"To Rebuild American Democracy, Try Building it in the First Place", The Interpreter

Welcome to The Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.

On our minds: How to get (back?) to democracy from here.

The New York Times

January 22, 2021

To Rebuild American Democracy, Try Building it in the First Place

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

We can’t call it an entirely peaceful democratic transfer of power, but it is at least now a completed one: Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, despite the best efforts of his predecessor and a violent mob to prevent that from occurring.

In his inaugural speech as president, Mr. Biden promised to heal the damage the last four years of extremism and violence have done to American democracy.

Sounds great! Sounds difficult! Sounds … insufficient?

A growing number of experts argue that the task at hand is not just repairing the damage done to America’s democratic norms and institutions over the past four years, but also building elements of democracy that were never completed in the first place.

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“Confronting the United States’ complicated legacy of unequal political participation, voter suppression, and white supremacy is part of U.S. democratization,” Susan D. Hyde, a University of California, Berkeley political scientist, said via email. “Many Americans have been living in a democracy for a long time, but there have also been authoritarian enclaves throughout the country.”

“I would argue that since 1965 we have come closer to *actually* becoming a democracy,” Anne Meng, a University of Virginia political scientist who studies dictatorships and authoritarian backsliding, wrote on Twitter earlier this month. “As a result, now we’re getting violent pushback from elites and groups that were used to benefiting from the former authoritarian power structures.”

Regular readers of this newsletter will remember that research shows that when countries democratize, elites often sabotage the government’s capacity to make and enact policy in order to limit its ability to redistribute resources and power from former haves to newly empowered have-nots.

Pavithra Suryanarayan, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University who has documented that phenomenon in India as well as the American south, believes that the Trump administration was following a similar pattern when it undermined institutions including the postal service, the Internal Revenue Service, the census, and the State Department.

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To solve that problem, her research suggests that Mr. Biden must not only rebuild the institutions themselves, but also take steps to protect them from such attacks and interference in the future, she said.

“My one big concern is that Democrats don’t realize or take seriously the bureaucratic pathways to democratic erosion that has occurred with Trump,” she said. “They need to not only fix the state but take efforts to make sure this doesn’t happen quite this way again. Protect the state, protect the golden goose.”

But bureaucratic protections alone are not enough. “If you really want to fix things you need the citizenry to believe in democracy and institutions,” said Elizabeth N. Saunders, a professor at Georgetown University who is writing a book about elites, democracy and war. The past four years have “exposed the ability of politicians to undo the fundamental faith of the people in democracy,” she said, and that is a problem that only politicians and elites themselves can solve.

Dr. Hyde agreed. “The Republican Party has, I think, begun to confront the Trump-led authoritarian wing of the Republican Party, and the importance of this confrontation for the future of U.S. democracy cannot be overstated,” she said.

But it is not yet clear which wing of the party will prevail.

“If the Republican Party remains anti-democracy, then the path to restoring functional if imperfect U.S. democracy becomes nearly impassable regardless of what Biden does.”

What We’re Reading

  • For more about America’s “flawed, partial” democracy, read this article in Foreign Policy by Paul Musgrave, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
  • This was on last week’s list, but I’m pleased to discover that ‘The American Way of Death’ by Jessica Mitford is, as many had promised, a real banger of a book about death in the age of capitalism.
  • “The original draft of this just said ‘Pompeo f-ing sucks’ 250 times in a row”: my favorite genocide scholar, Kate Cronin-Furman, weighs in on the meaning and consequences of the United States declaring that the Chinese government is committing genocide in Xinjiang. (By the time it was published in Foreign Policy, it said some other things, too.)
  • This review in the Times by Parul Sehgal made me buy “The Copenhagen Trilogy” immediately.

How are we doing?
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