This morning, as the Republicans are celebrating nationwide victories, taking control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House, plus winning governor’s races in supposedly liberal states, I’m reminded of the widespread liberal delusion last year that the Republican Party was an almost-extinct dinosaur (see this blog post).
My impression is that the American people are deeply confused. They say they’re angry about a do-nothing Congress and then vote for the obstructionists. They say they hate government yet demand services when it’s in their interest—when a natural disaster hits a conservative part of the country there’s never a mention of refusing federal aid because it’s from that loathsome government.
The reason we’re confused is because we’ve lost any compelling story about who we are as a people. We used to have a thrilling story, one that made me proud to be an American when I was a child. We had thrown off a king and instituted a republic where we governed ourselves. We were the vanguard of human progress.
Of course there were plenty of issues with the original constitution: slavery and a limited electorate are the obvious examples. But as time went on and we continued on the path of democratization, we fixed those errors. We first expanded the electorate to all white men in the 1820s, ended slavery in 1865, women finally got the vote in 1920, and over the last fifty years we’ve been expanding civil rights.
But today we seem to be missing the awesomeness of what we have accomplished. We don’t understand the amazing advance in human social organization that democracy represents. We are so spoiled by the relative ease of living and our deplorable lack of historical knowledge that we are unaware of not only the preciousness—and precariousness—of our democracy but the great struggles that were required to wrest control from tyrants. We take our democratic republic for granted. And that’s why we are in danger of losing it.
If you look at the history of the human race, we’ve had authoritarian leaders ever since large groups of people began to crowd together into towns and cities. The strong man ruled, and often used religion as a tool to cement his power—for example, in Europe this was known as the “divine right of kings.” With few exceptions, the Roman Republic among them, the majority of people have had almost no ability to affect the decisions made by their leaders.
Slowly, painfully, with great sacrifice of life, people began to wrest control of their lives from the despots. The Magna Carta, in 1215, was a seminal moment in this history. King John of England was forced to agree that he could no longer rule arbitrarily, but instead people had rights, and the law was an independent entity that constrained the monarch's action. But this was just a beginning. Centuries of struggle were required, and a civil war fought, before Britain attained a constitutional monarchy where the Parliament had actual power.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence was in large part a list proving that “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” We threw off tyranny and brought into the world a new idea of individual liberty.
The first two hundred years of this country was the story of the increasing democratization of America, and the last thirty years is the story of the decline. Democracy is not easy. But because we’ve been lulled into thinking that our entire responsibility as citizens is to vote every now and then, we’ve allowed the wealthy and well-connected to seize control. We call ourselves consumers, not citizens. A consumer is passive, while a citizen is active.
What is the Republican electoral strategy? To shrink the electorate, to put obstacles between citizens of this country and participation in the democratic process. They are in fact opposed to the very principles of this country, and yet they are winning. They have convinced large numbers of Americans that government is the enemy, rather than the means by which we govern ourselves.
We no longer believe in the story of triumphant democracy, and we’re not alone. Around the world authoritarian regimes are gaining ground. In July, Michael Ignatieff wrote an article in the New York Review of Books entitled, “Are the Authoritarians Winning?”
The recent handshake between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping celebrated something more than a big gas deal. It heralded the emergence of an alliance of authoritarian states with a combined population of 1.6 billion in the vast Eurasian space that stretches from the Polish border to the Pacific, from the Arctic Circle to the Afghan frontier.
This zone includes recalcitrant client states like North Korea and patriarchal despotisms like the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. It also includes less willing subjects, states like Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova, whose publics aspire to democratic independence but are being told by their authoritarian leaders—partly through the lesson being inflicted on Ukraine—to put their dreams aside…
Nor does this new authoritarianism lack an economic strategy. Its goal is a familiar form of modernization that secures the benefits of global integration without sacrificing political and ideological control over its populations. Its economic model is price-fixing state capitalism and its legal system is rule by (often corrupt) fiat in place of the rule of law.
The new authoritarians offer the elites of Africa and Eurasia an alternate route to modern development: growth without democracy and progress without freedom. This is the siren song some African, Latin American, and Asian political elites, especially the kleptocrats, want to hear…
The West’s signal achievement, the one that made every other success possible, was governance constrained by individuals’ rights, in which power was held in check by an independent judiciary, a free press, parliaments, and the rule of law…
The liberal state is in crisis, basically, because its regulatory, legal, and political institutions have either been captured, or have been laid siege to, by the economic interests they were created to control. While the liberal state was never intended to enforce distributive equality, it was always supposed to keep the power of big money from suffocating competition and corrupting the political system. This is the task it struggles to perform today and must recover fully if it is to regain the confidence and support of the broad mass of its citizens.
We need to wake up in this country and start telling a new story, an updated version of democracy that takes into consideration all the realities of the twenty-first century (unbridled capitalism, for example), or the decline in our democracy is going to continue straight towards outright authoritarianism.