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Democracy Under Siege
When the president used his power to target immigrants, the press, and his political opponents, the sheer overreach of his actions shocked many citizens.
Tensions among the nation’s political leaders had been escalating for years. Embroiled in one intense conflict after another, both sides had grown increasingly distrustful of each other. Every action by one camp provoked a greater counterreaction from the other, sometimes straining the limits of the Constitution. Fights and mob violence followed.
Leaders of the dominant party grew convinced that their only hope for fixing the government was to do everything possible to weaken their opponents and silence dissent. The president signed into law provisions that made it more difficult for immigrants (who tended to support the opposition) to attain citizenship and mandated the deportation of those who were deemed dangerous or who came from “hostile” nations. He then put his pen to a law that would allow for the prosecution of those who openly criticized his administration, such as newspaper publishers.
The year just described was not 2017 or 2018. Rather, it was 1798, when President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. His allies in Congress, the Federalists, argued that these measures were necessary, in anticipation of a possible war with France, to protect the country from internal spies, subversive elements, and dissent. The Federalists disapproved of immigrants, viewing them as a threat to the purity of national character. They particularly disliked the Irish—the largest group—because they largely favored their political opponents, the Republicans, and sympathized with the French. Or as one Federalist congressman put it, there was no need to “invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all the world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility.”1
Critics of the new laws raised their voices in protest. The Republicans charged that they amounted to barefaced efforts to weaken their faction, which happened to include most Americans not of English heritage. Two leading Republicans, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, went so far as to advise state governments to refuse to abide by the Sedition Act, resolving that it was unconstitutional.
Political conflicts boiled over into everyday life. Federalists and Republicans often resided in different neighborhoods and attended different churches. Federalists, centered particularly in New England, prized their Anglo-American identity, and even after the Revolution they retained their affinity with the mother country. Republicans saw themselves as cosmopolitan, cherishing Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality, and they championed the French Revolution and held disdain for Britain. By 1794, partisans in urban communities were holding separate Fourth of July ceremonies. Republicans read aloud the Declaration of Independence—penned by the founder of their party, Thomas Jefferson—as evidence that independence had been their own achievement, while the Federalists offered toasts to their leader, President George Washington. The Republicans viewed themselves as the party of the people; one prominent politician among them chided the Federalists for celebrating not “we the people” but “we the noble, chosen, privileged few.”2
To many people at the time, the Alien and Sedition Acts bore an unsettling resemblance to the kinds of government overreach that had spurred them to fight a war for independence just a few decades earlier. The acts comprised four laws, three of which placed restrictions on immigrants and appeared to be a strategic attempt to shape the electorate by excluding potential voters for the opposition in order to tip the scales of power. The fourth, the Sedition Act, made it illegal to publish “any false, scandalous, and malicious writing or writings against the Government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, with intent to defame … or to bring them … into contempt or dispute.” By denying freedom of speech and freedom of the press, it outlawed criticism of the government and deprived citizens of the opportunity to become more fully informed by hearing alternative points of view. The measures gave the president power to exert control over Americans’ lives in ways removed from congressional authority, and therefore less accountable to popular control. Some state governments outright refused to abide by the new federal law, intensifying divisions. And on the streets, mock violence—the burning of effigies—was swiftly transforming into the genuine article, as politically motivated beatings and open brawls proliferated. In one case, on July 27, 1798, Federalists in New York marched up Broadway singing “God Save the King” just to antagonize the Republicans; the latter responded by singing French revolutionary songs. Soon the “singing contest” gave way to violence as fighting ensued.3
Watching the growing chaos and division, Americans of all stripes worried that their experiment in self-government might not survive the decade. They feared that monarchy would reassert itself, aristocracy would replace representative government, or some states might secede from the Union, causing its demise. The early beginnings of democracy in the United States were fragile—even at a time when some of the Constitution’s framers themselves, along with other luminaries of the era, held public office.
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Should we contemporary Americans worry about the future of our democracy? Is it in danger? While we do not share our predecessors’ fears that the British crown might rule us once again or that the nation might lapse into civil war, subtler signs of danger abound. We face the weakening of the checks and balances that prevent democracy from sliding into tyranny. The rule of law, long taken for granted by Americans, has been eroded by a president who sees the government as an instrument to advance his own personal and political interests. Elections, the foundation of democracy, are becoming less free and fair due to the distorting influence of money, misinformation, and foreign meddling. While the United States has long distinguished itself by its relative absence of outright corruption, public office now increasingly appears to be—for some—a platform for private gain rather than an opportunity for public service. Hard-won civil rights, civil liberties, and voting rights face challenges; even journalists engaged in routine investigative reporting have been subjected to intimidation. And above all, American politics is becoming a matter of “us” against “them” among political leaders and ordinary Americans alike, dividing families and communities, fostering hostility, and impeding our collective capacity to solve problems and govern ourselves productively.
Many remain confident that democracy will endure, and certainly reasonable arguments can be made to support that assumption. After all, the United States boasts the world’s longest-functioning constitution and a long-standing reputation as a beacon of democracy for the world. We typically regard our political institutions as bulwarks against the emergence of tyranny or authoritarianism.4 And although American democracy developed slowly and haltingly—thwarted at the outset by the enslavement of African Americans, the subordinate status of women of all races, and the suppression of Native Americans—still the nation’s history is often depicted as a story of progress toward the fulfillment of a democratic ideal.
The trouble is, however, that a closer look at American history reveals a far more tumultuous past than this familiar narrative suggests. This book delves into our history in order to try to understand whether democracy today is in danger or not. We turn to several periods in which many Americans were worried about whether rule by “we the people” could endure. We investigate them to uncover the elements that presaged each crisis, how our institutions withstood serious threats, and what ensued. What we have learned from this history is that American democracy has been far from invincible. To the contrary, it has been under threat time and again, and has often proven to be fragile in the face of danger. In many instances, moreover, real harm occurred, sometimes with long-lasting consequences.
From the beginning of the republic to the present, the United States has endured repeated crises when the nation’s promise of popular government was in peril. At each of these junctures, political combat escalated to a point where Americans feared that the government might collapse, that the Union might dissolve, or that unrest, violence, or even civil war might break out. In the 1790s, people worried that political conflict over the Alien and Sedition Acts would plunge the nation into armed conflict or dissolve it through secession. In the 1850s, divisions over slavery did tear the country apart, leading to a destructive civil war in the next decade. In the 1890s, amid the convulsive changes in the industrial era and the upsurge in labor conflict and farmers’ political organizing, nearly four million African Americans were stripped of their voting rights. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Americans welcomed a president who was willing to use greater executive power than his predecessors, but some worried that it paved the way for a strongman leader like those on the rise in several European countries. During the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, the president tried to use the tools of executive power that were developed in the 1930s as political weapons to punish his own enemies.
At each of these five moments we saw clear signs of damage to the pillars of democracy. Ambitious politicians frequently trampled the principle of free and fair elections, using intimidation, stuffing of ballot boxes, and other techniques to win office. They often dispensed with the rule of law and resorted to power and force instead, from the time when President George Washington led fifteen thousand troops into western Pennsylvania to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion to when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during World War II, signed an executive order that sanctioned the imprisonment of more than a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent in detention camps. Parties openly undermined the legitimacy of the opposition, from the conflict over slavery in Kansas, when pro- and antislavery citizens adopted separate constitutions, held separate elections, and chose separate legislatures, to President Richard Nixon’s underhanded and illegal efforts to destroy those he regarded as his political enemies. The integrity of hard-won rights suffered, from the damage to freedom of the press and freedom of speech caused by the Sedition Act to the loss of voting rights by African Americans in the 1890s.
These crises of democracy did not occur randomly; rather, they developed in the presence of four specific threats: political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power. We know from the study of the rise and fall of democratic regimes elsewhere in the world that these conditions are harmful to the sustainability of democracy. When they are absent, democracy tends to flourish; when one or more of them are present, democracy is prone to decay.
Each of these threats by itself can damage democracy. Polarization tends to divide citizens into opposing “teams” that are geared more toward defeating one another than governing effectively. Disputes over who belongs in the political community and the status of members—categorized along lines of race, gender, national origin, or religion—can engender deep divisions that result in political exclusion, the widespread denial of rights, and violent reprisals. Economic inequality can pit society’s haves against its have-nots and induce the wealthy to use their resources to protect their privileged place in the social order. And the growth of executive power enables the concentration of authority in the hands of a single person, which is precisely what the framers of the Constitution hoped to avoid.
In none of these periods of democratic fragility in American history were all four threats present simultaneously. Each of the threats has waxed and waned at different times, and on only some occasions have a few joined forces. And it is these combinations that have proven particularly dangerous. In the 1850s, for example, the paired emergence of extreme political polarization and the intensification of conflict over the status of African Americans pushed the country into a calamitous civil war. In the 1890s, polarization and ardent white supremacy resurged, and in combination with the soaring economic inequality of the Gilded Age they led to the wholesale exclusion of African Americans from rights of citizenship. Democracy has not fared well in these periods when the threats coalesced.
Now, for the first time in American history, we face all four threats at the same time. As in the 1790s, or during the conflict that led to the Civil War, we confront deep political polarization. Political leaders exaggerate their differences in order to win elections, and they have grown more willing to circumvent long-established norms in order to gain, wield, and keep power. And ordinary Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into separate camps based on where they live, where they go to school, where they work, what they read, listen to, and watch—and how they vote. In the process, they have grown more polarized and antagonistic toward the opposing party. Increasingly, partisans view one another not as honorable competitors but as an existential threat to everything they stand for.
What’s more, partisan divisions today overlap with other conditions that are also familiar from the history of American politics—rising racial antagonism, pitched battles over gender, and soaring economic inequality. The combination of intense political combat, social tribalism, and plutocracy now threatens to undermine our government’s legitimacy and its capacity to seek common solutions to collective problems. No corner of contemporary politics has been spared from this dysfunction: not Congress, the bureaucracy, the courts, the media, or the presidency. Making matters worse, today’s merger of threats, unlike that of earlier periods, coexists with extreme and growing executive power. This creates the opportunity for excessively partisan presidents to use the government to serve their own personal and political ends.
It is this unprecedented confluence of all four threats—more than the rise to power of any particular leader or party—that lies behind the contemporary crisis of American democracy. The threats have grown deeply entrenched, and they will likely persist and wreak havoc for some time to come. These circumstances are troubling indeed, and we make light of them at our peril. In order to understand what the combination of threats might portend for American democracy, in this book we will consider how the nation navigated them in the past—or, in some instances, failed to do so—and then apply what we have learned to the present.
Copyright © 2020 by Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman