Home / General / Yes, Trump is a Threat to Liberal Democracy. And You Should be Worried.

Yes, Trump is a Threat to Liberal Democracy. And You Should be Worried.


On Friday, the The New York Times published an opinion piece by Samuel Moyn and David Priestland entitled “Trump isn’t a Threat to Our Democracy. Hysteria Is.” The article has been generating a fair amount of chatter in my social-media circles. I find the piece kind of odd. Over on the Twitters, Yascha Mounk argues that it “dismantles a very strawy straw man,” and I think that’s a pretty good characterization. Given my own concerns about ongoing democratic backsliding in the United States—and the risk that Trump will worsen it both at home and abroad—I feel compelled to weigh in.

Moyn and Prieston argue, in essence, that the threat to US democratic institutions posed by Trump is relatively low and that an excessive focus on defending freedom and liberty will distract from solving the underlying economic problems that enabled Trump’s brand of right-wing populism to capture the White House.

Tyrannophobia, the belief that the overwhelmingly important political issue is the threat to our liberal freedoms and institutions, has always been a powerful force in the United States. As history has shown, however, its tendency to redirect our attention from underlying social and economic problems has often been the real source of danger. It is easier to believe that democracy is under siege than to acknowledge that democracy put Mr. Trump in power — and only more economic fairness and solidarity can keep populists like him out.

There’s a lot of slippage here, including between concepts like “liberal freedom and institutions” and “democracy.” This matters. A lot. It might be that a significant percentage of the American population thinks that Trump is going to suspend the Constitution, abolish Congress, and declare himself President for Life. But, at least in academic and policy circles, the biggest fear about Trump concerns moving the country toward illiberal democracy. As Valerie Bunce and Mark Beissinger noted back in November:

During the interwar years and the Cold War, democracy tended to end through military coups or declarations of national emergency. By contrast, contemporary would-be autocrats have played a more subtle game, undermining democracy from within. Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties

These worries do not even depend on Trump having some grand authoritarian design. They simply require a self-serving, thin-skinned, individual with autocratic dispositions to occupy the most powerful position in the most powerful democracy in the world: someone who, for example, will demonize opponents, vilify the free press while genuflecting toward the use of economic carrots and sticks to shape coverage to his liking, dispense with conflict of interest rules and norms, and fan the flames of extremism for personal gain. In other words, Trump’s ‘standard operating procedure’ is itself pretty dangerous. Mix in other steps, such as turning the Executive Branch into an ally of—rather than a check against—voter suppression, and I don’t think it requries much imagination to see the threat as very real.

So what do Moyn and Priestland have to say about this?

The initial fearful reaction to Mr. Trump’s election was understandable. He cut a new figure in recent politics. His indefensible slurs against his fellow citizens and offensive plans for the weak were a shock. His frequent breaches of political norms seemed to pose an imminent hazard for democracy. They may have been too chaotic to be truly sinister, but the danger seemed clear and present.

A little more than six months into the Trump presidency, though, it now seems clear that the most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States are empty or easily contained. Starting with the Trump administration’s original version of the travel ban, the president’s most outrageous policies have been successfully obstructed, leaving largely those that any Republican president would have implemented through executive order. The menace the commander in chief poses to the world, as his impulsive warning to North Korea suggested, may be another matter. But there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.

Working backwards, and at the risk of repetition, the idea that Trump would “seize power unconstitutionally” is simply not the preomdinate fear among analysts. My strong suspicion is that it is also not the major concern among liberal and progressive political activists. Regardless, it really is a “strawy straw man” when weighing Trump’s threat to liberal democracy.

Moreover, Moyn and Priestland have a strangely static view of the next 4-8 years. Yes, federal courts whittled down much of the travel ban. But three members of the Supreme Court were ready to approve the full ban, including Trump’s own appointment, Neil Gorsuch. It is entirely possible that, within a single term, Trump could select a replacement for Kennedy and at least one of the center-left justices. That would, in all likelihood, create a majority willing to sign off on policies like the travel ban.

Keep in mind that the Supreme Court already has a majority willing to roll back minority voting rights, empower plutocrats in the electoral process, and otherwise tilt the playing field toward the GOP. Now factor in the one area where the Trump administration has seen enormous success: lower-court judicial appointments. This is starting to look an awful lot like the recipe for hybrid regimes, no?

Finally, any account of the Trump administration’s consequences for liberal democracy must consider its efforts to remove the United States entirely from the democracy-promotion, human-rights, and overseas rule-of-law games. We are, for the first time since the end of World War II, facing an international system without a great power that even bothers to be a hypocrite on these issues. This could, as Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue, have serious implications for global liberal democracy.

Moyn and Priestland continue:

There is certainly evidence of Russian interference in the election, and the hacking of the Democratic National Committee is serious. But that hardly amounts to a long-term design on American democracy from some kind of fifth column, backed by Moscow’s “Authoritarian International” and propagated by fake news. Even if it were true that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is attempting an illiberal putsch, he is still far from achieving this goal. Paranoia alone explains why fear that the republic is in imminent danger has been the dominant response.

I know this is a short editorial in a national newspaper, but I’m not sure I would dismiss the real prospect of collusion—even in the nudge-nudge-wink-wink form we saw play out on television—between Russia and the Trump campaign quite so glibly. I certainly think the valence of this paragraph changes if we abandon the straw man of “tyrannophobia” that Moyn and Prieston offer. Beyond this, to the extent that Moscow’s information warfare played a causal role in Trump’s election, it’s already done more damage to the ‘liberal order’—including America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships—than Russia could ever hope to do via standard instruments of power politics. This doesn’t represent an existential threat to the survival of the United States, but it’s certainly bad for US national interests.

So why is paranoia a bigger threat than Trump? They write:

The sky is not falling and no lights are flashing red, but Americans have nonetheless embraced a highly charged, counterproductive way of thinking about politics as a “new Cold War” between democracy and totalitarianism. The works of Hannah Arendt and George Orwell have risen on the best-seller charts. Every news story produces fear and trembling.

History raises serious doubts about how helpful this tyrannophobic focus on catastrophe, fake news and totalitarianism really is in dealing with the rise of the populist right, of which this bumbling hothead of a president is a symptom. Excessive focus on liberal fundamentals, like basic freedoms or the rule of law, could prove self-defeating. By postponing serious efforts to give greater priority to social justice, tyrannophobia treats warning signs as a death sentence, while allowing the real disease to fester.

If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve. This approach to politics threatens to widen the already yawning gulf between liberal groups and their opponents, while distracting from the deeply rooted forces that have been fueling right-wing populist politics, notably economic inequalities and status resentments.

The anti-communist politics in the United States of the early 1950s were rooted in assumptions that had much in common with those of anti-Trumpism today. There was, it was claimed, a serious risk to liberal democracy from American subversion within, in alliance with the Russians without, peddling seductive untruths. Other goals — like the creation of a more just and equal society — had to take second place to the country’s military posture.

Ironically, many who rallied to the anti-tyranny banner were liberals of a “vital center” who did so out of sincere belief in the need to create an American welfare state. Yet focusing on exaggerated threats to freedom and stigmatizing the communist enemy undermined their progressive goals. National Security Council Report 68 of 1950, for example, argued that the Cold War justified the reduction of nonmilitary expenditure by the “deferment of certain desirable programs,” including welfare. And while the New Deal was not dismantled, efforts to extend it — which still seemed a real possibility in Harry Truman’s early years in office — were denounced as pink tyranny, boosting state power at the expense of democracy. Casualties included attempts to create a national health care program. The consequences for American politics have been momentous.

On Twitter, Moyn comments on Mounk’s criticisms (which I echo many of here) by describing this piece as a “an attack on the empirical homogenization of unlike cases-an ’empiricism’ driving unhelpful alarm about US democracy’s collapse.” This strikes me as a bit ironic, given that the entire comparative logic here derives from the 1950s.

First, the net effects of the Cold War on domestic progressive causes are far from clear. Yes, it gave us McCarthyism, but Truman integrated the armed forces in the year following the crystallization of the Cold War. The negative effects of Jim Crow on America’s international image likely helped, rather than hurt, the cause of Civil Rights. The 1960s brought Medicare and Medicaid. Without the Cold War would the United States have universal health care, more progressive taxation, and more progressive policies over all? Maybe. But it’s a hugely complicated counterfactual to rest this argument on. At the very least, I’d like to see a deeper analysis of the causal role of anti-communist sentiment in derailing Truman’s health-care plan than provided in the link that they supply.

For what it’s worth, my own view is that the dissolution of the Cold War consensus probably made domestic political polarization worse while taking pressure off of Republicans to care about the attractiveness of the American political-economic model.

Second, Russia is a regional power with nuclear weapons, not a global competitor. It is very difficult to imagine a US-Russia repeat of the particular stew of existential rivalry that marked the 1950s and early 1960s, in which the future of mankind seemed to be on the line, and which led to the diversion of massive resources away from domestic priorities.

Third, Russia is not a communist state. It is rather implausible to suggest that, even if America were to succumb to a McCarthyite hysteria, it would take the form of “the United States can’t expand the welfare state, because that would forward the goals of Soviet communism.” Contemporary Russia is an example of inequality and kleptocracy—that is, precisely the kinds of things that progressives should, if we really need to go there, welcome a backlash against.

In some respects, the threat of anti-democratic forces might force efforts to address economic inequality, not distract from it—a point made by an undergraduate on the Mounk-Moyn thread:

The problems with the Cold War analogy just compound as the essay continues:

The absolute priority given to liberal fundamentals also promoted serious misunderstandings of the rest of the world. Capitalism (though not democracy) had to be defended at all costs, while foreigners were commonly viewed as subject to brainwashing, manipulation and mass irrationality — just what we fear today in the United States itself. And while those assumptions led to terrible mistakes and cost millions of lives in American military interventions, the end of the Cold War only reinforced the tyrannophobic worldview in an even purer form — now including liberal democracy and even freer markets.

My only prior comment on the piece, over on Facebook, was “if we focus on protecting democratic institutions, we’ll get McCarthyism? Wut?” The problem here isn’t simply that the supposed “tyrannophobia” of the liberal and left (nor that of the “vital center”, were we to successfully reconstitute it) operates in a geopolitical and ideological context completely different from that of the 1950s. It’s that the closest analogy to McCarthyism—a xenophobic, paranoid movement that argues for defending democratic sovereignty by adopting illiberal means—has a serious foothold in the Trump administration.

Put simply, the politics of Trumpism—the same politics that threaten democratic backsliding—also threaten to create the conditions that scare Moyn and Priestland. It’s not Russiophobia, or overwrought forms of anti-communism, that we need to worry about it. It’s Islamophobia and white ethnonationalism. Their diagnoses is completely wrong. Liberal and left-wing “tyrannophobes” are, as far as the analogy has any purchase, mobilizing against a replay of the 1950s—but, this time, the intellectual descendants of the Birchers are inside the Executive Branch.

They continue:

The rude awakening has been a long time coming, and even now has not fully occurred. The 2008 financial crisis failed to dent the political establishment’s complacency, even though it had become very clear that market-friendly policies were helping to destroy the social mobility and economic opportunity that underpins a well-functioning democracy.

And while the shock of the 2016 election caused unprecedented soul-searching, tyrannophobia is blinding many to the real warnings of the election: A dysfunctional economy, not lurking tyranny, is what needs attention if recent electoral choices are to be explained — and voting patterns are to be changed in the future. Yet there is too little recognition of the need for new direction in either party. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York recently declared that the Democrats have merely failed to get their message across. Many Republicans are convinced that the party can correct its Trumpian aberration by reasserting the status quo ante of free markets and social conservatism. Neither side, it would seem, is ready to depart from its prior consensus.

The threat of tyranny can be real enough. But those who act as though democracy is constantly on the precipice are likely to miss the path that leads not simply to fuller justice but to true safety.

Of course, I’ve so far operated under the assumption that their underlying causal claims are correct: that implementing social democracy in the United States is the best way to prevent the asencedency of the populist right. The experience of actual social democracies, such as Denmark and Sweden, suggest some healthy skepticism. So does growing evidence about the dynamics of the 2016 election.

I would certainly like a progressive “new nationalism” that tackled inequality and increasing political oligarchy, and did so in an inclusive, civic manner. I’d like a “New New Deal” for the world that remakes international liberal order to promote equality and economic democracy. Sure, I think all of this would probably help combat Trumpism and some of its root causes. But there’s a serious risk of the pundit’s fallacy going on here. History does not unequivocally show that economic inequality is a necessary or sufficient condition for right-wing authoritarianism. It certainly does not show that our best bet, in the face of the threat of democratic backsliding, is to let institutions take care of themselves so that we can devote all of our attention to progressive economic policies.

At heart, Trump forces us to make a wager: are American liberal democracatic institutions self-regulating, or are they precarious, held together through norms and practices that can be chipped away? Given our experience with regional racial autocracy, machine politics, civil war, serious illiberal movements at the national level, and more recent developments in state and federal governance, I think complacency is extremely risky. Heck, imagine what American political institutions would look like if Nixon hadn’t recorded every conversation in the White House, or if the Republicans in congress had held the line for him a bit better.

I find it particularly difficult to accept this risk when it is justified by arguments that seem to me at least somewhat in tension with one another. To believe Moyn and Priestland, we have to simultaneously hold that (1) the underlying threat to democracy is so grave that we need to radically alter our economic model and that (2) institutions are strong enough to prevent significant democratic backsliding under the most radical right-wing government in the postwar period. That is, we have to believe that Trump is a prelude to a much larger explosion of authoritarianism in the United State, and that what happens to the United States under Trump will not significantly shape either the likelihood of that explosion or its ability to usher in illiberal democracy. It’s possible for both to be true, but it’s not likely.


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  • Lit3Bolt

    I’m continually amazed at economic theorists who simply assume political emancipations and awakenings are mere sideshows to the “inevitable” march of progress and technology, and that the same “inevitable” march merely drags politics forwards, not backwards.

    Then again, most of it is probably the “I’m a white dude! Everything that supports ME is stuff I like!” subconscious confirmation bias that very very few academics acknowledge, lest their grants wither and their careers be imperiled.

    • Richard Gadsden

      It goes back at least to the Marxian concept of politics as a superstructure built in an economic substructure.

      • Nothing’s funnier than the idea of Mexico as any sort of functional democracy.

    • CP

      One of the dumber ideas to come out of the end of the Cold War was that capitalism was now going to spread itself across the globe and therefore democracy would too, because one is ultimately impossible without the other.

      Twenty five years later, the Chinese and Vietnamese, to pick only them, are still waiting: capitalism’s made their regimes stronger, not weaker.

      • mattmcirvin

        It was a cognitive distortion caused by the fact that the US’s blatantly undemocratic Enemy was nominally Communist.

        • It’s also due to “modernization” theory, which measured societies by how far they’d come from medieval or primitive norms to norms of commerce and “liberal” freedoms. So Miller’s play “A View from the Bridge” sets tribal loyalties against the need to keep the State going. It was seen to be very important, all the unwashed who had no real concept of authority or social hierarchy at all, and had to be brought into the civilized world.

          (So Communism is more advanced than the Tsars, and modern Japan more advanced than the Shogunate. And maybe they will become more like the West as time goes by.)

          • mattmcirvin

            Sounds like the Marxist concept of historical inevitability with some of the categories flipped.

            • . . . .? Just an observation?

              • mattmcirvin

                Yeah, basically, I think economic-liberal End of History theorists and Marxists have a lot in common.

                • Don’t think Barrington Moore or Skocpol count as end of history theorists, but it might be hard to find social science that doesn’t share a lot of DNA with Marx, somehow or other. Marx has that insistence on specific values and specific right ways of governing built in, though, social science fairly often does not.

      • mattmcirvin

        …and the end of that Enemy really did seem to result in a major increase in the number of democratic regimes. Many of which then fell back into illiberal kleptocracy without the Communist gloss, but that took some time.

        • david spikes

          Evidence everywhere and always is that democracy is hard, very hard..
          Hard to make, hard to maintain.
          We probably are not sufficiently tyrannophobic as shown by the continuing dismantling of rights at the state level with the apparent support of the majority of voters.
          Turkish democracy, flawed as it was, was dismantled in 18 mos.
          Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

      • spork_incident

        Francis Fukuyama FTW.


      • Linnaeus

        In some ways, capitalism is in tension with democracy because democratic politics can place limits on the operation of capitalism.

        • mattmcirvin

          The most pro-capitalist wing of the US right has a markedly dim view of democracy, and explicitly says so; they prioritize the state “leaving them alone” (aside from strong property-rights enforcement) above all, and regard democracy as a mob itching to take that away.

    • TJ

      It’s not all white dudes. I’ve met plenty of progressives who think forward progress is inevitable. Unwarranted optimism might be a better description of their motivation.

  • ken_lov

    Was Trump elected because his supporters were concerned about economic matters? It seems implausible. His supporters have higher average incomes than the population. His popularity seemed to arise mainly from crude appeals to white Americans who were resentful they were losing the social privileges they had long taken for granted.

    Many people don’t realise how dependent democratic governance is on the voluntary adherence of most public officials to a set of basic principles. For example, it’s assumed that judges will apply the law without making blatant errors of interpretation for partisan reasons. Yet we’ve seen in one authoritarian country after another how easy it can be for judges to be bribed or intimidated into invalidating that assumption, and become the obedient lackeys of the executive government. Is there anything preventing that happening in the US? Well yes, there is Congress, which has the power to remove both presidents and judges from office.

    Moyn and Prieston may sleep easily knowing the Republican caucuses in the House and the Senate are the people’s ultimate defense against creeping presidential authoritarianism. I don’t.

    • “Was Trump elected because his supporters were concerned about economic matters”?

      I think this is the wrong way of looking at it. It’s not as if everyone who votes for candidate x does so for the same set of reasons. And it’s hardly “either-or” when it comes to economic concerns or social priviledges, or racism and xenophobia. For instance, people who feel they’re not getting their fair shake in the economy may be open to hearing that immigrants are to blame, or that women and minorities are getting too many advantages these days and that’s why they’re not doing as well as they should.

      • Linnaeus

        I agree – it’s quite possible that support for Trump among some demographic groups was overdetermined.

  • Frank Wilhoit

    Tyranny is the wrong frame. History is not made of individuals. It is made of factions.

    • TJ

      Only if we let it.

      • Frank Wilhoit

        You are quite right, of course, but no one has ever come near facing up to what would be involved in preventing faction.

  • Bri2k

    This is one of your best posts yet, Daniel.

    The Samuel Moyn and David Prieston op/ed strikes me as just a scummy apologia for the tRump admin. The bit whitewashing Russian interference and the line about how we’re supposed to somehow meet these nazis “in the middle” are the tell.

    • mattmcirvin

      I read it as “both sides are neoliberal but the Democrats are worse”.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Where is the US on the scale of liberal democracy? This piece seems awfully close to an argument that we’re at 100% and in no danger of hitting 0% any time soon. But if you don’t see it as binary, I’d say we’ve never been that far above 50% and the chances are pretty good that Trump will take us below 50%. That’s worth worrying about.

    It’s also, by the way, reason for hope. Democracy has plenty of room for improvement, as my endless blather about voting methods argues. Trump’s heightening of the contradictions is not something anybody reasonable would have hoped for, but at least there’s a silver lining to the horribleness: it may be the kick in the pants we needed to prompt reform. Certainly I see the spineless faction of the Dems (which is where I’d locate this anti-tyrranophobia piece BTW) as far less dominant post-Trump, and hooray for that.

    • mattmcirvin

      The nation has its own LePage now!

      • Gregor Sansa


    • mattmcirvin

      In the US, illiberalism and autocracy more often bubble up from local and state government than get imposed from the top. Black people in most of the country already live in an authoritarian police state, and have for the whole history of the US. Sometimes, it is undemocratic as well. All the federal government has to do to make that worse is turn a blind eye, and give a little encouragement now and then.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Black people in most of the country already live in an authoritarian police state, and have for the whole history of the US.

        This I think is a key point. The mechanisms and knowhow for running an authoritarian state are built into our political DNA, because “we” (white America) have been running one all along. Trump is not trying to create something new, just extend the reach of something that already exists.

        • mattmcirvin

          It’s almost like the political situation in China Mieville’s “The City & The City” in which there are two governments coexisting on the same plot of land and people are carefully trained to “unsee” the other one’s citizens when they walk by.

          • I wouldn’t be surprised if this were exactly one of the political situations Miéville wrote this novel as a metaphor for. A truly brilliant novel that gets more effective the more time one spends thinking about it.

  • MacK

    I would regard the biggest threat to Donald Trump poses as the destruction of ‘norms,’ the unwritten principles of presidential behavior, and indeed civil society. I’d add to that, that the Republicans have been attacking those norms ever since the administration of George Bush. They have also been attacked by Republicans on the Hill, Mitch McConnell and the Freedom Caucus being key examples.

    What are these “norms”: in the case of president, that he is careful and measured in his statements, that he governs for all Americans, that he’s polite, that he tells the truth – or at least not obvious lies. On the Hill, norms include having a real consideration for the consequences of the actions of Congress-not a whirl recklessness, such as the tea party-Freedom Caucus engage in. The thing is that these norms are down, did just the way people expect other people to behave, particularly those who hold certain offices. However, they are crucial to properly functioning democracy and society. Once these norms are gone it’s going to be a terrible problem to restore them – to put it in simple terms, how can you expect liberals and the left to it here to norms that so-called “conservatives” and the right have discarded to attack the liberals and left? (I refuse use their self-identification as “conservatives” when they are not in fact conservative, but radical.)

    The United Kingdom allowed the Brexiteers to similarly the abandon its political norms-allowing them to use outright lies,bigotry, xenophobia and racism to push to referendum whose consequences are going to be a irreparable – and now has a government, who’s ministers and a a prime minister are just as dishonest. They tore up the norms, they’re gone and it will be a long time before they restored.

    The situation in Venezuela is very much about the prior governments, going back a century and more to establish political norms. Maduro is not an operation, he is in many respects Venezuelan politics as usual; in Africa a huge part of the problem, and in say Kenya is the figure to establish democratic norms of behavior. The limits on authoritarianism, and on corruption ours was driven by political “norms” as they are by written laws and constitution. It is in the destruction of these norms, the adoption of strategies and approaches common in both left wing and right when authoritarian states that the Trump administration and the Republican Party are posing the greatest threat.

    • Drunken Interlocutor

      The first line in this reply puts it succinctly.

    • Taylor

      I believe it was Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian said that for years he’d been advocating for a written constitution for the UK, instead of its current unwritten constitution. But he has changed his mind in the age of Trump, now that he sees that the US also relies on an unwritten constitution, and that the much-vaunted written Constitution is a paper tiger that relies on political will for its enforcement.

      • Daniel

        To be blunt, the US constitution is also kinda shitty. A lot of the dysfunction is by design.

        Not to take away the achievement of the oldest democratic constitution that’s still around, but it shows its age.

        • MariedeGournay

          The fact the Constitutional Convention was able to find a a framework to tie 13 very peculiar colonies a single republic is a small miracle. The fact that convention was done in secret shows just how much norms matter.

          • TJ

            Small correction: 3/5ths of a Miracle.

        • mattmcirvin

          I think of the US as having the curse of the early adopter, with regard to the modern constitutional republic. We’re like the first person on the block who gets a TV or a digital camera or some such gadget: the thing is kind of awkward and a lot of the bugs aren’t worked out, but we spent a lot on it and hang on for a while as the stragglers get a much more refined model.

          (I suppose the analogy breaks when applied to Britain: they’ve got an unwritten “constitution” that is arguably much older but gradually evolved from a more autocratic monarchic system. Maybe that turned out to be more flexible.)

          • Daniel

            Exactly this, and I think it’s true about a lot of things, not just the constitution. Just recently I was fascinated to find out that paper checks for money transfer are still common in the US. And don’t get me started on the electric utility standards! (I’m half an electric engineer…)

            • mattmcirvin

              The combination that still requires checks is typically paying small businesses large amounts of money. Home improvement contractors are a good example. Major auto repairs. Sometimes they need certified checks.

              The main obstacle to my buying an electric car is that it would require a major overhaul of my home wiring to get anything stronger than a 110VAC outlet within easy access of the driveway.

              • Daniel

                It’s weird, the only time I ever used a check in my life was 17 years ago (initially I didn’t even know how to turn it into cash). The explanation I heard for the US was that it’s due to the early adoption of credit cards, which removed the pressure to adopt a standard wire transfer system between banks.

                German one-family houses are generally supplied with three-phase 230V AC at 60A. Of course for rapid charging one could use even more than that.

                • mattmcirvin

                  US homes typically have some 220VAC outlets… but only a small number of them, placed so that they can be used for large appliances like washing machines or air conditioners. The regular wall sockets and exterior sockets are usually 110VAC. The saving grace for electric cars is that if you have a garage, there’s often at least one 220 outlet in there. But I don’t.

                • Daniel

                  But that’s probably a two-phase system with the 220V between the outer conductors, right? The German three-phase system has 400V between outer conductors, which is used for high-power utilities.

                • mattmcirvin

                  Basically–it’s really all center-tapped single phase.

                  One famous consequence: In the US, British-style electric teakettles are relatively uncommon, because a standard wall plug simply doesn’t provide enough power to heat them in a timely fashion. We put kettles on the stove instead.

                • Lurker

                  I must express some doubt about the 60 A mains fuse you mention. First of all, the IEC standard fuse would be 63 A. Second, 63 amperes is an astoundingly large current. A 400 V 3×63 A connection can carry a power of some 25 kW. That is a lot: enough to boil a litre of water into steam in less than two minutes. My own house has electric heating and has only 3×25 A mains fuse. I know farms which manage nicely with 3×35 A. Are you sure that you have not mistaken a 3×20 A fuse connection for a single 60 A fuse? It is not the same thing.

                • Daniel

                  It’s usually quoted as 60A, but 63A seems to be common too. The 60A is probably a remnant from some older non-IEC standard.

                  But I stand by that this is in fact the standard connection for one-family houses, and has been for a while. 100A is also available. This is what you get from the utility company, i.e. your main fuse. After that the 3 phases are usually roughly evenly split over a number of single-phase sub-circuits for 230V power-outlets with separate 16A circuit breakers. Lighting is also often separate and split up, usually protected at 10A. Electric stoves get their own 3-phase connection, also protected separately at 3x16A.

                  I don’t live in a one-family house and they didn’t bother to wire all 3 phases from the basement to my flat, so I only get one phase at 63A. But the splitting is as above. My stove has a 25A circuit breaker since it’s connected only single-phase.

                • Lurker

                  Having the mains fuse at 40 or 63 amps makes the electrical protections extremely selective, i.e. the fault will only trigger the fuse (or circuit breaker) protecting the affected device, and the rest of the system will stay unaffected. In addition, the system will be able to supply almost all consumer devices at their nominal power at the same time. That is really good design. Something you can expect of a German electrical engineer.

                  With a smaller mains fuse, you need to have some extra protections to.avoid burning the mains fuse. For example, when I turn on the sauna (6 kW with three-phase power feed), about one third of the heating of the house is turned off to limit the total load. Technically, the connection I have would allow 63 A but increasing the mains fuse to 3×63 A would coat roughly 4,000 euros. So, as I have never actually had any problems with the 3×25 A mains, it seems unnecessary to upgrade.

                • Daniel

                  Having the mains fuse at 40 or 63 amps makes the electrical protections extremely selective

                  Yes, that’s indeed the intention, and as I understand it more or less a hard requirement in German wiring standards. The VDE organization defines and regularly updates standards which electricians are required to follow.

          • Latverian Diplomat

            Some of the problems with the UK system go back pretty far though, First Past the Post elections being a big one.

        • DAS

          I know people who are convinced that since the dysfunction in our constitution is by design, it means we shouldn’t mess with it, after all, who are we to mess with the great system our Founders put into place? “I’ve been reading up on history lately. Our Founders were educated people who knew their history and put in a system of checks and balances so our republic, unlike the Roman one, would last for the ages!”


          Liberal: How is it that the Presidential candidate that won the popular vote by a fairly large margin is not President? We need to get rid of the Electoral College if it fails to do the one thing it is supposed to do and prevent a populist demagogue from being President.
          Sensible Sentrist: But the Electoral College did exactly what it was supposed to do. It made sure that the candidate supported by most of the country, geographically speaking, became President. The Founders knew exactly what they were doing when they made sure that a candidate whose narrow geographic base was in the cities wouldn’t win over a candidate supported by broad swaths of the country.
          Liberal: But maybe the idea the Founders had that the candidate with a broad geographic base should be President is simply not appropriate for today
          Sensible Sentrist: Who are we to doubt the wisdom of our Founders? …

          • mattmcirvin

            The real reason for the Electoral College was most likely so that the three-fifths compromise that gave the slave states extra power would also extend to the Presidential election system. That wouldn’t have been possible with a nationwide popular-vote count, since of course a slave didn’t get a vote, or even three-fifths of one.

            • TJ

              If you read the Federalist Papers the Electoral College was created so that America’s elite could prevent a rogue, tyrannical-prone populist from taking office dismantling institutions. In light of Trump’s election it’s a dismal failure.

              • mattmcirvin

                That’s what they say their rationale was, yes.

              • DAS

                But Trump isn't actually all that popular but rather much of his support was from people who are relatively elite, so he's not the kind of populist tyrant the EC is supposed to protect us from. If anything, Bernie Sanders is more of the kind of populist our Founders were afraid of. So given his movement's influence on the Democratic platform, by preventing the Democrat, Clinton, from winning, the EC did exactly what it was supposed to do

              • Lurker

                In addition, there was no reason to trust a popular vote, nationwide, to be fair and honest. The Founders did not trust each other, and they knew that the elections in many counties were dishonest. If you had a corrupted election, some states would go over 99% to one candidate, while honest states would return real numbers. Having an electoral college essentially formalised this dishonesty.

                • LeeEsq

                  The Founders also couldn’t agree on how to elect the President. The Electoral College was an improvised compromise.

          • Daniel

            Who are we to doubt the wisdom of our Founders?

            This. I think what many people don’t see is that the dysfunction and obstruction enabled by the constitution is a major cause in the rise of Trump. That is, the problem starts much earlier than at the stage of violating norms and civil liberties.

            • nick056

              Let’s be real. A major benefit of the EC for the confederate slave states was allowing the 3/5ths compromise to transfer to presidential elections.

              That’s why the 14th amendment includes a now little-discussed paragraph about reducing voting shares based on the number of men in a state who couldn’t vote. Without slavery, every freedperson gets a full person count, but potentially no vote.

              • Daniel

                Yeah, but the electoral college isn’t the only problem with the constitution. I mean, I’m obviously biased, but I do think modern parliamentary systems with unified governments just work better.

                • sibusisodan

                  I think the increasing lack of constitutional amendments is a danger signal for the US. From memory, it’s been a long time (over 50 years?) since a modern amendment was adopted.

                  For the US system, that seems symptomatic of an _extra-constitutional_ problem. There are two variant readings of the constitution and no mechanism to create a political settlement. So things ossify.

                  That sort of thing can only be navigated in the short term by norms, and there are few of those left.

                • rea

                  It can’t be 50 years. Why, just the other day, they amended the Constitution to allow 18-year olds like me to vote! Oh, wait–I’m old now . . .

                • mattmcirvin

                  That was 1971, so 46 years without an amendment aside from the highly anomalous and obscure 27th.

                • mattmcirvin

                  …Not only that, most of us here probably have a deep horror of any amendments actually happening, since the mechanism is such that the right is currently the only faction with any real chance of passing them.

                • mattmcirvin

                  …If you asked me now what the most likely next constitutional amendment would be, I’d say repeal of the 17th, direct election of Senators. That’s become a major cause on the US right over the last couple of decades; conservatives seem really passionate about handing election of Senators back to gerrymandered state legislatures.

                  Second most likely would be an anti-abortion or some sort of anti-LGBT-rights amendment. There’s also been a push to repeal votes for women, but it’s more of a fringe thing that people like Ann Coulter like to say for shock value.

              • mattmcirvin

                With an exception for “participation in rebellion or other crime”, which turns out to be a loophole big enough to drive all manner of interesting things through.

          • Joe Paulson

            The big test for the Electoral College on the “support by most of the country” front was 1860. Logically, Douglas should have won, since he would be palatable for both sections. Turned out he got like 12 electoral votes.

            That argument doesn’t sell well looking at history — repeatedly, it was a matter of who controlled a narrow area of votes, including states like NY or Ohio, or here, a few voters in three states. It has a facial appeal but hasn’t really worked it practice. Plus, of course, it favors land over people to some significant degree if we are counting states or something.

            The thing is that it really didn’t seem to matter that much over the years, since the popular vote winner basically kept on winning with a few asterisk worthy exceptions. But, then it happened twice in 15 years. That is the sort of thing that makes you say “hmmm” like when FDR had four terms / 22A.

            [Like mid-century last century, eventually, hopefully there is period of opportunity where multiple amendments are possible to tweak voting.]

            • DAS

              Would Douglas in 1860 really have been palatable for the South? IIRC by then Douglas was beyond fed up with the South and the South knew this. Certainly not too long after 1860, he was criticizing Lincoln for being too gentle with the South.

              • Joe Paulson

                Technical tweak — Douglas died shortly after Lincoln was inaugurated.

                Douglas was not palatable to many in the South. But, if the Electoral College worked as it should have under the broad support of country theory, there was enough moderate Southerners left to join with a mixture in the North to make Douglas [or some figure like him] at the very least a much stronger electoral vote winner than he actually was (for one thing, his popular vote totals were more respectable than his electoral vote totals suggest).

                But, instead, you had regional races, and electoral vote totals that basically split North/South/Border State. So, I see it as a failure of that theory when it arguably was most important to be fulfilled.

            • humanoidpanda

              The legal scholar Bruce Ackerman has a theory that the constitution created the amendments process because it presumed states are and will remain the main focus of American identity- so all changes to the framework will be negotiated between states. This set up never worked, because section and party became much more important than state within their lifetimes. So, all subsequent major changes happened either under emergency rules (13,14,15) amendment, or via the democratic process, and affirmed by the courts(New Deal, Civil Rights). Amendments, he argue, are really not all that important to American constitutional order, as it really exists.

              • Joe Paulson

                There is some truth to that but amendments in general would often be a reflection of democratic process (e.g., Bill of Rights was a response to concerns of a large group of population, not states as such; the 16A and 17A ratified things already happening etc.). The Constitution has so much play in the joints that a formal amendment often isn’t really necessary. Even black citizenship very well might have not needed the 14A if things went somewhat differently, including Andrew Johnson blocking things.

      • Daniel

        In history class I was once assigned to write a discussion of the relative importance of unwritten norms vs faults in the Weimar constitution in the rise of the Nazi regime. It’s a tricky subject; there are good arguments for either side. I think in the long run no constitution will withstand continued assault by bad faith actors, but on the other hand there is no reason to make it unnecessarily easy to break things.

        History can be a guide here. The modern German constitution is actually not dissimilar to the Weimar one. However, it has some important tweaks and extra checks built into it that addressed the faults of the Weimar one. When discussing the constitution in political science class, a common refrain was: “Why do we have this particular feature? Weimar!”

    • Paul Thomas

      This is about the ten thousandth reference I’ve seen to “norms.”

      Here’s my hot take: If a political system depends for its survival upon unwritten, unenforceable “norms,” it is doomed in the long run, because anyone who is willing to violate those “norms” has a competitive advantage. It’s akin to the classic Nash equilibrium, but with “norm-following” substituting for “cooperation” and “norm-rejecting” substituting for “competition.” If, in fact, it is the case that unenforceable “norms” are a prerequisite to liberal democracy, then we may as well give up now, because liberal democracy is impossible. (Iron Law of Oligarchy and all that.)

      There is a reason why high-level gaming and sports competitions rely almost entirely on hard rules, not “norms.” The rules for drug-testing at the Olympics (for all that they have been criticized for their inadequacy) are incredibly rigid– it does not matter that you just drank some cold medicine, if you have a banned stimulant in your system, you’re going to be DQed. Our political system is more like the Olympics if the rule was “if you take PEDs, we’ll cluck our tongues and look at you funny for breaking the norms.” Hardly a surprise that people who just don’t care about that shit are taking political PEDs anyway, and winning because of it.

      Moreover, when those rules are demonstrated not to work in some fashion or other, the rules are changed. When wide receivers in football started getting blown up by increasingly large and hard-hitting safeties, there was some initial complaining about violation of “norms,” but pretty quickly the response was to make those acts illegal by instituting heavy penalties against blows to the head and targeting of defenseless receivers.

      Now, perhaps part of the problem is that certain political “norms” don’t particularly lend themselves to hard and fast rules. “Don’t lie” is perhaps in this category, since it’s really hard to distinguish lies from just garden-variety false statements. But some do– Germany’s ban on Nazism has, in fact, led to less Nazism than in countries where Nazism has not been banned.

      I like to think if you actually went back to 1789 and informed the Framers “hey guys, the Constitution you’re writing will ultimately end up being largely ignored in favor of a non-constitutional and unwritten set of “norms” that became necessary to make it work in practice; are you okay with that?”, they’d have flipped out and sent the whole thing back into the shop for a rewrite. I don’t think they would have seen “norms” as the answer to anything, because they had just lived through a violent period that saw such “norms” left in the ashheap in favor of tooth-and-nail politico-military struggle.

      Right now, I suspect it’s already too late; the spectacular complacency of our failure to turn “norms” into binding rules has allowed the “norm”-violating Republicans to amass sufficient political power to make rule changes next to impossible. We’ve failed to make use of the only actual utility of “norms”– that violation of them sometimes serves as a canary in the coal mine warning of future danger if those norms are not speedily codified into binding law.

      • humanoidpanda

        “Here’s my hot take: If a political system depends for its survival upon unwritten, unenforceable “norms,” it is doomed in the long run, because anyone who is willing to violate those “norms” has a competitive advantage. It’s”

        1. It’s literally impossible to design a system in which rules account for all possible contingencies.
        2. All political systems decay and die in the end.

        And of course, the difference between football and politics is that
        1. Referees are genuinely neutral.
        2. The game is finite and well-bounded.
        3. Decisions are top down and players must obey.

        • Daniel

          But there is a good argument to be had to at least try and codify norms in regular updates. Of course that also depends on good-faith agreement on what to codify, so it’s a bit of a catch-22 if the number of bad faith actors is large.

  • sibusisodan

    This article would have been useful in 2009, when tyrranophobic accusations were being used by one part of the political establishment to prevent (moderate) changes to the economic system.

    • N__B

      tyrranophobic accusations

      To be fair, there is an obvious analogy between a T-Rex’s stubby arms and DJT’s stubby fingers.

  • JamesWimberley

    The word you are looking for is Bonapartism. Napoleon III got himself elected President of France.

  • Solid rebuttal. And Moyn’s and Prieston’s piece seems genetically engineered to age poorly.

  • Robbert

    “Claiming to have the support of the people (and therefore the right to use all means necessary to defend the nation), they use legislation, appointment powers, and informal interventions to whittle away at checks-and-balances, the rule of law, and civil liberties”

    If there’s a better pocket summary of exactly what’s happening, I’ve yet to see it.

  • If you want to “quantify” the threat to liberal democracy that Trump represents, simply note that 52% of Republicans now believe the 2020 election should be postponed.
    Yes, these patriots, these true believers in America and the Constitution, these people who love our country far more than any other people can ever hope to love it–they want to just skip the election because that is the only way to avoid defeat.

    • MacK

      Though to be fair – how many of us now think that election needs to be brought forward?

      • Nobody I’m aware of has said or suggested this until your post. I find this kind of false equivalence to be, um, unhelpful, especially given the events of the last 24 hours.

        • Daniel

          Not to mention that it wouldn’t be remotely undemocratic to re-do an election if there is a good reason for it. Main problem is that the US constitution simply doesn’t have a mechanism for that.

          • KiddoMcLargeHuge

            The main main problem is that the Constitution sorta sucks, to use blunt language. And that it’s almost impossible to change (not necessarily a bad thing at this moment).

        • MacK

          Oh, I’d be very keen on having the election in November, 3 years early. Think, the alternative is another 3 1/2 of the orange gobshite or his creepy VP.

        • TJ

          Partisanship is a helluva drug. It will, in time, turn principled people into hypocrites. That’s reason enough to distrust it.

          I wish the Founders had anticipated the strength of the Party System.

      • mattmcirvin

        It’d be nice, but it’s not how our particular constitution works.

        A lot of liberals ruefully condemned the 22nd Amendment (Presidential term limits) in 2016. It’s the kind of thing you only love when your side isn’t in office, and that’s a both-sides thing. But the 22nd Amendment isn’t particularly a sacred principle of democracy–arguably it’s undemocratic.

        • TJ

          A more practical concern than Cult of Personality is simply that corruption generally follows long leaders. Power, instead of principle, becomes the goal itself…I wish Obama was still President, but without that Amendment a 1st term Trump could bribe and corrupt so many people that he might never be displaced. He could be a Maduro, and may yet at this pace.

          • Daniel

            Maduro actively breaks/changes the constitution, so I doubt term limits would have stopped him.

        • Daniel

          But the 22nd Amendment isn’t particularly a sacred principle of democracy–arguably it’s undemocratic.

          I used to think it was a neat idea but got more skeptical over time. 2016 convinced me it is a bad idea. I’m fairly sure that a majority of Americans (and hopefully also electoral college votes) would have preferred a third Obama term over any of the other options available.

    • Gregor Sansa

      To be fair: 52% of Republicans now believe the 2020 election should be postponed if Trump says so. Which is obviously totally a different thing.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      And if you commissioned a poll of registered Democrats with the question, “Would you favor undoing the results of the 2016 presidential election today if it meant Hillary Clinton would immediately become President,” what percentage do you think would say, “Yes”?

      • Oh, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have to restrict that question to registered Democrats to get a plus-50% yes result.

  • MariedeGournay
  • Their analysis has it backwards. In truth, it is the toxic authoritarian brand of politics that is the greatest obstacle to getting any progressive economic policies passed at all. The less democratic the U.S. system becomes, the less likely any of the things they want will be passed

    • DAS

      The false dichotomy between focusing on economic issues / social justice vs. civil liberties really glared out at me. It’s almost like something a libertarian would write (except they would say we should stop focusing on economic issues / social justice).

      Of course, democratic governance and civil liberties are part of social justice anyway: if our legal system doesn’t provide people like you any sense of justice and you are blocked from voting, that is a social injustice with economic consequences. But I guess the authors are really saying that the Democrats need to focus on social justice and economic issues for white people. Of course the Democrats need to do a better job of putting social justice and economic welfare for all people at the forefront, but it’s not as if either the BLM wing or Sanders wing of the party is saying not to address economic and social issues. If anything, the real impediment to the agenda Moyn and Prieston want to implement is the “vital center” they claim is important.

      To look at it another way … some social conservatives are smart enough to realize that if they want to make the moral systems they want to force people into practicable, they need to do something to help people out economically. However, can you think of a hard-core social conservative who would say “yeah abortion is bad and we want to prevent it, but focusing on abortion is really counterproductive … instead we should focus on the economic and social justice factors that lead to women choosing abortions”?

  • DAS

    I don’t know enough about Moyn or Prieston to know where they are coming from, but I’ve heard the argument they are making before, albeit I’ve never seen it made in such detail or with such care. You know from whom I’ve heard it before? I’ve heard it from centrists complaining about how attacking Trump and how hysteria about what Trump means for democracy just alienates people but rather that we focus more on giving people hope like the Democratic party did “in the days of JFK or even Bill Clinton … before it took such a hard turn to the left”. The odd thing is that the centrists I hear this argument from would be the first people to start screaming and ranting if the Democrats actually did start supporting additional and expanded economic justice programs that would have significant positive impacts on the economically distressed: “the Democrats are too socialist and are not fiscally responsible enough! This is a recipe for LOSING elections!”

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      you hear that from *centrists*?

      this is more a sense of wonder on my part than anything else

      • mattmcirvin

        People who think the Democratic Party is too anti-racist often consider themselves centrists. “The Democrats should be more like the old days in Southie, none of this left-wing radicalism,” etc.

    • It is certainly fair to ask people who say we should provide more economic opportunity for workers, are you talking about reducing taxes to free the job-creators, or something more in line with the rhetoric you’re using?

  • DJ

    I think it is a comforting illusion, that economic inequality drives Trumpism, and if only Democrats would focus on improving the economy in places like the rural south, we’d easily defeat the rightists.

    I’m all for reducing economic inequality; that’s axiomatic to being a leftist. More to the point, I’m all for reducing tribal partisanship, which has gotten frighteningly out of control in this country, and I do believe that establishing common economic ground between the rural poor and the urban poor will help reduce partisanship and further liberal economic goals. I’d go so far as to say that I think it is a tragedy that the Democratic party is not viewed as advocating for the rural poor, and that needs to change.

    But I suffer no illusions about this being a means with which to combat Trumpism. At best, it is a project that is many decades long, during which we need to win local and national elections in the face of the tea party-Trumpism-freedom caucus party on the right. Focusing on the long-term goals of our party with regard to economic inequality is vital (and necessary); but to do so at the exclusion of the short-term need to defeat the rightists at the polls now, in 2018, 2020, is guaranteed to be counterproductive to those long term goals. We need to win elections in order to solve this problem.

    Op-eds like this one tend to do a lot of hand-wringing about how Democrats are taking our eyes off the ball, but talk very little about practical ideas for how a minority party in an increasingly illiberal system is supposed to implement any policy at all.

  • xq

    I think both the Moyn piece and a lot of the response somewhat misses the point.

    You mention the courts. You mention voter suppression. But Trump’s court appointments have been normal Republican court appointments, and voter suppression is Republican consensus, not a Trump specific thing.

    If we look at what Trump has done that generic Republican wouldn’t–the Comey firing, demonization of the media–they have mostly backfired. The media has acted as a counter to Trump in a way it would not to a quieter Republican who said the right things but filled the courts with extremist right-wingers, continued voter suppression efforts, etc. Even on the travel ban, the original was blocked largely as a result of Trump’s own incompetence.

    The threat to liberal democracy is real, but it’s mostly not from Trump; its that the US system is very weak to a hyperpartisan minority that seeks to protect its power from a majority. Trump didn’t cause the Republicans to block Garland.

    And as bad as Trump is, I’m not sure that any other Republican wouldn’t be worse, in terms of long term prospects for US liberal democracy. If Rubio were president, the most anti-democratic trends in US politics would continue, but he’d probably have 10+ more points in approval, be heavily favored for reelection, and the chance of Democrats taking back the House would be very low. The media would also be much less hostile. At least Trump inspires resistance.

    • AMK

      And the failure of “normal” Republicans to act against Trump for anything he does is more damning and indicative of the depth of the problem than anything coming from Trump himself.

    • LeeEsq

      The issue isn’t really Trump himself because Trump is a incompetent spokesperson. The real problem for liberal democracy in the United States is that we are having a very big encounter with a periodic threat to liberal democracy everywhere, illiberal people. Nearly every liberal democracy is going to have at least some part of the population that does not and can not accept the basic norms of small-l liberalism. They are usually on the Far Right but could be on the Far Left to. The illiberal population is going to have some very definite ideas on what society should look like and being illiberal, they have no problems doing practically anything to bring this about.

      Sometimes the illiberal segment is so small that they are nothing more than an annoyance. The Nordic countries are like this. In other times the illiberal segment is the majority of the population. This sucks for those at the receiving end of the persecution but at least a majority illiberal population has the benefit of most people getting what they want. The United States’ problem is that we have an illiberal population that isn’t a majority but is big enough to be a threat to liberal democracy and that our institutions help them.

      • catbirdman

        The other problem here, which I hope doesn’t become a lot more problematic than it is now, is that the illiberals are much more heavily armed and much more prone to resorting to violence than are the liberals. Every week I feel just a little more drawn to the idea of being armed, which is just about the last thing I want to be.

    • Joe Paulson

      I appreciate the comment but am somewhat less assured about various aspects.

      Comey was still fired. The media still has been demonized and cheapened in the eyes of the public. The long term consequences of the travel ban is unclear [one analysis, e.g., argued the Supreme Court has been tainted by in effect owning it by tweaking it instead of just rejecting it or keeping their hands off]. Incompetence and corruption in the Trump Administration is so high that it is often its own worse enemy but can’t rely on future Trumps to be like that. Once precedents come, even bad ones, they are precedents, just waiting for someone to take advantage, if just soft of enough of a way to be accepted.

      There was an article that argued that the Democrats were going to be unfavored in the 2016 and 2018 elections & it is strategically a good thing that they are now in the minority fighting Trump and the Republicans. There is some truth to that. Still wish Clinton won if the alternative was Trump. As to Rubio, he has his own issues — his wishy-washy empty suit approach very well could also lead to problems though yes I do think Republicans would have had a better chance. And, he would respect certain basic democratic norms that Trump does not. It would also depend somewhat on the people in his administration and would tack they would take.

      If Rubio and the Republicans seriously threatened health care etc., I think there would also be strong resistance. On some level, it might be purer — it won’t be centered on one horrible man and his team, but the poisonous things of the Republican Party overall.

    • dnexon

      I think… and I hope I made clear… that it’s both a pre-Trump GOP problem and a Trump problem. I don’t think Rubio would be anywhere as dangerous as Trump, FWIW.

      • xq

        I agree that Trump is more dangerous than Rubio with full GOP control of government. Do you think Trump with Democratic control of the House in is worse than Rubio with GOP control? Is two Rubio terms preferable to one Trump term with big Democratic wins in 2020? Trump has violated a lot of democratic norms, but this has come at real political cost, and probably will have electoral consequences. I think this is often preferable to the more quiet ways the rest of the GOP violates norms.

  • LeeEsq

    It could also be a personality thing with Moyn and Prieston. There are many people who pride themselves on being above it all and being calm and rational all the time. They insist on having perfect data and facts before reacting to everything. This type of personality exists across the political spectrum. A Libertarian friend on Facebook posted a quote from Ludwig von Mises on how anti-Semites are the enemies of liberty from a classical liberal perspective. My friend than added commentary on his own how its distressing that some Libertarians are tut-tutting the growing anti-Semitism in certain European political parties. Another person responded with the need to have perfect data and not go into hysterics or be un-calm.

    I think that there is simply always going to be a certain number people incapable of what you could call a proper state of worry. Its just not in their personality. They see themselves as eternally calm and rational people and will insist on remaining so till the day they die. Its like how some apolitical people remain apolitical no matter what or how others are so fundamentally serious or unserious that they can either not relax and have fun or take any situation gravely even if they really have to.

    • humanoidpanda

      You can be one of those people -I am one to same degree (I got a lot of flak in the first few months after November both here and in the real world for being a priviileged above it all) and still recognize that the argument they are making is bad.

      I’d also add that there is the issue of academic temperament: Moyn’s major project as an academic is to show the right-wing, Cold War origins, of the concept of human right, which he argues impoverished our understanding of what justice is. One could see how that academic argument fares poorly when applied to politics-as-they happen -in-2017. (Priestland on the other hand, is a great historian of the USSR and author of our best history of Communism, so I have no idea what got into him).

  • humanoidpanda

    The funny thing is that there are very good ways to argue that the Trump threat is overhyped, but what Moyn and Priestland did instead is to argue with, I dunno, Louis Mensch and the game theory guy, because liberals are stupid not like us Serious Academic Leftist LOL.

    So, a good piece trying to argue against hysteria would point out that:
    1. The United States, unlike, say, Hungary, is an extremely decentralized society, with many important power foci far beyond Trump’s control.
    2. That with all due respect to the Nazis of Charlottesville, there is about zero evidence he can put supporters on the streets – while his opponents can and do.
    3. That unlike a lot of hybrid democracy guys, he is not trying to raise anyone’s standards of living.
    4. Or you could take a different tack and argue that both domestically and internationally, the US was not exactly a strict adherent to the liberal order in the last 200 or so years..

    But instead, we get this lame reenactment of “substantial rights beat bourgeois civil rights” leftist arguments from the 1970s…

    Also too:

    “If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve.”

    I have no idea what’s that supposed to mean, or how the 20th century teaches anything like that.

    • After years of thinking about this, and trying hard to see their point, because there are a lot of things on the left I’m temperamentally attracted to, . . . frankly, I want to see someone come up with a description of what substantial ideals they want to work towards. For the Marxists, presumably, there’s something like “we’re going to get economic equality and I know we can get it if we get rid of liberal rights and norms.” Others have in mind some social utopia that liberals would probably not like, and also say “we could get what we want if we get rid of liberal norms.” Neither seems practical. So you get either traditionalist “we know the old ways are good and liberalism tramps on them” or Marxist “we can keep getting better but we don’t know what it will look like, only that we should hate everything we see for now, and the nondivinity History will see things work out for he best.” There are no other possibilities.

      • humanoidpanda

        To be fair, the vast majority of Marxists don’t want to get rid of liberal norms: they just think they are meaningless within the context of a capitalist society (freedom of speech doesn’t do you any good when you can get fired for speaking, and the Koch brothers can outspeak you with their money.)

        • Okay, but in a classroom or academic context, those come out to nearly the same thing. And that’s the source of most people’s first (often only) encounter with these ideas. So you get people who vaguely feel the big real-world issue is whether you are a person who defends liberal rights or not. (And in the mid-80s people were still talking in these terms, discussing whether criticizing Bolshevism for not caring about rights was kosher.)

          This is related to the abstractions you mentioned last night, I think. The conflict is reduced to two big “things” fighting it out. So the side of Good doesn’t have time for tyrannophobia, tyrannophobia sometimes gets in the way of looking for solutions to other problems . . . therefore “tyrannophobia” is on the side of Evil.

    • Linnaeus

      I have no idea what’s that supposed to mean, or how the 20th century teaches anything like that.

      My sense is that the authors mean that supposed defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian enemy has functioned as a justification for acts and policies that can create a situation that is as bad or worse than the problem one is trying to solve, e.g., support for repressive governments as a bulwark against communism, etc.

      • humanoidpanda

        It’s a good argument but.. it says very little about the impact of battling totalitarianism on domestic politics. (and even in the international arena, the record is mixed: the US supported many repressive regimes, true. But it also helped secure liberal democracy in Europe and East Asia.)

        • Linnaeus

          The argument is weaker with respect to domestic politics, but they might have something like red scares, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO, etc., in mind.

          • humanoidpanda

            Fair enough. But.. at the end of the Cold War, the US was a vastly, vastly more democratic place than in 1946.

            • Linnaeus

              True, although the process of becoming more democratic was not without opposition from institutions that were ostensibly in the service of preserving democratic rights.

    • HugeEuge

      Really good comment, and thank you for being the first person (including Nexon) in this entire thread to get the name of the second author correct: it’s Priestland as you write, not Prieston.

      And weird that two professors of European history would presume that espousing policies directed at redressing “economic inequalities and status resentments”, combined with significant bluster against selected foreign states, might not involve some threat to democracy.

      How else to interpret their statement that Excessive focus on liberal fundamentals, like basic freedoms or the rule of law, could prove self-defeating. By postponing serious efforts to
      give greater priority to social justice, tyrannophobia treats warning signs as a death sentence, while allowing the real disease to fester.

      Somehow I think that the ideas of two ivory tower professors on what constitutes “social justice” might not resonate all that strongly with large portions of the masses who feel aggrieved.

      • dnexon

        Corrected. This really isn’t a slight against Priestland. It’s just something about the way my brain is wired.

    • I think what they mean, to be charitable, is that it is at times when it seemed the U.S. system faced an existential threat that curbs on civil liberties have been more readily accepted. However, it seems to me that the implication for those seeking to resist Trump is pretty much the opposite of what the authors argue. The authoritarian argument now is that “America” is threatened from without and within and therefore things like democratic norms and civil liberties should be trampled underfoot when they get in the way of security.

      • humanoidpanda

        His argument would have made sense if HRC won immediately launched investigation into a great Russian conspiracy involving the GOP. With the Democrats being out of power the prospect of them using Russia to stifle dissent is… remote.

    • Michael

      My father is a political theorist, and he always councils his PhD students to seek out the strongest version of the counterarguments they seek to make, rather than the ones that are necessarily the most prominent, which are often weak.

      This is part of what makes articles like this, and Greenwald’s constant screeds, so disappointing. Of course it’s true that *some* people are making hysterical claims – sometimes even in prominent places! – but if you want to seriously offer a rebuttal, you should seek out the best version of that argument, or at least demonstrate that the weaker version you’ve chosen to debunk is clearly the most prominent version of the argument.

      Just as an aside that I’d add, the “McCarthite” claim is especially poor because the people who are supposedly demonizing Greenwald and co are not state representatives with the power to haul before a committee and put them in prison. Really, if you wanted a Cold War analogy, Hedda Hopper is much more appropriate.

      • sibusisodan

        That is excellent advice. Unfortunately it’s hard work!

    • Michael

      This really does feel like rehashing the debates of the 70s, but with stupider. Make McGovern Great Again!

  • It’s hard to know what to make of the piece. I don’t think anyone less prominent than Moyn could get away with arguing in the NYT that less worry about government violating democratic norms leads to more social democracy. It seemed to me along the lines of what Corey Robin is always talking about as liberalism (centrism) being driven “the politics of fear,” which most people seem to understand as being driven by emotion instead of reason, by thinking about enemies instead, presumably, of positive ideals. They hit many of the marks of the current anti-a time-Russia paranoia, only in more elevated terms. The embedded tweet seems to confirm the sense that the real target is the (defunct) “vital center.” Presumably to promote the left (and the parts of the left that still like to ridicule liberal emphasis on rights) at its expense.

    • LeeEsq

      It was a very strange piece. As far as I can tell, Moyn and Prieston are arguing that the only real way from preventing Right Populists from coming to power is through social democratic policies that lead to less wealth inequality and greater economic prosperity at all. Using small-l liberal democratic norms and institutions like civil liberties, judicial independence, and democratic elections to protect yourself from Right Populists is useless because people will always abandon these norms if they are feeling anxious and hungry and once in power, the Right Populist will always destroy small l liberal democracy. Or as FDR put it “a necessitous man is not a free man.”

      • humanoidpanda

        This is a much better summary of their argument than what their actual op-ed says, but it also highlights its central limitation: the dichotomy between social democracy and liberal rights is a false, because you can’t have social democracy without liberal rights- they are the only regime that provides the space and leverage for marginalized groups to make their demands (there is a reason why universal franchise and freedom of speech were key demands of 19th century socail democratic parties..)

        • I’m beginning to wonder whether their worldview is so different from mine that I have no idea what real world examples they’d put to their high level description. It’s something like the sense I get reading Skocpol (whose book on how revolutions happen is very, very good) on how the Tea Party should be seen by the left as sympathetically as we’d see the more usual type of activist.

        • LeeEsq

          Every social democracy spent decades as a classical liberal democracy before it became a social democracy. The countries that tried to jump from an authoritarian state to social democracy or socialism tended to crash down hard because the authoritarian elements of the previous state crept into the new regime and led them to abuse their power in illiberal ways. Every Communist state is a good example of this. My main take is that this is why revolutionary change often falls but liberal incrementalism tends to work well. You need a solid liberal democratic base before everything and you can’t hurry utopia.

          • Lurker

            An important feature of a social democracy is the amount of power the elements of the state have. The state has an incredible amount of information about you, and quite small administrative measures can make your life difficult if used with malice. Thus, the rule of law and liberal democratic freedoms are of utter importance. One of the main principles is never using any power for anything else than its lawful purpose. The citizen must be able to rely on the authorities not using their discretion in one issue to force compliance in another. For example, I must be able to make an appeal against an municipal council’s decision and still be able to rely on the municipality not reducing the quality of my healthcare or causing trouble with a construction license.

            • LeeEsq

              You were discussing what sort of information that social democratic governments have on their citizenry several months ago. It might have even been a year ago. Many of the American commentators were shocked and outraged at this and thought a lot of this information was none of the government’s business even though it was necessary for social democracy to function.

  • JamesWimberley

    Who’s the Roman emperor? They were a mixed lot. The failure of the partly democratic Roman Republic was a pity, but it’s scarcely a surprise that the institutions of a single city-state could not cope with running a huge multicultural empire covering the entire Mediterranean world and more.

    • sibusisodan

      The link at the end of the article sez Julius Caesar, but a 17th century French sculpture, not contemporaneous.

      • Paul Thomas

        That would explain why the toga is a bit funny-looking.

        • Lurker

          I am not a real expert, but I think that a Roman general would not have worn toga with armor. While the Romans of the.archaic age wore toga, ends tied on the waist, to battle and to the agricultural work, the toga had, by the late republic, become the distinctive dress of the Roman civilian citizen. I think.that the flowing carb might be a cape of some sort. If it is a toga, it is about as well–selected combination as a business suit worn under body armour.

    • rea

      Julius Caesar–technically not an emperor.

    • nemdam

      Yeah, I was wondering too and hoping it wasn’t Julius Caesar but knew it probably was. There are many Roman emperors more tyrannical than him. And it’s not like the Roman Republic was operating fine until Caesar came. It had already been degraded for decades beginning with Sulla, and Caesar went out of his way to win over his enemies and used his power to help the plebs. Trump and the current American crisis is nothing like Caesar.

      • Lurker

        I think that Augustus Caesar is probably a great example of the corruptuon of republican forms. The principate was, in theory, a complete restoration of the Republic, and Augustus was simply one of the magistrates, subordinate to the Senate. It just happened so that he held the most important posts simultaneously (though not the consulship in most years). There was really very little to complain about from legal point of view. Augustus was duly elected to all his offices and did not exceed his formal powers. Yet, he held the actual sovereign power much more strongly than the nominal dictator-for-life G. Julius Caesar.

  • Kevin

    First i heard of this op-ed was a favorable link from Greenwald. That was strike one. Second paragraph was enough to make me stop:

    United States. As history has shown, however, its tendency to redirect our attention from underlying social and economic problems has often been the real source of danger.

    Reading that, I knew this was just going to be an exercise in “guys, the only thing that is important is X”, and honestly, fuck that. I’m tired of people fitting everything into their simple paradigms.

    • humanoidpanda

      On top of everything else, I’d wager good money Professors Moyn and Priestland would dock points from any undergrad using the “history has shown” construction.

  • Doing its best to keep up with the NYT, WaPo has a concerned op-ed of its own: it seems that “corporations are cracking down on free speech inside the office–and out”!

    • Paul Thomas

      I realize it’s probably a wildly unpopular view at this point, but it does not help liberals and the left if political views become fair game for personal retaliation in the workplace, just as it does not help us if street protests become fair game for police crackdowns in the public sphere. If anything, this is even worse; it’s at least conceivable for liberals to enjoy a majority of political power, while the thought that they could ever enjoy a majority of economic power is close to laughable. So the rule that “economic power can wield itself against individuals for their beliefs” is overwhelmingly a rule that favors conservatives.

      A whole lot of people have allowed their smug self-satisfaction about James Damore getting fired to override what ought to be the horrified reaction to a corporation terminating an employee solely for his views about issues of public policy.

      • humanoidpanda

        Um ,Danmore was fired for his views on corporate policy. Which is a very different beast.

        And I think that a robust worker’s right agenda, in which cases like this go to arbitrage before he is fired would.. still find ample grounds to at least demote him, because he can’t supervise women …

        • HugeEuge

          You know I usually agree with you but not here. My employer is a state university that is admitting an increasing portion of out of state students because they pay more than in-staters. So if I speak out against this university policy they have a right to fire me?

          • Hogan

            If you say it’s because out of state students are biologically less able to do college work, thus stigmatizing current students and discouraging prospective students from applying, then yes, they probably do. You’re not the only one to whom the university has obligations.

          • Here is what I said on Crooked Timber:

            Something else occurs to me: how many commenters here are not in academia or journalism and would think it ordinary to publish a long attack on their employer’s management practices, in a venue provided to them by their employer, not even to mention having it picked up by major media?

            I’m not defending firing people for being critical of management (whatever the perspective, political or otherwise), but on the other hand, the only two s/w engineers I’ve known essentially fired for cause (one was sacrificed to a scheduled RIF) had become disgruntled to the point where they were spending significant time trying to convince people who worked for them or whom they’d been assigned to interview, and this seems rather similar.

            A lot of people here seem to include in their leftism a belief that organizations are only acceptable if they don’t involve some people bossing others around, or managing the environment to make it possible for people to work together without going crazy. I don’t accept that.

            ETA fwiw there are commenters on CT who I believe would defend firing people simply for being critical of management.

          • humanoidpanda

            And here is where hard cases make bad law: if you complain in the abstract, no. But if you pen an essay about how foreign students don’t speak any English and are a waste of of university resources, I think its fair to question if you can teach them. The Damon case is clearly more the latter, but the problem is that even if it was the former, Google could fire him under current law.

            • HugeEuge

              Replying here not just to you but to solidcitizen, Hogan and bianca steele as well.

              First off, say I write an op-ed that the state university has a first obligation to state residents and that it is shirking those by admitting such a high proportion of out of state students, but that I treat all students in my classes equally, Might some out of state students till feel/believe that my classroom has a hostile atmosphere? Does the university have a right to sanction me for this?

              Second, how about if my op-ed adds that a significant proportion of the foreign students (many out of state students aren’t foreign, just from another USA state), do not speak English well enough to participate in class and that some come from cultural and academic traditions that have different views on what constitutes appropriate academic behavior (e.g., plagiarism). My op-ed further argues that the university needs to develop programs for both faculty and students to address these issues (costs $), but recognizes that the main reason that the university is admitting such students is financial imperatives so the money isn’t there at present, in which case the university should stop admitting so many foreign students until it has sufficient funds for such programs etc etc.

              The 2n case almost certainly will create a hostile atmosphere for some foreign students in my classes. So does the university get to fire me for the op-ed? Because for all the pieties about academic freedom, my experience is that many academic administrators are no less authoritarian than many business executives, and both groups are more interested in cya and protecting their organizations than in the speech rights of their employees.

              • You can talk about academic freedom and the right to publish op-eds if you want. You can’t say a Google employee emailing or posting stuff for fellow employees on Google systems, on Google’s time, should have been granted academic freedom. This is just using him to do your own stuff, at Google’s other employees’ expense.

                Similarly, some of the defenses to his piece have treated it like a class paper. “Well, he makes a cogent argument and is clearly familiar with a range of written sources.” (In other words, he’s not clearly illiterate, and all that matters here are the standards I’d apply to an academically struggling 20 year old.) So what? Who cares?

          • solidcitizen

            How do you speak out against this policy? Are you arguing that as a state school, you have a particular obligation to the young people of the state? No one is going to care. Are you going to base your argument on the inherent inferiority of the out of state student, such that you make it clear you see out of state students as worthy of discrimination? Then you will have problems.

        • Lurker

          I am from Europe, and I was a union organiser for years, before I was promoted to a position which was incompatible for union work. (Happens quite regularly in our union, as we represent white-collar staff, and good organisers are also prime material for promotion.)

          In the Finnish system, Danmore’s essay would have been a grounds for a stern warning but not for firing, if this was an isolated case. You don’t have the right to publish internal criticisms of the employer’s policies in working environment (and in fact, you are bound by your loyalty obligation not to make such criticisms in public, either). If it were part of your union activities, the matter were different but private airing of bad mood in inappropriate manner, creating a hostile atmosphere, is unacceptable if it continues despite employer’s order to correct behaviour.

        • Zagarna_84

          It’s a “very different beast” only in the sense that attempts to start discussions about people’s views on corporate policy are, if anything, MORE protected under current law. [Standard disclaimer: my views, no one else’s, worth exactly what you’re paying me for them.]

          In any case, I reject the dichotomy. One’s views about BLM, or Trump, or whatever, absolutely bear on matters in the workplace.

          To my knowledge, Damore was not a supervisory-level employee. I am not sure I agree that “he can’t supervise women,” but it’s not really an issue.

      • HugeEuge

        I so agree with you on this. Large organizations — not just corporations, but also government and lots of universities — want to constrain the speech of employees. We need to fight all of these. If that means that James Damore gets to spout noxious shit then it’s better that people who work with James Damore tell him that it’s noxious shit rather than have his employer fire him.

        And not just because I want people who work for HobbyLobby to be able to speak out how they favor abortion, but even more because I don’t think the people who run Google or just about any other large organization are my friends and I certainly don’t want to give them more power than they already have over their employees.

      • solidcitizen

        Personal viewpoints have long been fair game for retaliation in the workplace, especially when liberals hold them. In fact, we’ve had actual laws passed saying that it is illegal to hold certain leftist political views and work in certain professions.

        Street protests have long been fair game for police crackdowns in the public sphere. Occupy get some police crackdowns, Tea Party protests do not.

        Which doesn’t make it right or good, but the concern trolling that if the police or the politician stop the Nazis from marching, why then it could happen to left groups too, has got to stop. It happens every day.

        • Zagarna_84

          Oh, come off it. It’s routinely the case that precedents set by the defense of far-right types are employed to protect the expression of the left– most notably Brandenburg v. Ohio, which has likely saved thousands of left activists from fraudulent criminal charges of “incitement to violence,” but there are many others.

          I’m as cynical as (probably more so than) the next guy, but the idea that actually giving a shit about what the law says and means makes you some kind of pie-eyed Candide type is fucking destructive. This is why people didn’t bother to care about Neil Gorsuch instead of Merrick Garland being on the Supreme Court.

      • farin

        C’mon, he was passing around scientific racism and sexism on the company’s internal network. He advertised his contempt for his co-workers while he was at work. That’s being a dick, not arguing about policy.

        • Zagarna_84

          The fact that he was using the company’s internal network is, for the most part, irrelevant, and rightly so– under a key precedent set by the Obama NLRB (Purple Comm’ns, 361 NLRB No. 126 (2014)).

          If he had been fired for wasting work time on issues having nothing to do with work, that would be one thing, but nobody has defended his termination on those terms. And given Google’s famously loosey-goosey definition of what constitutes legitimate activity during work time, it seems utterly implausible.

          • farin

            The location matters because he was publishing his contempt for his co-workers directly to them — if you want to disparage the people you work with, it seems fair to demand you only do it outside the office rather than rubbing their faces in it.
            I think our main difference is I’m not willing to grant that all of the manifesto is political. I’m perfectly happy for “human biodiversity” talk to be always and everywhere deemed nothing more than abusive language. So much for the tolerant left!

            • Zagarna_84

              So, this is interesting. What other contested concepts would you be willing to see “deemed nothing more than abusive language”? Criticism of the boss? Comparisons of wages? Any discussion of voting for anyone other than Donald Trump?

              Or is this rule a ticket for one day and one topic only?

              • farin

                So, at some point the bounds of acceptable political discourse run out. “I think you and everyone related to you should be murdered,” for instance, is almost certainly not OK. Once we concede that, it’s just a matter of where the line gets drawn; it’s going somewhere, and you can’t reductio that away.

                • Zagarna_84

                  Again, you fail to grapple with the problem that, for these purposes, it’s not you who gets to draw the “bounds of acceptable political discourse.” It’s rich capitalists. In fact, your view as to whether the quoted phrase is “acceptable political discourse” is utterly irrelevant.

                  Perhaps you are comfortable entrusting your freedom of expression to rich capitalists; I am not, not remotely.

      • solely for his views about issues of public policy.

        I thought he was fired for the clear, explicit consequences of his views for employee morale at Google, and intra-Google stuff like that? But of course I may have been misinformed, it wouldn’t be the first time!

        • Zagarna_84

          I’m sure union organizing campaigns have explicit consequences for employee morale, too. Do you think people should be subject to termination for union organizing?

          [This is still Paul, BTW, not a sock puppet; there’s some weird Disqus shit going on.]

          • Do you think people should be subject to termination for union organizing?

            Well…I was using “consequences for employee morale” to cover “a tendency to create a hostile work environment for women fellow-employees at Google”, does “union organizing” cover “trying to organize a whites-only (or men-only) union”? The analogy would be imperfect, of course, but still…

            • Zagarna_84

              I think you’re way off the mark on what a “hostile work environment” is. Rather than attempt to delve into a field which is somewhat outside my own expertise, I would recommend reading EEOC’s recently proposed updated guidance on harassment, particularly the sections on what “severe” or “pervasive” misconduct are.


              I don’t know the answer to your question about “whites-only unions,” but the extremely conservative Eighth Circuit recently reinstated a union activist who was observed shouting racist comments about “fried chicken and watermelon” at black replacement workers during a dispute on a picket line:


              • Note, please, that I was not calling for the government to do anything about this man; that “hostile work environment” is a term of legal art does not mean that the phrase can’t be used non-legalistically, and I absolutely think that a (non-state) employer—even a horrible conservative employer—should not be forced to tolerate one employee publicly disparaging (albeit not by their individual names) thousands of fellow employees, absent special contractual obligations (like tenure at a college).

                Probably Google shouldn’t have fired the guy, though; it would have been more effective to have him walk around with a dead chicken wired around his neck for a week or so.

                • Zagarna_84

                  The reason the legalistic phrase “hostile work environment” is relevant is that it gets used to describe something that employers are legally duty-bound to stamp out. Your “non-legalistic” use of the phrase is trying to smuggle in connotations that are not, in fact, present. If we return to your original question and use accurate terminology, the correct description of the memo would be “a tendency to create IRRITATION AMONG women fellow-employees at Google”, and at that point, the answer is fairly clear.

                  You allude to the state action doctrine. I don’t think that doctrine has any moral validity (or, for that matter, that it is even expedient, given, as I said, that most private power is concentrated in conservative hands). Power is power. All sorts of private discrimination– including, in a number of states, discrimination on the basis of political viewpoint– are banned in recognition of this fact. I view those protections as valuable and think they ought to be extended.

  • To state the obvious, Donald couldn’t do it alone without his party and base supporting his efforts. Both have been heading in this direction for decades.
    So let’s not give all the blame to Donald. It takes a party.

  • humanoidpanda

    I think it’s something that they borrowed from Greenwald: a vague notion that appearances nonwithstandong , Democrats somehow hold the reins of power, so their “hysteria” poses the real danger

  • MacCheerful

    At the beginning I was stopped by this phrase:

    …it now seems clear that the most frightening threats to ordinary politics in the United States are empty or easily contained.

    Some of the more frightening threats in the last six months were the president’s sudden attempt to demonize foreigners, through the travel ban, and the attempt to ram through health care repeal through a bare minimum of democratic procedures. Neither was “easily contained”, as those lawyers and activists who descended on airports, or those who organized and came out to town halls can tell you.

    The threat to voting rights has also not been “easily contained” nor is it empty. It will probably depend in the end on some marginal votes at the Supreme Court.

    And then there’s this slip slide:

    “But that hardly amounts to a long-term design on American democracy from some kind of fifth column, backed by Moscow’s “Authoritarian International” and propagated by fake news. Even if it were true that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is attempting an illiberal putsch, he is still far from achieving this goal.”

    The authors move immediately from saying the 2016 Russian interference is not a long term design on democracy, to saying that even if it were, well not to worry because Putin has not got there yet. But what exactly is supposed to stop him and whoever takes his place some day if there is not push back? How far from achieving this goal? Getting an infantile authoritarian into office as president seems pretty far.

    It’s hard to take the underlying argument seriously when the methods of arguing use the worst kind of academic hand waving to get past the problematic parts.

  • Reading Daniel’s post and the quoted passages again, if the argument were that the “anti-fear” approach represented by allusions to Arendt, Fromm, Rieff, and Orwell runs the risk of being counterproductive, I would say OK to that.

    But if the argument were that the reaction to Trump is putting us at risk of some of the hyper-anti-anti-liberalism of the height of the Cold War, well, I don’t think that’s a plausible scenario.

  • petesh

    We are living in a time of pain and suffering, we all know that, and so in bad moments the kind of discussion happening here feels unnecessary or irrelevant or pedantic and so on and on. But it’s not, and I am glad you all are having it. Charlottesville hurts, a lot. I feel like screaming. But I am completely serious and supportive when I say: carry on. And thanks.

  • Brian

    This (from the Moyn and Prieston article) is one of the most astonishingly blinkered sentences I’ve ever read.

    “If there is one lesson from the 20th century worth learning, it is that an exclusive focus on the defense of liberal fundamentals against a supposed totalitarian peril often exacerbates the social and international conflicts it seeks to resolve.”

    • sanjait

      They should have preceded that with one of those “with notably rare exceptions…” clauses. Then it’d be all good.

    • econoclast

      Right? The column is written like the US in the 50s is the only thing of note in the 20th century.

  • Hogan

    I await Moyn and Priestland’s follow-up on how we address social and economic inequality with Republicans in control of the federal government and many states and validating gerrymandering and vote suppression. Seems like one of those “and then a miracle happens” deals.

    • Well, when you ignore those pesky democratic norms the authors hate so much, then the People’s Revolution can install a Dictatorship of the Proletariat to finally create the Socialist Worker’s Paradise!

  • ToddTheVP

    You know; I look from NYT Columnist to White House Spokesperson and White House Spokesperson to NYT Columnist, and from NYT Columnist to White House Spokesperson again and it’s impossible to say which is which.

  • Anthony

    So, is this monologue about Trumpism (whatever that is currently0, economics (capitalism), liberal democracy (rule of law, etc.), comparative politics (Russia, CW, Nationalism) or an attempt at free association given opportunity of current occupant in White House?

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