The End of Democracy: A Reading List

Articles calling attention to the perilous state of America’s politics have proliferated this week in light of Tuesday’s election. The New York Times has a list of books to read in order to understand the disheartening big picture. The article contains brief summaries and links to review of the books. This is its beginning and end, along with the list:

Autocratic demagogues. The erosion of the rule of law. Growing inequality. The upending of elections. Normalization of violence. These are all symptoms of what the scholar Larry Diamond has called “democratic recession” — and we are seeing them not just in America, but around the world. Over the last 16 years, according to Freedom House, a nonprofit that researches and promotes global democracy, more nations have moved away from democratic principles than strengthened their embrace of them. The list includes the United States. What’s new is that this trend is happening in modern, prosperous, liberal democracies.

At the same time — and, of course, because of it — there has been a miniboom in books about the decline of democracy. These range from works that diagnose the causes of democratic unraveling or seek to put it in historical context to those that forecast the grim consequences. Despite different points of view, these books all have a few core ideas in common: that democracies are fragile; that democratic norms are necessary but crumbling; that authoritarianism is seductive; that while America is one of the world’s oldest surviving democracies, it is not immune to the forces that have abraded our form of government elsewhere….

It has become cliché in publishing that no matter how pessimistic your book title, you have to add a clause to the subtitle along the lines of: “and what we can do about it.” The problem in this case is that what we can do about democratic decline is not very clear; the diagnosis has been much more extensively analyzed than the potential cures. All the books on this list call for less inequality, more fairness, less social media, more facts. Easier said than done.

But the potential end of our democracy is an urgent matter. Remember, modern democracies vote themselves out of existence, and the midterms are around the corner. Though the authors of these books have different views of our current political situation, they would probably agree on this: If you have one party in a two-party democracy that does not accept election results, you don’t really have a democracy anymore. The question is no longer: Can it happen here? (The answer to that is yes.) The question is now: Will it happen here?

I’ll add a highly relevant book the Times didn’t mention:

Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels (2017)

From the publisher:

Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels deploy a wealth of social-scientific evidence … to show that the familiar ideal of thoughtful citizens steering the ship of state from the voting booth is fundamentally misguided. They demonstrate that voters—even those who are well informed and politically engaged—mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues. They also show that voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties. When parties are roughly evenly matched, elections often turn on irrelevant or misleading considerations such as economic spurts or downturns beyond the incumbents’ control; the outcomes are essentially random….

Achen and Bartels argue that democratic theory needs to be founded on identity groups and political parties, not on the preferences of individual voters…. Democracy for Realists provides a powerful challenge to conventional thinking, pointing the way toward a fundamentally different understanding of the realities and potential of democratic government.

Let’s wish ourselves and the American experiment luck this Tuesday and the days thereafter.

Columnists Are Deeply Concerned About the Election

I’m still avoiding “news” about Tuesday’s election, but many people who write for a living are expressing these two points:

  • Republican politicians no longer even pretend to care about morality.
  • The election will be a choice between democracy and autocracy.

They don’t need to mention that democracy may lose.

From “The New Nihilists” by Sarah Longwell for Persuasion:

These midterms are proving how deep the GOP rot runs.

The crop of Republican candidates running in the midterms has taken immorality to a whole new level. [She then cites scandalous behavior by three of their Senate candidates, Lake, Oz and Walker.]

What was the response from GOP leaders and media figures? In essence: “LOL, nothing matters”. 

It’s a baffling turn for those of us who grew up in an era where the Republican Party built its public brand around morality and character….Until a few years ago, the GOP still defended virtue rhetorically, even when it fell short and engaged in double standards….

In 2022, by contrast, the GOP ignores or perverts virtue altogether. [Their leader] has spawned hundreds of GOP candidates who ape his lies about the 2020 election, his corruption, and his combative style. Candidates of low character—like Lake, Oz, and Walker—are the rule in the GOP, rather than the exception. According to the old saying, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue—and Republicans have resolved their hypocrisy in favor of vice.   

From “Well, America, You Were a Good Idea While You Lasted” by Charles Pierce for Esquire:

The GOP have finally abandoned the last shreds of common decency, the rule of law and other American ideals.

It was this weekend that I finally gave up. I have watched the steady descent of American conservatism—and its primary public vehicle, the Republican Party—into the terminal depths of the prion disease it acquired when Ronald Reagan, Richard Viguerie and Jerry Falwell first fed it the monkey-brains back in the late 1970s….

I mocked it and inveighed against it. Better people than I … have spent four decades warning us what was coming unless the prion disease was kept in check….

The public episodes are now too numerous to mention…. They are beyond anyone’s reach. They are beyond logic and reason. They left democratic norms and customs far behind decades ago. They are beyond political compromise. They are beyond checks and balances, and they have drifted off into the void of a space far beyond the Constitution.

From “We Need to Be Clear About Who Pushed Us to the Breaking Point” by Jamelle Bouie for The New York Times:

The Democratic Party is, at this moment, the only viable political party with a serious commitment to free and fair elections. And in a country where power alternates between two major parties, this means American democracy is in real trouble….

It is simply the truth of the matter. If you oppose the effort to nullify Democratic election victories and create systems of minority rule (the Republican running for governor of Wisconsin said, for example, that “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor”), then there’s only one real choice on the ballot….

Democrats did not make democracy a partisan issue. Republicans did. They did when they stood with Donald Trump in the wake of Jan. 6; they did when they embraced “Stop the steal” and election-denying candidates; they did when they made light of the threats against Nancy Pelosi and the assault on her husband.

There is nothing stopping Republican candidates and Republican voters and Republican leaders from pursuing their partisan and ideological goals while keeping their commitment to free and fair elections. There is nothing stopping them from rejecting antidemocracy extremists in their midst and affirming the vital principles of popular sovereignty, rule of law and political equality. There is nothing stopping them, in other words, from making a different set of choices about the kind of political party they wish to be part of.

It’s not Democrats who left the voting public with only one choice if they want to protect democracy as they know it….

Bouie adds that this kind of politics appeals to some:

When politicians and other political leaders … drop the pretense of virtue and embrace a politics of cruelty and malice, in which nothing matters but the will to power — voters act accordingly. Some may recoil, but just as many will embrace the chance to live vicariously through leaders who celebrate vice and hold virtue in contempt.

Others have other things on their mind (by Michael de Adder for The Washington Post):

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President Biden Speaks to the Nation Again, but Ignores a Big Part of the Story

Last night, President Biden gave a televised speech about the right-wing attack on democracy. But he didn’t express the obvious truth that most Republican politicians are in on it. Maybe he actually believes it’s just those extreme MAGA Republicans we have to worry about, not the average ones who are lukewarm on democracy and the rule of law. Anyway, here’s most of what he said:

Just a few days ago, a little before 2:30 a.m. in the morning, a man smashed the back windows and broke into the home of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the third-highest-ranking official in America. He carried in his backpack zip ties, duct tape, rope and a hammer.

As he told the police, he had come looking for Nancy Pelosi to take her hostage, to interrogate her, to threaten to break her kneecaps. But she wasn’t there. Her husband … was home alone. The assailant tried to take Paul hostage….

The assailant entered the home asking: “Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?” Those are the very same words used by the mob when they stormed the United States Capitol on January 6th, when they broke windows, kicked in the doors, brutally attacked law enforcement, roamed the corridors hunting for officials and erected gallows….

It was an enraged mob that had been whipped up into a frenzy by a president repeating over and over again the Big Lie, that the election of 2020 had been stolen. It’s a lie that’s fueled the dangerous rise in political violence and voter intimidation over the past two years.

Even before January 6th, we saw election officials and election workers in a number of states subjected to menacing calls, physical threats, even threats to their lives…. 

This intimidation, this violence against Democrats, Republicans and nonpartisan officials just doing their jobs, are the consequence of lies told for power and profit, lies of conspiracy and malice, lies repeated over and over to generate a cycle of anger, hate, vitriol and even violence.

In this moment, we have to confront those lies with the truth. The very future of our nation depends on it. My fellow Americans, we’re facing a defining moment, an inflection point. We must with one overwhelming unified voice speak as a country and say there’s no place, no place for voter intimidation or political violence in America. Whether it’s directed at Democrats or Republicans. No place, period. No place ever.

I speak today near Capitol Hill, near the U.S. Capitol, the citadel of our democracy. I know there’s a lot at stake in these midterm elections, from our economy, to the safety of our streets, to our personal freedoms, to the future of health care and Social Security, Medicare. It’s all important. But we’ll have our differences, we’ll have our difference of opinion. And that’s what it’s supposed to be.

But there’s something else at stake, democracy itself. I’m not the only one who sees it. Recent polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our democracy is at risk, that our democracy is under threat. They too see that democracy is on the ballot this year, and they’re deeply concerned about it. [Note: The president failed to point out that Democrats are worried about a real threat to democracy, while Republicans are worried about an imaginary one premised on the Big Lie. Voting by mail? Truckloads of counterfeit ballots?]

So today, I appeal to all Americans, regardless of party, to meet this moment of national and generational importance. We must vote knowing what’s at stake and not just the policy of the moment. Institutions that have held us together as we’ve sought a more perfect union are also at stake. We must vote knowing who we have been, what we’re at risk of becoming.

Look, my fellow Americans, the old expression, “Freedom is not free,” it requires constant vigilance. From the very beginning, nothing has been guaranteed about democracy in America. Every generation has had to defend it, protect it, preserve it, choose it. For that’s what democracy is. It’s a choice, a decision of the people, by the people and for the people. The issue couldn’t be clearer, in my view.

We the people must decide whether we will have fair and free elections, and every vote counts. We the people must decide whether we’re going to sustain a republic, where reality’s accepted, the law is obeyed and your vote is truly sacred.

We the people must decide whether the rule of law will prevail or whether we will allow the dark forces and thirst for power put ahead of the principles that have long guided us.

You know, American democracy is under attack because the defeated former president of the United States refused to accept the results of the 2020 election. If he refuses to accept the will of the people, if he refuses to accept the fact that he lost, he’s abused his power and put the loyalty to himself before loyalty to the Constitution. And he’s made a big lie an article of faith in the MAGA Republican Party, the minority of that party [Unfortunately, recent polls say up to 60% of Republicans accept the lie.]

The great irony about the 2020 election is that it’s the most attacked election in our history. And, yet, there’s no election in our history that we can be more certain of its results. Every legal challenge that could have been brought was brought. Every recount that could have been undertaken was undertaken. Every recount confirmed the results. Wherever fact or evidence had been demanded, the Big Lie has been proven to be just that, a big lie. Every single time.

Yet now extreme MAGA Republicans aim to question not only the legitimacy of past elections, but elections being held now and into the future. The extreme MAGA element of the Republican Party [is] its driving force. It’s trying to succeed where they failed in 2020, to suppress the right of voters and subvert the electoral system itself. That means denying your right to vote and deciding whether your vote even counts.

Instead of waiting until an election is over, they’re starting well before it. They’re starting now. They’ve emboldened violence and intimidation of voters and election officials. It’s estimated that there are more than 300 election deniers on the ballot all across America this year. We can’t ignore the impact this is having on our country. It’s damaging, it’s corrosive and it’s destructive.

And I want to be very clear, this is not about me, it’s about all of us…. It’s about the durability of our democracy. For democracies are more than a form of government. They’re a way of being, a way of seeing the world, a way that defines who we are, what we believe, why we do what we do. Democracy is simply that fundamental.

We must, in this moment, dig deep within ourselves and recognize that we can’t take democracy for granted any longer. With democracy on the ballot, we have to remember these first principles. Democracy means the rule of the people, not the rule of monarchs or the moneyed, but the rule of the people.

Autocracy is the opposite of democracy. It means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party. To state the obvious, the lives of billions of people, from antiquity till now, have been shaped by the battle between these competing forces, between the aspirations of the many and the greed and power of the few, between the people’s right for self-determination, and the self-seeking autocrat, between the dreams of a democracy and the appetites of an autocracy.

What we’re doing now is going to determine whether democracy will long endure and, in my view, it is the biggest of questions, whether the American system that prizes the individual bends toward justice and depends on the rule of law, whether that system will prevail. This is the struggle we’re now in….

There’s been anger before in America. There’s been division before in America. But we’ve never given up on the American experiment. And we can’t do that now.… We have to face this problem. We can’t turn away from it. We can’t pretend it’s just going to solve itself.

There’s an alarming rise in the number of our people in this country condoning political violence, or simply remaining silent, because silence is complicity. To the disturbing rise of voter intimidation, the pernicious tendency to excuse political violence or at least, at least trying to explain it away. We can’t allow this sentiment to grow. We must confront it head on now. It has to stop now….

Look, even as I speak here tonight, 27 million people have already cast their ballot in the midterm elections. Millions more will cast their ballots in the final days leading up to November the 9th — 8th, excuse me…. Once again we’re seeing record turnout all over the country. And that’s good. We want Americans to vote. We want every American’s voice to be heard. Now we have to move the process forward. We know that more and more ballots are cast in early voting or by mail in America. We know that many states don’t start counting those ballots till after the polls close on Nov. 8.

That means in some cases we won’t know the winner of the election for a few days — until a few days after the election. It takes time to count all legitimate ballots in a legal and orderly manner. It’s always been important for citizens in the democracy to be informed and engaged. Now it’s important for a citizen to be patient as well. That’s how this is supposed to work.

This is the first election since the events of January 6th, 2021….I wish I could say the assault on our democracy ended that day, but I cannot.

As I stand here today, there are candidates running for every level of office in America — for governor, Congress, attorney general, secretary of state — who won’t commit, that will not commit to accepting the results of the election that they’re running in. This is a path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful, and it’s un-American.

… So I ask you to think long and hard about the moment we’re in. In a typical year, we’re not faced with questions of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy or put us at risk. But this year we are. This year I hope you’ll make the future of our democracy an important part of your decision to vote and how you vote….You have the power, it’s your choice, it’s your decision, the fate of the nation, the fate of the soul of America lies where it always does, with the people, in your hands, in your heart, in your ballot….

Defining Populism (Briefly)

Politicians, both on the right and left, are sometimes called “populists” (although these days most of them are on the right). Being called a populist isn’t a compliment. An article from the Boston Review offers a definition of populism and explains why it would be good if there were fewer of them:

In 2016, [Jan-Werner] Müller published a much-heralded study, What Is Populism? Though written before [America’s 2016 election], the book reflected the anxieties of many Europeans who already lived amongst powerful populist parties and movements and became all the more relevant in the years later….

Müller’s basic argument is that the primary feature that distinguishes populists from traditional political actors is how they claim to represent their supporters. According to this picture, traditional politicians offer policy proposals tailored to appeal to a specific set of supporters, fully aware that many within the electorate will disagree. By contrast, populists are fundamentally “anti-pluralist”: they claim to absolutely and exclusively represent the people—or at least, the only people who count.

For this to be possible, the populist must reject the heterogeneity of democratic society and instead invoke a fictitious common will. (Thus the grand statements of populist leaders like that of France’s Marine Le Pen in 2014: “The sovereign people have proclaimed that they want to take back the reins of their destiny into their hands.”) Any citizens who disagree are maligned and excluded from being part of the people. They are instead seen as immoral, corrupt, or “brainwashed” actors, propping up “the elite,” the Other in the populist us-versus-them narrative.

According to Müller, it is this logic of representation that explains the behavior of populist leaders. Their frequent use of referenda, for example, is an attempt to “ratify what the populist leader has already discerned to be the genuine popular interest.” Likewise, populists frequently reject unfavorable election results as, for them, it would be impossible for the people to genuinely select other choices.

Even though they don’t represent all voters or all the people, populists act as if they do. Some of them have delusions of grandeur (as in “I alone can fix [the system]”). Too many of them think they don’t have to obey the rules.

If You Can Keep It

A headline from the New York Times:

Voters See Democracy in Peril, but Saving It Isn’t a Priority

That’s the conclusion they drew from their latest poll. They should have said it’s not the highest priority, but headline writers aren’t known for accuracy.

In this poll, they asked registered voters “What do you think is the MOST important problem facing the country today?” Forty-five percent of the registered voters said that either “the economy (including jobs, stock market)” or “inflation or the cost of living” are the biggest problem (26% picked the economy and 19% picked inflation).

It’s not clear why anybody would say the economy is our biggest problem. Job growth has been excellent since the pandemic eased. Average wages have increased. Store shelves aren’t empty. But we don’t know where those voters get their news, so it’s hard to know what myths they accept. Some probably equate the stock market with the economy (like the people who wrote that question for the poll), while others are upset by their portfolios going down (after going up for so long).

It’s true that inflation is a problem (for some people more than others) and it’s in the news a lot, so it makes sense that 1 in 5 registered voters said it’s the country’s biggest concern at the moment. Presumably, when inflation slows down, probably next year, it won’t bother them so much. For context, it’s worth noting that of the world’s 23 leading economies, the U.S. has an inflation rate near the middle (9 countries have higher inflation and 13 have lower). The Federal Reserve is responding to inflation aggressively, but current inflation is a global phenomenon.

So what about democracy being “in peril”? It was the third most popular answer at 9%. Unfortunately, given what’s going on these days, that 9% is less than reassuring. Roughly half of that 9% thought it’s the Democrats who are attacking our democracy. The Big Lie is now gospel for Republicans, including most of them running for office this year (In case you’re wondering, climate change only got 3%.)

Since the state of the economy tends to determine election results and majority parties tend to lose midterm elections, things don’t look good for the Democrats next month unless women, reacting to our renegade Supreme Court, turn out in record numbers.

All of which leads me to ask: how did we get to a place where half the country prefers a party led by an ex-president who tried to overturn the last election — and on top of that is a truly horrible person? And on top of that is dedicated to bringing back the 1950s (except for that decade’s high taxes on the rich), when anybody who wasn’t a white, supposedly Christian man was treated like a second-class citizen?

Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times thinks this situation isn’t all that strange:
“The U.S. Thinks It Can’t Happen Here. It Already Has”. After slavery was finally abolished and we’d killed enough American Indians, there was the legalized oppression of Jim Crow

If we date the beginning of Jim Crow to the 1890s — when white Southern politicians began to mandate racial separation and when the Supreme Court affirmed it — then close to three generations of American elites lived with and largely accepted the existence of a political system that made a mockery of American ideals of self-government and the rule of law….

For most of this country’s history, America’s democratic institutions and procedures and ideals existed alongside forms of exclusion, domination and authoritarianism. Although we’ve taken real strides toward making this a less hierarchical country, with a more representative government, there is no iron law of history that says that progress will continue unabated or that the authoritarian tradition in American politics won’t reassert itself.

That’s all true, but I’d look to more recent history to understand when our democracy began to weaken. It was baby-faced provocateur Newt Gingrich who taught his fellow Republicans to demonize Democrats using words like “traitor”, “sick” and “anti-child” (he actually sent them a memo in 1996). Then there was the fervid search for a way to use the legal system to remove Bill Clinton from office. The national media helped in the 2000 campaign by portraying unexceptional George W. Bush as a regular guy and Al Gore as a lying robot, but it was the Republican majority on the Supreme Court who used Bush v. Gore to make sure their side won. Lots of Republicans never accepted Obama as president, believing that somebody like him wasn’t really an American. He won two elections, but Senate Republicans denied him the ability to add a Democrat to the Supreme Court. We then had the farcical 2016 campaign, when the biggest story in America was Hillary Clinton’s email server and the Republican FBI director decided to intervene at the last moment. Enough of us were disgusted by four years of a president with no redeeming qualities to deny him a second term, but a recent poll suggests he’d beat Joe Biden in 2024.

So we’re left with one of our major parties not accepting the results of an election, using a Supreme Court full of ideologues to take away our rights, aching to put a semi-fascist authoritarian back in the White House (assuming, I suppose, that he’s not under house arrest) and planning to make America worse in a number of ways if they get the chance.

If you want to know more about their plans, read “Our Institutions Will Not Save Us From Republican Authoritarianism”, subtitled “If the [Republican Party] wins in 2022 and 2024, here’s how it’ll capture Congress, the courts, and the executive branch to make America into Hungary” or “Kari Lake’s Candidacy [in Arizona] Shows Us How Democracy Self-Destructs”, which includes the following:

Marx used to say that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction…. No—it turns out that it’s actually democracy that contains the seeds of its own destruction. If the people who want a “Christian” nation with no secure voting rights and a weak independent press get 51 percent of the votes, they can impose that and more on the rest of us.

I sometimes think it’s mainly a matter of how people get the news. My main sources of political news are The Washington Post, The Guardian, The New York Times and a few independent journalists. It’s hard to believe that many decent human beings would want today’s Republican Party to be in charge of anything if they knew more. If, for example, they didn’t listen to people who tell them stories like this: schools are installing litter boxes for children who identify as cats. But lots of decent people don’t read The Washington Post. They watch Fox News and listen to talk radio instead.

That’s where we are and where we might be going. It’s like the man supposedly said back in 1789, according to the notes of James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Mr. McHenry wrote:

A lady asked Dr. Franklin, Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.