Every day we are breathlessly told about unprecedented polarization, extremist political rhetoric, even a looming civil war. There is a destructive self-filling prophecy to all the doomsaying, because democracy functions only if people believe in it.
But let’s look at some recent data points. If we step back from the trees for a moment and assess the condition of the forest, we can see that our system of liberal democracy is actually holding up pretty darn well. (I don’t mean the partisan term “liberal” but the classical one.)
We are the beneficiaries of the centuries of thought, energy and struggle it took to create the political structures needed for liberal democracy: representative institutions, the rule of law, human rights, an independent judiciary. Liberal democracy has produced the most prosperous, pluralistic, free societies in history.
Yes, liberalism has also been responsible for enslavement, genocide, and colonization. But, tragically, these have been perpetual human conditions and liberalism has provided the means to finally transcend them. The alternatives to liberalism – theocracy, strong-man rule, revolutionary utopia – have been disasters.
The good news starts with the January 6 Committee hearings. Their loudest message was not Donald Trump’s anti-democratic scheming, but the continuing vigor of our system.
Recklessly wielding all the presidential levers of power, Trump battered at every link in the chain binding together our democracy – the courts, state legislatures and election officials, the Department of Justice, the vice president. Every link held firm.
The latest major political events showcase our system’s elegant design. James Madison, perhaps history’s greatest practical psychologist, constructed our peculiarly American version of liberal democracy from a frustrating array of competing branches and levels of government. The system is biased toward inaction rather than impetuous action and demands compromise on small steps of perpetual improvement.
For example, there is a growing consensus in America that climate change is real and must be addressed. But the original Build Back Better bill was a progressive wish list whose $3.5 trillion original price-tag alarmed much of the public. The hard work of legislating put the new Inflation Reduction Act on more durable democratic footing by cutting three quarters of the cost and focusing more on climate change – a classic liberal half-loaf.
Then there is federalism. There has long been widespread support in this country for abortion rights in the early stages of pregnancy and some restrictions later on. But the Supreme Court has badly fumbled the abortion issue by flopping back and forth. Now at the state level the referendum process, starting with Kansas, may better legitimize abortion law by letting voters, rather than judges or political partisans, decide the matter for themselves.
The FBI search of Mar-a-Lago confirms that the rule of law excepts no one. The White House did not even know about the search, and even if it had engineered it, the warrant had to be approved by an independent judicial officer. And the Justice Department is still helpless against the former president, or any citizen, unless it can convince 12 citizen jurors of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
In his book defending liberalism, “A Thousand Small Sanities,” New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik warns that one of problems of liberalism is that it can’t be reduced to a slogan.
On the other hand, the alternatives to liberalism, which usually involve some variety of we/they tribalism, have thrived on slogans. “For God, King, and Country!” “Power to the people!” But simplistic slogans invariably run into complex problems that can only be solved in small, liberal steps.
A bookend to the recent accomplishments of our liberal democracy is the demise of a cluster of tribal slogans in favor of those small steps.
The “good guys with guns,” and uniforms too, didn’t stop the bad guy with a gun in Uvalde for 77 minutes. And so, for the first time in 30 years a group of Republicans helped pass modest, imperfect gun violence legislation.
“Defund the police” lost its luster as murder rates escalated and downtown streets became depopulated and dangerous. And so, the country’s most progressive city fired its public defender-turned-district attorney.
“Stop the steal” no longer sounds so cool since the January 6 Committee conclusively showed that Donald Trump scammed a lot of good Americans. And so, a bi-partisan group of senators has proposed a limited reform of the Electoral Count Act.
Despite the torrent of extreme views buffeting us, most Americans hold fast to the liberal ideals of reasoned debate and incremental progress.
The latest Gallup poll shows that 41% of Americans now consider themselves independents – 13 points higher than Republicans or Democrats. And only about 20% are ideologues.
The survey data on the attitudes of Americans reveal not only moderation, but quite practical views even about even the most contentious issues. For example, large majorities of Americans agree that hate speech is a problem in America today, but they also view political correctness as an issue. Big majorities think America should accept refugees, but two-thirds also believe that the screening process should be more rigorous.
A large majority of Americans agree that problems of racism are at least somewhat serious and that white supremacists are a growing threat. On the other hand, over two-thirds of Americans say that many people are too sensitive about things to do with race.
The political influence of these practical American moderates is likely to grow. The share of unaffiliated voters is larger among younger people. And as more states join the 22 that now open their primaries to unaffiliated voters, primary voters will better mirror the broader electorate.
Undoubtedly, liberalism is undergoing a severe stress test. But, heaven willing, the reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Bruce Peterson, a senior district judge who teaches a course on Lawyers as Peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School.