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American democracy has faced worse threats than Donald Trump

American democracy has faced worse threats than Donald Trump
10 May
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A university recently invited me to participate in a forum considering this question: Has American politics ever been this bad? The answer, clearly, is that it has been much worse. We had a Civil War, after all. Congress worked out proposals to eradicate and subjugate Native American tribes. We interned families of Japanese descent. We pitched into the Iraq War based on lies. But the fact that the university was posing the question, and seriously, speaks to the anxiety of this age.

Every morning feels like a fresh emergency. We wake to hear the president of the United States rage that the election was rigged, that a “deep state” is plotting against him, that the press has too much freedom, that he intends to jail his political enemies and sue those who might embarrass him and fire those who don’t protect him.

The distance between the indicators of American prosperity and the unease that permeates American politics is vast. Despite 3.9 percent unemployment, a booming stock market, and relative peace abroad, only 38 percent of people say the country is on the “right track.” A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll found that 71 percent of Americans believe our “problems have reached a dangerous new low.”

Bookstores are filling with dire warnings about the future of our system. There’s Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, Amy Chua’s Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, and Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, to name a few of the best explorations of the topic. And there are anxious analyses of Trump’s undemocratic rhetoric and impulses from people like, well, me.

Demonstrators at the second annual Women's March in New York City on January 20, 2018.
Demonstrators at the second annual Women’s March in New York City on January 20, 2018.
L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

“The United States of America is in a better place today than we have almost ever been in the history of our country,” says Mitch Landrieu, the Democratic mayor of New Orleans. “We’re economically stronger than anybody in the world; we’re militarily stronger. The job creation over the last 80 months has been pretty spectacular. We’re not in the worst place that we’ve been historically. So why are we feeling so agitated with each other?”

The frameworks offered by the political scientists are dire. In The People vs. Democracy, Mounk argues that liberal democracy — “the unique mix of individual rights and popular rule that has long characterized most governments in North America and Western Europe” — is decomposing into warped incarnations of its constituent elements: illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism. “The question now is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age — and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt,” he writes.

In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that “two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.” Those norms, they say, are rapidly eroding, and America’s democratic future hangs in the balance.

Immersing myself in the growing literature of American decline has been a disorienting experience. These are persuasive, thoughtful analyses that match the anxiety I feel. Donald Trump’s illiberal impulses are real, and the way much of the electorate and most of the elected Republican Party has chosen to accept them chills me.

But reading these books raised a question for me: is this really a uniquely alarming moment in American life? Is the future of liberal democracy so much less sure today than it has been in our recent past? The more I looked for answers to that question, the less certain I became.

A shining city on a bloody hill

The triumphant story we tell about American history can obscure both the extent of our progress and the fragility of our consensus. To see what we are, or what we may become, requires clarity about what we have been. And what we have been is violent, disordered, undemocratic, and illiberal on a scale far beyond anything the United States is undergoing today.

You do not need to go back to the country’s early years — when new arrivals from Europe drove out the Native Americans, brought over millions of enslaved Africans, and wrote laws making women second-class citizens — to see it.

Just a few decades ago, political assassinations were routine. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy was murdered on the streets of Dallas. In 1965, Malcolm X was shot to death in a crowded New York City ballroom. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, as was Robert F. Kennedy. In 1975, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, standing about arm’s length from President Gerald Ford, aimed her gun and fired; the bullet failed to discharge. Harvey Milk, the pioneering gay San Francisco city supervisor, was killed in 1978. President Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981; the bullet shattered a rib and punctured a lung.

For much of the 20th century, the right to vote was, for African Americans, no right at all. Lynchings were common. Freedom Riders were brutally beaten across the American South. National Guard members fired on, and killed, student protesters at Kent State. Police had to escort young African-American children into schools as jeering crowds shouted racial epithets and threatened to attack.


Violence broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Urban riots ripped across the country. Crime was rising. The US launched an illegal, secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. Richard Nixon rode a backlash to the civil rights movement into the White House, launched an espionage campaign against his political opponents, provoked a constitutional crisis, and became the first American president driven from office by impeachment proceedings.

Ian Haney López, director of the Racial Politics Project at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas Institute, calls the 20th-century United States “a herrenvolk liberal democracy” — a democracy for the majority ethnic group but something very different for the rest of society. “That herrenvolk liberal democracy solved major problems for whites,” says Haney López. “It solved the problem of national identity. It solved the problem of how to ensure wealth in society was continuously pushed downward and outward, so prosperity was shared and broad. For whites, democracy was working very well.” But for nonwhites, America was neither liberal nor a democracy.

During this era, there were regions of America that arguably weren’t democratic at all. In his book Paths Out of Dixie, Robert Mickey argues convincingly that much of the American South was under one-party authoritarian rule until the mid-20th century. It was only “with the abolition of the whites-only Democratic primary in 1944 and continuing up through the national party reforms of the early 1970s” that the South — and thus America — actually democratized.

This is not a counterintuitive take on American history, by the way. Among experts, it is closer to the consensus. The Varieties of Democracy project, which has been surveying experts on the state of global democracies since 1900, gave the US political system a 48 on a 1-100 scale in 1945 and a 59 in 1965. It was only after the civil rights movement that America began scoring in the 70s and 80s, marking it as a largely successful democracy.

The era that we often hold up as the golden age of American democracy was far less democratic, far less liberal, far less decent, than today. Trump’s most intemperate outbursts, his most indecent musings, pale before opinions that were mainstream in living memory. And the institutions of American politics today are a vast improvement on the regimes that ruled well within living memory.

Japanese American families arriving at Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in northwest Wyoming on January 01, 1942. The camp was one of ten concentration camps used for the internment of Japanese Americans.
Japanese-American families arriving at Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwest Wyoming on January 1, 1942. It was one of 10 concentration camps used for the internment of Japanese Americans.
Myron Davis/LIFE/Getty Images

Our checkered past is not ignored in the more recent literature on democratic decline, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. Indeed, both How Democracies Die and The People vs. Democracy include excellent, insightful discussions of this history. But I don’t think the brutality of our past is taken sufficiently seriously in informing the analysis of our present.

Levitsky and Ziblatt, for instance, write that, “The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion.” It’s an unsettling analysis that raises the question of how long, exactly, America has actually been a democracy.

Much punditry about this era — including my own — has been even more ahistorical. In the story we tell of America, this violence and tumult and repression is absorbed into a tale of progress — a country gaining in power and prosperity, inching ever closer to the fulfillment of our founding ideals.

“America is aspirational,” says Carol Anderson, the author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation’s Divide and a professor of African-American studies at Emory University. “That is part of what sets it apart. Marginalized people have used those aspirations to say, ‘This is what you say you are, but this is what you do.’ But what also happens is those aspirations get encoded as achievements. You get this longing for a mythical past.”

Believing in a mythical past makes it hard to assess a grim present. The head-snapping transition from Barack Obama’s presidency to Donald Trump’s can seem like a betrayal of the American story, evidence that something has gone radically and unexpectedly awry. Much of today’s conversation presents American politics as falling from a state of liberal democratic grace.

Dream Act supporters in New York City on February 15, 2018.
DREAM Act supporters in New York City on February 15, 2018.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

In my reporting, Trump’s presidency has been less surprising, and often less alarming, to those with a more realistic view of America’s racial past. There is a strange comfort in recognizing that for all Trump’s illiberal antics, it was the very architecture of American politics, not just the president, that was deeply illiberal and undemocratic in living memory.

“This idea that we have achieved liberal democracy and Trump is taking us back from this achievement is inaccurate,” says Sarah Song, a UC Berkeley political theorist who focuses on issues of American citizenship. “Illiberal strands have been with us all along, and Trump is able to tap into those.”

A fair question, however, is whether the tumult of our past has much bearing on the threats of our present. As Mounk told me when I posed some of these questions to him, “I don’t know how helpful it is to say to a 70-year-old guy, ‘When you were 35, you had a heart attack; it was touch-and-go there, but you got through it. Now you have cancer, but you’ll get through it.’ The answer to that is that was a different disease at a different point.”

But what if it wasn’t a different disease?

Periods of racial progress trigger periods of political instability

In White Rage, Carol Anderson reflects on the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the way the nation has always been transfixed by black rage, by images of “rampaging, burning, and looting.” But not all rage is so visually arresting. “White rage is not about visible violence,” she writes, “but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly. Too imperceptibly, certainly, for a nation consistently drawn to the spectacular — to what it can see.”

This point — that we see some deviations from a peaceful, liberal, democratic system more clearly than others — is useful for thinking about both our past and our present. Trump’s anger, paranoia, dishonesty, and illiberalism operate at human scale, in 140-character bursts. His behavior would worry us if we saw it in our spouse, our neighbor, our boss. You don’t need to dig through court documents or follow the machinations of congressional procedure to be alarmed. His actions are shocking; as with a car crash, we can’t look away.

Past violations of liberal democracy often worked their way through courts, Congress, and government bureaucracies; they were proposed and implemented by men who could hold their temper and appear respectable in public. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt justified his abandonment of anti-lynching laws because, otherwise, the Southern Democrats who chaired powerful committees would “block every bill I ask Congress to pass,” he was genteelly operating within the customary boundaries of a transactional political system, but he was cooly rationalizing a morally gruesome choice. In many cases, decisions like that one were more illiberal than anything we are seeing today, but they were less visible, particularly to the majority — that is why so much of the civil rights movement’s strategy was about provoking the violence of the system to make itself seen on the nightly news.

Thinking back on those eras is a reminder that, in America, periods of racial progress have always triggered periods of political instability. The Civil War is the most profound and bloody example but far from the only one. Richard Nixon, the last president to evince so little respect for constitutional norms, was also a “law and order” candidate who promised to represent a silent majority frustrated by rapid racial advancement and unnerved by black anger.

Viewed from this perspective, it is not surprising that the first African-American president was followed by a candidate like Trump, who promised to put the restoration of America’s dominant political majority above the niceties of normal politics, who is visibly enraged by Black Lives Matter protests and kneeling NFL players.


Javier Zarracina/Vox

And yet it is the friction of progress, rather than the injustice of the unchallenged status quo, that often scares Americans about the state of our country. The disorder that comes as things change is more visible than the order that often reins when they don’t. It’s worth remembering that 61 percent of Americans disapproved of the Freedom Riders’ actions and 57 percent disapproved of the civil rights movement’s sit-ins and demonstrations.

That said, Mounk is right that it would be dangerous to take too much comfort from successfully navigating previous eras of progress. We are entering a turbulent period in our politics. In Political Tribes, Yale Law professor Amy Chua puts the coming danger crisply:

We find ourselves in an unprecedented moment of pervasive tribal anxiety. For two hundred years, whites in America represented an undisputed politically, economically, and culturally dominant majority. When a political tribe is so overwhelmingly dominant, it can persecute with impunity, but it can also be more generous. It can afford to be more universalist, more enlightened, more inclusive, like the WASP elites of the 1960s who opened up the Ivy League colleges to more Jews, blacks, and other minorities — in part because it seemed like the right thing to do.

Today, no group in America feels comfortably dominant. Every group feels attacked, pitted against other groups not just for jobs and spoils but for the right to define the nation’s identity. In these conditions, democracy devolves into zero-sum group competition — pure political tribalism.

The future of America is not a white-majority America. In 2013, for the first time, a majority of infants were nonwhite. If current demographic projections hold, we will be a majority-minority nation in less than 30 years.

These changes are already transforming what is possible in American politics. In 2012, Obama won the White House with 40 percent of the white vote — a lower share than Michael Dukakis got in 1988, but enough to win a convincing majority nevertheless. That you can win the presidency while losing the white vote by 20 points is a recent development in American politics, and it has left many white voters anxious and angry.

“If there’s one axiom of political tribalism,” writes Chua, “it’s that dominant groups do not give up power easily.”

Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists march the night before the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville, Virgina, on August 11, 2017.
Neo-Nazis, alt-right members, and white supremacists march the night before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11, 2017.
Zach D. Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The doom-and-gloom can distract from what is genuinely good news. A country where no group is secure in their command of political power is also a country where fewer groups are continuously oppressed, where more groups can fight for true equality. But that transition carries a social cost: The sense of security created by the stability that flows from monoethnic dominance is gone.

The question, then, is whether the instability we feel now is a byproduct of progress, a portent of coming fracture, or both.

The case for optimism about America

My core argument here is that how American politics feels — particularly to those in the majority — is not a good guide to how just it is. A fair counterargument is that too much discord can shake the fundamental consensus American politics requires to operate, and the consequences of such a collapse could be disastrous. Some scholars, like Mounk, worry that the public is losing faith in liberal democracy altogether. In his book’s scariest section, Mounk relates research showing, among other antidemocratic attitudes, that the percentage of Americans who say they have a favorable opinion of military rule has increased from one in 16 in 1995 to one in six in 2011.

There is a vibrant debate in the political science community about how durable these attitudes are and what they truly mean. In a new survey for the Democracy Fund’s Voter Survey Group, Lee Drutman, Larry Diamond, and Joe Goldman find that support for democracy is holding steady and young Americans do not show a rising preference for authoritarian political systems. Optimistically, they find “support for a strong leader declining for the first time in 2017 and returning to levels last seen in 1995.” It’s possible that Trump’s example is reminding Americans what they like about more traditional political leaders.

A protestor demonstrates before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, on January 20, 2017.
A protester demonstrates before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

That said, I don’t pretend to know what is truly in the heart of the American voter. The nearness of our undemocratic past is proof of the possibility of an undemocratic future. My mother grew up amid segregation. I was voting when Republican politicians overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The #MeToo moment is less than a year old. You do not have to reach far back into the mists to realize there is nothing in our nature that precludes illiberalism or that ensures progress. But that should also remind us not to overstate either the threat posed by Trump or the changes wrought by him; I would rather America be what it is today than what it was even 20 years ago.

This is to take nothing away from the very real injuries Trump has inflicted upon immigrants, the way his rhetoric has empowered neo-Nazis and racists, the chilling rise in hate crimes, the refugees who will suffer or die because America has closed its doors to them. And the policy problems we worried about before Trump — from rising inequality to Super PACs to climate change — are worsening.

But I often find myself perversely appreciative that Trump’s rage manifests itself so visibly — a leader mounting a more subtle racial backlash would mount a more effective one. Trump’s eccentric behavior has flipped what feels abnormal about the past decade in American politics. It’s now Obama, America’s first black president, who is young America’s model of what a president should look and act like, whose approval rating is above 60 percent. It is Trump, the septuagenarian white billionaire governing atop a standard Republican agenda, who seems like as a reckless detour from tradition. That is remarkable given what America was even a few decades ago.

President Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, participate in NORAD’s Santa Tracker phone calls at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida on December 24, 2017.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

America’s deepest challenge is not Donald Trump or anything he has proposed to do. It is how a political system that does more to amplify conflict than calm it will govern a country that is unsteadily becoming the first truly multiethnic liberal democracy in world history. That is the challenge of our generation. And it’s a challenge that, even today, we are navigating without the level of violence and fracture and political repression that defined America’s recent past.

“Fifty years ago, there seemed to be political stability, but lots of Americans were excluded,” says Song. “Fast-forward to today: There’s a sense in which a lot of these historically excluded groups feel like they’re supposed to be on the inside, that they have these formal rights and representation, and when they don’t feel they exercise influence, they see a problem in the institutions. There’s more tumult now because the door has been opened to these historically excluded groups and they’re supposed to have their interests represented by those in power, and that shakes up the culture.”

I wonder often about how this period in American life will look to future historians. One possibility that has been much discussed is that it will be seen as the dawn of America’s descent into illiberalism. But another possibility — one that’s less often considered — is that it will eventually look like the turbulence that has always accompanied racial progress in this country, and it will eventually be seen as modest compared to the upheavals of our past.

This depends, of course, on what happens next — on the judgment Americans render on Trump in 2020, on whether our political institutions or fundamental freedoms are weakened in the meantime, on the way we navigate the demographic turbulence already disrupting our politics. But America has absorbed worse than this into its story of progress. As Anderson says, we are an aspirational country, and the power of being an aspirational country comes in having something to live up to. Now it is our generation’s work to write the next chapter.

Demonstrations during the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President on January 20, 2017.
Demonstrations during the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president on January 20, 2017.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

Epilogue: what if I’m wrong?

I want to be honest. This is one of those articles where I am far from sure I’m right. If you’d like to hear a persuasive counterargument — a case for being uniquely alarmed about this moment in American history — I suggest listening to my podcast discussion with Yascha Mounk:

And if you want to dig even deeper than that, here are my related interviews with Carol Anderson, Amy Chua, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and Daniel Levitsky and Steven Ziblatt. You can subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.


Image credits, from top: Herb Scharfman/LIFE via Getty Images, Stan Wayman/LIFE via Getty Images, Wally McNamee/Corbis via Getty Images, Joseph Louw/LIFE via Getty Images, Keystone/Hutton Archive via Getty Images, Burton McNeely/LIFE via Getty Images, Bettman Archive/Getty Images, Paul Schutzer/LIFE via Getty Images, Bettman Archive/Getty Images, Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, Bettman Archive/Getty Images, RHS/AP, Anonymous/AP, Bettman Archive/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, The White House Handout/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images, J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images, Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified Joe Goldman as Joe Goldstein. Sorry, Joe!

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