Democracy Is (Still) Worth Defending

It’s tempting to put political success before the rules. But doing so trashes democracy.

The 2016 election of Donald Trump, a man with little respect for democratic norms and institutions, was a critical juncture in American history. What turned his election into a threat to democracy was not his inclinations, but rather the response of other political actors. Particularly important was the Republican Party. Rather than condemning and constraining Trump, Republicans indulged him, enabling him to become increasingly brazen. 

Some Republicans did this for electoral reasons. Taking a stand against Trump would provoke political reprisals from him and a backlash from his supporters, thereby endangering their own re-election prospects. Other Republicans went along with Trump’s anti-democratic behavior because they prioritized the advancement of favored policies, such as tax cuts, deregulation, and weakening environmental standards. Similarly, evangelical voters justified supporting Trump because he delivered on their priorities, such as limiting funding for organizations offering abortions, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and appointing conservative judges.

Outside the Republican Party, and in democracies across the globe, Trump’s behavior and the willingness of Republican politicians and voters to go along with it caused shock. Yet perhaps it should not have, because the temptation to prioritize other goals above democracy is easy to succumb to.

Up through the middle of the 20th century, such behavior was widespread. During the interwar years, Germans referred to those who supported the Weimar Republic out of necessity rather than conviction—and who were willing to embrace non-democratic alternatives if they became available—as “Vernunftsrepublikaner” or “rational republicans.” In Spain of the 1930s, the term “accidentalist” was used to describe those forces, particularly on the right, that were willing to play by the democratic rules of the game—so long as it enabled them to achieve other, more fundamental goals. And of course, during this period in Germany and Italy, conservatives maneuvered Hitler and Mussolini into power, believing they could use them to achieve goals they had been unable to achieve on their own. This turned out to be a bad calculation as conservatives were marginalized or murdered by their erstwhile allies. 

Historically, the tendency to prioritize other goals above democracy has been particularly pronounced on the right, but the left has fallen prey to it as well. During the late 19th and early 20th century, some socialists willing to play within the democratic rules nonetheless denigrated “bourgeois” democracy, viewing it primarily as a means rather than an end. They were, accordingly, unwilling to fight for it, even when it was threatened by the right. During the Dreyfus Affair, for example, when the French Third Republic was attacked by reactionary forces, some of the most important socialist leaders insisted that “proletarians have nothing to do with this battle which is not theirs.” (Fortunately, they were opposed by another great socialist leader, Jean Jaurès.)

Ambivalence about democracy on parts of the left also reached a tragic culmination during the interwar years, when some socialists refused to unreservedly denounce the violent insurrectionary behavior of communists, or to join with non-socialist forces to protect democracy against Nazis, fascists and other authoritarians. After the Second World War, some socialists refused to condemn the crushing of freedom and democracy by communist regimes because they believed that all could be justified in the service of more “important” goals.

Returning to the contemporary period, even those who have expressed outrage at the behavior of Trump and his Republican enablers have not been immune to the temptation of prioritizing other goals over safeguarding democracy.

Western European elites, for example, who could barely contain their disdain for Trump and their shock at the decay of American democracy, have stood by over the past decade while autocrats undermined democracy in Eastern European countries, most notably Hungary and Poland, both members of the European Union. Indeed, the EU has contributed to the power of autocratic leaders by handing over vast sums of money that those two governments used to punish opponents and reward supporters. The EU’s origins in the need to stabilize democracy in post-World War II Europe make such behavior particularly disheartening.

As in the United States, conservative politicians within the EU have been particularly culpable in this process. The center-right European People’s Party, or EPP, defended Viktor Orbán while he eviscerated democracy in Hungary. As with their GOP counterparts, the EPP did this for electoral and partisan reasons: Orbán’s Fidesz party delivered votes in the European Parliament that helped the EPP dominate EU lawmaking. 

Turning back to the United States, some Democrats—driven into a frenzy by the anti-democratic behavior of Trump and the Republican Party—have begun advocating similar hardball politics that risks undermining democratic norms.

Examples include calls by some Democrats to stop playing by the rules and to pack the courts in response to Trump’s successful stocking of the judiciary with conservatives. Not only would such moves be of dubious effectiveness—court-packing, for example, is unpopular with voters, and would likely set off tit-for-tat court expansions—they would diminish the legitimacy of the courts, thereby furthering democratic decay.

The Republicans have already shown that accepting “small” infractions creates a tolerance for larger ones. The GOP is no longer a defender of American democracy; the Democratic Party has that role. As such, Democrats must distinguish between policies that strengthen American democracy and those that may weaken it while serving primarily partisan goals.

Another case of the latter is the recent call by some Democrats to fire the Senate parliamentarian (the legislative body’s official adviser on proper procedure) for her ruling that a rise in the minimum wage did not directly impact federal revenue or spending, and could not therefore be included in the budget reconciliation process. Firing umpires for not ruling in your favor is not an effective way to address a problem.  

More generally, there is a willingness on parts of the left to tolerate or even advocate illiberalism in the service of “larger” goals, whether overlooking coercive pressure from social-justice advocates; de-platforming speakers or limiting free speech; tolerating violence or property-destruction; or substituting equality of outcome for equality of opportunity as the goal of government policies. Such approaches contribute to a gradual but ultimately deadly deterioration of the liberal values and norms that diverse, democratic societies need to function.

Perhaps because people in the United States and Western Europe have taken democracy for granted for so long, we have forgotten how fragile it is. Its survival depends on the choices made every day by politicians and citizens. The most fundamental of these is placing loyalty to democratic norms and institutions above all else.

Rather than viewing the tendency to prioritize other goals over democracy as an aberration limited to Trump and his Republican enablers, we must recognize it as a temptation that is all too easy to fall prey to, especially when the stakes of politics feel high. But as we have been painfully reminded in the United States over the past few years, once a significant number of people begin to treat democratic norms and institutions as a means rather than an end, countries can quickly find themselves on a slippery slope towards democratic dysfunction and decay. 

Sheri Berman, a member of the Persuasion advisory board, is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her most recent book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.