Is American democracy in crisis? The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University thinks so. The American Federation of Teachers thinks so. The New Yorker magazine thinks so. The think tank Freedom House thinks so. Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Joe Biden think so. You can be damn sure that the Guardian thinks so. Heck, even most Americans think so.
As the Columbia University professor of political science and dean of Columbia College David B. Truman put it, “the American political system has been subjected to a series of recurrent, almost chronic challenges whose implications may well cause thoughtful men [sic] to question the capacity of our system to survive”. Please forgive the professor his disgracefully archaic sexist language. His philippic was, after all, published in 1959.
Democracy in crisis was already a trope of American metropolitan liberal political commentary before the ink dried on the Bill of Rights, which they abhorred. How can you run a proper democracy when people are free to say whatever they want—and publish it! When they are free to petition and assemble—with guns! The Bill of Rights is a recipe for rebellion. Metropolitan liberals resisted its ratification, and have spent the last 230 years chipping away at its provisions.
That is an uncomfortable reality for proponents of a philosophy that embraces (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) “support for or advocacy of individual rights, civil liberties, and reform tending towards individual freedom, democracy, or social equality”. And don’t think that American liberals are no longer liberal, that they somehow differ fundamentally from classical liberals, neoliberals, or even Australian Liberals. All flavors of the metropolitan liberal professional class (which in Australia includes many Laborites and Greens as well as mainstream ‘wet’ Liberals) embrace individual rights and civil liberties. What they don’t embrace are populist challenges to their own rule.
In my 2018 book The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts I introduced the term ‘liberal authoritarianism’ to describe the emerging 21st century tyranny of the expert class. Though the book was well-received—named best on politics 2018 by the Wall Street Journal—but with the arrival of the coronavirus and the accession (one hesitates to say ‘election’) of Joe Biden, its arguments have been overtaken by events. The US Capitol occupation and the pandemic emergency have been used to justify ever more authoritarian attitudes toward politics. American liberals and their international admirers have increasingly embraced the view that their inherent virtue confers a greater legitimacy to rule than any conceivable mandate that could be conferred by a merely majoritarian, electoral democracy.
In response, I’ve started work on a sequel, tentatively entitled Liberal Authoritarianism in Practice: How Liberal Institutions Are Subtly Subverting Majority Rule. And I’m not just writing the book, I’m vlogging it on YouTube. So if you’d like to see how a book takes shape, even potentially joining in the process with your comments and suggestions, please join me! Quadrant readers are an exceptionally well-informed group; I’d sincerely appreciate your feedback as I develop my own thinking on the topic. I’ll be vlogging my writing progress most weekdays, and offering occasional comments on my background reading and research on the weekends.
The truth is that American democracy is not in crisis, and never has been. The Republic itself was in crisis once: in the 1860s. But even then American democracy held firm. And it will hold firm in 2022, and even if (when) Donald Trump runs for a second term in 2024. Extreme polarisation is not a threat to democracy; it’s the greatest safeguard the voters have that the political class will not unite against them.
The perpetual rhetoric of democratic decline is, however, a potent tool in the liberal playbook for maintaining elite control over the political process during times of widespread popular discontent. As a prominent Democratic Party strategist recently explained to a CNN panel, “the problem for the Democrats right now is not that they have bad leaders; they have bad followers”. The Establishment attitude right now seems very much to be of the opinion that if you can’t win an election, you should get a better electorate. That’s not so much a crisis as a whinge. It may swing a close election like 2020. It doesn’t threaten the basic foundations of democracy itself.
Still, liberal authoritarianism is real, and it should be called out. With Liberal Authoritarianism in Practice, I intend to confront it head-on. Call me a class traitor (others do), but if metropolitan liberal academics don’t hold liberalism to account, less palatable characters will. So the race is on. Please do join me on YouTube and come along for the ride. Maybe even ride shotgun. I can use all the help I can get!
Salvatore Babones is The Philistine.