For the American right, Donald Trump’s inauguration as the forty-fifth president of the United States was a moment of political rebirth. Elements of American conservatism had long fostered a reactionary counterculture, which defined the push for civil rights as oppression, resisted the equality of women and the transgression of conventional heterosexual norms, pilloried the hegemony of the liberal media, and was suspicious of globalism and its corporate liberal institutions, including the UN and the WTO. Already in the 1950s this reactionary politics had secured a niche on the right wing of the GOP. It was reenergized by the Goldwater campaign and the conservative backlash against the social revolutions of the 1960s. Reintegrated into the mainstream GOP by Ronald Reagan, it then flared into the open in the ferocious hostility to the Clintons in the 1990s. With Trump it finally claimed center stage. For the right, the explosion of “truth-speaking” by Trump and his cohorts, the unabashed sexism and xenophobia of his administration, and its robust nationalism on issues of trade and security need no justification. His election represents a long-awaited overturning of the consensus of liberalism.
Centrist Democrats also view the administration as historic, but for them it represents the betrayal of all that is best about America. The election of a man like Trump in the second decade of the twenty-first century violated the cherished liberal narrative of progress from the Civil War to the New Deal to the civil rights movement to the election of Barack Obama. This was a self-conception of the United States carefully cultivated by cold war liberalism and seemingly fulfilled in the Clinton era of American power. The election of a man as openly sexist and xenophobic as Donald Trump was a shock so fundamental that it evoked comparisons with the great crises of democracy in the 1930s. Parallels are readily drawn between Mitch McConnell and Paul von Hindenburg. There is talk of a Reichstag fire moment, in which an act of terrorism might be exploited to declare emergency rule. Such references to the interwar period are both rousing and reassuring. They remind us of good battles decisively won. Not for nothing does the anti-Trump movement refer to itself as “the resistance,” recalling memories of midcentury antifascist heroics.
But though this rhetoric is based in history, what is surprising is how recently it developed. Only a few years ago the mood in the Democratic Party establishment was not one of defiant resistance. What prevailed was bland futuristic complacency. The evolving diversity of America and the manifest political preferences of the Californian digital oligarchs would guarantee the Democrats’ grip on power. Trump’s supporters were not just deplorable, they were doomed to extinction. On both sides of the Atlantic, it was the job of centrist intellectuals to swat down critical talk from the left about the rule of undemocratic technocrats and the hollowing out of democracy.
America’s revived left wing, mobilized by Bernie Sanders and drawn to organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), does not doubt the disastrous consequences of the Trump presidency. Yet for the left he represents not a historic rupture but a continuity. As Jed Purdy put it in Dissent last summer, Trump is “not an anomalous departure but rather a return to the baseline—to the historical norm.”1 Trump exposes starkly what the civility of Obama and his administration obscured—the subordination of American democracy to capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.
For its steadfast radical critique, the American left once earned the dismissive scorn of centrists. Now that the center is panicking, the left senses an opening. An insurgency in the Democratic Party backed by the DSA appears to have a genuinely broad base. Among a swath of young Americans, talk of socialism has lost its stigma. This is not a moment of democratic crisis but an opportunity the likes of which the American left has not seen in many decades.
As different as their positions are, one thing these three sides have in common is that their goals are resolutely national. Trump promises to make America great again. Centrist Democrats are scandalized that Trump ever called America’s greatness into question and promise to repair the damage he has done. The preoccupation with Russian meddling is a call to rally around the flag. Meanwhile, the left draws its inspiration from a narrative that is no less patriotic and nationalistic than that of its centrist and right-wing opponents. Purdy in Dissent calls on activists to take up the national tradition that goes back to Radical Reconstruction, the left wing of the New Deal, and civil rights. In Tablet, Paul Berman has revived Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country and its insistence on the continuing tradition of radical republicanism from Walt Whitman to John Dewey and beyond.2
The scope for a truly internationalist or cosmopolitan politics in the United States is limited. It would be unrealistic for any politically minded person not to reckon with this constraint. Nor should one waste time imagining how America might shed its creaking eighteenth-century constitution, the oldest that is still in use. But if patriotic appeals are simply the sine qua non of politics in this country, the historicist tone of America’s crisis talk is nevertheless puzzling. How can references to World War II, the Gilded Age, the Civil War, or the Revolution not seem anachronistic at a moment when accelerating climate change, the last great burst of population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, and the rise of Asia, driven by China’s authoritarian capitalism, are transforming the world?
While a nonnationalist politics may be unrealistic, one must wonder whether the full-throated embrace of the national narrative as proposed by Berman and others is not doing “the resistance” a disservice. Tim Shenk, coeditor of Dissent, has sensibly suggested that American progressives should turn to addressing the country’s fundamental social, economic, and political problems not as the burden of an exceptional nation but simply as a matter of justice and practicality, as any other democracy would.3 Given the current mood, especially among younger activists, it may turn out that the historical significance of the Trump crisis is to immunize an entire generation against any form of celebratory American exceptionalism. Yet as Trump himself is keen to point out, his victory can be seen as a harbinger of a broader wave of nationalist populism around the world.
In The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It, Yascha Mounk, the former executive director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, addresses the comprehensive revulsion that supporters of a roughnecked illiberal democracy à la Viktor Orbán or Donald Trump express toward elite technocratic liberalism, exemplified by the politicians and corporate leaders who gather annually at Davos. With good reason the gilets jaunes and many of those who voted for Brexit imagine that the governing class regards them with disdain. Their reaction is a truculent reassertion of popular sovereignty. Though the youth vote continues to swing to the left, it does not do so uniformly. Mounk traces an alarming rise in authoritarian attitudes, even among younger Europeans and Americans. Support for strongmen and military leadership is increasingly prevalent among those in their twenties. The United States, far from being a democratic exception, fits squarely in this mold, with high levels of support for authoritarian rule.
While these findings are striking and original, Mounk’s analysis is less so. To explain the shift toward authoritarian thinking, he points to three forces: the collapse of elite control over political media with the rise of the Internet, the failure of economic growth to distribute wealth, and white anxiety about increasing diversity. It’s a familiar list of worries, and he calls for a familiar list of fixes: greater responsibility of media outlets in disseminating hate speech, greater attention to economic inequality, and a sustained effort to ensure that “people and nations should again feel they have control of their lives or their destiny.” This is all very well. But if undemocratic liberal technocracy is the ultimate driver of the popular revolt, how can a technocratic list of solutions offered by a technocratic think tank be a credible answer? How can efforts to ensure that people again “feel” in charge, rather than a program of politics that actually empowers them, not sound like an obfuscation?
The most thought-provoking book comparing democratic crises in different nations has been written by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die places America in a broader investigation into how elected autocrats subvert and undermine democracy. Democracies are fragile because they depend on competing parties accepting common norms. Norms are essential because without them, “constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be.” Once placed in a position of power and freed by the erosion of democratic norms, elected authoritarians will seek to influence the referees in the system, forcing judges to retire, stifling the press, and tilting the playing field permanently against their opponents. There can be no doubt that America’s political system at this moment is under threat on all three fronts. And for those engaged in America’s solipsistic national debate, Levitsky and Ziblatt have a sobering message: “American democracy is not as exceptional as we sometimes believe. There’s nothing in our Constitution or our culture to immunize us against democratic breakdown.”
What, then, can stop the slide into illiberalism? The restoration of democratic norms requires building a new consensus. Levitsky and Ziblatt cite the example of Chile, where the violent confrontation between left and right in the early 1970s that resulted in Augusto Pinochet’s bloody coup was overcome by a new culture of bipartisan cooperation in the so-called Democratic Concertation. In the US today, the problem lies first and foremost with the GOP. It has repeatedly behaved like an anti-systemic party that does not consider itself bound by common democratic norms. “Reducing polarization,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude, “requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not refounded.” There is no other way to break the party’s addiction to what former Republican senator Jeff Flake called the “sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery.”
But how can this be done? Levitsky and Ziblatt point to the reformation of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union after 1945. The consolidation of Konrad Adenauer’s CDU around democratic norms undoubtedly made a crucial contribution to the success of democracy in postwar Germany. But what relevance does it have to American politics? Can one seriously imagine anyone in the GOP taking lessons from Angela Merkel and her counterparts?
For all their facility as analysts of political procedure and form, Levitsky and Ziblatt are strikingly naive when it comes to power. The overthrow of Chilean democracy in 1973 was not merely a deterioration into extreme partisanship. It was a violent clash over fundamental social and economic reforms during the cold war. Among the forces that enabled the destruction of Chilean democracy were the security and foreign policy apparatuses of the United States. Likewise in Germany, as Levitsky and Ziblatt admit, it took the absolute defeat of Hitler’s regime in 1945 to set the conditions for the reconstruction of German conservatism. And there, too, the cold war influenced the course of events, as it made Adenauer’s Westbindung (attachment to the West) seem infinitely preferable to the Soviet alternative.
For the GOP to transform itself, will America need to experience a catastrophe similar to that of Germany in World War II? Levitsky and Ziblatt pose the question but never fully explore its implications. Their limited, case-by-case comparative approach and their focus on national political institutions and cultures leave such questions of international politics to one side and offer no basis on which to consider the connection between cold war and post–cold war geopolitics and the trajectory of modern democracy.
One author who does address the crisis of Western democracy as an interconnected international development is Timothy Snyder. Snyder made his reputation as a scholar of Eastern European history. The Ukraine crisis of 2014 turned his engagement with the region’s history into a vehicle for thinking about the contemporary transatlantic political scene. Historical narratives do not merely reflect and describe realities, they can help shape them. The central organizing idea of Snyder’s latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, is that democracy is threatened by two types of deterministic worldview, which he calls “inevitability” and “eternity.” The first is the determinism of the “end of history” and modernization theory, which declares that “there is no alternative” to liberal democracy. This, broadly speaking, is the worldview of the liberal elite in the West—Mounk’s technocratic liberals. The disappointments and resistance that their top-down programs of modernization engender give rise, in Snyder’s view, not to a genuine popular reaction, but to a second type of elite mythmaking, in the form of “eternity politics,” or mythic nationalism. Whereas modernizers promise a better future for everyone as long as we all follow the one best path, mythic nationalism “places one nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood.” Against the dark backdrop of a world of threats, the governing elite promises not progress but protection.
Our current situation, as Snyder sees it, has been shaped by the wild oscillation between the determinism of modernization theory and the determinism of nationalism. Both foreclose any real debate and all practical alternatives. They are both inimical to genuine democracy. One licenses domineering technocracy; the other, cruder forms of authoritarianism. True history, which in Snyder’s definition is a matter of contingency and individual choice, is the best intellectual antidote to these dangerous worldviews.
At a very general level there is much to agree with in Snyder’s approach. History is indeed an urgent preoccupation of politics and of democratic politics in particular. Determinism, whether of a social-scientific or mythical variety, should be viewed skeptically. One can also agree with Snyder that we must seek to understand Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the US as part of “one history.” But the question is how to assemble that “one history,” and the challenge in doing so is to apply to ourselves the same standards that we apply in our criticism of others. If the health of democracy is the issue, how well does Snyder’s kind of history promote democratic health? And does it succumb to mythmaking of its own?
The Road to Unfreedom is undeniably engaging. Written in Snyder’s epigrammatic style, it takes us on a dizzying ride through Europe’s past and present. It is a history in which there are perpetrators and victims. Snyder’s starting point is Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954), an itinerant nationalist and sometime-fascist thinker who has acquired a new vogue in post-Soviet Russia. Vladislav Surkov, a close political adviser to Vladimir Putin, cited Ilyin approvingly to justify his designs for a “sovereign democracy” that prioritizes “centralization, personification and idealization” over individual freedom. For Snyder these are the true inspirations for Putin’s aggressive politics, and Ilyich and Surkov are the masterminds behind the global backlash against complacent liberal visions of modernization.
Yet the construction of such a network of influence is a rich field for mythmaking in its own right. Among experts in Russian politics there is no agreement that the ideologues around which Snyder builds his account in fact have the significance he attributes to them.4 Where did the clash between Putin and the West originate? Was it driven by an obscure nationalist turn on the part of the Kremlin, or by broader and more obvious geopolitical conflicts?
As part of his account of the rise of Russian aggression, Snyder refers several times to Putin’s attendance at a NATO conference in Bucharest in the spring of 2008. But he never mentions the subject of that acrimonious meeting. In dispute was the proposal, sponsored by the Bush administration, for accelerated membership applications to NATO by Ukraine and Georgia. This provoked a hostile reaction not only from Russia but from Germany and France as well. They had no interest in seeing Ukraine welcomed into their exclusive European club and no desire to raise tensions with Moscow. What was at issue was not neofascist mythmaking in Moscow, but post–cold war geopolitics. The obvious text to consult to decipher the Russian position is Putin’s speech to the Munich security conference in 2007, which was not so much an ethnonationalist declaration as a clearly articulated denunciation of American unilateralism. Snyder does not discuss it.
Even more telling is Snyder’s treatment of the Ukraine crisis and its effects on the US. Can one really understand the clash of 2013 in Ukraine with reference to the machinations of Putin’s regime alone, without considering the clumsy diplomacy of the EU and the wider economic and geopolitical background? As Snyder has insisted in an earlier work, Bloodlands (2010), Ukraine’s history has been shaped by the clash of tsarist, German, and Soviet imperial projects. What is surprising is that in The Road to Unfreedom he does not approach recent history in the same way, as the result of a many-sided power struggle.
It would be fatuous to suggest that NATO and the EU are involved in an expansionist project akin to that of Nazi Germany. But it would be no less fatuous to insist that geopolitical rivalry did not have a part in the crisis that exploded in Kiev in November 2013, when negotiations concerning Ukraine’s prospective membership in the EU broke down, opening the door to Putin’s intervention. Poland, the Baltics, and Scandinavian countries had supported Ukraine’s EU membership—in pushing the Eastern Association agreements with six post-Soviet states from 2008 onward, they were using the EU to pursue a strategy of containment in which “Westernization” was not simply an end in itself but also a means of hardening their eastern fortifications against Russia. Moscow did not misunderstand what was at stake.
For Snyder, the malign influence of Russia’s antidemocratic turn does not end in Eastern Europe. In his final chapters he reproduces media reports of Putin’s meddling in the US and French elections of 2016 and 2017. But if one wants to understand this, one must address the geopolitical factors that Snyder slights. Hostility to Hillary Clinton was not, as Snyder suggests, the result of misogyny among the Kremlin’s ideologists. Clinton’s views of America’s relations with Russia date back to the unipolar triumphalism of the 1990s and found clear expression during her time as secretary of state. Clinton may not have fomented the protests in Russia in December 2011, as Putin believes, but she made no secret of her support for the opposition. With the Ukraine crisis still in flux, Moscow could have no interest in a Clinton election victory, especially with Trump as the alternative.
Rather than discussing this geopolitical backdrop to the election of 2016, Snyder recounts the now familiar litany of allegations about Trump’s business connections to Russia. The findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation are frustratingly inconclusive. And it is precisely this radical uncertainty that we have to come to terms with in our historical moment. We are still trying to decipher whether the American crisis is best understood as the result of self-dealing by a kleptocratic elite, the political sociology of the Rust Belt, the complacency of Clinton’s campaign managers, or the persistence of American racial divides. It is unlikely that outside interference decisively affected the election, but even that cannot be excluded. It is this deep indecipherability that defines our situation. Snyder’s tone of prophetic certainty and his bombastic call for resistance against the dark and all-pervasive forces of Russian neofascism is illuminating more as a symptom of the times than as a work of history.
By contrast, the great virtue of David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends is that he takes our bewilderment as his starting point. Instead of offering a definitive narrative or specific policy prescriptions, Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge, discusses a variety of ways to make sense of our present. The result is a collection of diagnoses that are insightful and useful, whether or not one agrees with his ultimate conclusions.
Runciman argues for the need to break with the compulsive return to the interwar period. Could Trump’s presidency really have the makings of a descent into fascism? It cannot be ruled out. Moments like the Charlottesville rally reveal the depth and breadth of rightist undercurrents. But these are not the battle-hardened fascist squads of the 1920s and 1930s. If the emergence of a mass fascist movement seems implausible, what about the coups that haunted Latin America and southern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s? Runciman throws cold water on the idea. As the memory of conscription, mass mobilization, and total war fades, so too do the truly violent political passions of the twentieth century. Both the threat of fascism and the mobilizing slogans of antifascism are hollow, Runciman suggests. Mass nationalist rallies even of the type orchestrated by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and the Law and Justice Party in Poland seem more like pastiche than the genuine article.
This is reassuring at one level. Democracy is unlikely to die with a bang. But all the more likely is the possibility that it will expire with a whimper. There doesn’t seem to be the level of national solidarity that would be required to address the challenge of mounting inequality by raising income and wealth taxes or undertaking comprehensive welfare reform—the reforms that were the achievements of the mid-twentieth century and that were in large part spurred by the huge mobilization efforts of the two world wars.
Runciman argues that once we leave behind the dark memories of the 1930s, we can expand our historical imagination to include a wider array of threats. Democracy has no clear answer for the mindless operation of bureaucratic and technological power. We may indeed be witnessing its extension in the form of artificial intelligence and robotics. Likewise, after decades of dire warning, the environmental problem remains fundamentally unaddressed. For Runciman these developments come as no surprise, and he cites Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of modern evil and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to show that we have been aware of these issues for many decades.
Bureaucratic overreach and environmental catastrophe are precisely the kinds of slow-moving existential challenges that democracies deal with very badly. And given the West’s failure to address them, we should expect to see ever-louder calls for energetic authoritarian answers. It is symptomatic of our moment that meritocratic authoritarianism is finding defenders not among the kind of sulfurous ideologues that populate Snyder’s book, but among anodyne professors of political science. For example, Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy (2016) has revived the nineteenth-century argument for rule by the qualified, what he calls epistocracy. In this respect we live under the shadow not of Moscow but of Beijing. But as Runciman points out, though authoritarian meritocracy may promise more decisive policymaking, it also increases the likelihood of catastrophic missteps.
Finally, there is the threat du jour: corporations and the technologies they promote. As Runciman reminds us, corporations are at least as old as the modern state, and they may outlive it. The networks of Facebook and similar companies are more extensive than any hierarchical state organization. Runciman regards Mark Zuckerberg as a far more serious threat to US democracy than Trump. But what kind of threat is it that the likes of Zuckerberg pose? Twenty-first-century oligarchs may be profit-driven and intolerant of the checks and balances of the rule of law, but in the US at least, they try to seem the mild-mannered sort, eager to spout the platitudes of corporate social responsibility and susceptible to political pressure.
On every subject he discusses, Runciman’s conclusions are deflationary, and this is refreshing. It is tempting to say that his book makes the perfect antidote both to the superheated American national debate and the certainty of Snyder’s dark narrative. Yet this should not obscure the quiet prophecy in Runciman’s own account. It can be traced to his innocent-sounding quip that repeated references to the 1930s are psychological tics of a political midlife crisis. The premise for his vision of our current situation is that democracy is a political form with a life span, a beginning and an end. We have not reached the end point, which is why talk of an immediate terminal crisis is exaggerated. But we must acknowledge that we are in late middle age.
This argument marks a remarkable slide from history into organicist metaphysics. And it is an ironic one. Runciman’s suggestion that political constitutions have a natural life cycle is reminiscent of Oswald Spengler, the author of The Decline of the West and the exemplary political and cultural writer of the Weimar Republic. Like Runciman, Spengler employed a natural philosophy to organize world history into a series of quasi-biological trajectories. He viewed the situation of the West as being close to the end of a natural cycle of civilizational ossification. For Runciman this process is most advanced in polities like Greece and Japan. They are not dead but caught, he argues, in a post-historic state, paralyzed by fiscal constraints and demographic decline.
At this point Runciman’s grand vision converges with that of Alexandre Kojève, another prophet of the end of history and the inspiration for Francis Fukuyama’s now notorious 1989 essay. Beyond biological metaphors, what these writers have in common is their intellectual and political posture. Rather than raging against the dying of the light, Runciman, like Spengler and Kojève, invites us to adopt a stance of disillusioned realism. If we can see the decline of democratic polities all around us and can diagnose the multiple causes of their eventual demise, that does not excuse us from the responsibility to make them work until the bitter end. This is Runciman’s way of saying that “there is no alternative” to liberal democracy.
Democracy has long been the benchmark of Westernization. Talk of a crisis in democracy has relevance precisely because the rise of the Chinese economy under Communist Party leadership puts that benchmark in question. Runciman is stoical. He ends his book with an imaginative projection of the future: Monday, January 20, 2053, the inauguration of President Li, who succeeds the controversial President Chan-Zuckerberg. Due to climate change, Washington, D.C., is now balmy in January. The Democrats and the Republicans are still around, but the party system is in disarray, as it has been for decades. Congress is deadlocked. The dollar is worthless. Li’s ties to China are an open secret, but Americans are far beyond caring. In any case, he no longer controls the nuclear codes. But the flag still flies and the inaugural speech is predictable: “He reminded his audience that the United States of America was, first and foremost, still a democracy. It always would be.” As Li leaves the stage, one of his predecessors is heard to remark, “He protests too much.”
How is this fantasy meant? Presumably less as a deterministic prediction than as a provocative thought experiment. And it succeeds in posing the most pressing question of the present. Assuming current trends continue, will America accept its relative decline with equanimity? The concern must surely be that Runciman’s vision of a passive America is in fact overly optimistic. In a perspicacious Op-Ed, Larry Summers recently asked, “Can the US imagine a global system in 2050 in which its economy is half the size of the world’s largest? Even if we can imagine it, could a political leader acknowledge that reality in a way that permits negotiation over what such a world would look like?”5
Trump has responded to that question in his characteristic belligerent and petulant manner, launching an ill-conceived trade war. But on this policy, at least, he is not alone. Across the American political spectrum, if there is agreement on anything, it is on the need for a firmer line against China. Rather than the stoical acceptance of a new reality suggested by Runciman’s scenario, is not the more likely outcome a reconfiguration of American democracy like the one that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, when the executive branch was given unprecedented power to confront external foes? The risks in a confrontation with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were enormous. By comparison, our troubles with Putin’s Russia are trivial. The perils of a new cold war with China will not be.
“Normcore,” Dissent, Summer 2018. ↩
“The Philosophers and the American Left,” Tablet, November 25, 2018. ↩
“Hannah Arendt’s Answer to Paul Berman on the Contemporary American Left,” Tablet, December 6, 2018. ↩
See Sophie Pinkham, “Zombie History; Timothy Snyder’s Bleak Vision of the Past and Present,” The Nation, May 3, 2018. ↩
“Washington May Bluster but Cannot Stifle the Chinese Economy,” Financial Times, December 3, 2018. ↩