Is Democracy Doomed? We've Been Here Before.
For those worried about what a Donald Trump presidency will do to the fabric of democracy, new research from Harvard University’s Yascha Mounk and the University of Melbourne’s Roberto Stefan Foa will not soothe. As the New York Times reported last week, the two have created an “early warning system” to detect when democracies are at risk of descending into autocracy, and Mounk says that “the warning signs are flashing red.”
The “early warning system” is three-fold: a decline in belief that democracy is important, increased openness to nondemocratic government and a rise in political parties or movements that deem the current system fundamentally illegitimate. All three criteria are moving in the wrong direction.
Mounk and Foa offer survey data from America, as well as five other nations, showing a huge generational divide on their warning system criteria, with only about 30 percent of millennials believing that it is “essential” to live in a democracy and a mere 19 percent agreeing that a military coup to replace an ineffectual government is illegitimate. And of course, 46 percent of American voters just elected a president who repeatedly disparaged the electoral system, not to mention the free press, and continues to do so even after he won.
This is not the first time that doubt in the sustainability of American democracy has flared. The value of democracy was widely questioned in the mid-1930s, as the Great Depression was yet to be tamed during the early stages of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency.
In “The Politics of Upheaval,” the final volume of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s New Deal trilogy, the author gathers contemporaneous quotes from despondent liberal writers summing up the national mood: “The rejection of democracy is nowadays regarded as evidence of superior wisdom,” said one. “To attempt a defense of democracy these days is a little like defending paganism in 313,” wrote another. “Self-government,” proclaimed a third, “has been held up to every ridicule, and many observers count it already dead.”
Several figures sought to exploit the erosion of faith in Depression-era democracy. Most notable was Huey Long, who as governor of Louisiana built a bond with the downtrodden by attacking corporate interests and spending big on infrastructure, but who created, in Schlesinger’s words, “the nearest approach to a totalitarian state the American republic had ever seen.”
Long seized complete control of all levels of government, from the courts to the vote-counters to the public schoolteachers. His tactics included more than demagoguery. Political critics suffered beatings and kidnappings. When the mayor of New Orleans resisted Long’s power grabs in 1934, Long (at that point a senator but still in command of Louisiana via his hand-picked successor as governor), declared “partial martial law,” then ordered state’s National Guard to occupy the registrar of voters office and train their guns on the mayoral office across the street.
Yet Long built a huge national following thanks to his “Share Our Wealth” program, going well beyond the New Deal to propose a robust guaranteed minimum income and a ceiling on maximum income and wealth. Long claimed 7 million people joined “Share Our Wealth” clubs. While Schlesinger calls that number a “wild exaggeration,” he observed voters “from the old lower-middle classes [and] from provincial and traditionally nonpolitical groups in the population … felt threatened by organized economic power” and were therefore quite content to join in “resentful revolt against both contemporary politics and contemporary economics.”
Long planned to use his clubs as a springboard for a third-party presidential run. “What this country needs is a dictator,” he would say. While he defended his Louisiana regime as “a perfect democracy,” he’d add with a wink, “When you have a perfect democracy it is pretty hard to tell it from a dictatorship.” How far he would have gotten in the 1936 presidential race we’ll never know, because he was assassinated in 1935.
Less popular, but not insignificant, were right-wing radical elements then active in American politics. More than 100 fascist organizations formed, speaking to, in Schlesinger’s words, “the woes of the nonpolitical old-American, xenophobic middle class.” A magazine called American Review was launched as a home for “Radicals of the Right,” and praised Mussolini as “the most constructive statesman of our age” and Hitler -- “even if the absurd atrocity stories were all true” -- as the man who “signifies the end of the Communist threat, forever.”
The important point to remember, however, is that none of these anti-democratic forces were successful. Roosevelt’s many public works programs helped instill confidence that a well-intentioned government was better than chaos—and kept winning re-election even before he emerged as a forceful wartime president who instilled confidence at home and around the world. When a weakened Republican Party establishment was hijacked by an outside corporate figure in 1940, it was by the urbane internationalist Wendell Willkie, not a coarse demagogue like Donald Trump. The 800,000-strong “America First” movement which sought to avoid war with Germany, and had Nazi sympathizers in its midst, dissolved after Pearl Harbor. America united to defend democracy and didn’t look back.
Should we then be confident that America’s inherent democratic nature will once again prove durable? America’s economic situation today is nothing like the Great Depression. Unemployment is at manageable levels—and vastly better than in the 1930s. Inflation is almost non-existent. While economic recovery from the 2008 crash has been uneven, the social safety net is far more robust today than it was in 1929—or 1969. The relatively better conditions are not fertile ground for anti-democratic revolution.
Furthermore, some critics of the Mounk-Foa study argue it overstates the decline in democratic support among millennials. They note that the survey asked participants to rank the importance of democracy on a scale from 1 to 10; Mounk and Foa focused on the low amount answering “10,” even though the vast majority still gave democracy a positive rating.
Yet there are enough disturbing developments to warrant vigilance. As some on the far right heralded Hitler in 1930s as a bulwark against communism, today’s “alt-right” praises Russian President Vladimir Putin as, in the words of the New York Times yesterday, “a kind of white knight: a symbol of strength, racial purity and traditional Christian values in a world under threat from Islam, immigrants and rootless cosmopolitan elites.” But unlike the 1930s, these same elements will be supportive of the American president as well.
We simply don’t know if Trump will echo Long in his desire and ability to wield undemocratic power. The president-elect is often rhetorically ruthless to his enemies while sounding glib about constitutional protections. It’s a combination that worries many Americans. But Trump will face a far more fortified federal system of checks and balances than Long faced in Louisiana if he dares try to undermine the Constitution or skirt the law.
Trump will also have a harder time than Long buying support with government largesse. The conservative Republican Congress may constrain Trump from spending freely, few believe a change in trade strategy can bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs, and much of Trump’s economic agenda – deregulation, corporate tax cuts -- is actually geared to the executive class.
We need not assume the worst based on one academic study. And there are plenty of institutional obstacles to Trump’s worst impulses. But we can’t necessarily wait for a Pearl Harbor to galvanize America. If we care about our democracy, we must tend to it every day, and speak out against any threats that may arise.