“There is no sense in avoiding or diluting the magnitude of this turn in our story: One major political party no longer accepts democracy.”
The author of this sentence is the former Obama White House speechwriter Ben Rhodes, writing recently in The Atlantic, but it could have flowed from the keyboard of a hundred different writers in the post-Trump, post-Jan. 6 era. That conservatism and the Republican Party have turned against government by the people, that only the Democratic Party still stands for democratic rule, is an important organizing thought of political commentary these days.
So let’s subject it to some scrutiny — and with it, the current liberal relationship to democracy as well.
First, there’s a sense in which conservatism has always had a fraught relationship to mass democracy. The fear of mob rule, of demagogues rallying the masses to destroy a fragile social order, is a common theme in many different right-wing schools of thought, showing up among traditionalist defenders of aristocracy and libertarians alike.
To these general tendencies, we can add two specifically American forms of conservative anxiety about the franchise: the fear of corrupt urban-machine politics that runs back through the 1960 presidential election to the age of Tammany Hall and the racist fear of African American political power that stamped the segregation-era South.
Because all these influences touch the modern G.O.P., conservative skepticism about mass democracy was a somewhat normal part of American politics long before Donald Trump came along — and some of what’s changed in the Trump era is just an events-driven accentuation of existing tendencies.
Republicans have long feared voter fraud and noncitizen voting, for instance, but the fear — and for liberals, the oft-discussed hope — that demographic change could deliver permanent Democratic power has raised the salience of these anxieties. Likewise, Republicans have long been more likely to portray America as a republic, not a democracy, and to defend our system’s countermajoritarian mechanisms. But today this philosophical tendency is increasingly self-interested, because shifts in party coalitions mean that those mechanisms, the Senate and Electoral College especially, advantage Republicans somewhat more than in the recent past.
But then things get complicated, because the modern Republican Party is also the heir to a strong pro-democracy impulse, forged in the years when Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon won crushing presidential-level majorities but conservatives felt themselves constantly balked by unelected powers, bureaucrats and judges especially.
This experience left the right deeply invested in the idea that it represents the true American majority — moral, silent, what have you — while liberalism stands for elite power, anti-democratic forms of government, the bureaucracy and the juristocracy and the Ivy League.
And that idea and self-image have remained a potent aspect of the right-wing imagination even as the old Nixon and Reagan majorities have diminished and disappeared: With every new age of grass-roots activism, from the Tea Party to the local-education revolts of today, the right reliably casts itself as small-d democrats, standing boldly athwart liberal technocracy singing “Yankee Doodle.”
Against this complicated backdrop, Trump’s stolen-election narratives should be understood as a way to reconcile the two competing tendencies within conservatism, the intellectual right’s skepticism of mass democracy and comfort with countermajoritarian institutions with the populist right’s small-d democratic self-image. In Trump’s toxic dreampolitik there’s actually no tension there: The right-wing coalition is justified in governing from a minoritarian position because it deserves to be a true electoral majority, and would be if only the liberal enemy weren’t so good at cheating.
So seen from within the right, the challenge of getting out from under Trump’s deceptions isn’t just a simple matter of reviving a conservative commitment to democracy. Trump has succeeded precisely because he has exploited the right’s more democratic impulses, speaking to them and co-opting them and claiming them for himself. Which means a conservative rival can’t defeat or replace him by simply accusing him of being anti-democratic. Instead the only plausible pitch would argue that his populism is self-limiting and that a post-Trump G.O.P. could win a more sweeping majority than the one his supporters want to believe he won already — one that would hold up, no matter what the liberal enemy gets up to.
But if that argument is challenging to make amid the smog of Trumpenkampf, so is the anti-Trump argument that casts American liberalism as the force to which anyone who believes in American democracy must rally. Because however much the right’s populists get wrong about their claim to represent a true American majority, they get this much right: Contemporary liberalism is fundamentally miscast as a defender of popular self-rule.
To be clear, the present Democratic Party is absolutely in favor of letting as many people vote as possible. There are no doubts about the mass franchise among liberals, no fears of voter fraud and fewer anxieties than on the right about the pernicious influence of low-information voters.
But when it comes to the work of government, the actual decisions that determine law and policy, liberalism is the heir to its own not exactly democratic tradition — the progressive vision of disinterested experts claiming large swaths of policymaking for their own and walling them off from the vagaries of public opinion, the whims of mere majorities.
This vision — what my colleague Nate Cohn recently called “undemocratic liberalism” — is a pervasive aspect of establishment politics not only in the United States but across the Western world. On question after controverted question, its answer to “Who votes?” is different from its answer to “Who decides?” In one case, the people; in the other, the credentialed experts, the high-level stakeholders and activist groups, the bureaucratic process.
Who should lead pandemic decision making? Obviously Anthony Fauci and the relevant public-health bureaucracies; we can’t have people playing politics with complex scientific matters. Who decides what your local school teaches your kids? Obviously teachers and administrators and education schools; we don’t want parents demanding some sort of veto power over syllabuses. Who decides the future of the European Union? The important stakeholders in Brussels and Berlin, the people who know what they’re doing, not the shortsighted voters in France or Ireland or wherever. Who makes important U.S. foreign policy decisions? Well, you have the interagency process, the permanent regional specialists and the military experts, not the mere whims of the elected president.
Or to pick a small but telling example recently featured in this newspaper, who decides whether an upstate New York school district gets to retain the Indian as its high school mascot? The state’s education commissioner, apparently, who’s currently threatening to cut funds to the school board that voted to keep it unless they reverse course.
Whereas the recent wave of right-wing populism, even when it doesn’t command governing majorities, still tends to champion the basic idea of popular power — the belief that more areas of Western life should be subject to popular control and fewer removed into the purview of unelected mandarins. And even if this is not a wise idea in every case, it is a democratic idea, whose widespread appeal reflects the fact that modern liberalism really does suffer from a democratic deficit.
Which is a serious problem, to put it mildly, for a movement that aspires to fight and win a struggle on behalf of democratic values. So just as a conservative alternative to Trump would need to somehow out-populist him, to overcome the dark side of right-wing populism, American liberalism would need to first democratize itself.
For all the understandable talk about the crisis of Western liberalism, the political chaos of the last few years has also demonstrated that many supposed agents of post-liberalism are unready to really push the liberal order to the breaking point.
President Trump is a political weakling, not a Caesar; Marine Le Pen can’t break 35 percent of France’s presidential vote; the Islamic State has all-but-fallen.
.. Dougherty has been circulating in high-level confabs since Trump’s election and reports a persistent mood of entitlement and ’90s nostalgia — a refusal to take responsibility for foreign policy failures, to admit that post-national utopianism was oversold, to reckon with the social decay and spiritual crisis shadowing the cosmopolitan dream.
.. Indeed, all the high-level agita surrounding Germany’s political crisis — good heavens, not a minority government! — suggests a basic deficiency of elite imagination that will be one of the things that brings down the liberal order if it does eventually fall.
.. Better that kind of crisis-generating move by far, in fact, than a grand coalition of parties united only in their anti-populism, and perfectly designed to ratify the populist critique that all the elites are in cahoots.
What will save the liberal order, if it is to be saved, will be the successful integration of concerns that its leaders have dismissed or ignored back into normal political debate, an end to what Josh Barro of Business Insider has called “no-choice politics,” in which genuine ideological pluralism is something to be smothered with a pillow.
.. In Angela Merkel’s Europe right now, that should mean making peace with Brexit, ceasing to pursue ever further political centralization by undemocratic means, breaking up the ’60s-era intellectual cartels that control the commanding heights of culture, creating space for religious resistance to the lure of nihilism and suicide — and accepting that the days of immigration open doors are over, and the careful management of migrant flows is a central challenge for statesmen going forward.
In Warsaw, America’s president barely mentions democracyEarlier American administrations defined “the West” with reference to values such as democracy, liberty and respect for human rights. Mr Trump and many of his advisers, including the speech’s authors, Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, apparently see it as rooted in ethnicity, culture and religion... When George W. Bush visited Poland for his first presidential visit, in 2001, he referred to democracy 13 times. When Barack Obama spoke in Warsaw in 2014, he mentioned democracy nine times. For Mr Trump, once sufficed... Mr Trump invoked the “blood of patriots”, and the ties of family and God. The rhetoric sounded strikingly similar to that used by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party that governs Poland, and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski...The crowd hurled insults at opposition politicians, booing when Lech Walesa, the anti-communist hero and a critic of the current government, left the square... According to polling by Pew, just 23% have confidence in America’s president to do the right thing, down from 58% under Mr Obama... At a news conference, he insisted that no one knows for sure whether Russia interfered with America’s presidential election (contradicting the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies)... Still, Mr Trump did unambiguously endorse NATO’s Article 5.. But the greatest reason for Poland’s government to be delighted with Mr Trump was what he did not mention: PiS’s undermining of democratic institutions to entrench its own power. The party has stuffed the civil service and the diplomatic corps with loyalists and has weakened the independence of the judiciary. It has transformed the national broadcaster into a mouthpiece of the state. Independent journalists face new restrictions. The European Commission has warned the government that its reforms pose “a systemic risk to the rule of law.”
More so than any other generation, parents and educators have instilled in millennials the idea that, as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt put it, “life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm.”
.. kindergartens have “changed radically in the last two decades.” Exploration, exercise, and imagination are being deemphasized and play has “dwindled to the vanishing point.” Instead, kindergartens are introducing “lengthy lessons” and “highly prescriptive curricula geared to new state standards and linked to standardized tests”—curricula often taught by teachers who “must follow scripts from which they may not deviate.”
.. parents since the mid-1980s have purchased fewer multi-purpose, unstructured toys like clay and blocks that “encourage play that children can control and shape to meet their individual needs over time.” Today’s bestselling toys like action figures and video games “promote highly-structured play.”
.. practically every declining health outcome in children can be traced to the sedentary, indoor, micromanaged lives that now define American childhood.
.. children with mothers fearful of neighborhood safety are more likely to watch over two hours of TV per day, instead of playing outside. When American students are moving for only 18 minutes per day at school, it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve seen since the 1970s a more than threefold increase in the number of overweight 6 to 11 year olds.
Experts meanwhile are linking increasing rates of anger, aggression, and severe behavior problems to a lack of free play. These outcomes are consistent with evolutionary psychology theories that consider play to be a critical part of child development, teaching children to cope with, and ultimately master, fears and phobias.
- .. Angst over hypercompetitive college admissions.
.. University of Chicago law professors Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg ask whether the United States is at risk of democratic backsliding. Huq and Ginsburg found that the risk of incremental but ultimately substantial decay in democratic norms has “spiked” and now presents a “clear and present” danger. The authors argue that a “larger shift toward an illiberal democracy” is well within the cards.
.. social scientists have long argued that the origins of authoritarian societies can be discerned in childhood pathologies.
.. In the case of Nazi Germany, Miller is convinced that Hitler would not have come to power but for turn-of-the-century German childrearing practices that emphasized “unthinking obedience” and discouraged creativity. The millions of Germans who ultimately supported Nazism, in Miller’s views, were coping with the legacy of a “hidden concentration camp of childhood”—one enforced by the “clean, orderly citizens, God-fearing, respectable churchgoers” who comprised the ranks of Germany’s authority figures.
.. More so than any other factor—identity, religiosity, income etc.—it was voters’ attitudes on childrearing that predicted their support for Trump. Those who believe that is more important for children to be respectful rather than independent; obedient over self-reliant; well-behaved more than considerate; and well-mannered versus curious, were more than two and a half times as likely to support Trump than those with the opposite preferences.
.. This shouldn’t be surprising considering that few institutions in American society have embraced authoritarianism as decisively in recent years as academia—the arena where helicoptered millennials increasingly get their first taste of independence.
.. Behind these authoritarian efforts are an army of “chief diversity officers”—75 of whom have been hired between 2015 and 2016 at colleges and universities. Their mandate: train students against “subtle insults,” “environmental microaggressions,” and “microinvalidations.”
.. Jonathan Chait sees not simply a “rigorous commitment to social equality” but rather an “undemocratic creed” and a “system of left-wing ideological repression.”