Anatomy of a Crisis

Anatomy of a Crisis

To effectively counter the threat of authoritarianism posed by today’s crisis of democracy, we need to understand the dynamics that produced it.

Introducing the special section of our Winter 2018 issue.

Illustration by Josh MacPhee

Over the last few years, a crisis of democracy has emerged onto the world stage. On the electoral front, we have witnessed the 2016 victory of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum, and the growing strength of the racist and neofascist campaigns of Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany. Authoritarian regimes have taken shape in Orbán’s Hungary, Kaczyński’s Poland, Erdoğan’s Turkey, and Duterte’s Philippines, and Hindu ultra-nationalists control the Indian government. Powerful authoritarian states such as Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China have consolidated their rule. The challenges facing democratic governance are now greater than at any time since the rise of totalitarianism in the 1930s.

This crisis of democracy has deep roots in the polity and the economy. The vast inequalities and economic devastation produced by decades of neoliberal economic policy have led to a loss of political trust in democratic government and public institutions. Political parties on the left and center left are in retreat, and civil society is in decay with dramatic deterioration in the ranks of organized labor, organized religion, and local community organizations. Citizenship rights are under assault. It is in the vacuum left by this structural decline that a far-right populism has surfaced as a political force, with its repugnant appeals to racism, sexism, and homophobia, and attacks on immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and other minorities.

The authors in this special section examine the different dimensions of this crisis and how the left should respond to it. Michael Walzer argues that the American left must address both issues of equality (the politics of inclusion) and class (the politics of redistribution). But, Walzer contends, such an approach must keep its eyes on the prize—winning political power through elections.

Sheri Berman takes on the argument of libertarians such as Fareed Zakaria that an “excess of democracy” has led to the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism. With a historical survey of the development of liberal democracy in twentieth-century Europe, she demonstrates that it has been more—not less—democracy that led to the consolidation of liberal democratic regimes. Liberalism without democracy is no less problematic, Berman concludes, than democracy without liberalism.

I argue that a central feature of the current wave of right-wing populism and authoritarianism has been attacks on democratic citizenship, with a particular targeting of the rights of racial “others.” Criticisms of “identity politics” that call for “universal” appeals to citizenship and class (as opposed to race) are troubling responses to the current crisis, as they elide the central role race plays in who we consider “citizens” and “workers”; in doing so, they also miss the racial politics at the center of contemporary attacks on citizenship. Explicitly anti-racist politics, I contend, must be at the center of a left politics.

Lastly, Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum analyze what they call “the new conspiracism,” which, they argue, has moved from “the margins to the mainstream” with the election of figures like Donald Trump. This brand of conspiracism is not so much a theory or an attempt to explain the world as it is free-floating allegations designed to delegitimize democracy and democratic institutions. Unlike the conspiracy theories that accompanied the rise of fascism and communism, they conclude, today’s conspiracism offers no alternative to the existing order.

The causes of the current crisis long predate the rise of individuals such as Donald Trump, and they will not disappear when these figures depart the political scene. To effectively counter the threat of authoritarianism posed by today’s crisis of democracy, we need to understand the dynamics that produced it. For those of us on the democratic left, there is no more urgent intellectual task.

Leo Casey is executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank and policy advocacy arm of the American Federation of Teachers. He is on the editorial board of Dissent.