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The mission of the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership is to expand the public understanding of the important role of leadership at all levels of political and civic life.

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Constitution Day Essay

CONSTITUTION DAY INVITED LECTURE AT LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY SHREVEPORT

DELIVERED IN 2018 AND REVISED 2021

 

THE DARKENING HOUR:
CELEBRATING THE CONSTITUTION AND FACING THE CHALLENGE OF SOULLESS DEMOCRACY 

 

Norman Provizer

Professor of Political Science and Director of the Golda Meir Center for Political Leadership
Metropolitan State University of Denver

In the Summer 1989 issue of The National Interest, political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an article that would have much more than 15 minutes worth of fame. In fact, the 18-page piece by Fukuyama, then deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff carried the provocative title “The End of History?” and it continues to resonate in the world of politics today, more than three decades after it first appeared.

Simply stated, Fukuyama, following a theme explored by Hegel (as well as others who followed such as Marx and Alexandre Kojève), argued that at this point in history (1989) history itself might well be at its end in the sense that we had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In an article marking the magazine’s 175th birthday, The Economist put it this way, “Were a single document to mark the high-point of liberal-world-order hubris, it would surely be ‘The End of History?’, an essay written by Francis Fukuyama, an American academic, in 1989.”

In the “By Way of Introduction” to his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man that eliminated the question mark found in the original The National Interest article, Fukuyama again referred to the fact “that a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a system of government that had emerged throughout the world over the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism.” Of course, Fukuyama had some caveats in place. For example he writes, “While some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primitive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the idea of liberal democracy could not be improved on.”

Events would certainly continue to occur: What would end is history “understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process.” Liberal democracy’s focus on liberty and equality are not points in history, but history’s end, based, in Fukuyama’s view, on both economics and the very human “struggle for recognition.”  Just about a decade later, in The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution published in 2011, Fukuyama continued along this path pointing out that in the 40 years from 1970 until 2010 “an enormous upsurge in the number of democracies around the world” had occurred. In 1973, of 151 countries, 45 carried the democracy label according to Freedom House. By the late 1990s, some 120 countries carried the electoral democracy nametag. At the beginning of the 21st century, in Fukuyama’s words, the concept of “liberal democracy as the default form of government became part of the accepted political landscape.”

Not surprisingly, despite the caveats issued by Fukuyama, “the end of history” theme stirred up considerable criticism and debate, both direct and indirect. In 2003, Fareed Zakaria produced The Future of Freedom that carried the subtitle Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad. That theme of illiberal democracy would only grow in use in the decades that would follow, calling into question exactly what has ended. As we celebrate the American Constitution each year, we need to restate that difference between a liberal, constitutional order that emphasizes freedom and Tocqueville-style equality and an illiberal one that, outside of formal elections, presents us with what we might call soulless democracy – democracy with its soul of the freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and legal system, the avoidance of an overconcentration of power, individual liberty and minority rights, tolerance and an overall commitment to the rule of law removed without remorse. Soulless democracy is a so-called democracy that lives under an authoritarian thumb in which a high-minded label covers an autocratic-oriented reality.

While every one likes to use the democratic label, over the years Freedom House has provided a system that allows for the measurement of claims of freedom against the reality of its existence. Here, the 2018 report from that organization carries the straight-ahead title of “Democracy in Crisis.” In the Report’s words: “Political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade in 2017, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the United States’ withdrawal from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom.”  As the Economist Intelligence Unit reports, “more than half of the 167 countries surveyed in 2017 were slipping backwards” when it came to measurements of democracy. “The backsliders included America where the president [then Donald Trump] seems to prefer dictators to democrats.”

At the end of the Cold War 25 years ago, the Report continues, “it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the 20th century. Today it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.” In The Coming Anarchy, Robert Kaplan wrote in 2000: “We are entering a bifurcated world. Part of the globe is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well-fed, and pampered by technology. The other larger part is inhabited by Hobbes’s First Man, condemned to a life that is “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  Today, however, in terms of the challenges to liberal, constitutional democracy, the First Man is not alone. The Last Man is there as well. Who would have imagined that in its 2018 Report, Freedom House would list the United States as a country to watch due to the efforts being made to undermine the legitimacy of both the media and the judiciary.

Little wonder that in his 2015 book Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy, Fukuyama writes in an “Afterword”: “It is impossible to know at this point whether the current period is something like a stock market correction, in which the longer-term trend toward spreading liberal democracy has been momentarily interrupted, or whether it represents a more fundamental turning away.” A turning away, favored by China’s President Xi Jinping who advocates, as Fukuyama notes, “blazing a new trail” for the developing world to follow. A path of politicized courts, intolerance for dissent and elections that are essentially predetermined. A path, perhaps save for the later, that has clearly entered the developed world as well, relative to the resurgent, right wing, “populist” movements in Europe along with reviving the long dormant “America First” sentiment in the United States.

This reemergence of the strongman mentality has been fueled by what Mark Lilla in The Shipwrecked Mind refers to as “the spirit of reaction.” A spirit that has inspired political movements for two centuries to counter the revolutionary spirit capturing social thought. Lilla writes, “Reactionaries are not conservatives.” For them, harmony existed in some past state. “Then alien ideas promoted by intellectuals – writers, journalists, professors – challenge this harmony and the will to maintain order weakens at the top.” To the Shipwrecked Mind, according to Lilla, the betrayal of elites is always at the center of every reactionary tale. “Only those who have preserved memories of the old ways see what is happening. Whether the society reverses direction or rushes to its doom depends entirely on their resistance. Today political Islamists, European nationalists, and the American right tell their ideological children essentially the same tale.” While others see “the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile.” And his motivator becomes irrefutable nostalgia.

As for Fukuyama, he certainly does not abandon the idea of the impact that broad social forces have on historical trends. But he also notes that social forces are not alone. There are also individual leaders and political actors, he writes, “who interact and collectively shape the evolution of institutions.” Ironically, in populist politics, those leaders and actors frequently play a disproportionate role. Today when we talk of the rise of autocratic politics of the populist kind, we do so in terms of the rise of a list of individual leaders. Huey Long in the 1930s and Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s remind us of that basic point. And in her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning, the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright cites George Orwell saying that the best single word definition of Fascism is the word “bully.” A word that sounds all too familiar in the current American political context.

One can certainly argue, along with Fukuyama, that starting in the second decade of the 21st century a  “malaise in the democratic world” emerged that took several forms. And in considering that malaise, one must also recognize the ongoing appeal of bully politics – an appeal that continues despite it running counter to the key elements that make up liberal democracy’s soul.

Stanford University business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer provides the context for this in a Fortune magazine article titled “Everything We Bash Donald Trump for Is Actually What We Seek in Leaders” and the 2015 book Leadership BS that followed. Despite running counter to what leadership experts promote, Pfeffer claims that “Trump actually embodies many of the leadership qualities that cause people to succeed.” As Pfeffer puts it, narcissism (at least of the non-malignant type), rather than modesty is frequently the best path to gaining the keys to the kingdom of the real world even though that path may contain potholes filled with big lies. As Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, the masses of people, “in view of the primitive simplicity of their minds, they more easily fall a victim to a big lie than to a little one, since they themselves lie in little things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big. Such a falsehood will never enter their heads, and they will not be able to believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentation in others; yes, even when enlightened on the subject, they will long doubt and waver.” And they will continue to accept the lies constantly repeated as if they were truths.

You must, from this perspective, understand how the world works before you can set out to effectively change it. And part of that understanding is found in the title of Jean Lipmen-Blumen’s 2005 book The Allure of Toxic Leaders. Even when faced with toxic leaders’ most destructive behaviors, our search for security (often at the expense of freedom), for certainty and for a feeling of specialness can lead us to fall in line behind them. The search for demigods, heroic or otherwise to save us, in short, can blind us to the price we will have to pay for empowering them.

A leader’s personality quite naturally is part of the leadership equation, but a cult build around personality is something quite different, running as it does on a track that is completely opposed to the track of constitutional democracy. All of this brings up the uncomfortable fact that, at this juncture, we are no longer speaking about constitutional democracy’s ongoing conquest of the globe, but rather about the most sobering of questions concerning How Democracies Die (to borrow the title of Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s 2018 book on the subject).

In discussing the new forms of authoritarianism emerging in the current context and its willingness to kill democracy slowly, Levitsky and Ziblatt remind us that beyond a written constitution constitutional democracy is supported by critical norms: the two key ones being mutual toleration (accepting your opponents as legitimate) and forebearance (restraint and self-control). For the authors, these are the “soft guard rails” of American Democracy that protect the words in the Constitution. Without those guard rails, staying on the proper constitutional path is a questionable proposition. In contrast, the key indicators of authoritarian behavior, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt go in a very different direction: Deny the legitimacy of opponents; reject the democratic rules of the game and the rule of law; be ready to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media; and tolerate or encourage violence. When you do these things and label anyone or anything that differs with you as an “enemy of the People” you are knocking on death’s door for constitutional democracy.

In a 2018 book edited by Mark Gaber, Stanford Levinson and Mark Tushnet (Constitutional Democracy in Crisis?), the author’s dedication is telling: “To those around the world resisting the slide away from constitutional democracy.” It is a dedication that reinforces the idea that constitutional democracy appears to be in trouble around the globe, including the United States. The essays in this volume revolve around questions of the weakening of the very foundations of constitutional democracy and the lack of growth of constitutional democracy. Beyond that what is truly frightening is the idea noted in an 2018 article by Michael Massing in The Nation that, ‘’Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism.”

In fact, the list of current day phrases describing the state of democracy helps illuminate much of this story. Those phrases include, “Democracy in retreat,” democratic recession,” democratic backsliding,” democratic deconsolidation,” “constitutional retrogression,” “Constitutional failure” and “Constitutional rot.” Thus there is no surprise in Jan-Werner Müller’s comment in his 2016 book What Is Populism? – despite the enormous benefits it has delivered, “all is not well for democracy.”

Müller goes on to write, “The danger to democracies today is not some comprehensive ideology that systematically denies democratic ideals. The danger is populism – a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals (“Let the people rule!”). The danger comes, in other words, from within the democratic world – the political actors posing the danger speak the language of democratic values. That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly antidemocratic should trouble us all – and demonstrate the need for nuanced political judgment to help us determine precisely where democracy ends and populist peril begins.”

That peril comes in the form of autocratic leaders, who worship strongmen and the practices of malignant narcissists. Such leaders, quite obviously, can be found across the entire political spectrum, though the concern with Europe and America today produces a focus on the populist right that has even reactivated (rightly or not) the use of the term Fascism.

In his more recent book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Fukuyama states without qualification that, “This book would not have been written had Donald J. Trump not been elected president in November 2016.” The 45th President’s pursuit of economic nationalism, blood-and-soil national identity and an attraction to authoritarian strongmen over democratic allies have led Albright to note that “we have not had a chief executive in the modern era whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals.”

In the American case, the trend into the future is not quite determined. After all, of the some 135 million votes cast in 2016 presidential election, the simple fact remains that if approximately 39,000 people properly distributed across three states had cast their ballots for a different candidate, Electoral College outcome would have made the loser in the election the winner, resulting in an Electoral College victory that was in line actually with the popular vote. Under those circumstances, we might well have left the idea of soulless democracy armed with slogans and simple answers to even the most complex issues locked in the closet for now.

But the closest door is open, though the 2020 election did offer a path to once again close it, and if we wish to keep honoring the Constitution on Constitution Day and to face the very real challenges posed by soulless democracy, we must honestly recognize where we are today untainted by a myth of an alternate truth universe. Part of that recognition comes in the form of distinguishing between those in a democracy who are, in the words of Robert McClosky and Alida Brillon, impeled “to honor and protect the liberties of others” and those who “assail the rights of those with whom they disagree and honor obedience, orthodoxy, and conformity over freedom.” In the 1983, data-filled study Dimensions of Tolerance, penned by McClosky and Brillon, the picture presented is one in which, “Individuals who, through any channel, have greater access to the articulate culture, or who enjoy opportunities to interact with informed, well-educated, and more ‘worldly’ people are more likely to comprehend the case for tolerance and the arguments against intolerance.”

Additionally, they write, “Narrow social and intellectual perspectives, insularity, distance from the cultural mainstreams, ignorance of the varieties of human experience and subcultures and an incapacity (whether socially or psychologically induced) to identify with people perceived as ‘different’ tend to beget intolerance.” Also, they remind us that, “People who cherish the exploration and exchange of ideas and who are greatly concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, are especially responsive to civil libertarian values.“ Toleration is a leaned behavior and it is a behavior we had better learn well in order to face the challenges before us as we move toward the third decade of the 21st century. Tolerance also begets progress. As the 175th anniversary essay in The Economist points out, the 50 largest urban concentrations across the globe generate 40 per cent of the world’s gross product.

Of course, one might argue, as does Amy Chua in her 2018 book Political Tribes that this view simply forgets that during the 2016 election “the most important tribal identity missed by America’s elites was the powerful antiestablishment identity forming within the working class that helped elect Donald Trump.” They did not see it coming and, “Even today, the tribal politics behind President’s Trump’s election still baffles many.” But, in her words, “What these elites don’t see is that Trump, in terms of taste, sensibilities, and values, actually is similar to the white working class. The tribal instinct is all about self-identification, and Trump’s base identifies with him at a gut-level: with the way he talks (locker room), dresses, shoots from the hip, gets caught making mistakes, and gets attacked over and over by the liberal media for not being politically correct, for not being feminist enough, for not reading enough books.”

Yet, the long-standing virtues of leadership, as Fukuyama notes in Identity, “basic honesty, reliability, sound judgment, devotion to the public interest, and an underlying moral compass” are completely absent, replaced during the Trump administration by the politics of self-promotion that cares little about the foundation stones upon which liberal, constitutional democracy is constructed. Now, it is up to the people to choose – and the fate of true democracy awaits that decision.

In a 2018 issue of The Atlantic, that has a cover that asks “Is Democracy Dying?” David Frum  writes, “The road to autocracy is long – which means we still have time to halt and turn back. It also means that longer we wait the further we must travel to return home.” In an early meaning of leadership, it is the task of leaders to show their people the way home. Today that means the way to return to the practice of democracy with its soul intact. In short, whether the election of 2024 follows the path paved in 2016 or that followed in 2020. Much depends on the answer we, the People, deliver to that question.