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Democracy’s Discontents

Though Fukuyama is focused on the threats to liberalism, January 6 shows that the real complaints are with democracy.

Ian Bassin

They didn’t attack the Supreme Court. Despite decades of fury from the American Right that the judiciary’s unelected judges were a form of “tyranny,” the insurrectionists didn’t attack the branch most representative of liberalism’s rule of law. Instead, they attacked the citadel of democracy itself: Congress sitting in session to count and certify the votes of an election to effectuate the peaceful transfer of power.

In the aftermath of January 6, 2021, it is harder to sustain Francis Fukuyama’s argument in “Liberalism and Its Discontents” that, “The ‘democracy’ under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair.” What we are witnessing right now is the democracy component under siege.
And while we are hard-wired to look for symmetry in the world—or what Fukuyama calls “parallel” threats coming from the Left and the Right—January 6, 2021 should put those notions of false equivalency to bed. The Republican Party’s attempt to overturn an election their candidate lost by more than seven million votes caps a growing movement among a wing of the Republican Party to attack democracy as much as liberalism, if not more so.

That movement has involved a long-term effort to make it harder for those who might not support the Republican Party to participate in the political system—by imposing barriers to voting, gerrymandering legislative districts, and trying to change the conduct of the census to artificially inflate the power of right-leaning areas of the country at the expense of left-leaning ones (and white majority areas over more diverse ones). In recent years, it also has involved stripping power from public offices the minute they are won by Democrats (in North Carolina in 2016, and in Michigan and Wisconsin in 2018).

Even within the party, popular sovereignty has lost ground. In 2019, Donald Trump moved to prevent state parties from holding primary contests—even though Trump was not running unopposed.

The Republican Party’s attacks on democracy have been rhetorical as well as practical. Last year, Senator Mike Lee tweeted, “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.” The most straightforward reading of the tweet is as an argument that the purpose of government is to produce certain ends (human flourishing) and that the means of getting there are less relevant. Lee would presumably approve of Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who has brought the country peace, stability, and prosperity, even if he’s had to rig elections to ensure that he can continue to do so.

This view would also be consistent with those writers on the right who Fukuyama characterizes as criticizing liberalism’s inability to deliver their preferred form of human flourishing. Perhaps, though, those writers are criticizing not liberalism but democracy. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), for instance, the political representative of this camp, denounces the idea “that human beings have the freedom to choose how they live their lives” because, according to Hawley, there is “not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.”

Katherine Stewart correctly described this position in the New York Times as providing a basis for “overturn[ing] democracy.” That’s because the innovation that gave human beings the “freedom to choose how they live their lives” was the shift of sovereignty from God to the people.

But this all may give the Hawleys of the world too much credit for raising legitimate philosophical objection to our present form of government. After all, the T-shirts worn by the crowd that stormed the Capitol to whom Hawley raised his fist weren’t proclaiming allegiance to some good life that liberalism had denied them.

Today’s Republicans of course aren’t the first American party to undermine democracy. It was the Democratic Party that long imposed an anti-democratic regime on African-Americans in the South. But when President Lyndon Johnson championed the Civil Rights Act, the parties switched positions. President Richard Nixon deployed his “Southern strategy,” and the Republican Party henceforth leaned increasingly on the portion of its base that responded to racist dog whistles. Under Trump, the whistles became shouts; and that portion of the base swallowed the party.

The through line, of course, has been white supremacy. As Jesse Wegman wrote of the Capitol stormers, “In their eagerness to destroy American democracy rather than share it, they showed themselves to be the inheritors of a long tradition of rebellion against a new world order: a genuine, multiracial democracy.” It’s also no surprise that this wing of the Republican Party ascended post-Obama. W.E.B. Du Bois’s explanation for the backlash to reconstruction is apt here: “If there was one thing [white supremacists] feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

What Fukuyama refers to as illiberalism from the Left in the form of “identity politics” is actually just a response to that through line. Identity politics stems not from illiberal or anti-democratic motivations but from exasperation at being barred from the liberal democratic compact.

Communities of color have spent decades, even centuries, trying to assimilate into the American mainstream, only to be denied that opportunity by the formal and informal barriers erected by white supremacy. Eventually, rather than acquiesce to the designation of minority identity as a mark of subordination, these communities embraced their difference as a mark of pride—and, as Fukuyama writes, sought “the deeper bonding and personal satisfaction” of associating “with people who have suffered from similar indignities.”

But it’s a mistake to attribute that move to an opposition to liberalism or democracy. As Nikole Hannah-Jones recounts in her introduction to The 1619 Project, her father, an African-American born a sharecropper in Greenwood, Mississippi, would fly a pristine American flag every day in front of his paint-chipped house. He joined the army, hoping “that if he served his country, his country might finally see him as an American.” And even though that never happened, he remained “so proud to fly that flag.” That story is common among black Americans who, given neither the benefits of liberalism nor democracy, nevertheless fought generation after generation to deliver to this country the ideals of both.

Failing to ever fully achieve that, a new generation has turned to blunter identitarian tools. Some do strain liberal ideals: When Gavin Newsom appointed Alex Padilla to Kamala Harris’ Senate seat, there were howls of protest from some progressive quarters because he was not a black woman. But those are tools of last resort from communities that have long pursued both liberalism and democracy and been denied both.

If the barriers erected by systemic racism are lowered, delivering on the promise of liberal democracy for all citizens, the identitarian Left is likely to support the system. In contrast, it’s hard to see what the nation could deliver to the far Right that could allow it to do the same while not undermining liberal democracy.

If liberalism was originally meant to end a hundred years of religious warfare, the task before us now is to end hundreds of years of racial conflict. Liberal democracy has always offered the best promise to do that; but at the moment, the democracy component is further up the steps to the gallows. To save it, we need a coalition of progressives, the center-Left, and the anti-Trump, pro-democracy Right. And we need January 6, 2021, to be the moment when we understood that the threat is from the insurrectionist far Right, that it is rooted in our nation’s history of white supremacy, and that the threat is to democracy itself.

Ian Bassin is co-founder and executive director of Protect Democracy, a non-partisan non-profit committed to preventing American democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.

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