EssaysFeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

How Democracies Die and How They Live

Over the past year a number of writers, myself included, have conducted an ongoing debate about the relationship between Trump, Trumpism, and authoritarianism.

The debate has shed some real light on an important topic: the state of and challenges to democracy in the U.S. Yet while some illumination has broken through the clouds of public confusion, there has also been much hot air, and a fair amount of smoke has also been blown. Serious political discussion of “Trump” has gotten caught up in pet peeves about “liberal” journalists and with efforts to retroactively vindicate positions taken in 2016 about the importance, or not, of supporting a Clinton election.

I have been one of those who has argued consistently that Trumpism presents a real danger of an authoritarian turn in U.S. politics. I have never argued that Trump has instituted an authoritarian regime; indeed, I have argued that even in Hungary and Poland, it is much too early to conclude that a “regime change” has been instituted. But I have argued that Trump exhibits a dictatorial style of governing; that he has mobilized profoundly authoritarian, and indeed racist and xenophobic, political energies, which have been unleashed in our public life in ways that are deeply disturbing and whose consequences cannot be predicted; that many of his policies and executive measures represent efforts to curtail forms of public accountability; and that in these ways he has affinities with, and even offers symbolic support to, authoritarians elsewhere who are already doing great harm to liberal democratic values.

I have never regarded myself as being on a particular “side” of a two-sided “debate.” I speak only for myself. But I have argued, and continue to argue, that Trumpism represents a serious threat to liberal democracy and poses a real danger of authoritarianism, whether or not the ultimate result is something that might properly be labeled “an authoritarian regime.” And I believe that one of the most important ways of making sure that it does not result in an “authoritarian regime” is to relentlessly criticize its authoritarian dimensions and to consistently advocate on behalf of the broadly left liberal values whose advocacy is necessary both to defend liberal democracy and to deepen and extend it.

For these reasons I have welcomed the interventions of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their op ed pieces and interviews and in their newly-published book, How Democracies Die. They are both important scholars of political science who have published serious scholarly articles and monographs on the comparative politics of democratization; and in their new book they apply the insights contained in this scholarship to current public concerns.

In my opinion their central thesis is correct and deeply important: “We should not take democracy for granted. There is nothing intrinsic in American culture that immunizes us against its breakdown.” Furthermore, it is to their great credit that they consider our current situation in a broader context of “crises of democracy,” delineating some general political dynamics of “democratic breakdown” that are not unique to the U.S. and that should concern us: the central role of political parties as organizations, and the dynamics of partisan competition, which can either reinforce or undermine ongoing liberal democratic governance; the role of “informal norms” of partisanship, bureaucratic discretion, and minimal forms of public transparency and accountability in the ongoing operations of liberal democratic governance; and the ways that populist mobilization can sometimes engender political overreach or political immobilism, in either case weakening the legitimacy of liberal democracy among mass publics and among relevant elites.

In all of these ways, Levitsky and Ziblatt draw upon a substantial body of scholarship shaped by the seminal work of Juan Linz and Al Stepan on The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes (1978), and they make an important contribution to public discourse by developing this perspective in a publicly accessible and relevant way.

At the same time, their perspective on democracy is hardly the only perspective even within the field of comparative politics, much less the broader domain of “democratic theory.”

And while I share their political commitment to the defense of liberal democracy, I believe that their way of thinking about “democratic breakdown” is too functionalist and, strangely for a book so rich in comparative historical analysis, too ahistorical. As a result, they proceed from an understanding of liberal democracy that is too uncritical of its serious and chronic normative deficiencies and legitimacy problems, and insufficiently attuned to the centrality of contentious politics to the entire history of democratization. And their defense centers much too heavily on problems of so-called “norm erosion” and on the importance of what can only be described as “normative order,” an idea that goes back to the 1950’s “functionalism” of Talcott Parsons and to the “structural functionalism” of the school of comparative politics initiated by the late Gabriel Almond.

And so, while there is much about their account of “how democracies die” that I embrace, I believe that they say too little about how democracies live.

In what follows I will expand on this, and also comment on a recent piece by Corey Robin, with the purpose of clarifying some of what is at stake in the debate about “authoritarianism,” and suggesting that in some ways there is more common ground among the debaters than might appear.

History . Levitsky and Ziblatt furnish compelling examples of how the lack of “self-restraint”– what is sometimes referred to as “political extremism”– has undermined constitutional order, sometimes to the point of violence. But the force of these examples only makes sense on the assumption that the “breakdown” they describe should be seen as a “democratic breakdown.” And in many cases this assumption is questionable. Because we are concerned here about American democracy, I will briefly focus on three important moments in the history of U.S. democracy.

The first is the broad period between roughly 1840 and 1876 during which the U.S. was riven by three interrelated waves of contention centering on the question of slavery and racial inequality more generally: the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, and the period of Reconstruction and especially that period known as “Black Reconstruction.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt offer this as a cautionary tale of “norm erosion ”:

“Could it happen here? It already has. During the 1850s, polarization over slavery undermined America’s democratic norms. Southern Democrats viewed the antislavery position of the emerging Republican Party as an existential threat. They assailed Republicans as “traitors to the Constitution” and vowed to “never permit this federal government to pass into the traitorous hands of the Black Republican Party.” Partisan violence pervaded Congress. Joanne Freeman, a historian at Yale, counted more than 100 incidents of violence (including fistfights, canings and the pulling of knives and pistols) on the floor of Congress between 1830 and 1860. Before long, the republic would be broken — and Americans would be killing one another in the hundreds of thousands.”

To be clear: I wholeheartedly embrace the idea that current struggles about democratization ought to be non-violent whenever possible, and that in liberal democracies such as the U.S., only non-violent struggles can be normatively justified.

But in a way, this begs the question: when do we actually have a liberal democracy? Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that the bitter struggles surrounding slavery “undermined democratic norms.” And it is surely true that they undermined “constitutional order.” But it is equally true that this undermining was done in the very name of democratic norms that were violently violated by the so-called “peculiar institution” of Black chattel slavery. As a matter of rhetoric, abolitionist agitation was justified on the basis of democratic and republican ideals, “Black Jacobin” ideas, and radical appeals to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, none more rousing than Frederick Douglass’s 1852 “Fourth of July Oration.”

What Levitsky and Ziblatt describe as “norm erosion” was in fact struggle for democratization in the name of democratic norms that were in tension with the existing constitutional order (much ink has been spilled on the reasons why for most abolitionists the Declaration was a better source of argumentation than the Constitution; obviously Lincoln, not an abolitionist, appealed to both).

Their second example is court packing. And they are surely correct, that at many moments in history, and today in places like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, authoritarian leaders have sought to cement their power by constraining judicial autonomy and filling the courts with political supporters who are partisans and not jurists committed to the rule of law. At the same time, whether or not judicial autonomy advances the cause of democracy depends in part on how truly “autonomous” is the judiciary, and how democratic is the political system in question. These are complicated questions. FDR’s “court-packing scheme” during the New Deal is a case in point. As a matter of procedural democracy, the effort arguably employed some questionable means. But in point of fact, before the New Deal, in many ways procedural democracy in the U.S. was severely undermined by a legal system, and especially a Supreme Court, that regarded private property as in many ways inviolable, and was hostile to social democratic reform, even when reform was supported by majorities. FDR’s “court packing,” which failed, was clearly part of a broader process of democratizing the American state, making it more responsive to the articulated demands for social justice of groups that had for too long been politically marginalized. This is why Bruce Ackerman, in his We The People, regards the New Deal, like Reconstruction before it and the Civil Rights Movement after it, as a kind of constitutional “revolution.”

My point here is not to advocate for “court packing” schemes. It is to insist that how we evaluate efforts to politicize or reform judicial institutions must take into account the broader function of these institutions and the broader context in which they are being politicized, and whether and how such efforts serve the value of extending and deepening liberal democratic values, or repressing liberal democratic values.

And here it is worth briefly considering a third example of a lack of “forbearance” that could be considered a form of “norm erosion” by Levitsky and Ziblatt: the strategies and tactics of non-violence resistance and civil disobedience practiced by the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. (To be very clear: I am not claiming that Levitsky and Ziblatt would in any way disparage this movement, and I am confident they will agree with everything I will now say; I am simply claiming that the episode poses problems for their conception of “norm erosion.”) It is convenient for us to remember this moment in U.S. history as a moment of civility. But in fact, what defined that moment above all was a very profound contest over the very meaning of civility, a contest in which bodies were broken and incarcerated and lives were sometimes taken. It is often forgotten, for example, that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written in response to an open letter criticizing him that was written by eight Alabama clergymen who were the “white moderates” against whom King (sharply yet moderately) wrote, and that this letter articulated what was the common sense of the moment: that King was an “extremist” and a disruptor, and that if he really cared about democracy, he would be patient, and pursue normal political means of advocacy, and forbear. King refused. He embraced the idea that he was an “agitator for love.” It is well known that as events unfolded, he became increasingly radical, as did other important leaders associated with SCLC and SNCC. It is also well known that on occasion he very explicitly and publicly acknowledged that much of his credibility as a leader derived from the fact that “out there” in the streets were others — most notably Malcolm — more angry, and less interested in negotiation, than he.

All of this was very messy, and very contentious. From the vantage point of the present, we can look back on this as a process of political inclusion and democratization that enhanced democratic norms. But at the time, the effort was widely regarded, especially by mainstream journalists and political elites, as “extremism,” “radicalism,” and disregard for democratic norms.

The history of American democracy, like the history of democracy everywhere, is a history of contestation of political authority, and of the democratization of this authority, by legal changes that are powered by social movements and by forms of contentious politics that indeed at certain moments in our history have either pressed the limits of nonviolence or even exceeded those limits, typically in response to the violence of the state.

All of this risks being lost in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s focus on “norm erosion.”


While I was in the middle of writing this piece Corey Robin’s fine post, “Democracy is Norm Erosion,” came across my desk (actually, the desktop of my computer!). I have been debating with Robin about the “authoritarianism” question for some time, and I was pleased to see his post, and that it made many of the same arguments that I was developing. This did not surprise me. And so, to be clear: in his post, which came out a day before mine, Robin makes a good argument that is very similar to the argument outlined above. At the same time, there is a real difference between us, and his critique of Levitsky and Ziblatt is the perfect opportunity to clarify and reflect on this difference.

The upshot of Robin’s reading of episodes such as the ones noted above is that, contra Levitsky and Ziblatt, it is not “norm erosion,” but in some sense conventional norms themselves, that inhibit democracy. Thus his title: “democracy is norm erosion.” And I agree, to a point: norm erosion is central to democracy. But so is normativity, by which I mean both normative argumentation, and the codification of norms in laws and institutions, through democratic processes that are at the same time always open to contestation and political revision.

Robin’s position is a very “respectable” one. Indeed, in political theory, it is most closely associated with the “radical democratic” theorizing of Sheldon Wolin, who famously, and brilliantly, argued that both the institutions of liberal democratic states and the very form of constitutionalism itself represent limits on the civic energies that truly “constitute” democracy.

These are very complicated issues of normative political theory, and it is impossible for me to do them justice here (pun intended?).

But I think it is fair to say that Levitsky and Ziblatt subscribe to what is basically a “static” view of liberal democracy most closely associated with the “political liberalism” of the late liberal theorist John Rawls. Rawls, on at least one reading (there are many readings, in part because Rawls kept on modifying his claims), believed that all legitimate contestation in a liberal democracy must be consistent with certain forms of argumentation and procedure that he called “public reason.” Like Levitsky and Ziblatt, he believed that the erosion of these norms could be fatal to liberal democracy. To simplify, to believe this is to subscribe to a broadly deliberative conception of democracy and to believe that it is through the orderly forms of law and processes associated with “normal politics,” through electoral competition and parliamentary debate and legislation, that democracy is best sustained. (In recent years a very interesting argument has unfolded about how this conception does and does not support practices of “civil disobedience” and practices of “disobedience” more generally.)

But there are two fundamental problems with this general “Rawlsian” view.

One is empirical: “really existing democracies” are profoundly flawed political systems even from the perspective of their own liberal democratic legitimation. These “defects” and “flaws” are indeed the focus of an entire literature in the comparative politics of democracy (“democracy studies”) sometimes referred to as “the quality of democracy.” Levitsky and Ziblatt know this literature well, and indeed have contributed to it. If we take this literature seriously, then we must acknowledge that the “norm erosions” currently being enacted by right-wing authoritarian populists such as Trump are fueled by serious weaknesses of normal liberal democratic politics — oligarchic parties and “hollowed out” forms of partisan competition; deficits of participation and trust; corporate media institutions; serious economic inequalities and insecurities; deep reservoirs of civic resentment, etc. — and that however objectionable the rhetoric, mobilizations, or policies of these authoritarian populists, it is hard to regard these in any simple sense as the “erosion of stable norms” rather than as the rejection of very complex and contentious norms that are in many ways undermined by the very practices these norms support.

The second is normative: democracy always has been and always will be a deeply and essentially contested idea, and it only imperfectly at best maps onto the institutions of the liberal democratic nation state. This is a real problem. And it is why so much contemporary contention, including much right-wing mobilization but also much left-wing populist mobilization—is enacted in the very name of “democracy,” broadly understood.

This is why Robin is correct to blanch at a simple reassertion of the value of liberal democracy, and to insist that democracy is norm erosion. Because it is.

But if it is only that, then it is not simply in Wolin’s terms “fugitive,” but also dangerous and indeed morally objectionable.

“Democracy” unmoored to certain moral principles — human rights, civic equality, the importance of legal and political institutions and forms of representation, and even, in combination with all else, the importance of certain norms of self-limitation or forbearance — easily becomes thuggishness or tyranny, whether in the name of the majority or not. And this is why normative principles are as important to modern democratic politics as are challenges to these norms.

Within normative political theory, a version of what I am saying he been most systematically defended by Jurgen Habermas in his now- — classic Between Facts and Norms. In a different vein, a similar argument can be found in some of the writings of Etienne Balibar on the theme of “equaliberty.” There is much more to be said about these issues, and much serious debate to be had. I make no pretense to “settling” anything here.

But from my perspective both Robin and Levitsky and Ziblatt are half-right.

Robin is right that “norm erosion,” i.e., normative challenge, contention and excess, is essential to the ongoing contentious politics of democracy. But in his commendable desire to advance this position against simplistic and sometimes even self-congratulatory appeals to “norms,” he perhaps goes too far in the other direction, devoting too much rhetorical energy to the “debunking” of liberal democratic moralism, and insufficient attention to the real value of, and dangers to, existing liberal democratic norms and procedures, which are very flawed but also very much in need of defending in the face of very bad right-wing politics — as I think he actually acknowledges, though this sometimes is lost in the critique of liberal moralism.

And Levitsky and Ziblatt are right that the norms of really existing liberal democracy are important achievements, that they are currently being threatened by right-wing authoritarians such as Trump, and this ought to be opposed, and if we do not understand these norms and defend them, we are in danger of losing them, to our peril. But in their commendable desire to oppose Trumpism, they perhaps go too far in valorizing normative consensus at the expense of normative dissensus, and of a more critical analysis of the serious failings of really existing democracies, which make them vulnerable to populist-democratic critiques, and which need to be addressed if liberal democracy is to be defended.

In short, we need to both defend and to extend liberal democracy.

And this involves a complex interplay of normative contestation and normative construction; efforts to reform the institutions of “normal politics” such as parties and campaign finance and electoral systems, etc., and efforts through social movements and forms of protest to mobilize on behalf of democratic equality beyond the confines of normal politics.

Trumpism, and right-wing populism more generally, presents a real danger of “de-democratization,” and authoritarianism, that must be understood and contested.

But Trumpism thrives in a soil of political alienation, and economic and social inequality and resentment, that marks the limits of existing liberal democracy, and that needs to be politically addressed, and contested, if Trumpism is to be countered.

We need normative defenses of liberal democratic institutions and of a certain kind of political “normality.”

We also need insistent demands for recognition, justice, and equality, and we ought to be prepared for such demands to sometimes exceed the institutions and even the norms of ordinary liberal democratic politics.

Such a politics of defending and extending liberal democracy, over time and space, will necessarily be fractious and uncertain (a theme developed in the important recent writing of William Connolly). There will never be a “moment” in which such a politics is ever “successful.” As Hannah Arendt once said in a different context, in politics the only final solution is death. At the same time, those of us who care about democracy will face choices. Elections are moments of choice. They are hardly the only or even the most important moments. But they can be very consequential. Building alternative institutions, over time, will for some loom very large. For others working within the existing party system will be most important. Some may actually believe that voting for Democratic candidates in national elections advances a real agenda for invigorating democracy. Some may vote for Democratic candidates as a form of lesser evilism — and anyone who has studied the history of the 20th century should be wary of disparaging the desire to lessen evil (the most brilliant political theorist to reflect on such things was the late Judith Shklar). Some will refuse this choice. Many of us will sometimes do one thing, and sometimes another. It is possible to do more than one thing at a time. It is also possible to adjust one’s tactics depending on the circumstance, or even to change one’s mind. There are no formulae here.

But I submit that the so-called “debate” between many of us about whether or not Trumpism is “authoritarian” could benefit from a momentary step back to consider what is and what is not at stake in our differences. Then we can continue to discuss and to debate.

I believe that most of us share some common concerns, about how democracy dies and how it lives.

And I suspect that for most of us, our theoretical interest in these questions is linked to our practical, normative, ethical commitments to defend, and to improve, the quality of the very flawed liberal democracy in which we currently live. Perhaps as we continue to discuss which theoretical concepts best capture what is going on and what we are doing, we might also discuss what forms of praxis follow from our conceptualizations, and how they contribute to the practical challenges of keeping democracy alive, kicking, and growing.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Previous post

Women and Men in Dark Times (Syllabus Included)

Next post

Bodies, Gender and Domination