Is American Democracy Inherently Flawed?
DebateThe Democracy Essays
Is American Democracy Inherently Flawed?
The rot at the heart of the system lies with our institutions—and probably ourselves, too.
Published on: Jun 24, 2021  |  

Editor's Note: Welcome to a Wisdom of Crowds "Debate." The goal is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like this post, consider becoming a member to support our work.

This week, Osita Nwanevu of The New Republic and curator of The Democracy Essays sat down with Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare to debate first principles and discuss how their views of American democracy have shifted over the past five years. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of the first half of their conversation. Part Two will follow next Tuesday. To receive the second half of their debate straight to your inbox, sign up for free here.


Osita: I think a good place to start with would be thinking about what in the last five years has shaken us the most. What’s the most important thing the American people should take away from all we’ve experienced?

Quinta: I think early in the Trump era—which I guess would date from his announcing his candidacy through the midpoint of his presidency—there was a lot of conversation about norms and guardrails, and American democracy not being as strong as people had thought. And I think that’s true: I think there is a very good argument that the Trump presidency was a series of institutions either failing to do anything or not being equipped to do anything about someone who's just going at them with a wrecking ball.

But the institutional mechanisms are not even getting to the question of how we elect people in the first place. The problem is always going to come back to the voters. Why didn't the Republican Party institutionally clamp down on Trump earlier? It was because they were afraid of the voters. Congress didn’t impeach Trump because they were afraid of the voters. Ultimately, a lot of problems that we've run into in various institutions—whether that's how the special counsel system is set up within the Department of Justice or even the question outside government of whether a social media platform should be able to turn off the president of the United States—are best solved by one weird trick: namely, not electing someone who is going to cause us problems in the first place.

So it comes down to the fact that people made this choice. Not a majority, not anywhere close to that. But people did make the choice. And what we saw in 2020 is that there are a lot of people who would happily make it again. That for me that is the most jarring element, because it really cuts to the root of what we mean when we say we live in a democratic society.

Osita: Yeah, I tend to think more about institutions. So for me, the big awakening has been understanding just how—I can't even say “broken” because I think that they are working basically the way that they've always worked—but the extent to which our institutions are anti-democratic in construction. But what you said, that voters chose Trump, that it was a decision that people went to the polls and made, that everything we have experienced starts from there—I get that. But I also think it's a chicken or egg situation.

If you’re a political party insulated from public opinion in certain ways, that has certain structural advantages that make it easier to win, that’s a situation that leads to extremist rhetoric. You pay less of a price than you might otherwise for saying things that are out of step with what most people want. A built-in advantage can be a radicalizing force.

So the fact that the Republican Party is now in a place where you're getting all of these scary polls about authoritarianism and the extent to which Republicans are now willing to cast off democracy as a concept—this is the result of a lot of Republican voters becoming convinced that they are the American majority; that they have an inherent right to rule and to retain power; that they win these Electoral College victories and they have an easy time winning the Senate because they are representative of the American public, when they're really not. And I think that inspires a confidence in their politics that leads to a sense that they don't have to restrain themselves in any real way. The institutions and the attitudes of voters interplay in ways that we don't talk about enough. They distort the way we think about reality.

Quinta: I think that’s the right diagnosis of where the Republican Party currently stands. I think you're right about the extent to which the tilt of the Senate and the Electoral College really bring out what we might call an instinct toward herrenvolk democracy.

On the other hand, it's not just structural factors, right? Because there are plenty of minority movements in American history that didn’t make up an electoral majority by any means and managed to get their way. And I'm delighted that they did! The obvious example here is the original Republican Party. At the end of the day, it just strikes me that if you follow this all the way down, the core problem is the authoritarian impulse. I do agree that there's a chicken or egg question in terms of where it comes from. And the fact that American electoral institutions in the Senate are so tilted in favor of rural white voters and the Republican party's key constituencies absolutely magnifies that. But I do feel like it's a mistake to focus on the structural factors to the exclusion of that substantive impulse.

Osita: I guess my question would be what we do about those impulses. In any society as large as ours you're going to have a substantial conservative segment of the population—a segment of the population that's resistant to change, that has certain ideas about tradition, that’s going to be hostile to majoritarian ideas that threaten the established order or ideas that threaten what traditionalists would deem the worthwhile and valuable aspects of mainstream culture. In short, I think there's going to be a conservative population with authoritarian tendencies. So, if we ought to be afraid of those attitudes, how do we guard our democratic institutions against them or hack away at them? I don't know that you can eliminate them. But how might we constrain them?

Quinta: So as an initial matter, I’ve found it useful to distinguish conservatism taken literally with the conservatism many in, say, the House of Representatives would identify themselves with today. If conservatism encompasses both Michael Oakeshott and Jim Jordan, that's a pretty broad spectrum. And I do think that there's an interesting and complicated argument to be had about the extent to which Oakeshott inevitably slides to Jordan. I think it's a complicated question. But I do agree it's wrong to assume that this is an instinct that we have to root out entirely.

We need to ask ourselves what we mean when we say democracy. The Trump wing of the Republican Party has gone a long way toward arguing, sometimes explicitly, that there is only one thing that constitutes a real American citizen. This is what I meant earlier when I said herrenvolk. I was going to say white working class, but that’s not it really. Whiteness is the key aspect of citizenship, and all other citizens are not really citizens. And if you're not a citizen, then you're in even worse shape.

A book that I've thought about a lot in this context over the last five years is Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers, which is about conceptions of citizenship in the United States after Brown v. Board of Education. And her argument is basically that before Brown, you have a structure where black Americans are functionally not “real citizens” as far as white Americans are concerned. There’s a structure where if something needs to be sacrificed, the black community is going to be the community that bears that sacrifice. And what happens after Brown is that sacrifice is supposedly shared equally, and white people don't like that. And so the question that emerges is what exactly it means to be part of a democracy.

What it means in Allen’s argument, if I’m remembering this right, is that we make decisions together. Some people are going to get the short end of the stick, but we trust each other enough that it's not always going to be one group that gets the short end of the stick. And I think this gets to some of the arguments that have been made about white panic over a loss of relative status—that suddenly white Americans are shouldering some of the sacrifices that need to be made. People don't like that, and they become very uncomfortable. All this is a way of basically reframing the question you asked me and turning it back to you, without really answering what we do. But that’s kind of how I’ve thought about it.

Osita: I mean the question initially was just what do we do about those attitudes? And I think you made the point that part of how you understand those attitudes has to do with how you categorize American conservatism, and how fundamental you think totalitarian or authoritarian impulses are to their ideological framework. And I’m just someone who believes, whether conservatives say this outright or not, that conservatism is fundamentally about hierarchy. It’s about saying that there are higher values and lower values. There are people who have the right, morally—as a matter of the virtue that they have or as a matter of inheritance—to be the decision-making class in society. And there are people who don’t. I think that that's consistent throughout the history of the conservative movement. It's not something that got here yesterday. I think you can look at William F. Buckley, you can look at Russell Kirk, you can look all the way back to Edmund Burke—that’s the through-line to Trump.

But I think you're also right to say that it's silly to believe that we can eradicate those attitudes. And I think part of the answer has to be exactly what you're saying: developing a sense that even if you get the short end of the stick this time around, we've built a system that is fair enough that if you go out there again and you rally people again, and next time around you get most people on your side, you're going to have a legitimate claim to power to do things. People need to have faith that even if they lose out in the immediate term, there's something about the system that they ought to be invested in as a matter of self-interest, too. And I think that the advocates of democracy haven't really done a very good job of getting at this. I think that the people talking now about Republican threats to American democracy are depending on voters having an intuition that democracy is just generically good, that it’s an idea that makes us feel good, that we think voting is good.

But the fundamental principles underpinning why democracy is even a legitimate system to begin with, the concept that everybody should be possessed of certain rights and agency for X, Y, and Z reasons—we haven't really done a good job at making a case for them. We haven't been asked to do it in a very long time. Democracy won the ideological battles of the last century thoroughly. Its major opponents put several million people to death, and it was a bad look. Part of the struggle in combating antidemocratic attitudes today is that we are missing a framework in which we can say, “Here are the reasons why, even if it looks like you're losing this particular cultural battle, there's something about these values that is going to be there for you when you need them.”

The conversation continues next week with Part Two of Osita and Quinta's debate. To receive it on Tuesday as soon as it goes live, sign up for free here.

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