Is American Democracy Really in a State of Emergency?
Andrew Keen Has Some Questions
It feels—to some, at least—like an emergency. And so, in the fashion of an ER doctor, I’m in Washington DC this week checking on the health of American democracy. The midterms are less than three weeks away and many worry that American democracy is sick. Some even fear that, in what they euphemize as these “difficult times,” this sickness is terminal.
I’ve come to DC to interview Moises Naim, the former wunderkind Venezuelan finance minister turned political pundit, for a soiree on the roof of the Bertelsmann Foundation of North America, a few blocks north of the White House. It’s part of my long-running How to Fix Democracy series in which I’ve interviewed luminaries like Madeleine Albright, Margaret Atwood and the 2021 Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa about the health of democracy around the world.
When Naim appeared on Keen On in February to talk about his excellent new book, The Revenge of Power, he was pessimistic about the future of American democracy. Donald Trump, he feared, would likely be reelected president in 2024 and would replace real American democracy with a Hungarian-style fake illiberal version. But eight months is a long time in anyone’s politics. So I’m curious about the wise Dr Naim’s prognosis on the current health of the American patient.
I do worry about a lazy hysteria that has infected some people’s evaluation of American democracy’s health. It’s part of the fashion for an apocalypse-chic pessimism that I warned against earlier this month. It’s become de rigeur amongst a certain breed of coastal millenarian to assume that American democracy is on its last legs and about to be replaced by George Orwell or Hannah Arendt’s worst nightmare. Perhaps, as I suggested this week on Keen On to Veronica Roth, the bestselling young adult (YA) writer, Americans of all ages have been reading too many of her dystopian YA fantasies.
One Keen On guest last week suggested that America was becoming like its southern neighbor, Mexico, in its slide into violent one-party rule. A second Keen On guest equated the crisis of local American newspapers with the death of its national democracy. A third, a self-styled “expert” on terrorism, even equated the January 6 “insurgents,” those bearded anti-democratic Proud Boys, with the equally bearded anti-democrats of ISIS. Somehow this author of a shrill new book about “internet age terrorists” blamed all this on Amazon Web Services and the other Big Tech ISPs.
SHUT THE INTERNET DOWN! this anti-terrorism ayatollah seemed to be suggesting as a Hail Mary strategy to save “truth” from “misinformation” and, thus, save democracy. Maybe we should just require all young men to shave in the morning.
So how to fix democracy without shutting down the internet? Firstly, I think we should relax and stop imagining we are living in one of Veronica Roth’s dystopias for young people. Things really aren’t that bad. As Ric Keller, the four-term former Republican Congressman from Florida, suggested to me this week, humor goes a long way in politics. Democracy can be strengthened by smiling from time to time. America’s greatest presidents—from Reagan to JFK to Obama—were great, in part, Keller reminds us, because they told funny jokes.
Another Keen On guest this week wrote a book entitled How to Pick an American President? He describes this as the most “consequential” decision in the world. Perhaps. But, as Ric Keller suggests, pick a president who makes you laugh. That’s the best way to weed out the unfunny Trump and his unfunny imitators. American democracy needs a humor realignment. Less gloom and doom. More jokes from its politicians; less levity, perhaps, from its commentators.
But there’s also a more serious realignment going on in America right now which, I suspect, explains much of the apocalyptic hysteria of coastal millenarians. As the super-smart political scientist and co-editor of Dissent magazine, Tim Shenk, told me on Keen On earlier this week, American democracy is a cyclical thing.
Every generation, Shenk argues in his new book, Realigners, is distinguished by what he calls its “visionaries” and “hacks”—from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to W.E.B. Du Bois, Barack Obama and Phyllis Schafly—who radically rewrite the language of politics. Ours is no different. American democracy is currently going through a Shenkian realignment. Each party is seeking to reinvent itself in the perpetual chess game of democracy. And part of that great game is denying the democratic legitimacy of the other party.
Young Americans may even be pioneering this realignment. As Kyle Spencer, the author of Raising Them Right, told me on Keen On earlier this week, America’s “ultraconservative youth movement” might be about to revolutionize the Republican party. And the same, she argues, needs to happen within the Democratic party if it is to compete for power in the 2020s and beyond.
So where to look for auguries about the health of American democracy? No, not to Greece, antiquity or otherwise. That’s a rookie mistake. Instead, look to contemporary Egypt. As the Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid told me on Keen On this week, the future of all contemporary democracies may lie with the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. That’s why he titled his new book The Problem of Democracy.
Like the Muslim Brotherhood, most contemporary political parties on both secular left and religious right, Hamid argues, regard themselves as the protector of an absolute truth. That’s the problem with 21st-century democracy. But it’s not a terminal sickness and we need to live with it. After all, as Hamid suggests, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood is infinitely preferable to the military rule of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the contemporary pharaoh who shut down Egyptian democracy in 2014.
My guess, then, is that the health of American democracy is ok. Not perfect. But then it never was and never will be. As James Madison, America’s original realigner explained, democracy exists because of our imperfections. Perhaps democracy can only work if it is both imperfect and incomplete. Maybe all the chatter about the fate of democracy in our “difficult times” reflects its strength rather than weakness. So keep worrying—but not too much. Along with smiling (and voting), that’s probably the most effective medicine for maintaining the decent health of American democracy.