American Democracy is in No Imminent Danger

by Benjamin Studebaker

In 2014, I finished an MA thesis at the University of Chicago. In that thesis, I argued that as economic inequality increased, American politics would return to the sharp political divisions of the 1930s, with both left-wing and right-wing radical movements popping up all over the place. Recently, I finished a PhD thesis at the University of Cambridge. In that thesis, I argued that while economic inequality does cause legitimation problems, those problems are fundamentally different in kind from the problems of the 1930s. I reversed my position from 2014, and I did so even as most people in the American media and intelligentsia arrived at the position which I formerly held. If I stuck by my old position from 2014, it would be advantageous to my career development. There is increasingly a lot of appetite for expert accounts which play up the threat Donald Trump poses to democracy. Any well-credentialed political theorist or political scientist who can compellingly tell stories about executive coups from the 20th century and draw parallels to Trump can now sell many books without much trouble. The issue is that these parallels are rubbish. Here’s why.

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The 2020s are different from the 1930s in the following ways:

  1. In the 30s, there was a collapse in capital mobility, reducing economic interdependence and enabling individual countries to experiment with very different economic models. In the 20s, capital is more mobile than ever, and any attempt to break out of the global trade system risks disrupting supply chains and producing stagflation.
  2. In the 30s, there were many robust kinds of civil society organizations. These served as incubation centers for new values and ideologies, and they also organized adherents into cohesive forces that could make substantive political interventions. Over the last 50 years, many of these organizations have declined, and most which remain are smaller, less well-organized, and less connected to mainstream discourse. Instead, there are many small, isolated bubbles of alienated people with few resources or political skills. The universities are larger and more influential than they were in the 30s, but they are also thoroughly liberal and democratic in orientation.
  3. In the 30s, communism and fascism were new and unproven, and there were many people who genuinely believed these systems might be superior to liberal democracy. Today, both “communist” and “fascist” are terms of abuse, and the communist and fascist states which were held up as examples in the 30s have collapsed.
  4. In the 30s, millions of people had recently fought in World War I, and millions more would soon be fighting in World War II. Warfare and violence were not just a normal part of politics, but a normal part of people’s lives, and many ordinary citizens were comfortable with using lethal force.
  5. In the 30s, many democracies were young, and many adults had been born and educated in authoritarian states. Democratic values were not baked in. Today, almost everyone who lives in the United States was taught that American democracy is the greatest system in the world from a very early age.

If you start combining these things together, you’ll see how they create two very different pictures. In the 1930s, you have lots of well-equipped civil society organizations inspired by the examples of the Soviet Union and Mussolini’s Italy. Many of the people in these civil society organizations have served in wars and are comfortable with killing other people in the service of grand causes. Many were nostalgic for a youth spent in the Kaiserreich, or Austria-Hungary, or Tsarist Russia. When communists and fascists did come to power, they were able to quickly reconfigure their national economies. The lack of capital mobility made it easy for them to seize private capital without worrying about capital moving abroad. This meant these movements could credibly deliver change.

These days, none of it goes through. The solutions which were new and untried in the 30s are tired and outdated now, and they have not been replaced by credible new approaches. The organizations which built strength for those once-compelling ideas are weak now, unable to generate new ideas or to effectively organize those few people who are genuinely interested in radical change. The handfuls of people who want to try radical things are much less accustomed to violence than the people of the 1930s. They play at violence, and lack the military skills their counterparts had. Military strategy has also shifted since the 30s–technology has dramatically reduced the relevance of infantry, and even well-trained citizens with small arms are of much less concern to the state now than they would have been then. The schools teach young people that our system is exceptional and the greatest in the world. Even when would-be radicals do get elected in our country, intense capital mobility restricts their ability to experiment economically, and thus their ability to deliver change. Without sharp, discernible changes, it’s hard to motivate people to put themselves at risk for a political movement, especially people who are unaccustomed to military service and habituated to the idea that democracy is a mandatory feature of good government.

Today’s radicals are poorly organized. They don’t have the resources to challenge the state. They don’t enjoy the support of the military and intelligence officials who do, in theory, possess the resources that would be necessary to challenge the state. Their ideology is incoherent, and they have no compelling countries they can point to as examples of better governance. They don’t have the civil society organizations they would need to solve these problems. They’re divided and stuck on the internet, screaming loudly at each other, jockeying for discursive primacy over movements without the material resources or compelling narrative to prevail.

From time to time, they show up in different parts of our country and stage protests. Bits and pieces of them try to escalate the protests into riots, and sometimes they succeed in harming people or destroying property, but they have no ability to take the state, much less hold it.

Consider even the vaunted capitol protesters. Most of these protesters claim they are protesting not because they want to abolish the democratic system, but because they want to save it from what they allege was election fraud. Most of them are confused and misinformed about the election rather than hostile to the system. Of the estimated 30,000 people who attended the rally, some couple hundred got into the building. Most of the people who entered the building had no idea what to do when they got there, and were shocked to have made it inside. A handful hoped to do harm to our legislators, but they were easily outfoxed by the capitol police, who got everyone to safety in the blink of an eye. There were tens of millions of Trump voters, tens of thousands of demonstrators, hundreds of people in the capitol building, and a handful with genuinely harmful intentions. These were a minority within a minority within a minority within a minority.

What would they have done if they had managed to harm the legislators? They could not expect the military to help them. The troops prefer Biden to Trump, and our generals and intelligence officials loathe the president. Some online have suggested that Trump could declare martial law and use this to prevent Biden’s inauguration, but there’s absolutely no reason to think the military would carry out these orders. As I write, the national security establishment is using cell phone data to track down and arrest participants. These are the very people whose support Trump would require to take the state.

These days, protests and riots have more in common with the peasant revolts of antiquity than they do with the coups and revolutions of a century ago. When the peasants go to war, they never win. They are never well-organized enough, and their weapons and training are always far too inferior to give them any chance at all. Despite this, peasant revolts can go on for a long time and cause a lot of devastation. But there is never really any danger of the rebels taking the state and holding it. The question isn’t whether the peasants will win, but how the elites will respond to them. Will they try to solve the underlying problems that caused the peasants to rebel, or will they treat the peasant revolt as evidence that authority needs to be stronger and more intimidating? What stories will the elites use the peasants to tell, and how will they weaponize the peasants to further their own ambitions?

So far, our elite has been remarkably unreflective about how to respond both to the protests of this past summer and the protests of this past month. In both cases, the parties used photos and videos to paint the protesters positively or negatively as they saw fit. In both cases, the parties used the protesters to frighten people, dramatically exaggerating the threats protesters pose. In neither case did anyone think to do anything to reduce social tension or to pass any reforms which might help our people live more stable lives, freed from the stress that leads them to act out. Instead elites have exacerbated the tension for their own gain and fanned fear at every opportunity. They do this not because they are scared of protesters, but because they are not scared. They know that the state is not at risk, and therefore they are free to use protesters as pawns in their own political narratives.

We keep subjecting our people to more and more rapid social and economic change. We keep forcing them to changes jobs, to move homes, to worry about their futures. We have gradually eroded the organizations that used to help them form healthy friendships and take part in their communities. They struggle to earn living wages, to pay bills, to keep their businesses alive, to survive the crippling isolation of coronavirus. They’re frustrated, and they feel cornered.

The peasants can’t win, but they can cause trouble. They will keep voting erratically for increasingly strange and bizarre political figures. These candidates have little understanding of social problems or capital mobility. They can’t get the kind of results which might win over the constituencies they need to establish a power base within elite institutions, but they can offer disgruntled folks the catharsis of feeling seen or aesthetically represented. If the elites cannot even offer that much, they will continue to now and then suffer the indignity of losing to vulgar rogues. But that’s all it is, for the time being–an indignity.

It might eventually be more than that, but a real threat would require the emergence of fundamentally different conditions. Ordinary Americans would have to start believing that the founders were wrong, that there are better systems out there. There would need to be a credible regime alternative. They’d have to start advocating for alternative systems–like those that prevail in China and Russia. This simply isn’t how our Republican friends think. They are out there protesting because they’re worried about the integrity of the elections. In worrying about the elections, they’re worrying about the health of democracy. They are worrying because elites have misinformed them, but the fact that these elites can only get them to protest the election by making them worry about whether the election was legitimate emphasizes the degree to which ordinary Republicans are still committed to elections and to democracy as we know it.