American Liberal Democracy in Historical Perspective

I started teaching a new course last week on American democracy and the individual. For the first session, I decided to try an incorporate the current zeitgeist-y issue of whether liberal democracy is in decline. There has been much hand-wringing in the last few years about whether the election of Donald Trump and his subsequent administration signal an American slide towards the illiberal democracies seen in Hungary and Turkey.

Much of that discussion draws upon the framework offered by Fareed Zakaria twenty years ago, and reiterated after Trump’s election, that we are seeing a separating out of commitments to liberalism and democracy in which “the rich and varied inner stuffing of liberal democracy is vanishing, leaving just the outer, democratic shell.” Zakaria’s claim here is that values, such as “the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press,” that underwrote the functioning of liberal democracies are being discarded, and we are being left with a “tyranny of the majority” marked by a politics of  “sheer populism and demagoguery.”

That fear of a hollowing out of American democracy was echoed again last week in Howard Schultz’s announcement of an independent presidential run. One of Schultz’s rationales for running is to give Americans a choice beyond the two existing political parties. Schultz seems to believe that there is a large number of Americans who find the extremes of either party off-putting: “I think lifelong Democrats — and many, many more lifelong Republicans than Democrats realize — are looking for a home.” The implication here, it seems, is that centrist liberals are increasingly lacking a political home as the Republican and Democratic parties embrace radical populist positions at their respective political extremes.

To be sure, the decline of liberal democracy in Hungary and Turkey ought not to be taken lightly. But it seems less clear to me that what we are witnessing in the United States at this moment in time is that process. For one thing, the illiberalism of Trumpism is not a new facet of American politics. Trump’s mobilization of anti-immigrant sentiment, his disparaging of minority groups, and his anti-intellectualism are all long-standing elements of American politics, and elements easily identified in different ways in the politics of the post-1980 era. Secondly, while Trumpist illiberalism is undoubtedly a vibrant and destructive force within contemporary American politics, it is being checked in important ways via the courts (the Muslim ban), elections (2018), and latterly Congress (the shutdown). One should not be naïve about the extent of this counter-action nor complacent regarding its continuation, but it is nevertheless present in the contemporary moment.

Schultz’s concern over the lack of a political center points to another way of reading the current moment in American politics. An important, if often under-discussed, aspect of recent political polarization has been the opening up of American politics to incorporate a wider spectrum of political opinions. On one hand, that has meant the consolidation and legitimization of existing nativist threads within American political culture. But on the other hand, it has seen a revival of left-wing arguments that have a rich American heritage that was previously eclipsed by the legacies of militant Cold War anti-communism. From the socialist Appeal to Reason with a circulation of over half a million at the beginning of the Twentieth century, through the over 900,000 votes cast for the imprisoned socialist Eugene Debs in 1920, and to Victor Berger and Meyer London, socialist Members of Congress, the Left in the United States was arguably more vibrant one hundred years ago than it is today. Schultz’s concern that centrists no longer have a home in the Democratic Party can be easily inverted to claim that democratic socialists finally do.

A more expansive political spectrum – and the more robust political jousting that accompany it – have a storied history in the United States. The politics of the 1770s split families between loyalists and patriots. A fierce political environment in which each side claimed to speak exclusively for the people and accused the other side of treason marked the early Republic. Antebellum America saw abolitionists and slaveholders accuse each other of betraying the very spirit of the United States. The “cracker-barrel politics” of late Nineteenth century saw high turnouts, bitter politics, and a self-identified “People’s Party.” In the 1930s FDR clashed with the Supreme Court over the very meaning of government in the United States. The current moment is perhaps less anomalous in this wider context than its critics recognize.

It is possible that the period between the Second World War and today – the supposed high watermark of liberal democracy – is the historically unusual period of American democratic government. The fear, and subsequent defeat, of international communism lent legitimacy to elite conceptions of “good politics” that they lacked before and perhaps increasingly since. That this period is also the historical era in which American political science developed its idea of what American society “usually” looked like may have contorted our views of political life in the broader history of the United States. Against such a backdrop, the current “decline” of democracy looks much less clear. Liberal centrists might fear the hollowing out of the center, but we could as easily see the re-invigoration of the respective political wings as evidence of a renewed democratic ethos. Just one that does not accord with the liberal views of the reigning centrist elite.

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