The United States and the History and Fate of Liberal Democracy

 

I have just finished reading Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2019).  For much of the book, I was disappointed by what Berman has to say.  She lays out the histories of France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain (with a more truncated account of the Eastern European countries of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia) to describe their transition to liberal democracy (or failure to make that transition) from their starting points, monarchial dictatorship in the case of France, Britain, and Spain, non-statehood in the cases of Germany and Italy, and the muddled, colonized situations in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The disappointment came from the fact that she offers non-revisionist history in what, even in a long 400 page plus book, must necessarily be fairly quick narratives of each country’s story.  It is nice to have all of this history within the covers of a single book, but I learned nothing new.  And the stories told are so conventional that I found myself suspicious of them.  Surely more recent work (my knowledge base for this material is at least twenty years old) has troubled the received accounts.

But Berman’s final chapter takes her story in a different direction.  She develops what has been hinted at throughout her narratives: a set of enabling conditions for the achievement of liberal democracy.  Basically, she sees six types of governments in European nation-states since 1650: monarchial dictatorship (Louis XIV; attempted unsuccessfully by the Stuart kings in England);  military (conservative) dictatorship (Franco, Bismarck, other more short-lived versions; Napoleon Bonaparte is, in certain ways, a liberal military dictatorship, thus rather different); fascist dictatorships (Italy, and Germany; crucially not Franco); totalitarian communism (Eastern Europe after WW II); illiberal democracy (Napoleon III, Berlusconi, Hungary and Poland right now); and liberal democracy.

Today, it seems pretty clear, illiberal and liberal democracy are pretty much the only games in town, at least in what used to be called the First World.  Military coups and their follow-up, military dictatorships, are still possibilities, especially outside of Europe, but not all that likely in Europe.  More ominous, perhaps, are the authoritarian regimes now in place in Russia and China—regimes that don’t fit into the six types listed above, and represent some kind of new development that responds to the aftermath of disastrous totalitarian communist regimes.   Again, the appearance of such regimes in Western Europe seems unlikely, although a real possibility in Eastern Europe and perhaps already installed in Turkey.

Here’s Berman on what makes a democracy “liberal.”  “[L]iberal democracy requires governments able to enforce the democratic rules of the game, guarantee the rule of law, protect minorities and individual liberties, and, of course, implement policies.  Liberal democracy requires, in other words, a relatively strong state.  Liberal democracy also requires that citizens view their government as legitimate, respect the democratic rules of the game, obey the law, and accept other members of society as political equals.  Liberal democracy also requires, in other words, a consensus on who belongs to the national community—who ‘the people’ are—and is therefore entitled to participate in the political process and enjoy the other rights and responsibilities of citizenship.  Reflecting this, throughout European history liberal democracy—but not illiberal or electoral democracy—has consolidated only in countries possessing relatively strong states and national unity” (392).

Berman thus insists that liberal democracy is dependent upon the nation-state—where a shared sense of national identity underwrites (makes possible) the existence of a strong central state.  There are three major obstacles to the achievement of national unity: regionalism, ethnic differences, and the “old order.”  For the most part, Berman focuses on the “old order.”  She adopts Eric Hobsbawm’s assertion that “since 1789 European and indeed world politics has been a struggle for and against the principles of the French Revolutions” (49 in Berman).  For Berman, that means that the old order which straightforwardly granted “privileges” to a certain segment of society (the aristocracy and the clergy in ancient régime France) must be destroyed to create the political equality of full participation and the general equality before the law that are the sine non qua of liberal democracy.  The story of European history since 1650 is of the very slow destruction of the old order—and of the ways that elites resisted fiercely the movement toward democracy and toward liberalism. (Crucially, democracy and liberalism are not the same and do not inevitably appear together.  Napoleon Bonaparte arguably was a liberal dictator, whereas his nephew Louis Napoleon was an illiberal democratic leader.)

A key part of that story is Berman’s claim that the “sequencing” of the moves toward democracy is crucial to actually getting there.  Three things must happen: 1. A strong central state must be created; i.e. the power of regions must be broken as well as the power of local elites; crucially, this move involves the creation of institutions that can function to govern the whole territory;   2. A strong sense of national identity (again opposed to more local loyalties) must be created; and 3. Building upon the existence of that strong state and strong sense of shared identity, liberal democracy can be securely established.  Berman notes that in post-colonial situations, where the new state begins without possessing a strong central government or a strong sense of national identity, the attempt to establish liberal democracy almost never succeeds. Doing all three things at the same time is just about impossible.

“European political development makes clear, in short, that sequencing matters: without strong states and national identities, liberal democracy is difficult if not impossible to achieve.  It is important to remember, however, that regardless of how sequencing occurred, there was no easy or peaceful path to liberal democracy.  The difference between Western and Southern and East-Central Europe was not whether violence and instability were part of the back-story of liberal democracy, but when and over how long a period they occurred.  In Western Europe state- and nation-building were extremely violent and coercive, involving what today would be characterized as colonization and ethnic cleansing, that is, the destruction and absorption of weaker political entities into stronger ones (for example, Brittany, Burgundy, and Aquitaine into France, Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland into Britain) and the suppression or elimination of traditional communities, loyalties, languages, traditions, and identities in the process of creating new, national ones.  But in much of Western Europe these processes occurred or at least began during the early modern period (but not, notably, in Italy or Germany), and so unlike Southern and Central Europe, Western Europe did not experience the violence and coercion associated with state- and nation-building during the modern era at the same time the challenge of democratization appeared on the political agenda.  By the nineteenth century in France and England, and by the second half of the twentieth century in the rest of Western Europe, states were strong and legitimate enough to advance nation-building without overt coercion but instead via education, promoting national culture, language, and history, improved transport and communication networks, and by supporting a flourishing civil society within which potentially cross-cutting cleavages and networks could develop, strengthening the bonds among citizens” (394-95).  East and Central Europe did not have this long time span—and had to cram all three projects (state building, nation building, and democratization) into the same period, which makes success much less likely (where success is establishing a stable liberal democracy).

Berman also argues that, in the aftermath of World War II, Western Europe adopted “social democracy” (aka the welfare state) in order to demonstrate the state’s commitment to the well-being of all its citizens after the sacrifices of the war and the sufferings of the depression.  National solidarity, she argues, is heightened by this responsiveness of the state to the needs of all its citizens—an antidote to the 1930s conviction in much of Europe that liberal regimes could not protect citizens from the depredations of capitalism.  She quotes Henry Morgenthau, American Secretary of the Treasury in his opening remarks at the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference: “All of us have seen the great economic tragedy of our time.  We saw the worldwide depression of the 1930s . . . . We saw bewilderment and bitterness become the breeders of fascism and finally of war.  To prevent a recurrence of this phenomenon, national governments would have to be able to do more to protect people from capitalism’s ‘malign effects’” (Berman, 284).  Berman is a firm believer in Habermas’s “constitutional nationalism”; she thinks that national solidarity is best reinforced by a welfare state that extends benefits and protection to all its citizens.  (See pages 296-297).  She also is a strong proponent of “the primacy of politics” (the title of her excellent earlier book, which I discussed in this blog post), meaning that governments should take management of the economy as one of its essential political projects.

How might all this relate to US history?  It certainly offers an interesting way to think about the American South.  To even create a national state, the South had to be granted the privilege of continued slavery.  Without slavery, there would have been no United States in 1787.  The founder of my university (the University of North Carolina), William Davie is only recorded as speaking once at the Constitutional Convention.  “At a critical point in the deliberations, however, William Davie spoke up for the interests of the Southern slaveholders. In his pivotal statement, Davie asserted that North Carolina would not join the federal union under terms that excluded slaves from being counted for representation. Unlike other Southern delegates, Davie was flexible and willing to negotiate, because he was committed to the realization of the union. Indeed, once the three-fifths compromise was reached, Davie became an enthusiastic advocate of the United States Constitution. He spent two years campaigning for the document’s ratification.” (Source)

Hence slavery was akin to the privileges (the bribes) French kings had to grant the nobility in order to create a strong central French state.  Similarly, the regions (i.e. the separate colonies) had to be granted the privilege of equal representation in the Senate in order to yield sovereignty to the national government.  Thus the American state was compromised from the start.  It took violence to end slavery and then the South was bribed again in the aftermath of the Civil War when a blind eye was turned on Jim Crow.  The elites of the South, in other words, never had to submit to democratization; they barely had to maintain any kind of national allegiance or identity.  The South was allowed to go its own way for the most part.  Yet the Dixiecrat South, because of the Senate, held the balance of power in Roosevelt’s New Deal, guaranteeing that the first steps toward social democracy in the US were not open to all citizens.  Blacks were excluded from most of the New Deal programs.  The non-democratic Senate (made even less democratic by its extra-constitutional adoption of the “filibuster”) served anti-democratic elites well.

Arguably, World War II created a stronger sense of national identity through the participation in a mass army. (The war, of course, also made the federal government immensely bigger and stronger.) That mass participation opened the way toward the civil rights movement—both because the national government felt more secure in its power and because the justice of rewarding blacks for their military service appealed strongly to Harry Truman (among others), even as service overseas gave black veterans a taste of dignity and freedom.  It is not an accident that the first significant integration mandated by the national government was of the military (by Truman in 1948).

It is also no accident that Strom Thurmond ran against Truman in the 1948 presidential election, winning five Southern states, and beginning the slow process of the South moving from being solidly Democratic to becoming solidly Republican.  Even though Republicans (the party of Lincoln) were crucial to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the party’s presidential standard bearer in that year was Barry Goldwater, who opposed the civil rights bill—and carried the South even as he was defeated in a landslide.  The “Southern strategy” was born.  The long impotent right-wing opposition to the New Deal could gain power if the national solidarity created by World War II and the welfare state could be overcome by selling a significant portion of the  general populace on the notion that welfare was exploited by lazy, sexually promiscuous, and potentially violent blacks.  Throw in fear of communism and a religious-tinged moral panic about “permissiveness” among the unwashed, drugged-out hippies protesting the Vietnam War and the scene was set for the conservative roll-back of America’s (always less than generous or fully established) social democracy.

American Conservatism from 1964 on was not simply Southern, but took its playbook from the South.  That is (to recall Berman’s list of the requirements of liberal democracy above), the Republican party embraced positions that denied the full equality of all citizens in terms of political participation and demonized the opposition as unfit to govern, as an existential threat to the nation, as not “real” Americans.  The two Democratic presidents post-Reagan were condemned as illegitimate and criminal by the right-wing media and by Republican congresses, with Clinton impeached and Obama subjected to everything from the “birther” fantasies to deliberate obstruction and the refusal to even vote on his Supreme Court nominee.

In short, Berman’s analysis suggests that the South was never integrated into the American nation—and has successfully resisted that integration to this day.  Furthermore, one of the national political parties has allied itself with that Southern resistance, using it to further its own resistance to democracy.  That resistance to democracy has multiple sources, but certainly includes the business elites’ desire to prevent government management of the economy—including environmental regulations, support of labor’s interests against employers, aggressive deployment of anti-trust and anti-discrimination laws, and strong enforcement of financial regulations and tax laws.  Just as the South had to be bribed to even nominally be part of the Union, so the economic elite has also been bribed to accept grudgingly even the attenuated democracy and welfare state in place in the US.  The bribery, we might say, goes both ways; the plutocrats bribe the politicians by financing their campaigns, and the politicians bribe the plutocrats by keeping the state out of their hair.

Berman’s story is that liberal democracy collapses when people become convinced that it cannot serve their needs.  Only “a socioeconomic order capable of convincing its citizens that liberal democracy could and would respond to their needs” (295) stands between us and the illiberal alternatives that offer themselves when liberal democracy appears incapable of delivering the goods. The failures of liberal democracy since 1970 are manifest; its corruption and its slide into plutocracy in the United States are plainly evident.

In the United States today, we live in a cruel society.  The right wing solution is to say “Yes, life is cruel.  There are winners and losers—and we are offering you a chance to be on the side of the winners, while also giving you a way to justify the fate of the losers.  They are the lazy, or the weak-willed (drug addicts), the ungodly, or the illegal (criminal, or undocumented,) or otherwise unworthy of full citizenship, or full compassion.”  The left tries to hold on to the vision of social democracy.  An anti-democratic left is not a strong force in present-day America the way it was in 1900 to 1935 Europe.  The mushy center wants to hold on to existing civil liberties and to the existing rules of the game even as the emboldened right ignores both with impunity.

It is possible that the 2020 presidential election will present a clear choice between a robust re-assertion of social democracy versus the divide-and-conquer rightism that also aligns itself with ruthless capitalism. (We could also get a Democratic candidate like Biden who represent the mushy center.) I have friends who are convinced that the right will not accept the election results if it loses by a fairly small margin.  I find that scenario implausible; I don’t think the stability of American democracy is that precarious.  But a recent conversation with one friend made me less sure.  And Berman’s book puts the question rather starkly: If the Trumpists refuse to accept the election results, is there enough commitment to liberal democracy to lead to the kind of large-scale public response that would make a coup fail?  Or has faith in liberal democracy been so eroded by its gridlock and its impotence over the past eight years (ever since the feeble and inadequate response to the 2008 financial crisis) that the response to another stolen election would echo the shrug of January 2001 when the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush.  A scary thought.  But it would certainly seem, in light of the history Berman outlines, that a complacent faith in the persistence of our (even attenuated) liberal democracy is probably unfounded.

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