In the New York Times, Paul Krugman says that democracy is in trouble. There is a global drift away from the principle of self-rule, Krugman argues, and advanced democracies like the United States aren’t setting much of an example for the rest of the world. Krugman isn’t alone in this assessment. Dozens of other scholars have recently warned about a crisis of democracy, especially in the United States. But the real question is: precisely what kind of crisis is it?
Let’s begin by recognizing that this isn’t the first time that democracy has been in trouble. In fact, the Times’ James Reston sounded the same alarm exactly forty years ago. “It is hard to travel in Europe these days,” Reston wrote in June 1975, “or even to live in Washington, without recognizing that liberal democracy is in serious trouble.” An influential report from the Trilateral Commission released in 1975 also forecast a “bleak future for democratic government.”
Democracy was also besieged forty years before that. In his 1933 book Democracy in Crisis, the political scientist Harold Laski wrote that Americans felt “a wider disillusionment with democracy and a greater skepticism about its institutions” than they had ever experienced before. Even President Franklin Roosevelt confessed that he was an admirer of the firm-handed methods of the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
And for that matter, democracy was in peril a century ago as well. “America is in a soul-searching mood,” Walter Weyl, a co-editor of The New Republic, wrote in early 1914. To many people, American democracy seemed to be “in process of decay.” Weyl’s colleague Walter Lippman was similarly discouraged. The future of democracy, Lippman warned, “is so uncertain that no one can feel any assurance in the face of it.”
It’s tempting to see a pattern. Democratic crises appear to arise when economic conditions deteriorate. There was a recession in the early 1970s, a great depression in the 1930s, and a prolonged slump from 1907 to 1914. Add some uncertainty about international politics, and fears about authoritarian competitors — imperial or fascist Germany, the Soviet Union, or China today — and you have all the preconditions for a bout of democratic malaise.
In fact, though, every “crisis of democracy” has been different. In 1913, the problem was the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of adult Americans. Women could not vote; African Americans were barred from the polls; and many working class whites believed that the system was rigged in favor of the rich. Only one-tenth of the adult population voted for Woodrow Wilson in the election of November 1912. That crisis eventually produced substantial reforms, such as more extensive voting rights, the direct election of senators, and campaign finance reforms.
The crisis of the 1930s was not mainly about enfranchisement. Rather, it was about the actual capacity of federal government to do anything about economic problems and the threat to American interests abroad. The federal government in 1932 was a primitive, ramshackle piece of equipment. The response to this crisis was a massive project of administrative reform, which produced a strong presidency, the national security state, and and a range of new tools for economic management.
And the crisis of the 1970s was different again. Many people, including James Reston and the Trilateral Commission, argued that the problem was now too much democracy and bureaucracy. The advanced democracies were overloaded with demands from the public, and the result was persistent deficits, over-regulation, and confused monetary policy. The response this time? A more independent Federal Reserve, fiscal controls like the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, regulatory roll-backs, and international trade and investment agreements that would discourage government from giving favored treatment to domestic special interests.
What kind of crisis is the United States experiencing today? That’s the unresolved question. Some people see a reprise of the crisis of the 1910s. Krugman, for example, worries that the United States’ political institutions are once again being “warped by the influence of big money.” But observers such as Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who worry about Washington’s ability to “solve problems” and “meet challenges,” seem to be repeating the language of the 1930s. Meanwhile critics such as Francis Fukuyama and Niall Ferguson see democratic excesses like those of the 1970s. Everyone agrees that democracy is sick — but the diagnoses are completely at odds. Some doctors prescribe more democracy, and some less.
And it’s possible that the country is facing an new sort of crisis, which is an ugly amalgam of all preceding types. Think of long-term issues like an aging population, the rise of China, and climate change. The burden of these problems will fall on people who can’t vote (because they are not yet born). That seems like 1913. Solving these problems will likely require the invention of entirely new forms of global and domestic governance. That sounds like 1933. And the policies that are necessary to solve these problems may demand unprecedented restrictions on the aspirations of present-day voters. That sounds like 1973.
Let’s call this the crisis of anticipation. It’s a crisis because we don’t yet know how the nation will respond to it, or whether it will respond appropriately at all. But perhaps we can be encouraged by history. Every preceding crisis has started with a sense of malaise and foreboding. But the nation has always risen to the challenge, by overhauling governmental institutions and redefining exactly what American democracy means. Why should we expect our experience this time to be any different?
Alasdair Roberts is a professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. His most recent book is The End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Control Dissent (Cornell University Press, 2013). This comment is based on a paper to be presented at the University of Oxford on February 27, 2015. See http://aroberts.us/2015/02/19/lee-lecture-at-all-souls-college-oxford/