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(“Populism” has recently become the catchphrase for that bipolar anti-liberalism.) What is missing from these works, and the commentariat that they represent, is a genuine reckoning with twenty-first-century questions: whether we have ever been democratic, and whether the versions of capitalism that have emerged in the last forty years are compatible with democracy.
The underlying assumption of those who defend norms is that, at some very deep level, Americans have always agreed on the key issues, above all liberty and equality, and have just had to work out the kinks through the generations.
That kind of thinking is a residue of the Cold War, when, as Aziz Rana observed in a brilliant essay earlier this year, the quest for ideological legitimacy in the battle against communism led both parties to suppress their radical wings and converge on a common language of American principles and constitutional destiny.
The unifying idea is that liberal democracy is not self-sustaining—not automatically, anyway.
Even if they have opponents outside, such as Putin and his agents, liberal democrats should most fear the dysfunctions of their own system.
You hardly notice that everyone on the highway is taking turns merging until That Guy screams through, splitting lanes, leaning on his horn and rolling coal, with truck nuts flapping from his trailer hitch.
One problem with identifying the protection of political norms with the defense of democracy is that such norms are intrinsically conservative (in a small-c sense) because they achieve stability by maintaining unspoken habits—which institutions you defer to, which policies you do not question, and so on.
Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum Harper Collins, 2018, 320 pp. Bush speechwriter David Frum (Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic), political theorist and Clinton adviser William Galston (Antipluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy), and a three-handed work, One Nation After Trump, by commentators E. One of the telling things about the crisis-of-democracy literature is that it presents itself as the voice of the reason, calling the people back to their principles. All are organized around the shock of Trump’s victory.
Antipluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy by William A. One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet-Deported by E. Through this prism of moral and political affront, the light of more distant events coalesced into a pattern. Countries that had seemed quite disparate or outside the American media’s line of vision altogether became warnings of democracy’s capacity for self-dissolution: post-Chávez Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.
The crisis-of-democracy authors are disciples of “norms,” the unwritten rules that keep political opponents from each other’s throat and enable a polity to plod along.
Being unspoken, norms are often invisible until someone breaks them.