The greatest tragedy in confronting democratic backsliding–the process by which a democratic political regime becomes less competitive and responsive to the will of citizens–is that once people become aware that it’s happening, it’s often too late. In the United States, this is painfully apparent in the rise of Donald Trump. Even as observers noted the dangers of partisan gridlock and the degradation of political norms in the first half of the previous decade, very few were clear-eyed about the possibility of a Trump presidency at the outset of his quest for power. The challenge for students–and defenders–of democracy in the coming years is to be able to identify instances of backsliding in democracies around the world, and to formulate effective political responses to them as they arise. Likewise, in the process of bringing a country back from the brink, which will be the mission of the new Biden administration, it is necessary to identify where things went wrong and rectify them in order to prevent another, potentially more dangerous, authoritarian turn.
A crucial aspect of identifying and rectifying such democratic downturns in the coming decade will, however, also require some willingness to depart from status quo norms. While the inauguration of President Biden and his presidency thus far have generated a celebration of return to norms and competence, and Biden’s executive orders are undoing some of the more disturbing elements of Trump’s legacy, there are already problems on the horizon. The most important of these is that despite Democrats controlling the Senate by a hair thanks to stunning upsets in the Georgia runoff elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to allow Democrats to take over Senate committees until Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promises not to abolish the filibuster.
Ezra Klein wrote a column just a few days ago, arguing that Democrats will need to abolish the filibuster if they want to make any progress on their ambitious (and popular) legislative agenda. If they don’t, Klein cautions, they will almost surely lose their slim majorities in Congress in the 2022 midterms. It hardly needs to be noted that the stakes are particularly high, given that the GOP seems to be fully content exploiting the institutional biases in their favor to maintain an edge in future legislative and presidential elections despite consistently falling short of majority support across the nation.
Klein is not the only one who’s been saying this; many voices further to the left of the political spectrum have been advocating for an elimination of the filibuster for years now. Klein is the most recent, however, and he does some very nice analysis of the problem of responding to populist norm-breaking, citing a book by William Howell and Terry Moe called Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy. Their argument, in short, is that while establishment defenders of liberal democracy are frequently reluctant to rethink existing norms in response to populist challenges, it is crucial for them to do away with those norms which facilitated the rise of populist challengers in the first place.
Beginning around where Klein leaves off I think it’s worth establishing a good framework for thinking about the Democrats’ choice right now. Essentially, it’s possible to identify two important types of relationships in a democratic society–horizontal and vertical. While it’s a little bit simplistic, it’s helpful in visualizing the precipice on which democracy in America currently stands. By horizontal, I mean relationships between actors at the highest levels of government–the President and the Speaker of the House, for example, or, in this case, the Senate Majority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader. By vertical relationships, I mean principally the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. This horizontal-vertical framework is not novel, and admittedly the reality of relationships between actors in the US political system is infinitely more complex, but it is, I think, useful for understanding what is going on right now, and what can be done about it.
Excessive attention to the horizontal relationship is precisely the kind of backsliding that’s hard to recognize until the system reaches a breaking point. This is more or less what happened in the United States. The capture of state institutions by a wealthy elite and the rebellion of white Americans against increased racial inclusion started the downward slide(arguably just years after the moment when America became a true democracy in 1965 through the Voting Rights Act). Politicians in the Democratic Party perceived, rightly or wrongly, a political environment wherein they had to either shift to the right or lose elections. Even as Republicans became more openly anti-democratic through the rise of Newt Gingrich, the 2000 election, and Mitch McConnell’s obstructionism, Democrats continued to fetishize the need to preserve norms with their Republican counterparts, only rarely making a fight of it, and only when forced to (e.g. Harry Reid’s elimination of the filibuster for lower-level presidential appointments). Attention to the backsliding that led to Donald Trump was mostly relegated to grumbling about “gridlock;” it was not recognized for the crisis it truly was.
The Democrats now face a choice between emphasizing the horizontal relationship they have with the Republican Party, or the vertical relationship they have with the American people. This is not to say that the two are permanently mutually exclusive, but at this particular moment, it’s not possible to pursue one without sacrificing the other. Any kind of attempted détente with the GOP will require Democrats to significantly rein in their political goals, and thus any policies that will provide relief to the American people in the short term or reduce economic inequality in the long term.
The GOP, for its part, is in a strange position. Its leaders are clearly unsure whether they should jettison Donald Trump or try to take on his legacy for the next four years. It will be some time before there is real clarity about the direction the party is taking, but as attractive as the idea of Republicans cutting ties with Trump may be, the clear-eyed observer recognizes that the party’s pre-2016 behavior is no less untenable. Even without Trump, if the Democrats, led by Joe Biden, adopt a policy of appeasement towards the GOP, they will effectively give up their ability to provide materially for their constituents in both the short and long term, something which empirical research increasingly shows is necessary for democratic flourishing. In other words, to attempt a return to status quo norms is to put the country back on the same dangerous path.
The temptation to resuscitate the horizontal aspect of democracy is understandable. Our preconceived notion of the American system, instilled in us through whatever paltry civic education was available in school, is that the Founding Fathers set it up to facilitate consensus between political actors. And as comforting as it is to think that democracy’s faults begin and end with Trump, the reality is that this is not the case. The Republican Party is part and parcel of the Trump phenomenon. Of course, the Democratic Party has its problems, but chief among them is its capitulation to the austerity politics of the GOP and abandonment of the working class. With austerity advocates on their collective back foot, and majorities (even slim ones) in Congress, the Democrats have a massive opportunity to reinvigorate the vertical relationship between government and people. To give an inch at this particular moment would be an act of extreme foolishness. The structural factors which have encouraged the cultivation of the horizontal relationship, like the effective capture of state institutions by America’s wealthy elite and socially embedded neoliberal economic orthodoxy, are weaker than they have been in decades.
If the Democrats make the right choice, to reinvigorate democracy, they will benefit politically (this is the central point of Klein’s article). It’s clear that while the CARES Act fell short in a number of ways, it was one of the most popular and effective legislative achievements in a long time. Joe Biden’s new COVID stimulus, the “American Rescue Plan,” is certainly flawed (namely in its over-reliance on tax credits, which should really be reformulated as cash benefits) but it’s even better than CARES. Biden has also indicated that he’d like to pursue a second installment of stimulus and a $4 trillion infrastructure plan. On another equally important front,Democrats have laid out a new voting rights act, and are considering statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico; both of these moves would make American democracy more participatory. The party might just be able to begin to put right the American democratic system, including the GOP, by shifting the terms of debate away from austerity politics and populism, towards universal economic policy and increased democratic participation. None of this, however, is possible, if Democrats are unwilling to relinquish the norms that have allowed American government to become so dysfunctional, so vulnerable to authoritarian populism.
In short, the choice that Democrats face in this moment, between horizontal democracy (which, arguably, is not even real democracy) and vertical democracy, has existential implications. As pleasing–and correct–as it might be to blame Mitch McConnell for the past twelve or so years of democratic decline, what happens next is entirely on the Democratic party. They have control over the levers of power that matter; they can ensure that democracy in America is based fundamentally on the participation of the governed and accountability for those in power, or they can surrender it all. While Joe Biden has consistently outperformed the expectations of his detractors on the progressive left, his default mode of politics is conciliatory. He’s been quite explicit that he wants to pass the American Rescue plan, on a bipartisan basis. His administration met today with a group of so-called “moderate” Democratic and Republican Senators. It’s not a mistake in and of itself to extend an olive branch, but the current plan is the minimum of what the Democrats should want to see passed. Fortunately, most Democrats in the Senate seem to be prepared to push back on the hopeless promise of bipartisan comity, although it’s not enough to just signal–they need to actively push moderates in their caucus towards a practical governing vision. For the next two years, the Democrats can either be the party of the people or they can rely on the same failed norms that brought the United States to the brink of authoritarianism in the first place. The choice is theirs.