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American democracy isn’t dead Every political nightmare eventually comes to an end

It's not the end of the world (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)

It's not the end of the world (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images)


November 11, 2022   5 mins

Democracy didn’t die. Of course it didn’t. The existential angst of the past few weeks seems quaint in retrospect. Was the panic real or was it more a matter of romanticism run amok — of wanting to feel like a revolutionary in a country where revolutions don’t happen?

To be sure, election anxiety is a real thing, and it can be difficult to avoid entirely. In a bygone era, I struggled with this. On the night of Trump’s surprise victory on November 8, 2016, what started as gallows humour transformed into sheer panic. My brother called me at midnight. “I’m not so much worried about us. I’m worried about mom and dad,” he told me. I started to tear up — the first (and last) time I ever cried about politics. Since my mother wears the headscarf, she is visibly and obviously Muslim in a way that I am not. And Donald Trump had spent the previous 12 months demonising Muslims, a relic of a time when Islam and Muslims had become something of a national preoccupation. In addition to his vaunted “Muslim ban”, Trump had expressed support for registering Muslims in a database and refused to disavow the internment of Japanese Americans.

I feel a bit sheepish for crying, not because men shouldn’t cry — they probably should, at least occasionally — but because no one should cry about an election. In a democracy, elections can be cause for disappointment and even anger, but they shouldn’t be an occasion for despair. As I discuss in The Problem of Democracy, to contest a democratic election is to know that there are no final victories, merely provisional ones. The worst thing about elections is losing, but the best thing about losing is that you live to fight another day — through the ballot box in the next election. It does require patience, however. It also requires that the losers come to terms with losing and think about how they might win. There is always hope, in other words. This doesn’t mean that things will get better, but it does mean that citizens, activists, and political parties have avenues of redress available to them.

Intellectually, I knew these things. By then, I had already become a firm believer in the notion that democratic outcomes — especially the ones that seem most threatening to us — must be respected. But in the heat of the moment, it was hard. It was a long night. My parents, who care about politics but care less than I do, went to sleep before Donald Trump altered the course of American history. They woke up to a new world. Yet when I spoke to my father that morning, he seemed oddly relaxed, taking it in his stride. He had grown up under an authoritarian regime. Because he had seen the alternative, he had an intuitive grasp of what made democracy — and specifically American democracy — strong. If enough Americans had voted for Trump, they must have had a reason for doing so. It was their choice, and what was democracy if not the right to make the wrong choice? This wasn’t the end of the world. There would be another election.

America muddled through then. And it has muddled through yet again.

Could democracy have died, or at least begun dying? In politics like in life, anything is possible. But black swans, by their very nature, are extremely unusual occurrences. To preoccupy ourselves with them is to orient our politics around the least likely scenarios. As The Dispatch’s Jonah Goldberg and I discussed recently, apocalyptic rhetoric about democracy’s imminent death is the Democrats’ version of the “Flight 93” argument that America’s fate hinges on one election. That’s not to say that they are morally equivalent. But it is to say that they play on the same notes of overwrought existential dread.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It’s also a thrilling one. Might you be more willing to vote if you think America as you know it is about to end? Perhaps. I’m willing to concede that catastrophism serves a mobilising function in particular instances. However, one can easily imagine such rhetoric losing its incantatory power. Either way, if electoral mobilisation depends on perpetually framing politics as an existential battle — even if it’s not — then it’s hard to see how that level of intensity and angst can be maintained indefinitely.

As arguments go, “democracy will die if we don’t act” is also unfalsifiable. If the Democratic Party outperforms expectations, then catastrophists can say that they pre-empted the fall of democracy by spurring people to action. But if Republicans win, they can just as easily point to those victories as evidence that the threat remains. The easy resort to rhetorical alarmism also captures a certain way of thinking about politics. It treats language as a substitute for politics. For some, such an “angle” may be purely cynical, but once words are uttered with enough frequency, it becomes easier to believe them.

And they shouldn’t be believed. An argument about democracy’s imminent death is not an argument about facts. It’s an argument about something that, in a very literal sense, hasn’t actually happened yet. As it turns out, it’s challenging to engage in reasoned analysis about something that may or may not happen at some unspecified point in the future. The future, perhaps more than the past, is disagreeable. And if reasonable people can disagree on the future, then they can — and should — disagree on otherwise wild claims that we may be witnessing the end of America as we know it.

For American democracy to have died after the Midterm elections, or for it to die in 2024, an unlikely confluence of several unlikely events would need to happen in a particular order and within a fairly narrow timeframe. In a country as large and unwieldy as ours, as evenly divided as ours, with as much separation of powers as ours, with enough federalism as ours, and with a media as vigorous as ours (against Republican overreach), the notion that democracy would die or even that it could was a nightmare. The good thing about nightmares is that you wake up from them.

To say nothing of its effects on politics, panic and fear are also bad for your health. They’re certainly bad for your relationships with other human beings. If you come to believe that your opponents are “fascists”, then they are no longer mere opponents. They are transformed into enemies who must be defeated. Being in such a state of alarm — and wanting to be alarmed — is probably a thrilling way to live, but also probably exhausting.

The highly-educated — particularly writers, intellectuals, and poets — are susceptible to this sort of political romanticism, which is why having the “right” education and the right information will not save you. After all, a well-educated, bored person is a frightening thing to behold, as Charles Fain Lehman recently observed. The political theorist David Runciman said of the romantics that “they want something, anything, to happen, so they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things”.

But you and I are not at the heart of things. Politics should not be anyone’s primary focus or vocation, unless, that is, your life literally depends on it. Since America is still a democracy, for all its faults, your life almost certainly doesn’t. That is something worth appreciating, at least for a moment. You are not a revolutionary — and you probably never will be.


Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author, most recently, of the The Problem of Democracy.

shadihamid

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Greta Hirschman
GH
Greta Hirschman
1 year ago

“A relic of a time when Islam and Muslims had become something of a national preoccupation”. Since the US led by Joe Biden abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban and passed a bill to criminalise criticism of Islam, they no longer cared about people suffering from faith-based totalitarian policies.Ilhan Omar’s bill against Islamophobia undermines our freedom to speak out. Trump hardly went that far. Is criticism of the Taliban, the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Islamic State a form of Islamophobia? Is criticism of all the discriminatory laws allegedly based on Islamic laws a form of Islamophobia?As Milton criticised the authority of the Church with good arguments, why should we consider a crime to criticise Islam in similar ways?

Bob Smalser
Bob Smalser
1 year ago

“Threats to democracy” is code for, “if I ever read any history, I’ve forgotten it.” Now do Lincoln’s draft riots, Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Wilson’s repression of Blacks, the Impeach Truman movement. The comity of the Eisenhower era is the anomaly. And America was never a democracy; it’s a Republic.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Smalser

Obama & Biden’s “threat-to-democracy” was nothing BUT pre-election fear mongering. These guys will do anything to stay power.

jeff kertis
jeff kertis
1 year ago

SHADI HAMID, Do you want to know when and how democracy dies?
When political partisans run all federal agencies and the military. When these partisans control most news and media organizations and declare stories unfavorable to them as “Russian Disinformation”. When these partisans create voting systems that can be easily manipulated without much trace that they did it. When these partisans use the IRS to harass political opponents. When the government spends money it doesn’t have to buy votes. When the government creates sham programs to pay back political supporters. When political partisans manufacture allegations against an incoming president and his supporters. When partisans declare a health emergency to shut down the economy and schools to increase their power and scare uninformed people.
Democracy has been on life support since 2009, with only 2016 representing a slight sign of life. Its hard to see how we as a nation come back from this.

Last edited 1 year ago by jeff kertis
Renaud Beauchard
RB
Renaud Beauchard
1 year ago

Congratulations Unherd, you just ran a column from the poor man’s Janan Ganesh. If I want to read histrionic extreme center garbage, I will go back reading the FT or the Atlantic, not Unherd. More Paul Kingsnorth, more Mary Harrington, more Matthew Crawford, more Joel Kotkin, more John Gray, among others, and less Shadi Hamid, less Peter Beinart, less futuristic and paleo liberals.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
1 year ago

Right on, brother. I’ve been thinking much the same.
I discovered Unherd by seeing a Mary Harrington piece posted over at RealClearPolitics. And I’d appreciated the occasional Matthew Crawford piece and the more frequent Joel Kotkin pieces (even though I don’t share his anti-Trump sentiment).
But, more and more of the content seems sophomoric. Like, we don’t all have to agree. But, more and more of the content does seem to come from the Herd. Disappointing.
Oh. This is a piece from someone at Brookings. It reads like one …

Linda Hutchinson
LH
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

In other words, only commission writers who write what I think and believe – silence the rest.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Well said Linda. I found the article thoughtful and if anything, more radical than the current attempts to create a binary world that much of msm focuses on. A very appropriate article for Unherd. Those who’ve voted down those takes on the article should do what Unherd asks – think again.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

No, I just think they could find better writers to challenge us. I go to Unherd to hear a variety of interesting perspectives I cannot find in other publications. If the writers and articles are the same old tripe you find in other mainstream publications, what is the point? If Unheard wants to build a robust ecosystem of ideas and bring in a more left wing perspective, they have to at least bring in good writers and articles. If they don’t, hey confirmation bias at its finest.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I have read a variety of perspectives on UnHerd, from former Guardian writers through to very conservative ones and people like this chap who appear much more centrist. I’ve read from Christians, Jews and Muslims, Brits, Europeans, Yanks and recent immigrant arrivals on an array of subjects. Not every article I’ve agreed with, but I’ve enjoyed reading it none the less.
What you (and many others now unfortunately) appear to want is a stream of articles from writers you already like and agree with, which I’d argue runs counter to the whole purpose of the website.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Try a little reading comprehension Billy. I would say over half the people I read describe themselves as “left of center”. You just want to posture. I want something to read that does not waste my time.

Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Frankly I don’t believe you read much that you don’t already agree with, hence my criticism of your comment, but we’ll leave it there

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Oh Billy, you really don’t get it do you? I read a lot of things I do not agree with as long as they are not screeching in my face like Vox or The American Prospect. The thing is, if the article does not make a good point or argument, then it is not going to change my beliefs in the slightest. Whether you believe me or not is one of the few things I will never care about.

Danielle Treille
DT
Danielle Treille
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The go read something that AGREES with your views. Simple.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
1 year ago

I think this is unfair. The article seems reasonable even if, I suspect, that the writer and I would agree on little.

rob clark
RC
rob clark
1 year ago

“In a country as large and unwieldy as ours, as evenly divided as ours, with as much separation of powers as ours, with enough federalism as ours, and with a media as vigorous as ours (towards Republican overreach), the notion that democracy would die or even that it could was a nightmare.”

What nonsense! Vigorous media, enough federalism? Also, America is a Constitutional Republic, not a “democracy.”

Last edited 1 year ago by rob clark
Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

Mr. Hamid is unknowingly touching on the key problem of the Western world: “liberal democracy” is an oxymoron. 
A democrat believed that the will of the people must be respected. A liberal believes infringement of certain rights is illegitimate even by popular vote. There is in evitable tension between these.

For a liberal democracy to function, the “rights” part of this equation needs to be small and the “will of the people” part quite large, lest the system become lose the “consent of the governed” and authoritarian. When the President of the United States declares that “trans rights are human rights”, effectively ruling that children slicing off their private parts is a right beyond the reach of the democratic process, your “liberal democracy” has officially jumped the shark.

When the Democratic Party (or the EU, or the UN, or any progressive body) says “democracy is threatened”, what they really mean is “liberalism is threatened”, and specifically they mean “our view of what rights are sacrosanct is threatened”. Don’t believe me? Ask a Pole or a Hungarian how “democratic” the EU is.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brian Villanueva
James Sullivan
JS
James Sullivan
1 year ago

An interesting reflection to read. The longer I live, the less and less urgent politics seems to me. You can only suffer (and there is no more apt word for it) through so many “Most Important Election Ever!” moments before either burning out or tuning out. You brought your Muslim faith, I bring up my own Christian faith – I think you and I would agree that God / Allah is supreme over all, and this should further temper our worries for the purely momentary. Civilizations come and go, as do governments. What seems a crisis today will likely merit little more than a few sentences (if that) in histories of this era a century or two hence (for instance, who remembers President Taft? Or who was speaker of the House under Grover Cleveland?). What matters more is what you and I do with what we have – with our families, our friends, our home communities. In another 2 years we’ll have another ridiculous farce to endure, and it too will be “The Most Important Election Ever!” Right up until it isn’t. And life will go on. And what will matter most to you will still be your family, your faith, and your local community.

Michael McElwee
Michael McElwee
1 year ago

Mr. Hamid still clings to the distinction between left and right, as if that distinction had not not long since evaporated. Most who do so see the threat to human thriving charging from the right only, as if the left were no threat. They do not notice that both Hitler and Stalin were fans of each other and that both laughed out loud at the idea that the left is harmless. Only when one transcends that former distinction, does one come to see the source of the real threat. That source is ideology. That source is the “idea of progress;” the idea that innocence itself will come only at the end of history. Pres. Trump is neither left nor right. He is, whether he knows it or not (I for one, think he knows), warring with this “idea of progress.” That is, he is fighting the right, not the wrong, battle. This is not to say, by the way, that there is nothing to fear from him. Of course not.

Katy Hibbert
KH
Katy Hibbert
1 year ago

So Trump was replaced with a brain-dead, hair-sniffing kiddy-fondler and that’s democracy? Mind you, the Muslim “prophet” was partial to little girls.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
1 year ago

American democracy died some years ago and was confirmed when creepy Joe was “elected” as President. The democrat party have just confirmed the fact by the electoral system and results of the mid-terms.

Johnathan Galt
JG
Johnathan Galt
1 year ago

Democracy is most certainly dead in States which cannot prove election results. That is most of them.

Eric Kottke
Eric Kottke
1 year ago

I’m 41 and I think I’ve heard about 6 different impassioned theories about how the world was literally going to end by (insert date). (Insert date) is well in the past for each of them. This is just within my lifetime. Now when I hear anyone using apocalyptic rhetoric my ears immediately shut off.

Same with politics. Republics are pretty sturdy. If I understand things correctly, it took the Roman Empire 700 years for half of it to fall after its democracy aspect arguably failed. And then that fall is hard to define because it didn’t end with a specific political upheaval or battle. The central government simply became a useless, irrelevant entity (no one cared to fight for) and local leaders gradually became feudal lords who answered to no one.

Cathy Carron
CC
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

This is a pants-on-fire essay regarding Muslim blame games.
Obama was devising a Muslim ‘ban’ before Trump was in office…Obama has designated countries from which folks would be banned from coming to the USA. He was on his way out before he implemented it; Trump implemented it….
From CNN in 1917:
“The seven Muslim-majority countries targeted in President Trump’s executive order on immigration were initially identified as “countries of concern” under the Obama administration. 
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Sunday pointed to the Obama administration’s actions as the basis for their selection of the seven countries. Trump’s order bars citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. for the next 90 days.
https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/29/politics/how-the-trump-administration-chose-the-7-countries
How soon we forget….

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

This is a pants-on-fire essay regarding Muslim blame games.
Obama was devising a Muslim ‘ban’ before Trump was in office…Obama has designated countries from which folks would be banned from coming to the USA. He was on his way out before he implemented it; Trump implemented it….
From CNN in 1917:
“The seven Muslim-majority countries targeted in President Trump’s executive order on immigration were initially identified as “countries of concern” under the Obama administration. 
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Sunday pointed to the Obama administration’s actions as the basis for their selection of the seven countries. Trump’s order bars citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen from entering the U.S. for the next 90 days.
https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/29/politics/how-the-trump-administration-chose-the-7-countries
How soon we forget….

john bell
JB
john bell
1 year ago

I am not sure I agree with the author’s view on elections. It seems profoundly obtuse to even write,” no one should cry about an election” when in this election the choice was choosing republicans who wanted to restrict women’s rights to abortion. Having someone be elected who promises to restrict your basic bodily autonomy seems like a fair reason to despair.

Long Hid
LH
Long Hid
1 year ago

What a great article. I couldn’t agree more. It’s so good to hear someone speaking wisdom.

Andrew McDonald
AM
Andrew McDonald
1 year ago
Reply to  Long Hid

Absolutely right. A good corrective to some of the over-engaged and slightly hysterical calls to action that UnHerd and its commentators tend to drift towards.

Linda Hutchinson
LH
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Long Hid

I, too, thought that this was an interesting article, calmly put forward. Although there are a number of points with which I would disagree, it has given me some food for thought.