In two recent book reviews, JMC fellows Peter Berkowitz and Yuval Levin consider the current state of American democracy (along with other western democracies) and, in doing so, reflect on the nature of American politics. Berkowitz and Levin each examine books that, in their view, exaggerate the threats facing liberal democracies.
Berkowitz takes up a book by Dutch author Rob Reimen, The Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, which laments the decay of democracies illustrated in widespread obsession with material progress at the expense of philosophical virtue and identifies this decay with fascism. Levin reviews a book by Steven Levistsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, which offers case studies of states that perished under totalitarian regimes and predict on the basis of that data the demise of the United States under the Trump presidency.
In addressing the increasingly urgent question of the future of American democracy, these reviews and the books they address bring into focus the deeper, persisting question of the source or sources of our liberal democratic regime’s strength and vitality.
A Summons to Save Democracy
A sense of impending doom is in the air. The left’s best and brightest proclaim that President Trump is racist, mentally ill, lawless, and should be removed from office at the first opportunity. Many in the rank-and-file right believe that the media elites, entrenched government bureaucrats, and political establishments of both parties — whom they elected Trump to rein in — are demonstrating their determination to overturn the 2016 presidential election. Significant segments of both camps are convinced that their partisan opponents have plunged the country into a crisis from which it may never recover.
Despite their dark moods, both sides offer not just diagnoses of the country’s ills but prescriptions for restoring health that exude a certain self-confidence. Each supposes that if only it were put in charge and emancipated from the other’s poisonous interference, it would govern effectively and justly.
How Democracies Panic
We aren’t verging on autocracy, we’ve just forgotten how to worry.
We are living in an era of political panic. Some of President Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters in 2016 were motivated to overlook his shortcomings by desperate fear that our system of government was near death and only the most extreme measures could save it. A poll conducted by PRRI and the Atlantic immediately after the election found that more than 60 percent of Trump’s voters believed the 2016 election was “the last chance to stop America’s decline.” As one pro-Trump essayist famously put it, things had gotten so bad that it was time either to “charge the cockpit or you die.”
Since the election, similar fears of impending doom for our republic have overwhelmed some critics of Trump. They say that Trump is an autocrat in the making, intent on crushing dissent, repressing the free press, quashing congressional oversight, delegitimizing the courts, and ultimately killing our democracy. Even when they are not put so starkly, implicit fears of such looming autocracy color much of the resistance to Trump.
Want to help the Jack Miller Center transform higher education? Donate today.