It may be a dark time for liberal democracy, but it has been a banner year for books about liberal democracy—and the peril it’s in. In our new issue, Rick Valelly reviews books by Yascha Mounk (The People vs. Democracy) and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die), each of which sounds an ominous warning about the trajectory of the American experiment.
In Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, Bill Galston strikes a slightly less panicked tone. “Liberal democracy is fragile, constantly threatened, and always in need of repair,” he writes. “But liberal democracy is also strong, because, to a greater extent than any other political form, it harbors the power of self-correction.” This admonition doubles as a useful reminder of why we should care about liberal democracy in the first place.
Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is also helpfully clear on what populism is. (The right-wing kind, anyway. He doesn’t address the tradition of American progressive populism.) Following the work of Jan-Werner Müller, Galston rejects the idea that the word is merely a label for whatever elites don’t like. Rather, he writes, it “is a form of politics that reflects distinctive theoretical commitments and generates its own political practice.” Populist leaders insist that they alone speak for a mythically homogeneous and morally pure group known as “the people,” whose interests are defined in opposition to some group of “enemies of the people”—typically political or economic elites and immigrants or ethnic minorities. Populism is thus fundamentally illiberal, because it takes aim at the liberties and institutions—courts, the free press, minority protections—that serve as a check against pure majority domination.
Sound familiar? Galston gives over a chapter of the book to the rise of populism in Europe, but the focus of his analysis is on the conditions that made the Donald Trump disaster possible and how better federal policy can get us out of it. The rise of Trump, he argues, stems primarily from a mix of economic concerns and resentment toward immigrants and cultural elites. The solution, then, is for elites to stop being such snobs, and to adopt economic policy that spreads growth more equitably and immigration reforms that acknowledge white Americans’ understandable (in Galston’s view) concern over cultural displacement and national identity.
Substantively, it’s a mixed bag. Galston, a centrist Democrat who worked in the Clinton White House, recognizes that decades of pro-rich, pro-corporate policy have led to indefensible inequality and wage stagnation, and his economic proposals range from milquetoast (rural broadband) to stunningly progressive, even left-wing (worker ownership of firms, a sovereign wealth fund). On immigration, however, he bends over backwards to take anti-immigrant prejudice in good faith. Since many Americans “believe” that immigrants from Latin America steal their jobs, commit violent crime, and “threaten their control” over the country, immigration policy should shift (it’s not totally clear how) to accommodate those feelings—regardless of what they represent and whether they are even responsive to actual immigration policy, as opposed to right-wing disinformation. (Given that net migration from Mexico was negative during the Obama era, we might question how much influence federal policy really has on Trump voters’ susceptibility to anti-immigrant agitation.)
But the deeper problem with Galston’s analysis is his vision of how these policy changes are to come about. In the most telling moment of the book, he writes: “U.S. public policy has no choice but to lean harder against the economic wind, both to accelerate economic growth and to ensure that its fruits are widely shared. At long last, our leaders must turn away from peripheral squabbles and attend to the one issue that more than any other will define our country’s future.”
But Democrats and Republicans aren’t too busy with “peripheral squabbles” to sit down and hash out a solution to income inequality. Economic regulation is the absolute central point of contention between the parties. The modern GOP is a machine designed to cut taxes for the wealthy, increase corporate profits, and reduce public spending on the poor and working-class—period. The outrageously pro-inequality economic policies we have today—historically low taxation of corporations and the super-rich, preferential treatment for passive income, lax antitrust enforcement, and so on—are not something that happened while Congress was too busy bickering about what radio station to listen to. They are the result of an ongoing right-wing ideological assault on the New Deal order. Democrats have played a role, of course, by tacking to the right on some economic issues in the 1990s in order to regain power. But today’s parties could hardly be more starkly divided in their priorities for the American economy.
Over and over, Galston falls into the trap of blaming “partisanship” and “gridlock” for setting the stage for Trumpian populism. Ironically, this type of thinking—that our political leaders could solve the big problems if only they finally focused on the people’s interests—is reminiscent of populism itself. “In the United States, partisan antipathy has blocked policy responses to core public problems,” Galston writes. Elsewhere, he observes that “the cycle of gridlock yielding public dissatisfaction producing unified government giving way to partisan overreach followed by public reaction producing divided government and renewed gridlock continues indefinitely.” But generic “gridlock” isn’t what has kept us from the immigration reform that Galston thinks we so desperately need. Just as with economic policy, the culprit has been the GOP’s relentless rightward lurch.
I need not belabor the point. The fact of asymmetric polarization has been documented so thoroughly by now that to see it ignored by someone as knowledgeable and experienced as Galston is genuinely baffling. But there is a further point to be made. Democratic and Republican elites can’t put their differences aside to solve the common problem of Trumpian populism because Republican elites do not think it is a problem. Long before Trump launched his presidential run, the party and its symbiotically attached right-wing media universe had spent years, decades, stoking resentment toward Mexican immigrants, Muslims, black people, public sector unions, and cultural elites (think of Fox News’s annual “War on Christmas” coverage) as a way of winning working-class white support while enacting policies that make working class lives materially worse.
It’s not just the scapegoating. The Republican Party began its efforts to rig the system to lock itself in power long before Trump showed up—most egregiously, by passing sham electoral laws to make it harder for left-leaning demographic groups to vote. These are frontal assaults on liberal democracy.
There is simply no “let’s put our differences aside” way out of the Trumpian moment we’re living in. Galston is right that achieving economic growth while reducing inequality is the central policy challenge of our time. He may even be right that some kind of centrist immigration compromise would dull the ire of the Trump base. Regardless, we’re not getting progress on those areas, or any others of consequence, through bipartisan resolve. One party is intensely committed to the core components of populism that Galston rightly identifies. Republican leaders don’t want economic equality. They don’t want to calm white voters’ nerves on terrorism and immigration. The path forward thus rests entirely on the Democrats’ ability to smash the GOP electorally, and to keep them out of power for long enough to install sweeping, durable reforms to both our economic policies and our political institutions. They must ultimately convince Republicans that the strategy of amplifying white cultural anger to create cover for upwardly distributive economic policy will never work again. Liberal democracies may harbor the power of self-correction, but today’s Republican leaders do not.