Review

Party Animals

New books assessing democracy suggest how to fix things—but it’s complicated.

A preservationist cleans around a painting of the Founding Fathers at the U.S. Capitol.
A preservationist cleans around a painting of the Founding Fathers at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 12, 2021, in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack by supporters of then-President Donald Trump. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

More than half a decade of intense debate on what is now routinely referred to as a crisis of democracy hasn’t produced much in the way of remedies. It has clarified, however, intellectual and political battle lines. On one side are the so-called institutionalists: scholars and politicians who aim to defend existing democratic bodies, such as independent courts, against all manner of wreckers and norm-breakers. On the other side are those who see such institutionalists as complacent defenders of a pre-crisis status quo that cannot—and should not—be restored. Two noteworthy recent books on threats to democracy both fall into the institutionalist camp but still offer very different answers to the question of how best to defend and, ideally, deepen democracy: One looks mainly to the rule of law, while the other gestures at transformations of party politics.

Allan J. Lichtman, a well-known scholar of U.S. political history, focuses on the troubles at home. Partly because U.S. President Donald Trump was so savvy at—to borrow a phrase from his onetime strategist Steve Bannon—“flood[ing] the zone with shit,” one might easily forget many of his seemingly endless scandals, misdemeanors, and violations of even the most basic precepts of political ethics. Lichtman’s new book, Thirteen Cracks: Repairing American Democracy After Trump, helpfully groups these various breaches together in separate categories in order to identify 13 particularly vulnerable points in American democracy, or what he calls “cracks,” in language echoed by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who worries about “how ruinous these cracks in our democratic foundation can be.”

Lichtman’s book reads like an exercise in Trump detox. In 13 concise chapters, he offers to patch the cracks he identifies with various forms of—well, pick whatever metaphor might fit—caulking, dry wall, bricks and mortar, or something stronger still. The fact that he advertises his remedies as “simple, quick, and practical” would appear to suggest caulking.

More than half a decade of intense debate on what is now routinely referred to as a crisis of democracy hasn’t produced much in the way of remedies. It has clarified, however, intellectual and political battle lines. On one side are the so-called institutionalists: scholars and politicians who aim to defend existing democratic bodies, such as independent courts, against all manner of wreckers and norm-breakers. On the other side are those who see such institutionalists as complacent defenders of a pre-crisis status quo that cannot—and should not—be restored. Two noteworthy recent books on threats to democracy both fall into the institutionalist camp but still offer very different answers to the question of how best to defend and, ideally, deepen democracy: One looks mainly to the rule of law, while the other gestures at transformations of party politics.

Allan J. Lichtman, a well-known scholar of U.S. political history, focuses on the troubles at home. Partly because U.S. President Donald Trump was so savvy at—to borrow a phrase from his onetime strategist Steve Bannon—“flood[ing] the zone with shit,” one might easily forget many of his seemingly endless scandals, misdemeanors, and violations of even the most basic precepts of political ethics. Lichtman’s new book, Thirteen Cracks: Repairing American Democracy After Trump, helpfully groups these various breaches together in separate categories in order to identify 13 particularly vulnerable points in American democracy, or what he calls “cracks,” in language echoed by Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who worries about “how ruinous these cracks in our democratic foundation can be.”

Thirteen Cracks: Repairing American Democracy After Trump, Allan J. Lichtman, Rowman & Littlefield, 224 pp., .95, November 2021; Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities: A Study of Fifty Democracies, 1948-2020, Eds. Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano, and Thomas Piketty, Harvard University Press, 656 pp., .95, December 2021

Thirteen Cracks: Repairing American Democracy After Trump, Allan J. Lichtman, Rowman & Littlefield, 224 pp., $21.95, November 2021; Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities: A Study of Fifty Democracies, 1948-2020, Eds. Amory Gethin, Clara Martínez-Toledano, and Thomas Piketty, Harvard University Press, 656 pp., $39.95, December 2021

Lichtman’s book reads like an exercise in Trump detox. In 13 concise chapters, he offers to patch the cracks he identifies with various forms of—well, pick whatever metaphor might fit—caulking, dry wall, bricks and mortar, or something stronger still. The fact that he advertises his remedies as “simple, quick, and practical” would appear to suggest caulking.

Yet fixing institutions, for Lichtman, often means creating new institutions to protect the old ones. To counteract presidents whose understanding of the office amounts to “I can do whatever I want” (including “I can say whatever I want”), he suggests a Court of Presidential Directives, which would swiftly resolve litigation challenging presidential directives. He also envisages a congressional ombudsman on truth to provide fact checks, though it remains unclear whether strongly committed partisans—be it among members of Congress or the public—would trust such a figure. Anticipating the inevitable invocation of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, Lichtman insists that the ombudsman would merely “correct the lies of federal officials,” not indoctrinate citizens.

In some cases, existing bodies would have to be strengthened by giving them more resources—here Lichtman points in particular to the Government Accountability Office. If all that is not enough, a more punitive approach is recommended: Officials defying subpoenas should be slapped with hefty fines; those who fail to report foreign solicitation during an election campaign ought to face criminal charges.

Less obviously, the overall architecture of U.S. institutions needs to be adjusted, Lichtman argues. For instance, a high firewall ought to be erected between the White House and the Justice Department to prevent Trumpian attempts to make attorneys general into something like personal lawyers. In the same spirit, lines separating the military from politics should be clarified and enhanced to avoid service members being used as props—in ways that Trump, a notorious draft dodger, did regularly.

The list of fixes is long—there are so many cracks to be filled, from barring nepotism to protecting inspectors general. But it eventually dawns on any attentive reader of this catalogue of Trumpian malfeasance that the trail of misdeeds did not begin with him and that cracks have characterized the history of the republic from the very beginning. True, the Trump years witnessed much that was unprecedented: No president had sued media outlets before; no one had forced White House staff into signing nondisclosure agreements. But, to pick just one example, an unjustified increase in the number of political appointees and the overclassifying of government records had already been hallmarks of the George W. Bush administration. And Bush, to some degree, already realized the nightmare vision of a “smarter Trump” that many pundits today fear—a future when a much worse authoritarian winter might be coming.

For the most part, Lichtman’s proposals are eminently reasonable, and the recent passage of the Protecting Our Democracy Act in the House of Representatives—with support from all Democrats plus lone Republican Adam Kinzinger—shows that at least one side of the aisle agrees with the kinds of fixes Lichtman has in mind. Whether they are truly “quick” and “simple” is another matter. The historian himself acknowledges that filling cracks is a necessary but insufficient condition to winterize U.S. democracy. He points to a need for “civil virtue” and claims that a better-educated citizenry would also amount to a more civic-minded people. Of course, whatever the problem, more education is always a plausible answer, and, in the abstract, nobody’s ever completely against it. But as the current Republican propaganda about critical race theory shows, the finer details of education have already become raw material for the right-wing polarization machine. Such a machine reliably produces culture war divisions that, as the political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson have shown, benefit the conservative donor class, above all.

Beyond the worry that no fix ever implements itself, one wonders whether a narrow fixation on Trump’s misdeeds might not blind us to other, as-yet-unexplored ways of weakening, or outright destroying, democracy. The scenario of a smarter version of Trump is perhaps not the most likely one; rising Republican stars such as Sen. Josh Hawley do not have the same popular culture cache, let alone mass appeal, without which Trump’s initial success in 2016 is incomprehensible. But the danger of generals always fighting the last war is real. If the Virginia gubernatorial election last November is any guide, the next political war could involve a division of labor between a reasonable-enough-seeming candidate and a Trumpian incitement machine that runs in parallel to make sure his more cultlike followers turn up at the polls.

Lichtman’s commonsense solutions might well be rejected by those unable to transcend partisan conditioning. Such voters might not agree that, at least in some areas, as the historian puts it, the “safeguard of democracy is more democracy.” If one is convinced that making it easy for people to vote is actually a perfidious plot against America, then, as Lichtman observes in a moment when his confidence in fixes sags, “the nation is crashing toward two separate democracies”—or, rather, one more-or-less functioning democracy and one where only white Christian conservatives are deemed proper citizens.


Activists demonstrate during International Women’s Day in Barcelona, Spain.

Activists demonstrate during International Women’s Day in Barcelona, Spain, on March 8, 2019, as unions, feminist groups, and left-wing parties called for a work stoppage to mark the date. PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images

The United States might remain exceptional in ever so many ways, but it is, of course, part of a much larger trend of democracies in decline. Not even the vexing problem of having a two-party system in which one party is turning against democracy is an exclusively American one; just think of Poland or India, at least at the national level. In fact, countries governed by right-wing authoritarian populists exhibit striking similarities: tinkering with basic rules to make elections less fair, intimidation of civil society, and all-out attacks on a free press and opposition parties, to name just the most obvious.

This prompts the urgent question whether similar outcomes are an indication of similar underlying causes—in particular, whether right-wing populism is really a revolt of the people left behind by globalization, as conventional wisdom among many in the pundit class would suggest.

This is not quite the question asked in Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities: A Study of Fifty Democracies, 1948-2020, a doorstopper volume edited by the eminent French economist Thomas Piketty, along with Amory Gethin and Clara Martínez-Toledano, two social scientists associated with the World Inequality Lab. In truth, it is not entirely clear what really guides this ambitious inquiry into party systems in 50 different democracies other than what the editors self-consciously call a “modestly descriptive” objective: to map “factual regularities and transformations in the socioeconomic structure of electoral coalitions, political cleavages, and social inequalities.” In plain language: how different forms of inequality are politicized—or not, as the case may be—and given voice among rival parties in well-established and emerging democracies.

Piketty, Gethin, and Martínez-Toledano build on one of the most celebrated accounts in political science, formulated by two towering figures of the discipline in the late 1960s: the Norwegian sociologist Stein Rokkan, a founding father of comparative politics, and the American Seymour Martin Lipset, whose seminal studies on the relationship between status anxieties, resentment, and populism are receiving renewed attention today. The two had proposed the notion of “cleavages” to explain the concrete shape of different party systems. Cleavages are about conflicting interests and can only be understood as the outcome of particular critical junctures in a nation’s history—which is why they do not look identical even among Western democracies.

Lipset and Rokkan held that large transformations, such as the consolidation of the nation-state and the Industrial Revolution, created different cleavages in different countries; less obviously, they also argued that, once cleavages had become politicized—for instance, through regular battles between bourgeois and socialist parties or secular states and church representatives—particular party systems became “frozen,” even if the underlying clashes of interests were no longer red-hot with political passion, so to speak. Writing in the late 1960s, they remarked on how similar party systems were still compared to those of the 1920s—concluding that whatever parties were successful around the time when mass suffrage was introduced tended to dominate democracies for long periods.

While this account can sound like a form of determinism—the shape of party systems is predictable once the underlying fractures in a society and the timing of democratization are understood—the precise shape of political competition is often contingent on other factors. Not all potential conflicts can be represented in a democracy at the same time; political elites—and, in particular, political entrepreneurs who seek to mobilize citizens—can, to some degree, pick and choose which conflicts to emphasize. Democratic politics is not just driven by demand; suppliers crucially shape the electoral market. Just think of the ways in which Washington politicians for decades kept racial injustice in the American South off the table for debate, let alone legislative action, as a potential cause for wider conflicts (something conveniently forgotten by those nostalgic for a bygone era of bipartisan bonhomie).

Party systems frozen in time, almost by definition, fail to respond to ever-changing societies.

Recent years have seen an inflationary use of the phrase “crisis of representation,” the idea that parties (and policy programs) fail to respond to citizens’ actual—as the inevitable phrase goes—grievances: Party systems frozen in time, almost by definition, fail to respond to ever-changing societies, as parties’ programs are relatively inflexible. Just think of the time it took for green parties to find a proper foothold even in political systems with proportional representation; unfreezing can happen, but, like any thawing process, it takes time. Then there is the rather different worry that too many overlapping cleavages spell trouble for democracy as such: Citizens no longer recognize why they should all be in the political game together, as they appear to share nothing in common with those regularly on the other side of conflicts. At best, democratic politics becomes—to stick with the temperature metaphors beloved of comparative politics scholars writing after Lipset and Rokkan—a cold civil war, a diagnosis that many observers would argue applies to the United States by now (making one yet again doubtful of Lichtman’s proposed fixes).

If, in the laconic but quite profound definition of the political scientist Adam Przeworski, democracy is a “regime in which incumbents lose elections and leave office if they do,” always having the same losers on each issue can turn into a mortal threat to the system itself. The threat is compounded, according to many observers, if conflicts are primarily about identity and not material interests. On the latter, it is often said, one can rationally compromise; by contrast, with identities much more is at stake, and negotiations, or so conventional wisdom has it, are virtually impossible when it comes to, for example, religious claims ultimately grounded in revelation or historical injustices: One either recognizes them or not.

It is against the background of such challenges that the urgency of the rather dry analyses contained in this 656-page volume becomes clear. The contributors look closely at election surveys (not unusual); they also, rather than just studying different occupations to identify cleavages, base their accounts on differing levels of education, income, and, where available, wealth (which is more unusual and allows for novel insights). This focus is inspired by an idea Piketty put forward in work published after his 2013 surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Conflict in Western democracies, he has argued, can increasingly be understood as pitting a “Brahmin Left” against a “Merchant Right.” Translation: Social democratic parties used to be preferred by those with low income and low education, whereas conservatives were supported by the well-off and well-educated. Today, by contrast, the left has its electoral base among the most educated (and it’s not an accident that a Labour leader such as Tony Blair famously called for “education, education, education” as opposed to transferring income); meanwhile, the right still, for the most part, relies on business elites and the wealthy.

The implication is, of course, that those with low income and low education are not really represented. They therefore might stop going to the polls altogether or become mobilized (and, from a left-wing perspective, one might say misled) by a right that offers nativism, endless culture war, and low taxes for the wealthy—what some call plutocratic populism, with U.S. Republicans a prime example. In either case, we have an explanation for why inequality has been increasing so dramatically in the ways that Piketty and many others have been documenting: It’s the politics, stupid.

The studies assembled by Piketty, Gethin, and Martínez-Toledano all eventually say something about a possible “reversal of the educational divide”—that is to say, the more educated they are, the more likely people are to vote for left-leaning parties—to the emergence of a “multi-elite party system” comprising Brahmins and Merchants. But it turns out that the pattern originally identified by Piketty is actually not present in all established democracies; there are very clear exceptions, such as Ireland and Portugal, whose politics can still be understood in terms of traditional class conflict (even if, with the former, the picture is complicated by religious differences).

A simple story according to which workers have abandoned left-leaning parties for the far-right—the pet theory of pundits who implore social democrats to stop pursuing identity politics and to leave vulnerable minorities to their own fate—gets only very limited support here: As other scholars have argued, at least European social democratic parties have in fact lost many highly educated voters to green parties (and sometimes the center-right), and preexisting cleavages between cities and the countryside explain the vote for the far-right often better than cliched accounts of white male workers feeling neglected. The working class, as the influential Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde has long been arguing, is hardly uniformly white anymore; it is certainly not just male; and, in any case, it has been shrinking, unless one takes “working class” unambiguously to include the service sector. A left looking to the future would be ill-advised to turn its back on vulnerable minorities, not least because young people tend to be more educated and progressive (never mind that flaunting disavowals of identity politics to please an ever smaller group of white men with authoritarian attitudes would also be plain wrong morally).

For much of the 20th century, women in Europe tended to vote more for the right; today, they are likely to opt for social democratic and, especially, green parties.

Here, a finding from Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities is particularly pertinent. What is sometimes called a “modern gender gap” is the outcome of another dramatic reversal: For much of the 20th century, women in Europe tended to vote more for the right; today, they are likely to opt for social democratic and, especially, green parties. This reversal is most pronounced in countries with deep religious cleavages, as women also used to be more religious. It has become conventional wisdom that the secularization thesis—the more modern a society is, the less religious—has been disproven by the much-touted “return of religion.” Yet the volume not only confirms that secularization is a long-term trend; it also shows that the continuous strength of religious identities by no means spells bad news for progressive democratic forces. For instance, in Western Europe, Muslim minorities overwhelmingly vote for the left.

To be sure, there’s also plenty of bad news: Religion can be manipulated such that socioeconomic conflict becomes, as the editors put it, “almost insignificant.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extreme, and often outright deadly, Hindu nationalism is an example. But it would be wrong to conclude that any conflict over identity must turn toxic: Taiwan and South Korea are riven by divisions over their relationships with China and North Korea, respectively, but remain fairly well-functioning democracies; meanwhile, in Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party bucked the trend picked out by Piketty and went from being a party for the well-educated to one supported, above all, by low-income and low-educated voters. While Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was particularly appealing to evangelicals, the fact remains that the election of this aspiring authoritarian was much more a result of class politics—in particular, what the authors of the Brazil chapter call a “squeezed middle class”—than a matter of anything plausibly understood as identity politics.

The honest conclusion of Piketty, Gethin, and Martínez-Toledano must thus be: It’s complicated. And, to their credit, it is indeed one that the editors draw when they admit that they harbor a preference for class-based cleavages but cannot in good faith argue that all identity-based conflicts have to turn into “forms of irresolvable tribalism.”

Acknowledging complexity is not the same as claiming that politics is always irreducibly particular, let alone that outcomes in different countries are arbitrary. The diagnosis of a “reversal in education”—the shift of the educated to the left—and rising inequalities can be confirmed for France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, for instance. A conflict between, in shorthand, “globalists” and “nativists”—pitting high-income and high-education parties, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s, against low-
education, low-income ones, such as the right-wing Marine Le Pen’s—is also real but only in particular contexts and only as a result of particular critical junctures, in Rokkan-Lipset-speak.

Political Cleavages and Social Inequalities contains a wealth of information. Like Piketty’s previous work, it is based on the idea that the truth can be found in large databases and that it can set us free: We should not be misled by conventional narratives about inevitable results of globalization or technological change but recognize instead that democratic politics means having choices. Of course, not everything is always possible—the chapters contain potted political histories spanning hundreds of years precisely to demonstrate that where you are now depends on where you came from. In that sense, unlike with previous calls for taxes on the wealthy issued by Piketty, no immediate prescription follows—there’s no simple and quick fix. Ideally, though, institutionalists ready to tinker would take inspiration from the insights offered about the 50 democracies covered here and formulate more precise accounts of which political forces might actually unite to fix things.

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and also a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. His latest book is What Is Populism?

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