Democracy: A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick

The Wikipedia entry on the author begins this way: “Sir Bernard Rowland Crick [1929 – 2008] was a British political theorist and democratic socialist whose views can be summarized as ‘politics is ethics done in public’. He sought to arrive at a ‘politics of action’, as opposed to a ‘politics of thought’ or of ideology”.

This explains why his introduction to democracy often deals with the responsibilities of citizenship. He traces the history of democracy from ancient Athens, when propertied men were expected to vote but also periodically hold public office, all the way to his leadership of a committee charged with improving “education for citizenship” in British schools, when many more of us qualify as citizens but we just want the government to leave us alone.

I’m having trouble summarizing this short book, so I’ll quote the publisher’s synopsis:

This book is a short account of the history of the doctrine, practices and institutions of democracy, from ancient Greece and Rome, through the American, French and Russian revolutions, and its varieties and conditions in the modern world.

Crick discusses the use of the term “democratic” by authoritarian governments, Alexis de Toqueville’s study of democracy in 19th century America, the meaning of “populism” and how majority rule doesn’t guarantee good government. Overall, it’s a nice little book that is best summarized by the author when he concludes that “all discussions of democracy are inconclusive and never-ending” [116].

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Can Democracy Work?: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World by James Miller

The question in the title implies that democracy hardly ever works as it’s supposed to. That is one of the author’s conclusions. Another is that, even though the trend toward more democracy in the world has reversed in recent years, “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”.

The book begins with chapters on the ups and downs of Athenian democracy, the French Revolution, and America between the revolution and the Civil War. Next there are two chapters that summarize developments in Europe, America and Russia, including the Chartist working class movement in Britain; the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution. Woodrow Wilson’s academic writings on government and his efforts to make the world “safe for democracy” receive special attention, as do public opinion polls and the practitioners of “public relations”. The final chapter deals with recent events, beginning with the election of our current president and the mass demonstrations that immediately followed his inauguration. It concludes with an examination of “the advance and retreat of democracy worldwide”.

Throughout the book, Miller analyzes the tension between democratic ideals and the reality of governing a population that couldn’t fit into a traditional New England meeting house. How should the “will of the people” be discovered? How much leeway should the people’s representatives and other government officials have, since the voters cannot and should not make every decision? Miller also points out that there is much more to democracy than simply counting votes. A free press is necessary, for example. So is the right to a decent education. Given the complexity of the modern world, the absurdly unequal distribution of wealth, the amount of secrecy governments practice, and the manipulation and disinformation we are all subjected to, nobody should be surprised that democracy often seems inadequate to the role it’s supposed to perform.

I’ll finish with two quotations from the book that are especially relevant to our current situation.

In 2004, the political scientist Samuel Huntington “analyzed what he took to be the long-term implications of demographic and cultural trends on America’s sense of national identity”. He argued that “one very plausible reaction” to the declining “hold of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men on the levers of political power” would be:

the emergence of exclusivist sociopolitical movements composed largely but not only of white males, protesting and attempting to stop or reverse these changes and what they believe, accurately or not, to be the diminution of their social and economic status, their loss of jobs to immigrants and foreign countries, the perversion of their culture, the displacement of their language, and the erosion or even evaporation of the historical identity of their country. Such movements would be both racially and culturally inspired and could be anti-Hispanic, anti-black and anti-immigration. They would be the heir to the many comparable exclusivist racial and anti-foreign movements that helped define American identity in the past [and] have enough in common to be brought together under the label “white nativism” [224-225].

The second quotation is from Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and eventual president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, writing in 1991:

“I am convinced,” Havel remarked, “that we will never build a democratic state based on rule of law if we do not at the same time build a state that is … humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural. The best laws and best-conceived democratic mechanisms will not in themselves guarantee legality or freedom or human rights — anything, in short, for which they were intended — if they are not underpinned by certain human and social values”. And here Havel is insistent: “I feel that the dormant goodwill in people needs to be stirred. People need to hear that it makes sense to behave decently or to help others, to place common interests above their own, to respect the elementary rules of human coexistence” [243].

Or a substantial minority of white nativists could use supposedly democratic procedures to elect a person who never places common interests above his own and is blatantly contemptuous of democracy and the rule of law.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The authors are professors of government at Harvard. Their thesis is that democracies don’t usually die because of coups or violent revolutions. They usually die when leaders take advantage of their nation’s established procedures to give themselves more and more power. For example, a political party will pass laws that make it so easy for them to win elections that they no longer face meaningful competition, or a ruler will assume temporary emergency powers because of a crisis but never give up those powers.

How Democracies Die shows how easy it can be to make the transition from democracy to authoritarianism. All budding authoritarians need to do is break the unwritten rules, the norms of behavior, that make a democracy work. If enough unwritten rules are broken, a democratic government will no longer function. Anti-democratic laws will be passed, ideologues and cronies will be put in positions of power, opponents will be jailed or exiled. Democracies can disappear either gradually or quickly. The authors provide examples from around the world.

They also call special attention to the behavior of the Republican Party in the last twenty-five years. Leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mitch McConnell and our current president have all broken rules without necessarily doing anything illegal. The result has been an accumulation of power inconsistent with majority rule.

When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted — mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Treating rivals as legitimate contenders for power and underutilizing one’s institutional prerogatives in the spirit of fair play are not written in the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we expect them to [212].

The authors foresee three possible outcomes of our current political crisis. The most optimistic is that there will be a rebirth of democracy in reaction to the Trump presidency. The Democratic Party will be energized, the Republican Party will become less extreme, and “the Trump interlude [will] be taught in schools, recounted in films, and recited in historical works as an era of tragic mistakes where catastrophe was avoided and American democracy saved” [206].

The least optimistic is that America’s government will become increasingly authoritarian, possibly in response to a national security crisis. They believe this “nightmare scenario” isn’t likely, but it isn’t inconceivable either: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities [in our case, white Americans who call themselves Christians] gave up their dominant status without a fight” [208]. Resistance to creeping right-wing authoritarianism could lead to “escalating confrontation and even violent conflict”, which would bring more repression in the name of “law and order” [207-208].

They consider the third alternative the most likely:

… polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare — in other words, democracy without solid guardrails… When partisan rivals become enemies, political competition descends into warfare, and our institutions turn into weapons. The result is a system hovering constantly on the brink of crisis [208-212].

In order to avoid this outcome, the authors believe the Republican Party needs to be “reformed, if not refounded outright”. It must “marginalize extremist elements”; “build a more diverse electoral constituency”; “find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism”; and “free itself from the clutches of outside donors [like the Koch brothers] and right-wing media” [223]. They also believe that it would be counterproductive for Democrats to fight fire with fire, to behave as badly as Republicans have.

I think the only way the Republican Party will be reformed or replaced is if the rest of us become so fed up that the Republicans suffer devastating electoral losses, and that the Democrats use their improved position to address urgent issues, in particular, rising inequality. That might encourage “conservatives” to start behaving like conservatives again, instead of like radicals. America might then have a normal center-right political party again. Stranger things have happened.

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley

Jason Stanley is a philosophy professor at Yale. He previously published a book called How Propaganda Works. His new book is a guidebook to fascism. He doesn’t spend much time on its history. His purpose is to explain how fascism and similar approaches to politics work.

The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between “us” and “them”, based on a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and no “them”, and supported by a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. “They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). “They” mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism or “social justice”, and are out to destroy our culture … and make “us” weak. “We” are industrious and law-abiding … “they” are lazy, perverse, corrupt and decadent [188].

Among the mechanisms Stanley cites are: the idea that some kinds of people are inherently better than others; the creation of a mythic past; the widespread use of propaganda; the promotion of conspiracy theories; the use of contradictory statements to demonstrate power and obscure reality; anti-intellectualism; encouraging feelings of victimhood among the majority population; the celebration of law and order and military might; and respect for “traditional family values”.

Stanley doesn’t spend much time on the economic aspects of fascism, except for fascism’s general opposition to labor unions. Perhaps it’s enough to say that fascist leaders are authoritarians and wield extraordinary power over economic affairs. One possible problem with the book is that his use of contemporary examples may suggest that there is no significant difference between fascism and contemporary conservatism (or whatever we should call the reactionary politics of today’s Republican Party). His point, however, is that contemporary “conservatives”, in particular the current occupant of the White House, exhibit behavior that matches many of the distinctive behaviors of history’s best-known fascists.

Finally, one aspect of fascism that sets it apart is what Stanley calls the “Führer Principle”:

The father, in fascist ideology, is the leader of the family; the CEO is the leader of the business; the authoritarian leader is the father or CEO of the state. When voters in a democratic society yearn for a CEO as president, they are responding to their own implicit fascist impulses.

The pull of fascist politics is powerful. It simplifies human existence, gives us an object, a “them” whose supposed [defects highlight] our own virtue and discipline, encourages us t oidentify with a forceful leader who helps usmakese sense of the world, whose bluntness regarding the “undeserving” people in the world is refreshing…. If the CEO is tough-talking and cares little for democratic institutions, even denigrates them, so much the better. Fascist politics preys on the human frailty that makes our own suffering seem bearable if we know that those we look down upon are being made to suffer more [183].

Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

If you want to understand American politics, read this book. Professor MacLean is the William H. Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University. Democracy In Chains was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award and was named by The Nation as the most valuable book of the year.

The book is “deep history” because MacLean delves into the relatively obscure career of an American economist named James Buchanan. She shows how Buchanan’s teachings, beginning in the 1950s, were adopted by right-wing ideologues and eventually came to dominate the thinking of wealthy, powerful and well-connected Republicans all over America.

She uses the phrase “radical right” because today’s Republican Party is radically different from the Republican Party of the 1950s. The party’s leaders used to be conservative. Now they’re bound to an ideology that elevates property rights over almost all other considerations.The party’s guiding principal is that any infringement on a person’s right to accumulate wealth is inherently unfair. Human freedom consists in making money and holding on to it. Nothing is more important when it comes to political policy. In fact, taxation is only justified for national defense and otherwise maintaining order. This is not a conservative position. It’s a so-called “libertarian” position that translates into extreme policies unacceptable to most Americans.

There is indeed a “stealth plan”. MacLean shows how this plan was developed,  and how it was paid for by people like the billionaire Charles Koch. Its goal is to make the United States a very different country. She explains how various academics, lawyers and political operatives, often working for right-wing publications, business groups or think tanks, have been working together for decades to move America to the right, while being secretive about their ultimate goal.

Their many public goals are well-known by now. These goals include lower taxes for the wealthy, minimal regulation of business activity, less funding for social programs (the ones that can’t be eliminated entirely), greater influence of money on our politics, and the privatization of as many government services as possible, including schools, prisons and the military. They also support ever-increasing spending on the military budget and fewer restrictions on the police, so that everyone, here and abroad, is kept in line.

Their overarching goal is much less publicized. It’s to interfere with majority rule. The economist James Buchanan argued strongly that the majority cannot be trusted. Most people want the government to do things that benefit the nation as a whole. They like well-funded public schools, well-maintained public roads, government assistance for the poor, decent medical care for the sick, and clean air and water for everyone.

But those things have to be paid for. That means the government has to collect taxes. Taxes, however, are unfair, since they involve taking property (i.e. money) from people who would rather keep it. Therefore, Buchanan and his ilk concluded, the wrong people should not be allowed to vote. And if the majority does vote for “non-libertarian” policies, the courts should rule those policies unconstitutional. Thus, we see voter suppression and gerrymandering, and undemocratic actions like changing the rules so that newly-elected Democrats will have less power when they take office.

At times, the story MacLean tells is hard to believe. But the story is true. I’ll conclude with an example and a summary from Professor MacClean:

Again and again, at every opportunity he had, [Buchanan] told his allies that no “mere changing of the political guard will suffice”, that “the problems of our times require attention to the rules rather than the rulers. And that meant that real change would come “only by Constitutional law”. The project [i.e. the stealth plan] must aim toward the practical “removal of the sacrosanct status assigned to majority rule”... [184].

“Who will care for America’s children and the elderly”, [historian Ruth Rosen] asks, now that … “market fundamentalism — the irrational belief that markets solve all problems — has succeeded in dismantling so many federal regulations, services and protections?” But the cause [i.e. the plan] would argue that it has answered that question over and over again: You will. And if you can’t, you should have thought of that before you had kids or before you grew old without adequate savings. The solution to every problem … is for each individual to think, from the time they are sentient, about their possible future needs and prepare for them with their own earnings, or pay the consequences [221].

That is the kind of thinking we, the majority, are up against.

To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Riemen

The author is a Dutch writer and “cultural philosopher”. The dust jacket says To Fight Against This Age was an international best seller. The book has two parts: “The Eternal Return of Fascism” and “The Return of Europa”.

The first part argues convincingly that fascism is a recurring tendency in Western civilization. The second argues that a united Europe could be much more than it has turned out to be, which is “nothing other than an Economic Union, where the terms soul, culture, philosophy, and live in truth are as impossible as a palm tree on the moon” [167].

The situation in the United States being more urgent, I found the discussion of fascism more engaging. We hesitate to apply the word “fascist” to the right-wing extremists who have gained ground in America (and in some parts of Europe),  mainly because they haven’t taken total control of society and spread bloodshed in the manner of Hitler and Mussolini. Rieman, however, says we should use the term to make clear how extreme these movements are and also make it easier to stop them:

… the fascist bacillus will always remain virulent in the body of mass democracy. Denying this fact or calling it something else will not make us resistant to it…. If we want to put up a good fight, we first have to admit that it has become active in our social body again and call it by its name: “fascism” [34].

In the twenty-first century, no fascist would willingly be called a “fascist”. Fascists aren’t that stupid, and it fits with their mastery of the skill of lying. Contemporary fascists are recognizable partly through what they say, but just as important is how they operate…. Fascist techniques are identical everywhere: the presence of a charismatic leader; the use of populism to motivate the masses; the designation of the base group as victims (of crises, or elites, or of foreigners); and the direction of all resentment toward an “enemy”. Fascism has no need for a [small “d”] democratic party with members who are individually responsible; it needs an inspiring and authoritative leader who is believed to have superior instincts (making decisions that don’t require supporting arguments), a faction leader who can be obeyed and followed by the masses [83-84].

Sound familiar?

A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer and More Efficient Tax System by T. R. Reid

The journalist T. R. Reid argues that America’s national tax system is a disaster, but we could fix it if we started over and adopted the best ideas about taxation from other countries. According to Reid, better systems of taxation are based on the BBLR model, i.e. they tax as much as possible (a “Broad Base”) but at rates that are as low as possible (“Low Rates”). So, instead of allowing lots of deductions and exemptions and credits, as we do now, we should simply tax all income. But since more income would be subject to taxation, the government could lower tax rates for everyone. Because their rates would be lower, fewer people and businesses would hire lawyers and accountants in order to avoid taxes. Business decisions and personal decisions would no longer be made on the basis of what taxes would be owed. In addition, filing a tax return would be much simpler than it is today.

Reid cites New Zealand as the country with the best tax system in the world. They once had a complicated tax system like ours, but were able to revamp the whole thing, following the BBLR model. He also argues for the adoption of a VAT (Value Added Tax), a kind of sales tax that every advanced country but the United States currently applies (one benefit of a VAT is that it’s hard to evade).

Some of the ideas Reid proposes would be acceptable, in theory, to both liberals and conservatives. But he admits that overcoming opposition from special interests and taxpayers who benefit from the system’s complexity would be a big challenge. For example, he recommends eliminating the deductions for charitable donations, local taxes and mortgage interest. I assume he would eliminate medical deductions as well. No doubt some taxpayers would end up paying more, while some would pay less. But we would have a system of taxation that was simpler, fairer and more efficient.

Given the benefits, it seems like the United States should do something like this. Given the craziness of the Republican Party, it seems unlikely that we ever will.