11 August 2016
The great contradiction of American liberalism
Liberal democracy as a concept presumes that it shouldn't make too much difference who wins an election; that's what makes it safe to hold elections. No election should be a matter of life and death, so it follows that none should be treated like one. In the modern United States, the Democratic party is the "liberal" party," yet it treats almost every election as a matter of life and death. Their appeal to voters is almost entirely based on fear. They warn that belligerent, reactionary Republicans could get us into a world war, not to mention a nuclear war. This year they warn specifically that Donald Trump's prejudices or his impulsive trollishness may get us into a new war. On the domestic front, Democrats warn that the poor may starve under Republican economies or, at the minimum, their lives will be made far less bearable. On the cultural front, they warn that Republicans' bullying bigotry will make life more dangerous for many kinds of minorities or dissidents. No good can come from Republican power, Democrats say, and yet Democrats seem content with a political system that gives Republicans approximately a 50-50 chance of taking power, regardless of whom they nominate for office. Either Democrats exaggerate the threats posed by Republicans (just as Republicans exaggerate the threats from Democrats), or else they're naive in their loyalty to a political system that so readily permits such illiberal forces to take power. For nonpartisan observers, the larger question is whether liberal democracy can dependably thwart illiberal takeovers like those described by Democrats. If free people must depend on something other than the safeguards of liberal democracy, the value of liberal democracy itself might be questioned. A lesser question might be whether liberal democrats can dependably resist the temptation to exaggerate the stakes in electoral competition, or whether that illiberal impulse is yet another flaw in the system. It might also be asked whether, if the stakes are real for Democratic constituents in elections that determine economic and social-welfare policy, those constituencies' vulnerability to the outcome of elections is itself a weakness or a betrayal of liberal democracy.