Democracy In The Dumps

In 1989, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama pronounced that liberal democracy, on the American model, as the inevitable finish line of political evolution around the world:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

And millions of people agreed: that our own relatively free, fair, stable, and accountable model was the political wonder of the world. (Or we told ourselves more cynically that it was the worst system of all, “except all those other forms that have been tried.”)

Would it surprise you to find out that—through the years of Bush, Obama, and now Trump—Americans have begun to lose confidence in democracy?

According to new research by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, one in six Americans would approve of the military takeover of government. More than 40 percent of the wealthiest Americans would opt for a strong, competent leader who was not accountable to voters. And only 30% of Americans born after 1980 consider it “essential” that they live in a democracy.

Even Fukuyama—one of our guests this week—has had to reevaluate his optimism about the Western model’s world-conquering prospects:

What I understand now much more clearly is that it’s much harder to get there than I had anticipated in terms of [building ] the necessary institutions. The other thing that I didn’t fully appreciate was how easy it was to backslide.

download (1)
You can hear that backsliding—the disenchantment, the decay of trust—in the voices of Trump voters from Scott Carrier‘s wonderful podcast, Home of the Brave: people like Jimmy Lee, a skilled construction worker who can’t find work for more than $8.50 an hour. He’s voting for Trump as an entrepreneur who’ll “shake up the White House.”

With Jimmy Lee in mind, we’re staging an intervention in a roaring debate—political thinkers with very different readings of what Donald Trump says about people power in America.

29-sullivan.w529.h352.2x (1)

Commentator Andrew Sullivan came out of retirement this month to declare, in New York magazine, that we’re witnessing too much democracy—a chaotic uprising of people power, almost a French revolution at the ballot box—and that tyranny could be near at hand. For example, as

the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

1462382065Trumpcartoonadapted666 (1)

In Dissent, Jedediah Purdy argued that Sullivan has the case exactly upside-down. Trump is a symptom of too little democracy; his voters, starved for power and economic prospects, are enraged and beset by a feckless government controlled by wealthy interests and unresponsive elites:

Far from living in a carnival of equality, they get pushed out of jobs because they are not productive enough, denied health care because they are not wealthy enough, denied good schools because they cannot afford to live in the best neighborhoods.

Sullivan and Purdy will provide their separate diagnoses on our air—and Orlando Patterson and Gordon Wood are on hand to hold this moment up to history.

Guest List
Andrew Sullivan
blogger and commentator of The Dish and former editor of The New Republic.
Jedediah Purdy
professor of law at Duke University, author of After Nature, and contributing editor of Dissent.
Orlando Patterson
sociologist of freedom and slavery at Harvard University and a one-time board member at Freedom House.
Gordon Wood
political historian of 18th-century America at Brown University.
Francis Fukuyama
political theorist and author of Political Order and Political Decay.

Related Content


  • I don’t know what was meant that Trump may “take the house and senate.”
    Is he running a slate of candidates?

    He gets to appoint one person to SCOTUS, does that junior member take over the
    court?

    I think a Trump presidency would be an enormous waste of time with the Court and
    Congress shoring up the Constitution against an encore of Trump’s ilk. That might
    be bad – Sullivan’s limitations on democracy coming to pass.

    As a joke, I said to a retired orthopedic surgeon that our carpenter, a proud redneck, was
    voting for Trump and he replied “You’re damn right we are!”
    ….not sure Nassim Taleb has it right either – why would an MD living in a gated
    community want to tear down the establishment?

  • Potter

    I listened to Home of the Brave first. Very well done!

    Excellent. I loved Orlando Patterson in this discussion.. not the first time. But everyone made good points. Andrew Sullivan came out of the gate belligerent as though he were being attacked (!) but he settled down. There is too much to respond to and a lot about which to just nod in agreement but a couple of things stick out: we never had any accountability, not for the Iraq war, not for the “Great Recession”. That comes back to haunt. We could do ourselves a favor by not just “moving on” The Congress gets more and more blocked and sclerotic preventing itself from doing anything, even the urgent. Special interests, greed and power. Though we now love Obama, rightfully so and for many reasons, but maybe it’s more perhaps because of what is apparently coming. However Obama did not change much.

    People don’t have a voice or way through in this game. As Lessig puts it we have an inequality of citizenship, not only wealth. So how can this be too much democracy with no way other than these campaigns to get heard and response/discussion. Once every two and four years leaders listen to the people.The elites, both sides, Republican and Democratic, have betrayed us for their own interests of greed and power daily. What’s left beyond changing/smashing a situation (and maybe our system) that is rigged. Both Trump and Sanders (and Warren) use the word rigged” unfair. The Democratic party primary system with the Mainstream media NYTimes in the lead) crowned Hillary Clinton. (Krugman has been disappointingly obnoxiously irrationally anti-Sanders). So we will end up with a choice between Trump and Clinton ( she the “not Trump”). It’s very worrisome. After the election there will be trouble governing this country I think. Too many have been riled up, awakened.

    Robert Peabody 3 – I believe the fear is that there will be more than one appointment in the next term. Outrageous to hold this one up!

    • So Hillary will be appointing two?

      • Potter

        Don’t worry RWP3, she’ll probably triangulate in her choice/s and then have a hard time with any confirmation. But you (we) have a choice to make in November.

  • Potter

    If you want a treat listen to how Chris rides the V. S. Naipaul bronco. It’s been several years and Chris was remarkably not out of practice today. Still good stuff!

    http://radioopensource.org/v-s-naipauls-gloomy-clarity-about-africa-and-himself/

    (note my own comment and wow to read what I said 6 years ago!. Thanks ROS folks! Any donation is always too little but it’s there.)

  • Kunal Jasty

    This was a fascinating conversation with excellent guests (especially Purdy and Patterson, although Fukuyama and Wood were great additions as well). I loved Chris’s first quote -“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.”

    Listening to Andrew Sullivan elucidates the Trump/Sanders phenomenon for me, not because I agree with him, but because he so transparently and unabashedly represents the “elite” establishment that those camps are so fed up with. Instead of acknowledging the very real grievances of those left behind by “late post-industrial capitalism” (white, lower-income, working class etc), and those who have been harmed by globalization and will soon be harmed by automation and technological progress, he speaks about them with disdain, blames them for the Iraq War and second Bush presidency, and faults them for supporting a candidate (however reprehensible Trump is), who, at least on the campaign trail, is promising to fight for them. Sullivan seems to dismiss the real problems – an increasing concentration of wealth and power, stagnant wages etc – and instead argues that because unemployment is at 5% and we’ve had years of job growth, all is well! And he claims that elites, who are responsible for many of these failed policies, should “push back” against democracy!? Can’t the ills of democracy can be cured with more democracy?

    I’ve always been a techno-optimist and supporter of globalization, but Patterson is of course right that there needs to be an institutional framework that handles the inequality that will inevitable arise.

  • PI Mack

    I was and am troubled by Sullivan’s use of the word “fascist” and his allusions to Hitler. Hardly discourse, more like mudsling in the worse way. What a supposed liberal….
    Subverting the Constitution? Obama has killed American’s with drones – without a trial. The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that Obama’s “recess” appointments were not valid/unconstitutional, for instance. The Imperial Presidency was once assigned to Nixon, but we are seeing it growing, now.
    Sullivan’s mudslinging is reprehensible. His take seems to be that the the elites, aka those that agree with him, should be followed. He does not get that the people may not be like him, they work for a living, but not at a desk. And they have been screwed buy the elites.
    Andrew – enlist and go to Iran, Afghanistan and Syria and every place else that American WARpower is going to be projected.
    As far I can discern, Sullivan is a Brit expat. Though born in 63, he is retired. He should work as a roofer in the summer til he is 70 years old. Maybe that would open his mind….

  • PI Mack

    I heard, on a NPR show recently, a “liberal” commentator suggesting that the working class point of view was not appreciated because they – the working class” are not like “US”. Well – that’s right – the elites do not include the working class.
    The elites would have roofers and paving people and carpenters working til they are 70 in order to collect Social Security, while they, the elites, retire from their white collars jobs with a great pension at 55 or 60 . . .
    Ever hear of income inequality??????

  • Kunal Jasty

    This was a fascinating conversation with excellent guests (especially Purdy and Patterson, although Fukuyama and Wood were great additions as well). I loved Chris’s first quote -“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.”

    Listening to Andrew Sullivan elucidates the Trump/Sanders phenomenon for me, not because I agree with him, but because he so transparently and unabashedly represents the “elite” establishment that those camps are so fed up with. Instead of acknowledging the very real grievances of those left behind by “late post-industrial capitalism” (white, lower-income, working class etc), and those who have been harmed by globalization and will soon be harmed by automation and technological progress, he speaks about them with disdain, blames them for the Iraq War and second Bush presidency, and faults them for supporting a candidate (however reprehensible Trump is), who, at least on the campaign trail, is promising to fight for them. Sullivan seems to dismiss the real problems – an increasing concentration of wealth and power, stagnant wages etc – and instead argues that because unemployment is at 5% and we’ve had years of job growth, all is well! And he claims that elites, who are responsible for many of these failed policies, should “push back” against democracy!? Can the ills of democracy be cured with more democracy?
    Sullivan would say no, but what would Purdy and Patterson say?

    I’ve always been a techno-optimist and supporter of globalization, but Patterson is of course right that there needs to be an institutional framework that handles the inequality that will inevitable arise.

  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    Let’s make America great again. When is America great? America is great when her intellect easily cleaves fact from fiction. America is great when the scales of her corazón weigh the proper values and are well balanced. America is great when she stands without waver for liberty and justice for all the world. America is great when she dwells consciously and intentionally in the heart of each and every resident. America is not great when she dissembles and counts petty jobs and absurd profits above the wellbeing of others. Agreed?

  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    The idea (Andrew Sullivan) that [the populist insurgency signified by the 2016 Trump-Sanders phenomenon] is not happening in the midst of a great recession misses the mark. The economy has recovered for only a very few. Poverty is increasing. Wages i.e. purchasing power of the working class is stagnant now for nearly 40 years. Median household income is declining. Our socio-economic system is missfiring horrifically. Look not to unemployment but rather to workforce participation; pay less attention to growth in GDP and greater attention to the exceedingly narrow distribution of wealth and income generated by increases in productivity and growth; and it becomes very easy to understand the response of the majority with respect to the privilege of the capital-class and their minions of elites in the establishment (Capitol-class). The moment is not of a great fiery passion of the body politic but rather a response to real pain created by myopic, self-centered elites. The great tyranny at play today is the tyranny of the very few (1/10 of 1% i.e. the uber-wealthy) against the interests of the majority. Globalism is a choice, not a destiny. It is a policy prescription rooted in the absurd notion profits and rents matter more than the wellbeing of our many selves, citizens, communities, planet and her people. Economy over environment and ecology, profit over health and true wealth of nations, insanity.

  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    What must replace the ill-conceived policy-prescription and perspectives of establishment elites if America is to prosper again? The well-conceived policy-prescription and perspectives of the genuinely noble and truly just.

  • Kunal Jasty

    Noam Chomsky, in “Requiem for the American Dream”:

    “One of the leading political scientists, Martin Gilens, came out with a study of the relation between public attitudes and public policy. What he shows is that about 70% of the population has no way of influencing policy. They might as well be in some other country, and the population knows it. What it’s led to is a population that’s angry, frustrated, hates institutions. It’s not acting constructively to try to respond to this. There is popular mobilization and activism, but in very self-destructive directions. It’s taking the form of unfocused anger, attacks on one another, and on vulnerable targets… it is corrosive of social relations, but that’s the point.”

  • Floyd C. Wilkes

    According to the WSJ, Rs tend to win in the general election when voter turnout is low. Given that Clinton’s campaign fails not only to ignite the enthusiasms of the silent majority but rather to further alienate them. Therefore, if the Dem’s super-delegates nominate Hillary the world will be one hanging chad away from a Trump presidency.

  • Sohang Chatterjee

    I agree with Mark’s comments below. Trump is nothing but a street-smart opportunist. We need to step back and ask, isn’t Trump merely exploiting a sense of entitlement that we in America have come to demand?
    While the whole premise of American capitalism is based on competition, are the immigrants really taking away jobs that white working middle class wants?

    We also need to question Trump’s real intentions. In the middle of a Presidential campaign, why is Trump directing his resources to serve the cause of his Trump University case?

  • TheJPguy

    Andrew Sullivan simply described the way the constitution works. That it protects liberal institutions against the tyranny of the majority. He’s right.