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Republicans understand this. They understand that liberal democracy is a potential means of serious challenges to the privileges and inequalities they seek to defend. (Photo: Getty Images/Stock Photo)

Republicans understand this. They understand that liberal democracy is a potential means of serious challenges to the privileges and inequalities they seek to defend. (Photo: Getty Images/Stock Photo)

Putting Liberal Democracy First Has Never Been More Important

It is hard to see how our current injustices can be repaired without working through and then "democratizing" these liberal democratic institutions.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

During the four years of the Trump administration, I was one of those people, derisively labeled "tyrannophobes" by some on the left, who focused on Trump's assaults on democracy and argued for putting the defense of liberal democracy first.

Most of those who criticized us surely recognized Trump's many objectionable features. They simply refused to focus on them, because they thought that "liberal democracy" is itself a deeply flawed system that is complicit in many serious injustices, and that these injustices—whether attributable to "neoliberalism" or "capitalism" or "white supremacy" or "systemic racism" or "the anthropocene"—are more fundamental, and ought to be the principal focus of critique and activism.

To put it bluntly, at this moment the U.S. two-party system centers on the efforts of one party, the Republicans, to curtail liberal democracy, and of the other party, the Democrats, to defend it.

Those who refused to reify liberal democracy and insisted on naming its flaws were of course right—and indeed many of us so-called "tyrannophobes" had never been loath to name these flaws. But the disparagement of committed liberal democrats for their focus on defeating Trumpism was neither right nor fair.

And as Trump became increasingly authoritarian, it became increasingly difficult to chalk up anti-Trumpism to some kind of neurotic obsession or "phobia." Trump's "Stop the Steal" campaign, which ramped up long before the November election, surely underscored the danger of Trumpism. Its natural consequence—the Republican effort to prevent Biden's inauguration, culminating in the January 6 assault on the Capitol– further underscored the danger. But perhaps the most dangerous consequence of Trumpism is less melodramatic—the effort of Republicans that is currently under way to use their control of statehouses across the country to legislatively restrict democratic contestation. This, combined with Trumpist success in stacking the courts with right-wing jurists, clearly poses dangers that are hard to deny.

Four recently-published New York Times pieces clarify what is at stake.

Three of them deal with efforts to restrict voting that have been much in the news, especially in connection with recent legislation in Georgia that seriously curtails voter access:

Richard Hasen, "Republicans Aren't Done Messing with Elections," New York Times (April 23, 2021).

Elizabeth Williamson, "Voting Rights Standoff Stalls Trump-Inspired Ethics Measures," New York Times (April 24, 2020).

Nick Corasaniti, "Texas Republicans Targeting Voting Access Find Their Bullseye: Cities," New York Times (April 24, 2021).

The fourth piece deals not with voting rights but with freedom of association and assembly and the right to protest: Reid Epstein and Patricia Mazzei, "GOP Bills Target Protesters (and Absolve Motorists Who Hit Them)," New York Times (April 21, 2021). [An excellent overview of these efforts is provided by New York University's First Amendment Watch.]

These Republican efforts are very serious, and I fully agree with Joe Lowndes:

"These new bills are deeply antidemocratic in a broader sense. Like the new legislation in Georgia curtailing the franchise, laws that severely punish political protest are meant to repress democratic expression as such. And the establishment of state authority over the municipal right to control budgets in regard to law enforcement strikes at local self-determination, something Republicans pretend to love. These facts alone should alert people to the dangers of a party committed to the path of authoritarianism."

The seriousness of these efforts lies behind three important pieces of legislation that the Democratic party is currently seeking to advance.

One, the much-discussed John Lewis Voting Rights Act (H.R. 4), seeks to clarify and restore the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were struck down by the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County v. Holden decision.

The second, more-discussed For the People Act (H.R. 1), is an omnibus piece of legislation that involves campaign finance reform, uniform standards for Congressional redistricting,  and uniform and enforceable standards of election administration and voter access.

While these two pieces of legislation are designed to dramatically improve the quality of democratic representation, the third piece of legislation, the Protecting Our Democracy Act (H.R. 8363), sponsored by Adam Schiff and still in committee, is designed to provide institutional checks on the kinds of abuses of presidential power—self-dealing, refusal of transparency, punishment of whistleblowers, etc.—that were unapologetically practiced by Trump.

All three pieces of legislation represent serious efforts to strengthen the means of democratic representation, such as they are, in the U.S. political system. All three are strongly supported by Democrats. And all three are strongly opposed by Republicans.

To put it bluntly, at this moment the U.S. two-party system centers on the efforts of one party, the Republicans, to curtail liberal democracy, and of the other party, the Democrats, to defend it.

While it is common on the left to target "neoliberalism" and abstractly to denounce "capitalist democracy" as a form of "oligarchy," I know very few people on the U.S. left who are actually indifferent to this situation.

Most understand that the Republican efforts target Black and progressive voters, and Black Lives Matter and progressive activism; that they are designed to secure Republican control over the institutions of state and national government; and that they are dangerous.

Most support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act.

Most regard Stacey Abrams as a hero, and cheer when she disses Republican Senators while testifying in support of voting rights before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Most applaud Rev. William Barber III—leader of the Poor People's Campaign–when he declares, in an op-ed co-authored with Bernice King, that "We Must Reclaim Voting Rights as a Moral Issue."

Most share the appropriate indignation expressed last week by Luke Savage, who reported in Jacobin on how "Behind Closed Doors, Republican Plutocrats Conspiring Against Democracy Let the Mask Slip."  And most agree with Scott Remer's insistence, in the pages of In These Times, that "Democrats Need to Radically Expand American Democracy—And Fast."

In these formulations, the "democracy" that is being attacked by the Right, and that must be defended and expanded by the left, is not "socialist democracy" or "radical democracy" or "participatory democracy" or "authentic democracy"—all ideas that have meaning in other contexts.  It is actually existing, flawed, and fragile liberal democracy. It is the very imperfect political system described decades ago by political scientist Robert Dahl as "polyarchy": a system that refuses any party or group a monopoly on political power; is egalitarian in its distribution of voting rights; and is liberal in its protection of civil liberties, freedom of association, and the rights of political contestation and competition.

To fight against voter restrictions is to insist on the ethical and political value of voting rights equality.

To fight against efforts to give disproportionate weight to Republican voters and constituencies is to insist on the ethical and political value of fair political representation, however mediated, imperfect, and alienating such representation might be.

To fight against efforts to punish and disenfranchise protesters is to insist on the ethical and political value of civil liberties, and of the First Amendment that buttresses them.

Of course, to defend these democratic principles does not signify that these things fully embody social justice or genuine political community. It signifies only the understanding that these things are important means of achieving social justice and political community.

If we don't defend this democracy, then we will lose it.

Universal suffrage and institutions of fair representation and rights of political contestation do not "solve" the problems or eliminate the injustices associated with capitalism or neoliberalism or racism or sexism or heteronormativity or climate-destroying anthropomorphic arrogance. But it is hard to see how these problems can be solved and these injustices can be repaired without working through and then "democratizing" these liberal democratic institutions. And harder still to see how any effort that rejects these institutions can be trusted to remain even minimally democratic.

Back in mid-March, Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate Majority Leader, delivered a surprisingly good speech about the defense of democracy on the Senate floor. Explaining his intention to pass H.R. 1 and H. R. 4 in the Senate, he concluded by stating that "If our democracy doesn't work, then we have no hope — no hope — of solving any of our other problems."

Schumer is no John Dewey nor even a John Lewis. There is no reason to imagine that his conception of democracy "working" and "solving our problems" runs very deep or extends very far. Most people on the left will define the problems we face more radically, and work with a much more expansive conception of democratic politics than the "normal politics" practiced, and extolled, by Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.

At the same time, whatever you think about capitalism or racism or climate catastrophe or of Pelosi or Schumer or Biden, to take the proper measure of what the Republican party is now trying to do is to agree with Schumer: in a sense both minimal and crucial, the liberal democracy that we have is now in grave danger, and whatever else we hope to accomplish through politics, and whatever else we are currently doing politically, we must now defend the democracy we have.

For if we don't defend this democracy, then we will lose it.

Republicans understand this. They understand that liberal democracy is a potential means of serious challenges to the privileges and inequalities they seek to defend. And so they are currently putting liberal democracy first—in their cross hairs. Attacking and weakening liberal democracy is their primary "policy agenda," and indeed little else seems now to concern them.

It is important to take them at their words, and their deeds, and to respond in kind.

Support for the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and the Protecting Our Democracy Act will not solve the deeper problems plaguing our world. But without measures such as these, our problems will only get worse, and our means of addressing them collectively will only become weaker.

Putting liberal democracy first has thus never been more important than it is right now.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: "Democracy in Dark Times"(1998); "The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline" (2003), and "Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion" (1994).

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