Fareed Zakaria is one of the more astute observers of American politics. Perhaps because of his familial background in the Middle East, where stability is rare and democratic institutions rarer, he has a focus on the institutions and norms that make liberal democracies possible. I remember being really impressed with his 2003 book, The Future of Freedom.
Last week, he had a perceptive and deeply troubling column in the Washington Post. As he began
Two decades ago, I wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that described an unusual and worrying trend: the rise of illiberal democracy. Around the world, dictators were being deposed and elections were proliferating. But in many of the places where ballots were being counted, the rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of the press and other such traditions were being ignored or abused. Today, I worry that we might be watching the rise of illiberal democracy in the United States — something that should concern anyone, Republican or Democrat, Donald Trump supporter or critic.
As he points out, what we think of as democracy is really a marriage of two separate systems: the choice of political leadership by popular vote, and laws protecting fundamental individual liberties from both the government and those same popular majorities. Hence “liberal democracy.” Zacharia notes that in several countries, the two strands have separated, with democracy (in the form of the vote) persisting, but liberty “under siege.”
Here is what I believe to be his most important–and worrisome–point:
What stunned me as this process unfolded was that laws and rules did little to stop this descent. Many countries had adopted fine constitutions, put in place elaborate checks and balances, and followed best practices from the advanced world. But in the end, liberal democracy was eroded anyway. It turns out that what sustains democracy is not simply legal safeguards and rules, but norms and practices — democratic behavior. This culture of liberal democracy is waning in the United States today.
I shared similar concerns in a post just last month. As Zakaria writes, we are now seeing what our American democracy looks like when those norms of democratic behavior and honorable public service erode, and populism becomes demagoguery.
The parties have collapsed, Congress has caved, professional groups are largely toothless, the media have been rendered irrelevant…What we are left with today is an open, meritocratic, competitive society in which everyone is an entrepreneur, from a congressman to an accountant, always hustling for personal advantage. But who and what remain to nourish and preserve the common good, civic life and liberal democracy?
I just finished reading an important book that gives “chapter and verse” on how we got to the place Zakaria describes. American Amnesia was written by eminent political scientists Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of U.C. Berkeley, and it details (as the subtitle promises) “how the war on government led us to forget what made America prosper.” I will discuss the book’s research and conclusions in blogs to come, but suffice it to say that their copious documentation amply supports Zakaria’s observations.
We can turn this around, but time is running out.