THE NOTION THAT liberal democracy is in bad shape is a rare breed of editorial page cliché: upon inspection, it turns out to be true. Global measures of democracy, like those produced by Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the Bertelsmann Stiftung, consistently show a downward trend beginning roughly at the beginning of the 2010s. Less clear, though, is why this decline has happened, and what, if anything, might break the fall.
Two recent books by the political journalist John B. Judis and economist Barry Eichengreen, both respected figures of the intellectual center-left, offer what are likely to become influential diagnoses and prescriptions.
A founding editor of magazines like Socialist Revolution and the East Bay Voice, Judis gravitated over time toward more establishment redoubts such as The New Republic and Talking Points Memo. He is often recalled as a co-author of the prematurely titled The Emerging Democratic Majority in 2002. But Judis’s subsequent frank and self-aware course-correction, in a 2015 essay entitled “The Emerging Republican Advantage,” is more probative of his impressive analytic pedigree.
Eichengreen is an establishment figure of a different timbre: tenured at the University of California at Berkeley, he is a leading economic historian of national depression, crisis, and monetary policy. His most influential academic work charts the effect of the gold standard on economic crisis at the beginning of the 20th century. Less of a high-profile or pugilistic public figure than contemporaries such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, or Jeffrey Sachs, Eichengreen is still an important and influential voice on macroeconomic matters for the Democratic left.
Judis has written a book about the general phenomenon of nationalism. Eichengreen’s is a transatlantic history of populism as a political response to economic crisis. They differ starkly in ambition. Eichengreen offers a crisp historical synopsis of how economic crisis seeds popular discontent, and how European and American leaders have responded to quite uneven effect. In contrast, Judis offers only cursory reflections on nationalism. His main conclusions are that “many people” hold strong positive feelings about their state, and that these feeling can be deployed in either morally worthy or execrable ways. To say the least, these ideas are banal. A fleeting effect to psychoanalyze nationalism as a derivative of kinship sentiments is too thin to take seriously.
Nevertheless, Judis and Eichengreen identify the same culprit before spinning out distinct prognoses and recommendations. Economic stagnation for working- and middle-class voters, they both argue, creates propitious conditions for candidates and parties who are not really concerned with advancing those voters’ interests — think of the 2017 tax cuts as exemplary rather than eccentric — and who also have a weak or negligible commitment to the basic idea of democratic competition as a going concern. For the “left-behinds of post-industrial capitalism,” as Judis puts it, the political system is so dominated by “elites” that a wrecking and reckless disregard for legality, equality, or the legitimacy of the democratic opposition is seen as a positive.
But their convergent diagnosis hides a deeper, more important disagreement about root causes and paths forward. In Judis’s telling, the sinister figure of the migrant, and in his discussion of Europe, a shadowy apparition called the “Muslim,” looms large as the cause of economic hardship. His preferred solution tracks the anti-immigration orientation that the current US president, and, more recently, his erstwhile electoral adversary, have hyped.
Eichengreen tells a more nuanced tale. His account of the “left behind” malaise inculpates industrial mechanization, the post-1970 flagging rate of productivity growth, and the ineptness of political responses to economic crisis. This last — the decisive role that state responses, effective or misguided, play after the economic shock — is critical for Eichengreen. It also means that he can flag a wide range of potential macroeconomic interventions that Judis largely ignores. Also in contrast to Judis, immigration plays a relatively small role in Eichengreen’s account. He concedes that immigration, while increasing overall wealth, can depress wages for lower-paid strata of the workforce. But, he notes, ample compensating policy fixes for these effects exist. There is no good reason to simply blame foreigners, rather than government for its failure to enact compensatory measures.
Consonant with this different emphasis, Judis and Eichengreen then offer divergent sets of recommendations. Adjudicating between their prescriptions has implications for the kinds of economic, social, and immigration policies that should be pursued by candidates and politicians seeking to thwart the present democratic decline, or at least to limit its damage.
But in an important way both accounts miss something important. Both assume American democracy was in rude health to begin with. Neither gives a sense of how the nation has staggered under the weight of gerrymandering, voter suppression, distortionary campaign funding, and disorderly election administration. Only in the late 1960s did a system of what political scientists call “subnational authoritarianism” — i.e., one-party domination of the South — start to slip. Instead, Eichengreen calls the 1950s and 1960s a “golden age” of “political moderation” in both the Europe and the United States. Painting with even more loaded strokes, Judis describes the immediate postwar era as happy days in which “you looked for the label ‘Made in the United States’” because of a belief that the best goods came from America, at least before “the great cities of the Midwest declined.” I didn’t live through that era, but I suspect that someone of my complexion might not have characterized it as a “golden age.”
Both books would have been more persuasive if they had framed the post-2010 democratic slump in this larger context. They then would have had to explain why the current recessional is distinctive and distinctively worrying. On this point, they could have pointed to the piercing siren song of democracy skepticism sung by Trump, the Brexiteers, the French National Front, and the Hungarian Fidesz party. Or they might have explored how the political tactics and legal instruments of democratic decline are being shared from one country to the next, in what seems a novel globalization of authoritarianism. Or they might have explained how badly suited present democratic institutions are to meeting the current threat.
Nevertheless, with this caveat in mind, it is Eichengreen who provides the more persuasive account. In his view, working- and middle-class discontent at economic change stretches back to the Industrial Revolution. In the 1830s, agricultural laborers in the English county of Kent sent threatening letters signed by “Captain Swing” to landlords bidding to introduce new mechanized threshers. The Swing riots were emblematic of a larger historical arc in which working-class distress caused by economic rupture quickly yielding political ructions from below. Often this discontent led to blame being affixed to perceived outsiders, who could be scapegoated as causes of crisis. Stock market collapses in the 1870s in Germany, for example, precipitated a wave of unrest with marked and foreboding antisemitic overtones.
Not all economic downturns, though, yielded the same political responses. Eichengreen compares the policy reactions of the Bismarkian Reich in unified Germany, the British Conservatives before World War II, and Herbert Hoover’s Republicans in the interwar period. He shows that political movements skeptical of democracy thrive when economic policy makers fail to gin up growth or fail to address growth’s skewed distribution. The New Deal is a paradigmatic example of prophylaxis against democracy skepticism marred in but one (pretty major) respect. Southern Democrats, Eichengreen notes, insisted on delegating many important decisions to the states — many still under Jim Crow — even as they opposed the extension of labor and welfare protections to a largely black and Latino agricultural labor force. In interwar Europe, it was sound macroeconomic policy that made the difference between fascism and a modicum of decency.
Given this history, it ought to have been no surprise that the United States was ripe for a political movement skeptical of democracy after decades of welfare-state retrenchment, the sharp recession of 2008–’09, and the lopsided recuperation, where the solvency of banks was prioritized over the interests of homeowners.
Still, as Eichengreen recognizes, an economic explanation for democracy skepticism is incomplete. Non-college-educated men and women who comprise Judis’s “left behind” are better off in material terms today than their counterparts in the 1950s. But they are plainly angrier, and more apt to overturn the applecart. The political scientists Adam Przeworski once calculated that the risk of a democracy failing once it reached a per capita income of $7,000 was vanishingly small. But Thailand’s per capita income was $17,000 last year, and it is still under post-coup military rule without a murmur of popular resistance. Mere wealth is no salve to counter democracy skepticism.
Consistent with this point, recent studies of the current turn to democracy skepticism have found at best mixed evidence that economic distress provides a sufficient explanation for democratic decline. A much-reported econometric analysis of voting behavior by Diana C. Mutz thus found that a feeling of “status threat” rather than economic shock explained pro-Trump voting breaks. But her interpretation has been challenged as “fake news” by Stephen Morgan. Reading the resulting back-and-forth, which is highly technical and quickly loses sight of the policy questions at stake, it is hard to shake the feeling that both registers of explanations have a role to play.
All this invites the further question of how people come to believe that a political system is no longer working on their behalf. Consistent with the positivist, measurement-obsessed quality of contemporary economics, Eichengreen seems to think it is the actual responsiveness of economic policy that counts. This is hardly clear. Areas in the United States that provide the most votes for Trump have become larger and larger net recipients of federal welfare aid since 1970. Reliance upon the federal government for basic economic needs has not prevented voters in these areas from signing up to a political movement that spurns the legitimacy of that same government, or that seeks to hack away the benefits upon which these voters depend. The perception that the deck is stacked against you, and that the best option is to plump for an anti-establishment figure is not a mere reflection of economic realities. It is created and curated. But neither Eichengreen nor Judis say enough about how the feeling of being left behind is manufactured.
Judis does provide something of a response to such worries. He advocates a hard and hostile approach to migration and trade — but especially migration. He seems to view both as corrosive solvents of the social contract. On his telling, there are two sorts of people: the cosmopolitans and the nationalists. The former deny the inevitable force of local attachments, particularly to the nation. The latter accept them, embracing trade and migration alike. Judis here largely ignores the divergent historical treatments of capital flows and labor flows. Both in the United States and Europe, capital at the border has consistently been treated with more favor than human flows. Further suppressing a long history of hostility to immigrants on both sides of the Atlantic — think of the 1994 Proposition 187 — Judis ominously conjures a “massive influx of legal and illegal immigration that appeared to take jobs away” from Americans, as well as Islamist terrorism, as tinder for democracy skepticism. He asserts without evidence that these immigrants, unlike earlier arrivals, do not assimilate. They have instead “burdened” hard-working Americans with demands for social services. According to Judis, it was “partly because of restrictions on immigrants” that earlier waves did assimilate. As a result, popular responses to the Great Recession of 2008 were decisively shaped by “resentment” toward racial minorities in a way that responses to the 1930s Depression were not.
At the same time, Judis downplays the possibility that animus shapes the views “left behind” voters or their preferred candidates. Hence, he concludes, again without offering any evidence, that Trump “probably didn’t believe” that Obama wasn’t a US citizen. This, despite his leading role in the birther movement. Interviewing a group of Trump voters in Ohio, Judis fleetingly notes “how angry they still were at Obama.” He utterly fails to ask why they hold this view. Nor does he pause to reflect on the complex attitudes that might yield such feelings. The result is to treat ugly anti-minority and anti-immigrant views as logical, neutral, and even morally justified.
Judis’s solution to the “conflict over immigration and national identity” is twofold. It entails first “blocking illegal immigration” through employer penalties while still allowing a path to citizenship. Second, he would reduce the annual number of permitted immigrants as a means to “reverse the growth of immigrant ghettos,” and also allow immigrants who are here to assimilate. Although Judis never says outright that immigration in fact induces job loss, his solution of dramatically lowered lawful migration quotations rests on the assumption that choking off migration will address in some tangible way the causes of democratic skepticism.
These prescriptions spin false beliefs about immigration’s contribution to inequality and raw animus into the mundane stuff of Beltway common sense. At the same time, they will do scant to resolve the actual economic burden on Judis’s beloved, and apparently white, working classes. To begin with, Judis does not even mention the extensive empirical literature exploring the relationship between immigration flows and labor-market dynamics. He does not discuss, for example, recent state-by-state studies that fail to find any correlation between migration rates and either unemployment or wages. Although trade intermittently enters his story, he is mute on the role of automation in pushing the working and middle class into idleness. Nor does he mention the federal policies, such as financial deregulation and tax, that encourage companies to rely less upon skilled labor without regard to migration rates. Because of these omissions, immigrants look uniquely culpable. Yet their actual role in creating the crisis of the “left behinds” is likely much more minor.
Moreover, Judis’s account implies that the economic dislocation of the last 30 years among white working- and middle-class citizens has been uniquely devastating. This effect is achieved only by erasing a substantially parallel experience among black industrial workers in the 1950s. Between 1947 and 1963, for example, Detroit lost some 134,000 manufacturing jobs. In part this was due to automation. In part, it resulted from federal efforts to disperse industry from northern urban cores. As Thomas Sugrue writes in his authoritative history of this period, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, it was “blacks [who] bore the brunt” of the ensuing job loss and dislocation. It is striking that Judis can plaintively write about supposed immigrant “ghettos” and yet at the same time omit the history of black experiences with deindustrialization — a history that has left more than its share of ghettoized scar tissue on American cities.
Finally, Judis’s claim that assimilation is facilitated by immigration restrictions is sharply at odds with the evidence. To the contrary, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were formally excluded by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1880 and its successors. Yet they still were so marginalized 60 years later that they could be easy prey for internment by racist bureaucrats during the Roosevelt administration. Judis is culpably silent on this history. It seems that the political imperative to heed disgruntled white voices is more powerful than any obligation to truthful historical fact in the round.
Judis’s discussion of Europe’s experience with migration, and in particular those coming from Muslim-majority countries, strikes a similar chord. On his account, “Europe’s history simply did not prepare it” for the presence of “large numbers of Muslims” in the 1980s. There is scant mention of the colonial and guest-worker policies that induced this migration, let alone historical work on the presence of Muslims and others in European urban centers back to the Middle Ages. In contrast, much is made of terrorism even though it has a quite complex and ambiguous effect on political choices. The anti-Muslim views of European politicians such as Thilo Sarrazin are reported as if they were natural, inevitable, and even well founded. The net effect is to legitimate the latter’s rhetoric, while eliding the substantial labor-market, social, and official discrimination that European Muslims face.
Akin to Mark Lilla’s less tendentious The Once and Future Liberal, Judis’s book can be understood as having sprung from the laudable goal of understanding why white working-class voters have been defecting from the Democratic alliance. But to engage in that project through a sympathetic dallying with group libels about immigrants and Muslims as job thieves and terrorists is another matter entirely. Even if doing so were morally irreproachable — it is not — Judis’s political instincts are also still lousy. It’s tolerably clear that Judis’s approach could not work given what Thomas Edsall recently described as the Democratic Party’s “huge minority base.”
It is dismaying that Judis sees a straightforward path back from the democratic precipice, whereas Eichengreen’s recommendations are complex, technical, and cautious. Identifying sound macroeconomic policy is more difficult, and less emotionally satisfying, than blaming immigrants. Eichengreen is right to be highly qualified in predicting that they can or will be achieved. This balance of malignant optimism and necessary pessimism is striking. It suggests the future of democracy will be determined by whether its advocates heed the keening call to place blame on the vulnerable other, or start the hard and unglamorous spade work that Eichengreen recommends.