaps he was only premature.

Runciman argues that while we scan the horizon for a new Luftwaffe, the ground is crumbling away beneath our feet. The coup d’état is now a strictly Third World affair; advanced democracies, by contrast, become endangered in the name of preserving democracy. Donald Trump’s supporters are quite sure that it is the liberal elite that is trying to steal democracy; they are trying to save it. Even if Trump is as dark a force as Timothy Snyder thinks he is, Runciman writes, we’ll never have the clarity we need to fight the good fight because he and his followers will be busy defending democracy from us.

Western democracies have been sorely tested before, Runciman says, whether in Europe in the 1930s or the United States in the populist era at the turn of the 20th century. But democracy was then young; the system had “slack,” as Runciman puts it. Democracies could respond to economic crisis by growing new capacities for state intervention. Now, Runciman hypothesizes, democracy is in “middle age.” The era of shape-shifting mutation lies in the past. If it is true, as Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that a brief and aberrational era of relative equality has now given way to the capitalist default of extreme inequality, does democracy have the capacity to change the rules in order to more justly distribute the fruits of enterprise? Probably not, says Runciman, with the dispassionate shrug of social science.

Runciman thinks that perfectly rational citizens might choose an alternative to democracy. For example, today’s pragmatic, non-ideological authoritarianism offers “personal benefits” like shiny consumer products, and “collective dignity” in the form of aggressive nationalism. That accounts for the appeal of both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. What about “epistocracy,” or rule by the knowledgeable few? Much likelier in Mill’s era, Runciman concedes, than our own. Maybe democratic mechanisms will be taken over by the internet. Or perhaps, as all the machines in our lives learn to talk to one another, and come to treat us as just so much data, the whole idea of discrete selves, with their accompanying packet of individual liberties, will become obsolete, and we will say that democracy was not only just a moment, but an analog moment. Runciman has a sufficiently low opinion of democracy’s ability to deal with really catastrophic problems like climate change that he does not shed a tear over the thought of its coming demise.

Those of us more squeamish than Runciman will not enjoy gazing over his shoulder as he dissects the democratic corpse. We will look to our more morally engaged authors for answers. Timothy Snyder would have us hug our loved ones and then stride forth into the world with flaming sword. I’m not down with that — at least, not yet. (By the time you’re ready, I hear Snyder mutter, it will be too late.) L & Z call on the GOP to drum out the authoritarians in its ranks — fat chance — and on the Democrats to more or less do what Democrats like doing, championing the cause of minorities but also designing programs that benefit the middle class. Mounk, more to my taste, says that liberals must take the concerns of illiberals more seriously, whether in the form of revamped immigration rules or of finding a new language with which to address the concerns of minorities and the marginalized.

Like most of our authors, I don’t like thinking about problems in the absence of solutions; I have a bias toward solubility. However, I have been brought up short by an observation I found in each of these works (save the Snyder pamphlet): Our good fortune depends on calamity. Runciman claims that democracies require the binding effect of all-out war to put an end to divisive populism and persuade citizens to make decisions in the public good. In the absence of war, natural disaster will do. Modern democracies don’t engage in all-out war, and cushion citizens against gross misfortune. Ergo, Runciman says, the rising tide of inequality, populism, conspiracy theories. L & Z observe that mutual toleration remained an unattainable good in the United States so long as Americans were divided by the great question of race. Only when Reconstruction failed, and the Republicans abandoned black citizens, did southern Democrats fully accept their place in the Union. And when the Democrats, in turn, took up the cause of civil rights after 1948, they reignited those old racial fears and ushered in our own era of mutual intolerance. Mounk, finally, points to the link between liberal democracy and ethnic homogeneity. Only after the savage ethnic cleansing of World War II eliminated much of Europe’s diversity, he argues, did democracies fully take root there. Now diversity threatens again: The greatest peril to liberal democracy in today’s Europe is nationalist outrage at immigration and refugees. “Does the ideal of self-government,” Mounk asks pointedly, “make it more difficult for a diverse set of citizens to live alongside each other as equals?”

Insofar as any or all of these observations are true, we must shed our end-of-history triumphalism for a more tragic sense of liberal democracy and its prospects. If, that is, inequality flourishes in conditions of peace, tolerance depends upon exclusion, or diversity undermines the commitment to liberalism, our deepest values will always be at odds with one another. Isaiah Berlin taught us that all good things do not and cannot go together, that liberalism thrives only amid a secular and skeptical pluralism; but the truth may be darker still. Perhaps every step forward requires at least half a step backward. Perhaps democratic majorities really will prove unappeasable without a real sacrifice of liberal values. That may be the destiny toward which we are plunging.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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