It never ceases to amaze me what distance does to one’s political perspective. I’m still on the road in Europe—week three and counting—and the January 6 hearings now occupying the attention of our great nation seem very very far away. This is not to say that they are not important to me аs an American, or that my distance from them somehow properly contextualizes them. It just prompted me to think about the importance of analytical context more broadly. I think the debate about the health of our democracy would benefit from some more contextualization.
David Brooks last week was calling for something like that. Frustrated by how the televised proceedings were shaping up to be an exercise in gathering “campaign fodder,” Brooks pleaded that the Committee “locate the weaknesses in our democratic system and society and find ways to address them.” Referring to the recent analysis by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in Foreign Affairs, Brooks wants an investigation into how the country has found itself in a situation where a large percentage of the country has lost faith in democracy.
This is a movement, not a conspiracy. We don’t need a criminal-type investigation looking for planners or masterminds as much as we need historians and scholars and journalists to help us understand why the American Republican Party, like the Polish Law and Justice party, or the Turkish Justice and Development Party, has become a predatory semi-democratic faction.
I don’t have anything like a full answer for Brooks, but I do have an intuition about what has been happening in the United States, largely drawn from looking at similar dysfunctions across Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. And the intuitions point to what I think is a blindspot for Brooks, for Levitsky and Way, and indeed for our broader class of analysts and pundits who tend to focus on “democracy” as the key to understanding our predicament. My intuition is that the problem facing us has to do with legitimacy first and foremost, and that this crisis of legitimacy is finding expression in undemocratic attitudes further down the line. Worrying about undemocratic behavior is like obsessing over a fever that is but a symptom of a gangrenous infection.
A striking passage from the Levitsky and Way piece helps nail down what I’m getting at:
According to a 2018 survey, nearly 60 percent of Republicans say they “feel like a stranger in their own country.” Many Republican voters think the country of their childhood is being taken away from them. This perceived relative loss of status has had a radicalizing effect: a 2021 survey sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute found that a stunning 56 percent of Republicans agreed that the “traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to stop it.”
It’s easy to wave this away as racial anxiety felt by whites soon to be subsumed in a more plural America—anxiety that easily shades into a kind of paranoid white revanchism that has lurked at the heart of the American project for most of its existence. Make no mistake: this tendency is real. Matt Continetti’s new book does a terrific job of tracing it on the Right over the last hundred years. But what Matt’s book also does exceedingly well is to show how it has been managed by political elites for generations—in turns suppressed and marginalized (though also at times regrettably co-opted). And one of the most successful ways in which it has been marginalized is by appealing to higher American ideals as a unifying force, and in doing so peeling away the marginally disaffected from the dead-enders.
It’s a trick first perfected by Abraham Lincoln, who in effect re-founded the United States by invoking the promises of the first American founding some one hundred years earlier. The self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence, truths that all Americans cannot deny without in some way renouncing their citizenship, helped unify the country after its bloody rift. But it’s important to observe the mechanism at work here: it is an exhortation to come together to work on making the country better than it is, as Americans who believe in a set of ideals. It is not a promise that those ideals will necessarily be realized any time soon. It conjures up a community in a common struggle; it does not dwell on deliverance.
The reason I brought up legitimacy earlier is that I think it’s one of those concepts that we as Americans are particularly blind to. In a European nation-state, a set of national myths fundamentally undergirds the common endeavor. It’s long been fashionable to sneer at these things as just-so stories, and to depict nation-states as mere “imagined communities.”1 More perniciously, modern Americans and a certain kind of post-national European—let’s call them modern progressives—tend to see all society as a form of civil society: voluntary association among freely-choosing individuals. Things such as citizenship, a common past, common symbols, common heritage—these are either seen as retrograde or downright harmful. Society is not about any of those things, but rather about delivering positive change.
In Europe, modern progressives are champions of the European Union as a vessel for affecting sweeping social change. Social liberalism, egalitarianism, social justice—all these goals are seen as self-evident truths. But instead of being wielded as a unifying set of myths, about a set of nations confronting the dead end that they had collectively found themselves at in 1945, and as a general exhortation to build a better society, there is a tendency among EU progressives to assert the primacy of these truths against the prior legitimating myths of the nation state. It is this approach, I suspect, that has opened up the door to the forces of reaction, and has allowed authoritarianism to take root.
In the United States, there are broad parallels to the way the broader social justice movement has proceeded in its fight. My friend Nils Gilman’s penetrating 2018 essay distilled how a certain gauzy mythology about American ideals, especially pertaining to race, collapsed with the end of Obama’s presidency. Obama’s Lincolnesque approach, of deferring salvation but appealing to common purpose, gave way to the more impatient demands of the Black Lives Matter movement—a movement that would in recent years beget a thoroughgoing critique of America’s founding itself. Instead of featuring as the core of what it means to be an American, the Declaration was reduced to the hypocritical scribbles of a raping slave-owner.
In writing all this, let me be crystal clear: I’m not saying that the anger that gave birth to Black Lives Matter is not real, nor am I saying that Republican voters have some right to feel comfortable with the status quo, and should be coddled as the country of their youth slips away from them. But I do think that we’re misdiagnosing what’s going on if we talk about it in terms of democracy versus autocracy. It’s better to think of it in terms of revolution and reaction, and as a struggle over legitimacy itself.
Me, I’m skeptical that modern progressives have enough on their side to achieve broad legitimacy. Free-floating appeals to “justice” are necessary, but not sufficient to ground a polity. And without that broader legitimacy, fierce crusades for justice are likely to spur on forces of reaction. And formerly mainstream conservatives will not be able to contain them.
From that point on, a national commitment to democracy is a mere roadside casualty.