As mass violence and economic hardship ravage many communities, a line from David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” comes to mind: “If anarchy actually wins, if rulelessness becomes the rule, then protest and change become not just impossible but incoherent. It’d be like casting a ballot for Stalin: you are voting for an end to all voting.”
In part because Washington is a city of personality and ideological branding, there’s a temptation in some parts of the Beltway to think that maintaining a regime is simply a matter of having the “right” people with the “right” ideas in a few key positions of power. Thus, to establish “liberal democracy,” one only needs to let liberal Democrats control the commanding heights of power, and a liberal-democratic regime will be founded. In our own time, this reduction of regime integrity to which faction holds political power has intertwined with intense negative partisanship.
However, as political theorists since at least Aristotle have understood, what is possible for a regime’s political order in turn depends upon the broader conditions of the polity. A self-governing democratic republic that offers robust protections for civil liberties depends upon a host of underlying conditions, such as certain levels of social capital and institutional trust. Absent those conditions, the balance between authority and openness necessary for such a society cannot be struck.
While many have diagnosed the post-Cold War era as one of democratic triumphalism, even many defenders of the liberal-democratic order during those heady days recognized its dependence upon deeper underlying structures. In his (chronically misunderstood) The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama spends many pages discussing those necessary preconditions for the establishment of liberal democracy.
The importance of those underlying structures obviously has significant implications for the enterprise of regime change, offering one explanation for why efforts to implement democracy have succeeded in some countries (like Japan) while failing in others. But it also has implications for the project of regime preservation. If you want the project of republican self-governance to succeed, you need to attend to underlying social and political conditions.
For this multivariate politics, the defense of democratic life is not merely about who sits in the White House. Indeed, a political vision that insists that only one faction has a legitimate claim to political power is itself in tension with the spirit of conciliation and acceptance necessary for democratic life. Such a defense instead involves promoting policies that encourage stability, prosperity, and compromise. Those already vulnerable are particularly endangered by an absence of order.
The United States faces at least five intersecting challenges at the moment: the pandemic, grave economic pain, geopolitical disruption, mass unrest in major cities, and a significant depletion of institutional capital. Protecting the American regime involves responding to those challenges, and such a response goes beyond who holds the Oval Office. All-caps tweets and sneering dismissals of one’s political opponents do not rise to this challenge, nor does feeding into the pathologies of alienation. Defending that regime — finding that more perfect union — involves instead implementing a set of policies that affirm its virtues while addressing those areas where we fall short. Clearer eyes are required, as are robust hearts, which subject anger to the more rigorous discipline of love.