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.

Whether It’s Nihilism or Semi-Fascism, They Cannot Be Reached

It’s not always easy to come up with the right word, especially when dealing with ideas like fascism and nihilism. I think “semi-fascist” is an excellent label for today’s Republican Party. I don’t think “nihilist” is, because it usually refers to the belief that moral and religious principles are meaningless, or that life is. Tom Nichols, a writer for The Atlantic, uses the word to describe the the MAGA crowd. Whatever he calls it, he understands that they are beyond the reach of normal politics:

Joe Biden’s “Soul of the Nation” address got at a cold and disquieting truth: The MAGA movement cannot be placated, reasoned with, or politically accommodated in any way. There is nothing its adherents want—and nothing anyone can give them—beyond chaos and political destruction.

Joe Biden’s address to the American people last week was, as I wrote at the time, necessary and right. The staging was bizarre, and the speech had some of the hallmarks of a group product that hadn’t been subjected to a final spackle-and-smooth by a chief writer. But Biden got one big thing right, and that one thing explains why D____ T____ and the MAGA World apologists are reacting with such fury. The president outed them as anti-American nihilists:

They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country … MAGA Republicans have made their choice. They embrace anger. They thrive on chaos. They live not in the light of truth but in the shadow of lies.

This, as Biden pointed out, is what makes the MAGA movement so dangerous. It has no functional compass and no set of actual preferences beyond a generalized resentment, a basket of gripes and grudges against others who the T____ists think are looking down upon them or living better lives than they are. It is a movement composed of people who are economically comfortable and middle-class, who enjoy a relatively high standard of living, and yet who seethe with a sense that they have been done dirt, screwed over, betrayed—and they are determined to get revenge.

Biden broke with tradition by saying what presidents are never supposed to say: He admitted that he was finally giving up on trying to accommodate a group of Americans, because he understands that they do not want to be accommodated. I know that some of my friends and colleagues believe that Biden, as president, must continue to reach out to MAGA voters because they are our neighbors and our fellow citizens…. But how do we reach those voters? These citizens do not want a discussion or a compromise. They don’t even want to “win,” in any traditional political sense of that word. They want to vent anger over their lives—their personal problems, their haunted sense of inferiority, and their fears about social status—on other Americans, as vehemently as possible, even to the point of violence.

How do any of us, and especially the president, engage with such a movement, when every discussion includes the belief that the only legitimate outcomes are ones in which the MAGA choice wins? Such an insistence is not civic or democratic in any way, and it is not amenable to resolution through the democratic process.

This, by the way, is why it was a mistake for Biden to raise issues such as abortion and privacy in his speech. Yes, the opportunists who will ride into political office on the bed of a pickup flying MAGA flags will attack these rights, but that is incidental to their real interest, which is power and the spoils it brings. Issues such as abortion, LGBTQ rights, and contraception are really just hot buttons meant to rile up the voters. (MAGA World, as a movement, seems to have a kind of tabloid-television-style obsession with sex, which makes sense, as it is led by a tabloid star who literally bragged about the size of his penis on a GOP debate stage.)

For Biden even to mention something like abortion undermined the more important part of his speech, which is that MAGA is a movement that doesn’t believe in anything but violence, chaos, and power. Right-wing pundits have seized on that part of his speech because it was the only thing they could argue with; they know that trying to describe MAGA and T____ism with any consistency is pointless. Smaller government? More democracy? Power to “We the People”? Good luck with that: T____ just endorsed a [Republican] candidate for governor, Geoff Diehl in Massachusetts, by telling a crowd that Diehl will “rule your state with an iron fist, and he’ll do what has to be done.”

As a native son of the Commonwealth, I have no concerns that the Bay State is going to elect someone on D____ T____’s say-so. But T____’s authoritarian blather makes Biden’s point. The MAGA movement isn’t interested in politics, or policies, or compromises. It is interested in destruction and seeing others made as miserable as its followers are. MAGA is a movement of people who seem to be, in so many ways, deeply and profoundly unhappy, and suffering from an emptiness and anger deep in their spirit. There is no political solution for that. All Joe Biden did was finally say this obvious truth out loud.

Identifying Semi-Fascism Again

I posted something a few days ago regarding Biden’s use of “semi-fascism” to describe what’s happening in the Republican Party. The author I quoted said some of the factors he listed should be given more weight than others. Being in thrall to a single leader is, for example, more important than making a fetish of the young. Here’s another take on “semi-fascism” from Brooklyn writer John Ganz:

“Semi-fascist” is actually used by scholars….In Stanley Payne’s A History of Fascism: 1914-1945, the author employs it several times and invests it with real content. In fact, semi-fascism was a common phenomenon because fascist movements had so much difficulty obtaining popular support and had to meld with conservative allies and existing institutions. In most places, fascist movements either failed or became a junior tendency in a broader political context:

Thus in the absence of a plurality of generically fascist regimes and systems, it is possible to refer only to a number of semifascist or would-be fascist regimes, while in turn distinguishing between the character and structure of each type and subtype both among themselves and in comparison with diverse kinds of conservative (or at least nonsocialist) nonfascist authoritarian regimes.

One of Payne’s primary examples of “semifascism” is Franco’s Spain: “That early Franquism contained a major component of fascism is undeniable, but it was so restricted within a right-wing, praetorian, Catholic, and semipluralist structure that the category ‘semifascist’ would probably be more accurate.” That is to say, in Franco’s Spain, hardcore fascists were part of a broad coalition of a more traditional authoritarian right and were subordinated to the role of junior partner and eventually swamped by the regime. You can also see similar processes take place in Legionary Romania, Horthy’s Hungary, Vichy France, and Salazar’s Portugal. Even Mussolini’s Italy had to make serious accommodations with conservative forces and kept aspects of the constitutional order in place at the beginning of the regime.

So, that’s regimes, but what about movements? Surely those must be more ideologically pure or clear-cut? Well, how would you characterize Action Française, Croix de Feu, or the Ku Klux Klan for that matter? The America First Committee contained Nazi sympathizers and others who were just sincerely anti-war. So, it was quite literally “semi-fascist.” Huey Long was not really a fascist, but he attracted a number of fascist followers, like Lawrence Dennis and Gerald L. K. Smith, because he looked close enough to them. They thought he could be turned into a more full-blown fascist, which was probably similar to the attitude of people like Bannon towards T____. Suffice it to say, there are many historical movements that anticipate fascist-style mobilization and themes, or copied some aspects of fascism while being more traditionally conservative in their desired outcome, or that excited and inspired fascists without fully delivering.

… As the highly-respected scholar Robert Paxton points out, fascism is less a coherent ideology than a set of “mobilizing passions:”

  • a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solutions;
  • the primacy of the group, toward which one has duties superior to every right, whether individual or universal, and the subordination of the individual
  • the belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external;
  • dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences;
  • the need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary;
  • the need for authority by natural leaders (always male), culminating in a national chief who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s destiny;
  • the superiority of the leader’s instincts over abstract and universal reason;
  • the beauty of violence and the efficacy of will, when they are devoted to the group’s success;
  • the right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.

Now obviously some of these features apply more to T____ism than others, so “semi-fascism” seems to be right on the money.

The fact of the matter is this: T____ism at its core is a movement fixated on restoring national greatness through the charismatic leadership of a single providential individual who “alone can fix it.” It is obsessed with national decline and attacking internal enemies. Although more loosely organized and weaker than those of the classical fascisms, MAGA also has paramilitary formations that have tried to carry out this project to the point of attempting the overthrow an elected government. From the very beginning of his political ascent, he attracted the interest and enthusiasm of the extreme right. He was the kind of thing they’d been looking for for a long time. Perhaps now a disappointment, perhaps now a failure, but certainly a step in the right direction as far as they were concerned.

Biden was probably hedging: his aides were concerned if he said “fascism” it would be too strong. But he was landing on a pretty reasonable interpretation of the case….

Saying someone is fascist or semi-fascist does not make all their supporters to be goose-stepping stormtroopers or say they deserve to be in the dock at Nuremberg.

Many normal people, including conservatives and even former leftists, at one point or another supported Europe’s fascist regimes. They did so because one or another part of their appeals sounded good to them, or they did it as a protest vote against a system that wasn’t functioning well; many sensible and educated people thought of fascism as essentially technocratic solution to the ills of liberal democracy. Fascism was, at one time, and as I fear it is becoming again, attractive and persuasive, not just brutal and overwhelming. The problem was that it was not a solution to any of the crises that beset these democracies: it was a disastrous series of lies and delusions. And that is the reason to call this for what it is: to say, “Look, we’ve seen this before. It doesn’t end well….”

Unquote.

Biden will address the nation on television tonight concerning this ongoing threat to democracy. He might not use “semi-fascism” again but it’s clear what and who he’ll be talking about.