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When Democracy Fails

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

One of the great lies of the 21st century is that republicanism and freedom are inevitable. Actually, representative government and individual liberty are the exception, not the rule, and individual liberty often dissipates in the name of the collective, along with truly representative government. And yet, it's that feeling of inevitability that allows us to attack the basic values that undergird republicanism and freedom. Because we never think that those institutions are under assault, we're unafraid of chipping away at their foundations in the name of partisan politics.


If we chip away enough at those foundations, the superstructure will crumble. Democracy relies on three factors, as expressed by Harvard University's Yascha Mounk and the University of Melbourne's Roberto Stefan Foa: a belief that democracy is itself important, a belief that nondemocratic forms of government are wrong and a belief that the democratic system is legitimate. If those beliefs erode, so, too, do republicanism and freedom.

The left has been hammering away at those three beliefs for a full century. Leftism is based on the notion that if you give government massive power, it will revenge itself on the bourgeois who have stomped you down. More basically, Marxism is based on the notion that human beings cannot become decent without a new system. That system cannot be removed democratically, since we are all products of the democratic system, and are therefore corrupt.

Leftism, too, has scorned democracy as the only solution. Fascism of the proletariat would be better. In 2010, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said: "What if we could just be China for a day? I mean, just, just, just one day. You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions, and I do think there is a sense of that, on, on everything from the economy to environment." That's not rare. The left spent most of the 1930s gazing enviously across the seas toward the fascist left in Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union.


Finally, the left has declared repeatedly that American democracy is illegitimate because it stands in favor of cruel capitalism. It's plutocratic and corrupt, and it must be heavily regulated. Today, the left claims that millions of voters are disenfranchised simply on the basis of race without evidence to support such idiocy.

But here's the problem in 2016: All three of the foundations of democracy are now being undermined by the reactionary right, too. Democracy, say many on the right, is not important so long as it means making America great again -- who cares if Carrier Corp. must be leveraged into keeping jobs at home, so long as the jobs remain at home? Democracy, say many on the right, isn't the only solution -- why not just trust Trump to do what's right? After all, he's certainly popular! And democracy doesn't work anyway, say many on the right -- the people must be lied to in order to get them to vote correctly. And voter fraud is rampant!

So we now have partisan politics that suggest that power is more important than reliable institutions or deeper values. That's a danger point for American politics. Donald Trump may turn out to be a wonderful president; we may yet see a new birth of freedom in America. But so long as partisans on both sides are prepared to blow up democracy in order to save it, we're at risk of an explosion.


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