Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, Destruction, 1836 (Wikimedia Commons)

Fearful of the furious, even violent distemper now roiling through Western democracies, many liberal intellectuals are worried about the people. Provoked by the recent contagion of reaction—the Tea Party, the Brexit referendum, the “alt-right” and the renaissance of white supremacist ideology, culminating in the grand guignol of the campaign and presidency of Donald J. Trump—anxiety among liberal writers about popular politics has been steadily rising. Especially since the Hillarydammerung, a chorus of apprehension about “populism” and “illiberal democracy” has swelled among liberal academics, pundits, and think-tank sages. William Galston, Amy Chua, Yascha Mounck, and others rue the emergence of an authoritarian populace—“the people against democracy” in Mounck’s words, a pandemonium of fear and animosity that threatens, in their view, to demolish liberal institutions. Having elected a morally and intellectually grotesque plutocrat to the nation’s highest office—and having done so intoxicated by racism, religious bigotry, and xenophobia—the people, it appears, have forfeited the confidence of America’s liberal mandarins. To preserve freedom, tolerance, and civility, liberals (so the argument goes) must quell or counter the appeal of “populism,” usually through some blend of wealth redistribution, support for more restrictive immigration policies, and a more “inclusive” nationalism.

Professors of government at Harvard, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written the least hysterical and most judicious volume in this literature of liberal paranoia. Trump’s unlikely ascent to the presidency, they contend, was enabled by “ineffective gatekeeping”: the failure of the American political establishment to prevent an onslaught of “populists,” irresponsible and dangerous demagogues exploiting the ignorance and adversity of the people. Once the sentinels of liberal democracy, the “gatekeepers” must be restored and strengthened, re-empowered to bar irresponsible firebrands from enkindling popular discontent. Conceived as a marvelous but combustible thing, democracy, the authors suggest, is just too important to be left to the people.      

Thus the title of this book is misleading; it should be How Political Elites Let Barbarians through the Gates, and How They Can Regain Their Hegemony. The subject is not the revitalization of democracy, but the moral and political rearmament of elites. Like other emissaries of the neoliberal consensus, Levitsky and Ziblatt are desperate to recover an emollient sense of normalcy—the days before the fall of 2015, in this tale, when “populist” usurpers from the right and the left preempted the legitimate authority of long-standing, responsible political experts. Left without the prudence of its guardians, American democracy succumbed to the people, and on November 8, 2016, the center collapsed and a rough beast was slouching toward Washington to be inaugurated.

The democratic insistence on popular sovereignty is in tension with the rights of property; either directly or through representatives, the people can, in this view, define, limit, and even abrogate the rights of capitalist property owners.

It’s a plausible story; the “gatekeepers,” at least those in the Republican Party, surely lost or abandoned their posts, and an ignorant, impassioned malevolence now has an ambassador in the Oval Office. Yet the restoration of the old establishment will not restore the health of democracy. For all the good sense and moderation of their account of democratic decline and revival, the authors seem oblivious to the depth and magnitude of the problems that face liberal democracy, not only here but throughout the world.

“Liberal democracy” has always been a marriage made in limbo. From its inception in the 17th century, liberalism has always accented the protection of “private property” and “individual freedom” —often defined in bourgeois terms as capitalist ownership and accumulation. The democratic insistence on popular sovereignty is in tension with the rights of property; either directly or through representatives, the people can, in this view, define, limit, and even abrogate the rights of capitalist property owners. Until well into the twentieth century, liberals were always well aware that democracy posed a threat to the propertied classes. To classical liberals, democracy was the plundering of the rich by the poor; James Madison and Alexis de Tocqueville, the two most eloquent enemies of majority “tyranny,” were both aristocrats fearful that the envious and avaricious rabble would confiscate their assets. In the mid-twentieth century, the Great Depression and the Cold War forced a rapprochement between liberalism and democracy—the “New Deal order,” as historians have dubbed it, a tense and uneven compromise between capitalist property and popular sovereignty.      

With the business counter-revolution against the New Deal in the 1970s—“neoliberalism,” as it’s often called—capital reasserted and expanded the scope of its rights to unfettered dominion. Both Republicans and Democrats sang hosannas to what Ronald Reagan called “the magic of the market”—until the crash of 2008 appeared to discredit neoliberal ideology. Neoliberals in both parties failed to deal with the collateral damage attendant upon corporate plutocracy: stagnant wages, rising poverty, dwindling employment prospects, racial tensions exacerbated by material deprivation. With the unexpected successes of the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and then of the unprincipled Trump, neoliberal political and intellectual elites grew alarmed; “populism” soon came to connote the rancorous death wish of liberal democracy, enacted with especially fateful relish in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Levitsky and Ziblatt maintain that only a judicious political class can successfully contain the malevolence of bigots, “extremists,” and wooly-headed “populists.” The stability of democracy depends on the sagacity and skill of this political elite—party leaders, in particular, who act at their best as democracy’s vigilant “gatekeepers.”  These gatekeepers are moderate partisans who identify and quarantine “extremists” or “authoritarians.” To aid in this civilizing process, the authors formulate a “litmus test” of bad behaviors that indicate extremist or authoritarian traits: rejection of electoral rules and results; denial of legitimacy to other parties or candidates; toleration or encouragement of violence; and a willingness to curtail or revoke the civil liberties of opponents, dissenters, or the media.

In addition to the “litmus test,” the authors emphasize “unwritten democratic norms,” codes of civility that leaven the institutional architecture of liberal democracy; like oxygen, they write, “a norm’s importance is quickly revealed by its absence.” The most important of these norms are mutual toleration, or agreement to disagree—“even if we believe our opponents’ ideas to be foolish or wrong-headed, we do not view them as an existential threat”—and forbearance, or restraint in the use of power—“avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.” The authors concede that, until the 1960s, one other unwritten norm in American democracy was racial exclusion: African-Americans and other minorities were non-citizens in the white republic. In W.E.B. Du Bois’sterms, democracy rested on the “wages of whiteness.” (Oddly, there’s no mention of yet another exclusion—that of women, until 1920.)        

Although the most egregious offenders against democratic norms are still dictators and juntas, the most prevalent violators today are “populists,” “antiestablishment” figures who battle what they portray as “a corrupt and conspiratorial elite.”  Channeling both the legitimate and imagined grievances of millions of desperate people, populists rail against existing democratic institutions as “hijacked, corrupted, or rigged” by the wealthy, well-connected, and oblivious. Over the last few years, the writers observe, “populist” or “extremist” politicians—especially in the Republican Party, and even more especially Trump—have committed “unprecedented” acts of norm-breaking (or “norm erosion”): treatment of rivals as “enemies” (the demonization of Obama and the Clintons); blatant or thinly veiled racism and misogyny (“bad hombres,” “blood coming out of her. . .whatever”); attacks on the integrity of the electoral system, the courts, the media, the military, and the intelligence services.        

The authors don’t conjure up some golden age of all-wise gatekeepers, unbroken norms, and sweet reason among political rivals. American politics, they concede, has long harbored “an authoritarian streak” of mercurial, usually racist demagoguery: Henry Ford (an anti-Semitic crank and, in my view, a close analogue of Trump), Father Charles Coughlin, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. (I would add Ross Perot.) Still, none managed to get past the gatekeepers; from the Electoral College—“our original gatekeeper”—to the smoke-filled rooms and old convention systems controlled by party bosses, the gates of liberal democracy, though assailed, were never breached by autocrats, lunatics, or extremists. Gatekeepers must always “resist the temptation to nominate these candidates,” the authors assert, “even when they can deliver votes.”      

Alas, the system became, in the authors’ words, “too democratic” to secure the gates. Compelled by the civil rights and feminist movements to open up the political establishment, both parties reformed their nominating procedures in the early 1970s in such a way that party leaders lost considerable control over the selection of candidates. Even though Democrats tried to rein in democracy with “superdelegates” chosen by and from among the party elite, the philistines could now run amok—and now, with even more, and more demanding, money to bankroll them than ever before. Making the obstacle race longer and more difficult also made it more expensive, and so the democratization of democracy forced candidates to rely more than ever on the benefactions of corporations and mega-donors. In these days of “extreme partisan division” over “racial and religious realignment”—the prospect of a less white and less Christian America—these reforms made it all but impossible for gatekeepers to stem the populist deluge.       

Now that a coarse and meretricious buffoon tweets away the last remnants of presidential dignity, the gatekeepers, the authors insist, must reassert their wisdom and superintendence. Republicans must discipline or repudiate Trump and corral the conservative Christian and white nationalist elements of their wrathful base, while Democrats must reincorporate white workers by addressing the economic inequality that acts as kindling for racism and nativism. Elites in both parties must insist again on mutual tolerance and forbearance, ventilating the superheated hothouse of accusatory rhetoric and retaliatory investigation. Protected against populist malcontents by a new, multiracial generation of gatekeepers, “America will be truly exceptional,” they conclude.        

If you have a more egalitarian and participatory account, it will look like more of the same. The problem with the authors’ reliance on political politesse is not historical naiveté but rather their anemic conception of democracy.

So the sensible center returns, and we all live happily ever after? If you define democracy as adherence to norms formulated and enforced by elites who are selectively “responsive” to popular demands, this denouement will satisfy; if you have a more egalitarian and participatory account, it will look like more of the same.  The problem with the authors’ reliance on political politesse is not historical naiveté but rather their anemic conception of democracy. As the authors themselves acknowledge, “gatekeepers” and their norms have presided over plenty of injustice, indignity, and atrocity—Amerindian genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment, Watergate, the invigilation of left-wing activists and journalists. But they never fundamentally reconsider the sufficiency of “norms” in light of these violations. J. Edgar Hoover, re-appointed by presidents of both parties, does not appear once in these pages, nor does any episode in the long and sanguinary record of imperial carnage. And the authors give no attention to the alarming and accelerating militarization of state and local police forces, nor to our ever more racialized system of incarceration, nor to our increasingly panoptical surveillance programs—all eminently bipartisan, norm-respecting developments.        

In line with traditional liberal insistence on the rule of law and procedure, this focus on norms can serve as a distraction from the substance of political conflict.  Interests and ideals can’t always be reconciled; there are real enemies in politics.  Slaveholders rightly saw the abolitionists as a terrifying “existential threat”—the death of slavery would mean their eradication as a class. Racists rightly see Black Lives Matter and other movements as dangers to white supremacy; men rightly see feminists as assassins of patriarchy; protected by both major political parties, capital rightly sees unions and left-wing parties as adversaries of its moral and political authority. Overeager to restore a simulacrum of order and propriety in an age of anger, Levitsky and Ziblatt overlook one of the obvious implications of the historical record: every extension of democracy has required men and women to violate norms, to defy gatekeepers who consigned their concerns to the margins of “responsible” discussion.      

This inattention to political substance produces a caricature of “populism,” which many liberals now can’t conceive as anything but a gateway drug to fascism.  As Michael Kazin, Thomas Frank, and other historians have demonstrated, there are left and right versions of “populism”; Bernie Sanders is not Donald Trump. Left populism has represented the democratic principle against capitalist property; right populism has employed the rhetoric of the people to defend the rights of money.  (The problem with populism is not the people, but the vagueness of who “the people” are.) Similarly, the authors never explore why populist candidates “can deliver votes,” and they certainly never suggest that contemporary tribunes might be right. Why are Sanders and Trump considered champions of the people?  Because the Beltway is a swamp; the political establishment is corrupt and clueless; it has been bought and paid for by the techno-financial plutocracy. Both parties have abetted the monetization of democracy, just as both parties have constructed the edifice of the military-industrial-surveillance apparatus. We owe the inanition of democracy to bipartisan moderates as well as “extremists.”      

The G.O.P. has indeed become a horror show of bigots, know-nothings, Christo-fascists, and rich white guys, inebriated with a brew of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and petty-bourgeois nostalgia. Trump’s promise to restore American greatness is, in part, an attempt to raise the wages of whiteness and masculinity that have been falling since the 1960s. But he’s still an utterly conventional Republican, not only in his neoliberal fondness for tax breaks and business deregulation, but in the forensics of beleaguered white Christian male grievance in which his party has trafficked for seven decades. Determined to roll back the gains of workers, non-white Americans, and women, the conservative project of revanchist politics has been consolidating since the 1950s; Trump is only the ugliest avatar in a gallery that includes William F. Buckley, Jr., Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater, and Newt Gingrich—all respected or ushered in by gatekeepers.      

Yet the Democrats continue to offer a clueless, condescending, and feckless opposition, unable or unwilling to repudiate the neoliberal legacy of the Clintons and Obama. Servile to their corporate donors yet possessed of a haughty nouveau-bourgeois moralism, their conception of social justice is that of a benign, technocratic plutocracy, the neoliberal ideal of a meritocratic oligarchy validated by money, managerial and technological expertise, and a sanctimonious veneer of “wokeness.” Burdened with a visionless and ideologically sclerotic cadre of party gatekeepers, they have nothing to offer a dispirited electorate than wonkish, ineffectual incrementalism.

Democracies die, not from the debility of elites, but from popular demoralization —the belief, amply justified in our day, that people have little or no influence on the institutions that structure their lives. The only antidote to this fatal acquiescence is the extension of democratic agency—socialism, as it used to be called, the final consummation of popular sovereignty, the thoroughgoing rejection of the liberal assumption that democracy must defer to property. The greatest threat to democracy is and always has been the gilded imperium of money, and only movements that aim at ending that dominion have any promise of democratic regeneration. However savvy and well-intentioned, a stratum of woke “gatekeepers” isn’t nearly enough to arrest the senescence of democracy, which is why, despite its erudition and decency, this volume is a representative document of the neoliberal political imagination, exhibiting, in a scholarly register, the panicky exhaustion of an incredulous meritocracy.


‘How Democracies Die’
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Crown, 312 pp., $26

Eugene McCarraher is professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. This essay draws upon two lectures: an address to the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University–Chicago on October 15, 2020, and the 2022 Ruskin Lecture, sponsored by the Ruskin Art Club and delivered at the University of Southern California on September 8, 2022.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.