Brand New Left, Same Old Problems
What Populism Can and Can’t Achieve
American democracy has always been a work in progress. What Abraham Lincoln called “the unfinished work” of ensuring “government of the people, by the people, for the people” has suffered its share of setbacks. For decades, Americans’ trust in government has been declining, signaling that not all was well. Yet until recently, democracy seemed secure in the United States.
No longer. President Donald Trump has unleashed a barrage of attacks on the underpinnings of democratic governance, threatening checks and balances, civil liberties, civil rights, and long-established norms. During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump discarded the notion of facts as necessary anchors of political discourse and challenged the legitimacy of his political opponent, threatening to “lock her up” if he won. Since his inauguration, he has castigated sections of the mainstream media as “fake news” and called them “the enemy of the American people,” attacked the judiciary, and claimed—without evidence—that electoral fraud cost him victory in the popular vote. These displays of illiberalism suggest that the American project of self-governance, which Americans have long taken for granted, may be in a more precarious condition than most assumed.
How did the United States come to this point? And how can it revitalize its democracy? Two new books offer useful guidance. Democracy for Realists, by the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, helps explain the roots of the current crisis. And Democracy, by the historian David Moss, reveals how Americans have overcome political divisions in the past.
The authors of both books make clear that political conflicts in the United States are nothing new. Today, Americans face serious threats to their country’s democracy, but they can draw on a long tradition of conflict resolution. They should relearn how to use the institutions and tools—leadership, negotiation, and compromise—that have sustained American democracy in the past.
In Democracy for Realists, Achen and Bartels explain that deep-seated social identities and group affiliations motivate political action far more than individual rationality does. They convincingly debunk what they term the “folk theory” of electoral democracy, an idealized view in which informed voters assess candidates on the basis of their own policy preferences or ideology and the leaders they elect then respond to the wishes of the majority, producing public policies that meet voters’ demands. Drawing on a vast literature, Achen and Bartels argue that, in fact, most people are uninterested in politics and poorly informed about issues. So they act not primarily on the basis of individual preferences or rational choices but rather on the basis of “emotional attachments that transcend thinking.”
How did the United States come to this point? And how can it revitalize its democracy?
Achen and Bartels argue that people’s group affiliations tend to precede their values. They note that “partisanship, like religious identification, tends to be inherited, durable, and not about ideology and theology.” Political affiliations typically form in childhood, endure even when people’s circumstances change, and can be transmitted across generations. “Most people make their party choices based on who they are, not what they think,” Achen and Bartels conclude.
This theory helps illuminate contemporary U.S. politics. Over the past few decades, the United States has witnessed growing polarization. This has manifested itself in everything from increasing partisan bias in presidential approval ratings to the fact that, on topics from climate change to the safety of vaccines, voters routinely discount evidence solely because someone on the other side of the aisle supplied it. Polarization’s effects have even gone beyond politics. The political scientist Lynn Vavreck has found that in the 1950s, 72 percent of Americans surveyed told pollsters that it did not matter to them whether their daughter married a Democrat or a Republican. By 2016, only 45 percent were noncommittal; the rest expressed a clear preference.
Strong party affiliation proved crucial in last year’s election. Many pundits assumed that after several Republican Party elites distanced themselves from Trump, he was doomed to defeat. When that proved untrue, talking heads and columnists assured their audiences that voters would not choose a candidate who openly denigrated ethnic and religious groups and that social conservatives would not condone someone who had bragged about groping women. Yet some political scientists predicted that most Republican voters would eventually drop their reservations and come home to the party—and indeed they did.
The election tested Achen and Bartels’ argument. Trump’s presidency has gotten off to a rocky start and may test it again. Will anything Trump does cause his approval ratings, already low among Democrats and independents, to fall among Republicans? So far, the percentage of Republicans who approve of Trump’s job performance is similar to the percentage of Democrats who approved of Barack Obama’s and the percentage of Republicans who approved of George W. Bush’s at the same juncture in their presidencies.
Although Achen and Bartels’ central claim that “human life is group life” explains a fair amount about contemporary politics, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Consider the fact that most people have several social identities but only some of those identities become politicized. Latinos today have a highly politically significant identity; German or Japanese ancestry mattered politically in the 1940s but no longer does. Evangelical Christians and Muslims each have a politicized religious identity; Episcopalians and agnostics do not.
What’s missing here, in part, is attention to how politics and policy can shape, give meaning to, or even create identities. Take, for example, the white working-class voters in Rust Belt states who proved pivotal in Trump’s victory. In past years, many of these same people would have belonged to labor unions and looked to union leaders for information on which candidate would best represent their interests. But union membership has been falling for years. Large numbers of manufacturing jobs—the traditional base for unions—have disappeared, presidents since Ronald Reagan have withdrawn their support for organized labor, and Congress has for decades failed to update the moribund National Labor Relations Act, from which unions derive much of their power. In recent years, conservative legislators and governors in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states in which Trump scored surprise victories, have hastened the decline of unions by passing right-to-work laws, which prevent unions from requiring employees of unionized firms to pay dues. In the absence of strong unions, politicians, including Trump, have appealed to other identities among the white working class, such as race, geography, and religion.
People can find themselves politically distanced even from those they have known all their lives and love dearly.
People’s experiences of public policies can create politicized groups, which parties or candidates can then mobilize. Recipients of Social Security and Medicare, for example, are keen to protect their benefits. During last year’s campaign, Trump cemented his support among older voters when he defied the current Republican orthodoxy and assured them that he would protect those programs. Veterans may feel kinship with one another because of their shared experience of military service, businesspeople may unite around their frustration with regulations, and the rich may commiserate over the intricacies of the tax code. Achen and Bartels overlook the role that government policies play in forging such shared identities.
Examining only contemporary group affiliations, moreover, obscures how specific policies created or destroyed the bonds between parties and certain demographic groups. Although Achen and Bartels review some of the relevant history, a deeper look might have affected their conclusions. Take the case of white southerners, who defected from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in the middle of the twentieth century. Achen and Bartels refute the idea that it was primarily Democratic leaders’ endorsement of civil rights in the 1960s that drove white southerners away. As they show, the shift in partisanship had begun earlier. Yet they miss the policy developments on other issues that precipitated the transition. The political scientist Eric Schickler has shown that white southerners began to defect from the Democratic Party soon after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. That law empowered the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a union federation, which promoted civil rights and prompted the GOP to embrace states’ rights in defense of white interests. Richard Valelly, another political scientist, has highlighted how in the 1950s, Republican leaders appealed to white southerners’ social conservatism, particularly regarding gay rights.
Throughout the United States’ history, Americans have had to deal with factionalism.
Tracing the emergence of group affiliations also reveals that ideas serve as a greater driving force than Achen and Bartels acknowledge. They claim that people who grew up together typically share political views. But as anyone from a large family can attest, political diversity among close relatives is not uncommon. Children may gravitate to a different party than their parents do. According to the political scientists Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Schickler, the association between parents’ partisan identity and that of their adult children is “not trivial, but neither is it overwhelming.” The emotional distress many reported experiencing at Thanksgiving dinner tables after the 2016 election indicates that people can find themselves politically distanced even from those they have known all their lives and love dearly.
Throughout the United States’ history, Americans have had to deal with factionalism. In Democracy, Moss observes that charges of democratic dysfunction are “as old as the republic itself.” In fact, discord is to be expected: democracy does not function like a machine, with neatly humming checks and balances. It is “more like a living, breathing organism”—and a fragile one, at that, constantly prone to “fragmentation, breakdown and decay.” Americans, Moss argues, should not fear conflict but rather embrace it: handled properly, it permits the best ideas to win out, guards against the tyranny of the majority, and helps prevent special interest groups from gaining too much power.
Moss makes this argument in his brilliant introductory and concluding chapters, while the core of the book consists of 19 cases from throughout U.S. history that exemplify the complexity of political conflict. Moss, a professor at Harvard Business School, brings the case-study teaching method to history. He challenges readers to imagine themselves as participants in the historical cases he uses, to better understand the deliberative and decision-making skills necessary for self-governance. The cases span a wide range. Moss tells the story of the debate at the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, over James Madison’s proposal that Congress should have the power to veto state laws (the convention rejected the idea). He presents the decision Martin Luther King, Jr., faced in 1965: whether to defy a federal court order and lead some 2,000 protesters across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, Alabama (King decided to turn the marchers back; 12 days later, after a higher court lifted the order, they set out over the bridge to Montgomery).
Moss presents each case in rich detail so that readers can grapple with the tough choices that the people at the time faced and decide how they themselves would have proceeded. Readers can take on the roles of New York State legislators in 1851, deciding whether to require school districts to levy taxes to pay for public education (they produced a weak compromise measure with one-time funding, but the principle of free schools prevailed and became law in 1867). They may imagine they are Florida lawmakers in 1982, charged with ratifying or rejecting the Equal Rights Amendment (they voted it down). Moss wisely presents each case without the outcome; for that, readers must turn to the appendix.
The predecessors of today’s Americans gave them the tools to manage, mitigate, and transcend their current deep divisions.
Together, these cases convey that Americans today have inherited not only a set of governing institutions but also a tradition of conflict resolution that both relies on democratic norms and strengthens them through practice. Tensions are a constant throughout U.S. political history. The crucial question is whether citizens can resolve them constructively. Moss suggests that Americans have lost sight of what’s needed: a fundamental commitment to the democratic principles of self-government.
Both books point out that the American founders anticipated challenges much like those the United States faces today. As Achen and Bartels acknowledge, their emphasis on how groups matter in politics is not new. Madison argued, in The Federalist Papers, no. 10, that humans are all too likely to form “factions”—groups that possess “a zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points.” That zeal, he wrote, had “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for the common good.”
As Madison knew, it is fruitless to try to remove the “causes of faction,” which are “sown in the nature of man”; people can only aim to control its effects. The best way of doing so, he argued, is through representative democracy. As Moss reminds readers, for democracy to succeed, it requires not only strong institutions, with checks and balances, but also norms, principles, and the capacity to work across differences to get things done.
In this moment of intense political division, it’s important to distinguish the events that are part of the normal, if deeply partisan, course of politics from those that threaten the basis of democracy itself. Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, for example, is a normal political action, aimed at satisfying Trump’s conservative base. This holds for his cabinet nominees as well, even though the lack of government experience among several of them makes them unorthodox choices. On the other hand, Trump’s disregard for facts, his repudiation of the role of the mainstream media, his criticism of judges, and his disregard for political opposition all degrade democratic norms. Citizens need to assess Trump’s actions through this lens, distinguishing standard partisan moves from those that undermine self-government and threaten authoritarianism.
On the same day that the Second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence, Moss reminds readers, it charged Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson with coming up with an emblem for the new nation. They arrived at a motto: E pluribus unum (Out of many, one). In 1782, Congress adopted it as part of the seal of the United States. At the time, it symbolized the challenge of bringing 13 colonies together in the shared project of self-governance. Since then, the principle it conveys has enabled Americans across nearly two and a half centuries to work though conflicts and to preserve democracy. “Our differences as Americans are in fact a profound source of strength, not weakness,” Moss writes, “but only so long as we find enough in common to see ourselves as one nation.” The predecessors of today’s Americans gave them the tools to manage, mitigate, and transcend their current deep divisions, if they can proudly reaffirm what they share: their system of government.