EssaysFeatureThe Left and the Crisis of Democracy: A Symposium

Not Knowing What We’ve Got Til It’s Gone

We need to both defend liberal democratic norms and institutions and address their fault lines

This symposium contains essays by Michael Walzer, Sheri Berman, Leo Casey, and Jeffrey C. Isaac that reflect on the principles and possibilities of social democracy and liberal democracy in our current political times. The pieces constitute extensions of the authors’ presentations in the “Crisis of Democracy” panel that took place at the American Political Science Association 2018 Annual Meeting, organized by Leo Casey and originally convened to respond to pieces published in a special issue of Dissent magazine

In my contribution to the Dissent Magazine discussion of the “Crisis of Democracy” which provided the inspiration for our reflections in this symposium, I put forward the argument that attacks on the citizenship rights of racialized ‘others’ are central to Trumpism and other variants of the populist authoritarianism of the far right that have taken shape internationally. Further, I argued that criticisms of ‘identity politics’ in the name of abstractly universal notions of citizenship and class, conceived as separate and distinct from race, distract us from this central dimension of the current crisis.

Today, I want to highlight these points by examining a debate that has emerged among political scientists and political commentators since my essay was published. I am referring to the exchanges among between those who prioritize the defense of liberal democratic political norms and institutions, such as Yascha Mounk, Steve Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt and Jonathan Chait, on the one hand, and those who argue that liberal democracy is complicit in the current crisis and that capitalism must be brought into question, such as Jedediah Purdy and Corey Robin, on the other hand.

I will contend that we need to both defend liberal democratic norms and institutions and address the underlying causes of the current crisis, but this is not a take one from ‘column A’ and one from ‘column B’ argument. Rather, there are serious errors and oversights in both positions that have allowed each side to posit irreconcilable differences with the other. Significantly, both sides downplay what I argue is central to Trumpism, the attacks on the citizenship rights of racialized ‘others.’

For Purdy and Robin, the danger of Trumpist authoritarianism is considerably overstated. Trump’s presidency represents more of a continuation than a break with the American past. Robin compares it with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and Purdy attributes its rise to the “perennial carnage” of American capitalism. The argument is that we should judge Trump by his actions, and not by his words, which in the end are so much bluster.

But words are speech acts, especially in the case of a president. Even if, for example, the solicitation of calls to imprison political opponents that are featured in Trump’s rallies and tweets are not a prelude to actual attempts at imprisonment – and it is our job to create the political conditions that make it impossible for them to be actualized – they do a real violence to democratic civic culture in and of themselves. Before one dismisses focusing on such matters as liberal ‘clutching of pearls’ over democratic norms, one might consider that the loss of a few such norms will mean the collapse of the political space to organize any political project of the left.

And there is much more to Trumpism than speech acts: there are the Muslim travel bans, the internment of immigrants and refugees, the callous and cruel separation of immigrant and refugee children and infants from their families, and the marauding ICE agents tearing parents from children on the street and in their homes, to name just a few of the more egregious actions. There is a whole class of Supreme Court decisions, made possible by the Trump nominee stolen from the Obama presidency, which supported voter suppression measures and racial gerrymandering, and mounted attacks on unions, on women’s reproductive freedom and on LGBTQ rights. There are the incessant attacks on freedom of the press and on the rule of law, with the latter designed to remove Trump, his family and his associates from its purview. And there is the endless parade of Trump support for authoritarian states and leaders from across the globe.

Trump’s actions necessarily bring us to the question of race. Is there a serious argument that race is incidental to the internment of brown immigrants and refugees, and to the tearing of brown children and infants from their immigrant and refugee parents? Who credibly thinks that this would happen if the immigrants and refugees were white and from Europe? The Supreme Court’s disingenuous opinion notwithstanding, is there an intellectually honest argument that racialized oppression is incidental to the Muslim travel ban? As this article is prepared for publication, we are in the final days of the 2018 mid-term election campaign. We have witnessed the attempted MAGA bomber assassinations which targeted many leading African-American and Jewish opponents of Trump, the whipping up of hysteria over an “invading” immigrant caravan from Central America, the mass murder of eleven men and women attending synagogue on the Sabbath by an anti-Semite that blamed Jews for immigration, and Trump’s declaration that he would undo by executive order the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship. Race is a bright thread that runs through the warp and woof of Trump’s actions, such that one must be willfully blind to not see it.

When taken to its logical conclusion, the Robin argument that such actions are continuation of the American past turns on itself. What is the period of Jim Crow, if not a brutal racial dictatorship over African-Americans? African-Americans were denied political voice and freedom, refused access to public institutions and public goods, and forced into unfree, exploitative labor – and all of this was enforced by the organized violence of mobs, of lynchings, and of rapes. What was the end of Jim Crow, if not a great advance for American democracy that extended rights and freedoms to its African-American citizens? A return to earlier times in which the citizenship rights of racialized ‘others’ were honored in the breach is a reversal of the vital advances of the civil rights era, and a break with our most recent past. It is an attack on American democracy and must be understood as such.

In Purdy and Robin, I hear the refrain of the old Talking Heads song, “same as it ever was.” And I respond with a line of Joni Mitchell: they seem intent on “not knowing what they’ve got til it’s gone.”

But there are serious blind spots in the liberal democratic authors which Purdy and Robin critique. The “crisis of democracy” did not begin with Donald Trump and a single-minded focus on him ill-serves a response to that crisis. Purdy’s broad reference to the “perennial ravages of capitalism” as the source of the crisis is more a rhetorical flourish than an analytical explanation, but there are forty years of policies in the US and across the globe that have paved the way to the current crisis by hollowing out democratic government, public life and public goods, and diminishing our collective ability through democratic government to shape our political and economic destinies. They provide the setting for the current “crisis of democracy.”

There was corporate dominated globalization that created an economic “race to the bottom.” There were the policies of privatization and the commodification of public goods such as education, and the policies of austerity that undermined the quality and accessibility of the public goods that remained. There were the policies of deregulation that freed corporations from anti-monopoly, pro-labor, pro-environmental and pro-consumer restraints. Taken collectively, these policies led to an explosion of economic inequality, the dramatic expansion of precarious labor and the decline of unions and other integrating institutions of civil society that bring together in common cause people of different races, religions, genders and sexual orientations. The rise of racist, authoritarian populism of the far right which has targeted racialized ‘others’ cannot be separated from the absence of a mainstream politics of liberalism and the left that addressed and countered these policies.

Many liberal democrats have acquiesced in – when not actually promoting – such policies, including parties to this debate, such as Jonathan Chait. The Clinton and Obama presidencies are illustrative in this regard. The “crisis of democracy” cannot be satisfactorily addressed until these policies are replaced with a broad social democratic agenda that addresses economic inequality, creates and sustains quality jobs and facilitates the growth of unions.

Let me conclude by laying my political cards on the table: In my view, Trumpism is a clear and present danger to American democracy, and especially to the racialized ‘others’ which are the primary object of its attacks. The political imperative of our moment is its defeat in the ‘18 and ‘20 elections. To accomplish these goals, a broad center-left coalition that includes both poles of this political debate must be assembled. At the same time, the deeper “crisis of democracy” which gave rise to Trumpism must be addressed, or we will be viewing the same political movie again and again, with each ending more deadly than the previous one.

Leo Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. He is on the editorial board of Dissent.

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