What unifies the crisis-of-democracy genre is the failure to understand this, that the present moment is not an anomalous departure but rather a return to the baseline—to the historical norm, one might say.The result of this error is a response to the present crisis that is at once too dramatic and too sanguine.How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt Penguin Random House, 2018, 320 pp. And, like the crash-up car-chase movies, it has not let this fact slow its growth.
You hardly notice that everyone on the highway is taking turns merging until That Guy screams through, splitting lanes, leaning on his horn and rolling coal, with truck nuts flapping from his trailer hitch.
One problem with identifying the protection of political norms with the defense of democracy is that such norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits—which institutions you defer to, which policies you do not question, and so on.
The proliferating “crisis-of-democracy” literature, like the Fast and the Furious franchise, has only one plot.
The strong-man populisms of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, and, most ominously, Vladimir Putin in Russia, all became variations on the crisis of democracy. In one sense, it is whatever made Trump’s victory possible.
He warns that resentment of “undemocratic liberalism” (European Union directives, trade regimes, judicial decisions) may be spurring illiberal democracy.
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While most books in the genre offer modest reformism, One Nation After Trump endorses a fairly robust progressive agenda: the authors would fix elections by wiping out voter-suppression laws and moving to a national popular vote for the presidency, and they embrace major investment in infrastructure, education, and health.Galston, whose slim book sometimes resembles notes from a political-theory seminar, wants Democrats to embrace a more restrictive immigration policy (that might favor highly skilled immigrants, for instance). Bush’s speechwriter David (Axis of Evil) Frum, who has convinced some members of the #Resistance that any enemy of Trump is their friend, hopes that in rejecting Trumpist authoritarianism the country will also see through Bernie Sanders and “the tyranny and terror of utopian politics” he represents.Besides discerning Maoism in public financing of higher education, Frum is pleased that Trump has reinvigorated Americans’ commitment to “the vital role of national security agencies.” Beneath the lines between center-left and center-right, young intellectual entrepreneurs and silver-haired veterans of the actual Cold War, everyone is telling a version of the same story.But while all of these authors make some room for recent disruptions—the growth of inequality, the rise of social media, the backlash against immigration—they share a view that formed during the Cold War and seemed vindicated in 1989: that “democracy” means a cleaned-up version of what we do in the United States, complete with American-style capitalism, a word that hardly appears in these books because it is so deeply assumed.In this line of thought, which dates back at least to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1949 The Vital Center, a crisis of democracy requires a high-minded defense of the principled political center against the extremes of left and right.Norms are like the statues of dead leaders: you can’t know whether you are for or against them without knowing which values they support.The very idea that it would be possible to analyze political developments in terms of the decline of stabilizing, trans-partisan norms rather than substantive ideology is a political position.(“Populism” has recently become the catchphrase for that bipolar anti-liberalism.) What is missing from these works, and the commentariat that they represent, is a genuine reckoning with twenty-first-century questions: whether we have ever been democratic, and whether the versions of capitalism that have emerged in the last forty years are compatible with democracy.The crisis-of-democracy literature largely presumes that these debates have been settled, so that any doubts about that settlement must be symptoms of confusion or bad faith.The crisis-of-democracy authors are disciples of “norms,” the unwritten rules that keep political opponents from each other’s throat and enable a polity to plod along.Being unspoken, norms are often invisible until someone breaks them.