November 29, 2023 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
Is 2024 about defending democracy or the status quo?
We should be clear about what we mean.
I don’t want to call it a consensus. That would be premature.
But there does seem to be a growing sentiment among people who pay attention to politics that the Washington press corps should spend less time talking about the odds of the 2024 election and more about the stakes – that is, less about who’s going to win, and why, and more about the immediate future of democracy.
Then again, maybe there is a consensus. The Economist is no outlier. If the house organ of global capitalism is sounding the alarm about what will happen if Donald Trump wins, that’s a pretty good indicator that people sitting at the centers of power around the world are worried.
“A second Trump term would be a watershed in a way the first was not,” the anonymous editors wrote in last week’s edition. “Victory would confirm his most destructive instincts about power. His plans would encounter less resistance. And because America will have voted him in while knowing the worst, its moral authority would decline.”
That said, there’s still a problem – and the fact that The Economist is sounding the alarm about President Donald Trump 2.0 illustrates it.
“The first question we need to ask whenever someone says ‘democracy’ is: What kind of democracy, how much, and for whom – who is included, and who is not? The people who vote for Trump clearly don’t share the vision of egalitarian multiracial pluralism.”
“Democracy” isn’t just one thing. It means different things. It depends on who you’re talking to. To some, it means a society by which equality – or, if you prefer, equity – is central to the culture. To others, however, is means keeping things similar to the way they’ve always been: those who have dominated America continue to dominate it.
The Economist, as I said, is the house organ of global capitalism. It isn’t really a place where people go to read about achieving through democratic means a multiracial and multicultural society by which all people – not just some people – are treated by their government according to the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
The Economist is a place where people go to read about global capitalism, including threats to it, which Donald Trump certainly is. If he wins again, he’s going to shake up the global economy even more than he did the first time, much to the lamentation of people who are deeply invested in it, which is to say, readers of The Economist.
Point is “democracy” is used in all kinds of ways. Some people mean democracy. Others mean the status quo, or something like the status quo, the existing order, the ways things have usually been. Fact is, people who read The Economist, though they may suffer a bit if Trump wins, are likely to adapt, just as people at the centers of power around the world have adapted to tyrants and despots since forever.
In Part 1 of our discussion (I’ll publish Part 2 tomorrow), Thomas Zimmer, a professor at Georgetown’s school of foreign service, talks about the meanings of democracy, and how those pose a challenge to the Washington press corps as well as the Democratic Party, which is, as of now, the only small-d democratic party in the United States.
Trump supporters worry about democracy, too. “What they worry about is losing their democracy: A restricted version of democracy that leaves entrenched hierarchies of race, gender and religion largely intact. They are committed to defending their white Christian patriarchal democracy against multiracial pluralism.”
JS: Most Americans love democracy, but what they often mean is democracy the way it’s always been in this country, no changes.
TZ: I think a good way to phrase this might be: Most Americans support what they consider the right kind of democracy – but a substantial portion is decidedly not on board with a democracy of the egalitarian multiracial, pluralistic kind. And never has been.
According to the 2023 American Values Survey, almost everybody, left to right, is worried about threats to democracy – and that very much includes supporters of Donald Trump. Obviously, this is not the (small-d) democratic majority standing up against the MAGA threat.
About as many believe Biden winning reelection would “threaten American democracy and way of life” as those thinking Trump coming back to power would endanger democratic self-government.
Some of this can be explained by the fact that election conspiracies are so pervasive on the right: Almost two thirds of Republicans say they believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
But there is more going on here.
The term “democracy” means very different things to different people and groups, the visions of what American “democracy” should be, what type of order a functioning democracy should generate, differ widely.
The first question we need to ask whenever someone says “democracy” is: What kind of democracy, how much, and for whom – who is included, and who is not? The people who vote for Trump clearly don’t share the vision of egalitarian multiracial pluralism.
What they worry about is losing their democracy: A restricted version of democracy that leaves entrenched hierarchies of race, gender and religion largely intact. They are committed to defending their white Christian patriarchal democracy against multiracial pluralism.
The ethno-religious nationalism that animates and defines today’s right across the “West” allows for such a restricted form of “illiberal” democracy as long as it excludes people who are not white and not Christian, or at least puts them in their “rightful” place.
JS: The fluid nature of democracy might be a problem for reporters in the unlikely event that they take the side of democracy. Thoughts?
TZ: Frankly, it’s a problem for everyone who publicly talks and writes about politics. Making sense of the current political conflict requires a more precise understanding of the past and present of democracy than what we are usually getting in the public discourse.
We should recognize that, historically, the term “democracy” has applied to polities and societies that differed widely in terms of who was actually allowed and enabled to participate in the political process as equals – and even more so with regards to whether or not they extended the democratic promise to other spheres of life beyond politics, to the workplace, the family, the public square.
Democracy should be explored and assessed not as a yes-or-no proposition, but on a scale – with an emphasis on how it actually structures the lives and experiences of the people it either treats as equals or excludes from the democratic promise.
I believe an honest conversation about what we mean when we say “democracy” is crucial if the Biden-led coalition is to succeed. That coalition is very broad, ranging from Never Trump conservatives all the way to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
And there is a great deal of skepticism on the left and among younger voters, specifically, who suspect that this call to defend democracy might ultimately just be a fig leaf behind which a coalition of restoration is determined to just restore the pre-Trump “normal.”
“What they worry about is losing their democracy: A restricted version of democracy that leaves entrenched hierarchies of race, gender and religion largely intact. They are committed to defending their white Christian patriarchal democracy against multiracial pluralism.”
But merely restoring the deeply deficient pre-2016 type of “liberal” democracy won’t be enough. The resistance to Trumpism under the banner of “democracy in crisis” will have to be tied to a transformative vision that could actually move us beyond the status quo ante, so that we are not back in a situation that resulted in Trump in the first place, but closer to America becoming that which it never has been yet, an egalitarian multiracial pluralistic democracy.
As for the more specific question on the relationship between political journalism and democracy: Should journalists be actively rooting for democracy? In a very basic sense, the answer has to be yes.
The journalistic undertaking, as understood by all serious journalists, is possible only in a democratic environment in which the control of the powerful is a desired feature of the system, just like informing the public of what is happening in the polity of which they are part.
Political journalism should be taking the side of democracy not just purely for reasons of self-preservation, therefore (after all, journalists who insist on doing anything but propaganda tend to be in very concrete danger in non-democratic systems), but also because its very mission is rendered pointless if democracy dies.
Is that the same as rooting for a specific party? The fundamental reality of American politics is that democracy itself has become a partisan issue, and for now, the Democratic Party is the country’s sole (small-d) democratic party.
Still, most journalists, while absolutely claiming to be pro-democracy (the Washington Post’s motto, after all, is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”), are reluctant to openly take sides, even when the conflict is so clearly revolving around whether or not democracy should be allowed to endure. And this leads to problematic distortions and, ultimately, to complicity with the anti-democratic project.
Because if you opt for “nonpartisanship” and “neutrality” above all else, while also clinging to the idea that you are pro-democracy, you simply cannot admit that one side is an authoritarian party and a threat to democracy – it would render your position absurd.
Therefore, there is a lot of pretending, obscuring, legitimizing, normalizing, and it has a disastrously distorting effect. The Republicans simply can’t be, it must not be, a party increasingly embracing authoritarianism – it must be the “conservative” equivalent of the Democratic Party. What is the solution?
We don’t need journalists to tell people who to vote for. What we need is clear, factual coverage of the American right’s anti-democratic radicalization. We don’t necessarily need journalists to say “the Republican Party is committed to subverting democracy and establishing reactionary minority rule, and therefore you shouldn’t vote for them” – ditch the second part of that sentence, fine, but we need you to say that first part without any “neutralizing” distortions.
Or take it back to 2016: We didn’t necessarily need journalists to say “You shouldn’t elect Donald Trump” – but we absolutely needed them to clearly outline: “Here are the actual policy/political stakes, here are the real-life consequences for American life.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.