The Alcove

Democracy Is What We Make of It

In other words, institutions won’t save us: We have to save them.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged DemocracyInstitutionsPhilosophy

The political theorist Melvin Rogers has written a succinct and compelling rebuttal to the “resilient institutions” theory that remains, even now, popular among certain anti-Trump writers of an optimistic bent. His response draws on the political thought of John Dewey, who warned against confusing healthy politics with the “fulfillment of prescriptions laid down in a constitution” and the “observance of formulae that have become ritualistic.” “For Dewey,” writes Rogers, “democracy’s survival depends on a set of habits and dispositions—in short, a culture—to sustain it.” On this view, the breakdown of democratic culture puts the system in mortal peril: “When Dewey warns us that democratic conditions don’t automatically maintain themselves, and that the mere existence of a constitution does not safeguard democracy, he is dispelling the illusion that the United States is immune to the darkness of twentieth-century totalitarianism.” What Rogers is saying, in effect, is that we may well turn out to be unlucky enough to witness “our institutions will save us!” become the mordant civic equivalent of “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

One virtue of Rogers’s essay is the clarity with which he describes frightening cultural breakdowns that have already become part of daily life. Consider:

Those who believe the strength of our institutions will win the day miss the slow but steady effort to undermine the social fabric that makes them possible—by habituating us to cruelty, by treating facts as fictions, and by suspending the idea that we each, regardless of our national affiliation, are worthy of respect. Underneath the polices of the Trump administration is a test of the moral culture of Americans—to see what they can stand and what they will endure. When he refuses to disclose his taxes he tests our desire for transparency. When he dismisses the media he tests our commitment to truth. When he abets the gutting of institutions like the EPA he tests our reliance on research and facts.

Will Americans pass these tests? Much depends on whether we adopt the Deweyan perspective that Rogers advocates. That perspective reminds us that our institutions “do not have an agency of their own.” They don’t automatically counter malevolent forces; they are vulnerable to manipulation and hijacking.

Ironically, in some ways Trump and the Republican Party understand this fact better than most. Their attack on democratic culture relies, in no small part, on exploiting the instinctive moderation that is so often key to the institutional identity of (for example) mainstream think tanks, university centers, and legacy media outlets. These kinds of organizations are, of course, not officially part of the government, but they play crucial roles in democratic politics. In some ways, they can be thought of as institutions themselves, but they also serve as distributors of reliable information and analysis about our institutions. Is this judicial nominee qualified for the post? Is that EPA decision the result of scientific evidence or industry influence? Anxious to maintain their credibility, they often embrace a kind of bland moderation aloof from the day-to-day struggle of partisan politics. Republicans’ key insight is that this moderation is, so to speak, positional rather than substantive: It is determined in large part by finding the middle point between left and right, wherever it may fall—and in our era of asymmetric polarization, that middle point moves ever rightward. (Listen to NPR try to cover the Trump Administration if you want a sense of how absurdly far “moderation” has migrated.) Even if these groups perceive a worrisome drift into (say) naked corruption, unprecedented dishonesty, or outright nativism and racism, they also know the risks of being dismissed as partisan.

I addressed one dimension of this problem in a piece about the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which recently appointed a former Trump official to a senior fellowship. The Miller Center is a major site of scholarship on the presidency, and appointments of former Administration officials are not unusual. This one, however, was met with staunch resistance, including the resignation of two affiliated historians. It seems to me that the question of whether the appointment was “within bounds,” so to speak, is bound up with the question of whether the Trump presidency itself is within bounds. It’s tempting to frame the question in this way: Forced to choose between strict adherence to nonpartisanship and an inevitably value-charged judgment about the boundaries of acceptability in a democratic culture, what is a defender of institutions to do? But this way of putting it is not quite right, for what Dewey teaches us is that, in reality, there is no escape from value-charged judgments that either promote or undermine democratic culture, and by extension the institutions that are its formal expression. In effect, the attempt to avoid such a judgment only cedes the field to those who are actively trying to unmake democratic culture. All of the work that Republicans have done over the last several decades to work the refs is now being put to its most important test. We are witnessing a fiendishly clever strategy: The well-intentioned aspiration to objectivity gets turned against itself.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t end here. The fact is that our most effective tool against this problem, at least in the short term, is a partisan one. Trump and his party must be defeated at the ballot box before immediate threats to democratic culture—to the media, to the legitimacy of elections, to the equal dignity of all citizens, and on and on—can be stopped. Of course, as Dewey would remind us going into the midterms, electoral victory alone will not fix the deeper cultural problems that led to Trumpism. But at the moment, broad democratic imperatives align with narrower partisan goals. This is not an easy moment for people whose belief in democratic institutions has long been tied to staying “above” or “outside” politics. But there is no “outside” politics for institutions that claim to value democracy or embody democratic ideals, because to support democracy at this moment is not to lend superfluous, anodyne endorsement to what is already a universal consensus. Right now, democracy is something we have to choose, and it is one choice among alternatives that are all too available. If we fail to see that reality clearly, we may still have political rituals and the fulfillment of basic constitutional prescriptions. But as Dewey understood, it does not therefore follow that we’ll have a democracy.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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