A few weeks ago, I attended a conference at Yale hosted by the Bright Line Watch group. The goal of the conference was to explore two questions: How do democracies die? and Can it happen here? (It was also an opportunity for me to be on the same stage with some truly amazing scholars and writers.)
We also made some progress in starting a discussion between scholars of American politics and other areas of the world. Comparisons with Latin America and Europe are instructive — though perhaps not in the way that many political scientists intend. The Bright Line Watch project is doing important work, keeping track of whether experts think specific norms and boundaries in American democracy have been transgressed. These lines include things like freedom of the press, freedom of expression, accountability for government officials, and checks among governing institutions. These factors are crucial and should be monitored.
In the weeks since the conference, issues of press freedom and criticizing those in power have been in the news. Still, what I heard at the conference left me with the sense that the most powerful challenges to American democracy can occur without crossing any bright lines.
Democracy is really in trouble, argued New York University political scientist Adam Przeworski, when we say, “this cannot be repaired. The tear is too deep.” Przeworski stressed the growing number of Americans who would be upset if their child married someone from the opposite political party. Others, in a similar vein, emphasized the decline in social trust and tolerance of opposing views. This latter point was presented in the context of the oft-cited crisis on college campuses today, in which students allegedly can no longer stand to hear opposing views.
There’s no doubt that recognizing the humanity of your opponents, understanding the value of opposition, and tolerating — even listening to — opposing views is an important part of living in a democratic society. But outside our cozy conference room, members of the media and the academic community are facing some consequences for pushing the boundaries of speech. Very few people deny that there are some limits to what can be expressed at a particular time or place. Limitations on who can engage in particular kinds of expression is more controversial still — but very much a part of the conversation.
Even the most open and tolerant societies have boundaries and fringes, ideas that are not tolerated in mainstream political discourse, taboos that, once broken, result in serious consequences. The question is who gets to decide what is tolerated — and who will be doing the tolerating. How do we determine who can push and cross the boundaries, and who cannot? Democracy isn’t in the line between acceptable and unacceptable speech. It’s in the debate about the line — who gets to weigh in on the line, and what happens when it’s crossed.
The second question that came up across the presentations was whether the United States suffers from too much democracy, or not enough. No one actually said the words “too much democracy,” a phrase probably frowned on at democracy conferences. But there was lots of talk of populism and demagogic leadership (also sometimes characterized by comparative politics scholars as personalistic or charismatic leadership).
One presentation highlighted the fact that President Trump doesn’t appear to have built much of a movement around his particular ideas. His norm violations have resulted in rebukes from civil society, his approval is low, and, of course, he won the White House with fewer votes than his opponent. In other words, the argument went, we should worry when attacks on the press or the judicial branch boost popularity; instead, we have some reason to believe that many Americans across the ideological spectrum still reject these ideas.
Although this may be true, electoral considerations seem to be keeping Republicans in Congress from expressing reservations about Trump. In other words, overresponsiveness to constituents may be keeping elected officials from defending the Constitution from threats of executive overreach and national security problems.
At the same time, several presentations brought up the fact that the US system, particularly institutions like the Electoral College and the Senate, can distort the impact of the popular vote, magnifying some voices over others. Furthermore — and perhaps more importantly in this case — fixed elections mean that the government can undertake unpopular actions (or come very close) without much in the way of immediate consequences. Trump’s own team has articulated this idea — that having won the election, he can govern according to his campaign promises, and that the American people should “get used to” his approach.
In other words, there are problems in US government that we can blame on the relentless drive for reelection, and there are problems we can blame on the government’s insulation from public input. For those frustrated with the Trump administration, there are concerns associated with its popularity within the Republican electorate, and there are concerns associated with its disconnection from public opinion. The full picture requires considering this seemingly paradoxical combination.
Finally, we concluded the conference with a panel focused on US politics, and this discussion ended up where so many of these conversations do: class and race. Many of the panelists focused on race and ethnicity, including Frances Lee’s presentation on the possibilities for racialized populism in the US, my own talk on the history of race and the presidency, and David Frum’s somewhat different perspective on the matter of immigration and citizenship.
Our discussant, Ian Shapiro, suggested that we also consider the role of economic inequality (a theme also discussed in the earlier comparative panels) and recommended Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in order to understand the despair of the now-storied white working class. Somewhat to my surprise, our panel held firm to the race idea. Emily Bazelon pointed out that African Americans and Latinos in the working class have also suffered from some of the same economic forces but have not made the same political choices.
If we step back for a moment, the debate takes on a somewhat different significance. Both race and class explanations pose a serious problem for democracy. In either case, some group of citizens is being excluded from having real influence over politics and government. We’re unlikely to fully disentangle the class and race debate, although I have my own predispositions about how each affects politics. What perhaps matters the most at this point is another point raised by Przeworski, earlier in the day: A key test for democracy is whether the political process is seen by citizens as a viable solution to their problems. What no one seems to agree on is a bright line about how many citizens would have to feel this way.
Furthermore, while some groups, like working-class whites, might feel recently excluded and demoted, others groups — most racial minorities — have long been denied full citizenship and participation in various ways. This exclusion, it should be said, extended to some degree to this conference, where a mostly white group of thinkers representing elite institutions (academic and journalistic) pondered these questions.
This disconnection brought me back to an observation I made after the election: In a divided country, elite opinion was strongly unified against Trump. More than 62 million voters did not care or took this to be a good sign. Thus, the institutions in the US that contain presidential power appear to have some strength and integrity. The institutions that link elite and mass viewpoints appear to be in much more trouble.