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.