RECAP: “The Recurring Crises of American Democracy,” Book Talk w/ Profs. Suzanne Mettler (Cornell) and Robert Lieberman (Johns Hopkins)

After sending their recent co-authored book, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, to press about a year ago, Cornell University John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions Suzanne Mettler and Johns Hopkins Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science Robert Lieberman watched as the threats to democracy that they examined escalated, culminating in the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

In assessing the overarching question of whether or not American democracy is today in genuine peril—and, if so, what imperils it—Profs. Mettler and Lieberman turned toward historical moments of systematic vulnerability to create a comparative analytical framework. And as Prof. Mettler noted in introducing their March 26 talk at the Kinder Institute, January 6, 2021, took her immediately back to November 10, 1898, in Wilmington, NC. During the 1896 local and national elections in North Carolina, she explained, a fusion of the Republican and People’s Parties wrested control of the state’s governorship, majorities in both the House of Representatives and state assembly, and numerous municipal offices from elite white Democrats. Wilmington, in many respects, was the epicenter of this political and cultural sea change, particularly in terms of how the city’s civic infrastructure reflected African American men’s post-Civil War surge in democratic participation. Among other indicators of change, Wilmington had three Black aldermen, a growing Black middle class, and the Daily Record, the only Black-owned daily newspaper in the nation. The city was, in this, likewise an embodiment of elite Democrats’ worst fears realized, and on the aforementioned day in November, 2,000 white men belonging to paramilitary groups staged a coup, storming the city, burning the Daily Record offices to the ground, murdering hundreds of residents of Wilmington’s Black neighborhoods, and forcing the resignation of the mayor and aldermen at gunpoint and installing a replacement regime.

The parallels to January 6, Prof. Mettler continued, are striking. White supremacists were the most visible participants in both insurrections. Both instances of violence were incited by party leaders, and each was fueled by an unwillingness to abide by perhaps the most fundamental principle of democracy: when elections are held, someone loses; and when your party loses, you concede and communicate to your followers to do the same.

Returning to the 1890s later in her portion of the talk, Prof. Mettler drew attention to the tactics—poll taxes, literary tests, widespread paramilitary violence—that Democrats throughout the South used to shut down their opposition and thus ensure that their elite, white, autocratic power bloc would have an outsized and corrosive voice in state and national politics for the next half century. As Republican presidents from McKinley to Taft sat by and did nothing to curb these and other abhorrent practices—in some cases even encouraging them—each of the four pillars that mark democratic health fell under attack: free and fair elections, rule of law, recognition of the legitimacy of political opposition, and the integrity of rights and liberties.

This was by no means the first time that American democracy had entered a period of decay. As Prof. Mettler showed in looking at the newspaper wars of the early national period, the fragility of American democracy (and particularly the notion of legitimate opposition) was exposed even as the ink on the Constitution was drying. That said, what we did see in the 1890s, as well as in the run up to the Civil War, was the convergence of what she and Prof. Lieberman identified as the four key threats that render democracy most vulnerable: polarization, conflict over the boundaries of political community, high and rising economic inequality, and aggrandizement of the Executive Office.

The first three threats, Prof. Lieberman argued in opening his portion of the talk, were simultaneously operational in the 1890s, but it wouldn’t be until the election of FDR that the fourth truly surfaced in American political life. While Roosevelt never assumed dictatorial power, there is no question that he (with the blessing of Congress) left the presidency much more powerful than he found it. Some of the ways in which this played out are familiar: greater policymaking authority, greater managerial power over the federal government via an expanding administrative state, and greater operational control via a ballooning White House establishment. Other ways were less so, as Prof. Lieberman illustrated in pointing to a 1940 secret memorandum penned by J. Edgar Hoover and signed by FDR which, in response to the president’s fears of Nazi subversion of the United States, authorized illegal wiretapping by the Justice Department and FBI—in practice, primarily of foreign nationals, though in some instances, of private U.S. citizens as well. Though democracy persisted in spite of this, the New Deal and World War II-eras nonetheless saw the creation of a new executive toolbox, the contents and perceived necessity of which continued to grow with the rise of the national security state and the exigencies of the Cold War.

Any questions regarding what these tools might look like in the hands of a president less scrupulous than Roosevelt were answered in the 1970s, when Nixon weaponized the newfound power of the executive apparatus to target political enemies. Much can be gleaned from the Watergate disaster, Prof. Lieberman suggested, some of it dire and some of it reassuring. One reading would be that Nixon’s malfeasance is but one in a long line of examples that show how, time and again, democracy has proven more fragile—and instability, violence, and the dimunition of rights closer at hand—than we might think. At the same time, Watergate also speaks to a certain modicum of resilience. As the titular four threats have waxed, waned, and recombined over the past two-plus centuries, democracy has never backslid all the way to authoritarianism and, one could reasonably argue, has in fact progressed, on balance, toward greater robustness and inclusivity.

Circling back to where the talk began, Prof. Lieberman warned that what we saw on January 6 was, for the first time in American history, the convergence of all four threats at once. And while he emphasized that this convergence certainly pre-dates the Trump presidency, the damage that the pillars of democracy suffered over the past four years was profound. And any look at the us vs. them polarization of today’s political arena, or the large-scale attempts in Georgia and elsewhere to suppress the vote and undermine free and fair elections, shows that the damage is still being done. If there’s a ray of hope, Prof. Lieberman concluded, it’s that Americans still believe in democratic ideals, which leaves open the possibility that restoring the integrity of democracy—finishing what Lincoln called “unfinished work”—might be embraced in the coming years as a collective top priority.