The rise of Donald Trump has galvanized what could be called a democracy movement in the United States. Drawing on the findings of political scientists who have studied democratic governments, and how they can collapse into authoritarianism, the democracy movement has sought to build cross-partisan coalitions to prevent Trump from perverting or suborning government institutions into instruments of unaccountable power. The democracy movement has drawn the predictable scorn of right-wing outlets, which have cheered on his grossest violations.
At the same time it has also come under criticism from a somewhat more surprising source: left-wing intellectuals, who have treated the democracy movement and its underlying analysis with withering contempt. Essays by the radical legal scholar Aziz Rana in n+1 and Jedediah Purdy in Dissent have gained wide circulation, and building upon each other, they have articulated a left-wing critique of the democracy movement.
It is important not to exaggerate their current influence. Right-wing critics of the democracy movement have control of an entire major political party, while the left-wing critics have minimal influence on the Democratic Party. At the voter level, the ranks of Democrats are divided between conservatives, moderates, and liberals. At the intellectual level, things look very different: Liberals compose the right flank, and leftists or socialists the more progressive wing. In a short period of time, Marxist and other radical ideas have gained a great deal of currency among the progressive intelligentsia, and their critique of the democracy movement shows how the very meaning of “democracy” is bitterly contested within the left.
The reason Trump concerns democracy scholars is that he violates norms, or threatens to. A norm is simply a common practice, as distinct from a formal law or regulation. Before last year, FBI directors served ten-year terms which they served out unless they committed what both parties considered gross negligence. President Obama legally could have fired Republican FBI director James Comey (who was investigating Obama’s chosen successor) and replaced him with a handpicked Democrat, but it would have been unthinkable. Likewise, Obama could have threatened policies that would have harmed the business interests of the owners of media that criticized him, but presidents didn’t do that, for the same reason.
While the left-wing critics of the democracy movement have no sympathy for Trump, they do not share this analysis of the threat he poses. To begin with, these critics see the threat posed by Trump as his policy agenda, not any damage to the American system of government. Liberals see the Constitution as a flawed document that contained high ideals that have, in fits and starts over two centuries, come closer into alignment with reality. Leftists regard it as a bitter joke barely worthy of defense. Rana dismisses defenses of “Constitution and country,” and the belief that “the founding principles” contain “a basic commitment to universal equality” as “homilies [politicians] had to repeat to be taken seriously by party gatekeepers and thus rise to prominence.” In truth, Rana asserts, “American capitalism” is “inherently oppressive.”
Having dismissed American democracy as a myth, left-wing critics seem to have missed some of the finer points of its continued functioning. “The underlying assumption of those who defend norms,” writes Purdy, “is that, at some very deep level, Americans have always agreed on the key issues, above all liberty and equality, and have just had to work out the kinks through the generations.” That impossibly naïve assumption is not what defenders of norms believe. Liberals do not presume agreement, or anything close to it — they presume merely that political conflict can be contained. As long as a party that wins an election can’t use its power to lock itself into power permanently, then the losing party can abide defeat peacefully.
Second, working from the premise that the system is inherently sick, the left-wing critics naturally reject the idea that it is being threatened by Trump in any important way. (How can a sick system be threatened?) Rather, they see Trump as the symptom of a deeper crisis of capitalism. The democracy movement is attempting to preserve a system that is being swept away.
“’Establishment politicians’ response has been a call for the return to ‘normalcy’ …” argues Rana. “[T]he difference today is that the old-time religion can no longer be revived.” Purdy also likens liberal democracy to a failed religion: “like the Emperor Julian, who tried to restore Roman paganism during the fourth century, and found that the life had gone out of it. Whatever had made it vital was gone, leaving behind empty forms and phrases. The energy in 2016 was entirely elsewhere.”
How do we know the old system cannot be defended and saved? The evidence for this part of their theory is quite thin, and they see little need to support it, probably because they are referring back to a belief that has been repeated enough times by socialist intellectuals that they take it as an obvious truth. Sanders won 43 percent of the primary vote, and 29 percent of the delegates, but emerged with an air of triumph so pervasive that his campaign manager published a celebratory tract titled, “How Bernie Won.” On the socialist left, which forms the die-hard core of his support, the 2016 success of both Trump and Bernie Sanders is seen as conclusive proof that America has rejected liberal capitalism once and for all. Sanders appears repeatedly in both essays, which are about him almost as much as they are about Trump, treating him as a virtual co-winner of the election. “The perennial carnage of American capitalism, intensified by forty years of growing inequality,” argues Purdy, “prepared the ground for Bernie Sanders’s socialism, while the nativism and racism that had slunk just outside respectable politics returned full-throated.”
If you actually study the beliefs of the voters, there is no evidence that the Sanders vote represents a large constituency for socialism, or even pushing the Democratic Party to the left at all. Sanders voters were, in fact, slightly to the right of Clinton voters on the government’s role in the economy. Sanders deftly capitalized on the scandals surrounding his opponent (Clinton Foundation finances, secret speeches to Goldman Sachs, and of course the famous emails) to sweep up the same earnest, good-government constituency that flocked to Democratic candidates like Eugene McCarthy, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, Jerry Brown, Paul Tsongas, and Howard Dean. Yet left-wing intellectuals have persuaded themselves that Sanders reveals the moment of revolution to be at hand. This conviction has all the markings of a dialectical bubble waiting to be popped in 2020 or 2021.
Yet if you take their giddy expectation of incipient revolution seriously, then their sour disposition toward the democracy movement makes perfect sense. The episodes that seem to democracy scholars like harbingers of extreme danger — a president delegitimizing the news media and seeking to turn law enforcement into a political weapon — have been met on the socialist left with more equanimity. Why rouse yourself to defend a doomed and rotten system when a much brighter future beckons?