The Good Fight
William Galston on 2024 and Trump's Conviction

William Galston on 2024 and Trump's Conviction

Yascha Mounk and William Galston discuss why neither the Democrats or Republicans have been able to build a durable governing majority.

William Galston is an author and academic who holds the Ezra K. Zilker Chair in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Galston was also deputy assistant for domestic policy to President Bill Clinton. His latest book is Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and William Galston discuss why cultural questions have become as important as economic issues in deciding elections; why the period following the 2024 election will afford political opportunities to ideological upstarts in both parties; and the outsized influence of “dark passions” like humiliation and resentment in voting behavior.

The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Yesterday, we saw that a jury in Manhattan found Donald Trump guilty on all counts, the first time that a US president was found to be criminally guilty. This seems like a major moment, but there have been major moments in the past that have turned out not to be quite what they seemed. How much do you think this is going to transform the presidential campaign and the fate of Donald Trump?

William Galston: Well, I will go out on a limb and suggest that in the context of everything else, this event is likely to have only limited significance and impact. And it may well be washed away by the results of the upcoming presidential debate on June 27th, which I regard as potentially a much more transformative event than the outcome of this trial.

Mounk: There's some hope, obviously, that people have that a lot of independents, perhaps a lot of low-information voters who haven't really tuned into the political debate that much, will look at this verdict and say that twelve Americans, a jury of his peers, have decided he's guilty. That somehow transforms things. On the other side, of course, there is the fact that people have known Donald Trump for a very long time and most Americans seem to have made their mind up about him one way or the other. And the fact that he had an affair with a porn star and has paid her off for her silence doesn't exactly break with the image that most people have with Donald Trump. You don't think that this is going to sway voters in the way that a lot of people on MSNBC and CNN are hoping these days.

Galston: No, I don't. But there's one thing I want to emphasize: I'm not sure. And anybody who says that he or she is or is sure about what the impact is going to be is exceeding a reasonable evidentiary brief. 

15 years ago, I thought I understood the American electorate pretty well. I have lost that confidence. I remember in August of 2015, I was watching the very first Republican debate with a veteran political reporter, someone who's seen many more people up close than I have. And we turned to each other after a comment that Trump made and said, that's it. He's finished. He can't possibly go on. And of course he did. And I've had that reaction over and over and over again, and I've been wrong every single time. And what that has told me, is that I don't understand a large portion of the American electorate very well at all. And I've tried to educate myself, but I have no confidence that I've educated myself enough to be able to predict public reactions anymore. And it's easy to be glib and say, well, such and such has already been factored into the public's view of Donald Trump—or it hasn't. Who the hell knows? That's not a rhetorical question. Maybe somebody knows, but I don't.

Mounk: If somebody knows, we don't know who it is, so it's not very much help. 

Galston: And we won't be able to tell how it is that they know what they actually do know.

Mounk: The obvious point here is that polling is pretty helpful. Past patterns in polling are pretty helpful when there is a clear precedent. What happens to the popularity of an incumbent president when there's a sudden rise in unemployment in the six months leading up to the elections? We have a lot of past evidentiary base to go on. But there is no past evidentiary polling base on what happens to the popularity of a former president who's just been convicted of a felony crime in a somewhat complicated set of legal circumstances. 

Taking a step back a little bit from the electoral consequences, where does this leave the United States and its democratic system? Where does that leave us in terms of our democratic institutions?

Galston: It can't be helpful. We have gone through a long process of delegitimizing our institutions one by one and then collectively. We're now going to go through at least five months, if not more, of Republican vilification of the judicial system—a “kangaroo court,” “witch hunt.” We already know all of the epithets that are going to be hurled. We also know that Mr. Trump and his supporters are very good at homing in on a single punchy message and repeating it over and over and over again until it is widely believed by all of those who are disposed to believe such things. And I don't see how this can be good news for the judiciary in the United States or for our political institutions generally. And on the other hand, trust in institutions has declined so far in recent decades that in many cases it's at rock bottom. The judiciary has been somewhat exempt from this process until recently, but, led by the Supreme Court, public confidence in our judicial system has been declining as well. So will this be transformative? I don't think so, for the simple reason that attitudes towards our political institutions have already been transformed very substantially. This will add to the pressure, but I don't think it will fundamentally change the low trust morass in which we're all mired as a country.

Mounk: Walk us through what will actually happen now. The sentencing has been scheduled for July—

Galston: —July 11th, to be precise, four days before the beginning of the Republican convention, which will be interesting.

Mounk: So there's some question about whether he will be given a custodial sentence or not, but assuming that he would be, presumably the Republican convention is not going to change its mind, and there's very strong rules to stop any delegates from changing their minds in any case. But assuming that Donald Trump is actually given a custodial sentence, what on earth happens next?

Galston: I do not regard it as likely that the sentence will go into effect between now and the presidential election. There will be, and even if a sentence is imposed, there will be an immediate appeal. I don't believe that any judge, including the judge in this case, would impose a sentence that would make it impossible for Donald Trump to campaign for president between now and November. And I think it would be a huge mistake to impose such a sentence because that would simply add fuel to the charge that this is a politically motivated effort to get Mr. Trump out of the way. So I don't take that prospect very seriously. I think a sentence will be imposed. There will be an appeal. The execution of the sentence will be stayed pending the appeal and we'll only know after the election. Now, as most people now know, whatever happens in the other trials, if Mr. Trump does return to the Oval Office, he does not have the constitutional power to pardon himself for state crime, only for federal crimes. And so there is the prospect if he returns to the Oval Office that after the appeals process is exhausted that he could find himself on the receiving end of an executed sentence while he's sitting in the Oval Office, but that's some way down the road.

Mounk: It is down the road and it depends on a number of significant ifs. Already, if Donald Trump becomes president again, we can expect significant chaos. But if Donald Trump becomes president under circumstances in which there is a legally valid sentence handed down against him that requires him to start serving jail in the state of New York while he's sitting in the White House in Washington, DC, and presumably not minded to comply with that order, it would just add another level of chaos to the American democratic system. How would this play out?

Galston: The phrase “uncharted waters” hardly does justice to that hypothetical, Yascha. I don't know how it would play out. I mean, it's interesting to contemplate. One amusing hypothetical that I've heard is that he would receive probation plus an order to perform community service. Now, it would be wonderful to find out what President Trump's understanding of community service would be in those circumstances. The mind reels. He would no doubt argue that deporting 15 million illegal immigrants is the greatest service that anybody on the face of the earth could render to the American Republic. Look—the mind reels.

Mounk: Where do you think we are with the state of the US election? The polls seem to be reasonably close at the moment, perhaps giving Donald Trump a little bit of an edge. Who do you think will win come November?

Galston: The United States for quite some time now has been locked, you know, into a pattern of very close elections at the national level. Not at the state level or the local level necessarily, but at the national level. When you add it all up, it's about even. And it does not appear to me that this election is going to be a deviation from the trend of recent elections. And what that means is that there is no responsible way at this point of forecasting the outcome of the election. And I say that not to duck your question, but because I can think of a dozen events that might occur between now and the first week of November that could alter the balance. I will say that if the election were held tomorrow, I believe Donald Trump would win it. So analytically, the right question is, what can change between now and the first week of November that would improve Biden’s position. And it is, I think, an imponderable whether an actual criminal conviction for Mr. Trump would move the dial sufficiently to achieve that outcome. I've been doing a very close analysis of the seven swing states; as your listeners, I'm sure, know, most of the states have strong majorities for one party or another, leaving a maximum of seven states, three in the Midwest, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, three in the South and border, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and possibly North Carolina, although I'm a skeptic about the Democrats’ chances in North Carolina, and Donald Trump is leading in all but one of those swing states by measurable margins, margins that are sufficient to suggest that he really is in the lead. And those states have different characteristics. The Midwestern states are dense with voters who do not have a four-year college education. They have a distinctive profile that on balance Donald Trump has done very well with.

The issue in Arizona and to some extent in Nevada is immigration. Georgia, I think, is shaping up as more of a straight economics election. I could go on, but suffice it to say that right now the two issues most on the minds of voters, namely the state of the economy and immigration, are issues that cut in favor of Donald Trump. Issues like abortion and the fight for American democracy cut against Donald Trump, but they appear to be lower down on voters' lists of priorities, or at least many of them. And so the terrain of battle is not favorable for Joe Biden. But I can think of many, many things that could change the outcome. And regrettably, even though the election is poised on a knife's edge, the consequences for Europe and the world could be outsized, depending on one or two percent of the vote in the United States. If I were a European, I would be nervous.

Mounk: I'm nervous as a European and as an American, so doubly nervous. Why do you think the election is so close? When you imagine a country in which three consecutive elections are very close-run, with high degrees of polarization, where people who are strong partisans of one party really hate strong partisans of the other party, and each time it comes down to a few thousand votes here or there, what you might imagine is a country with a very clear ethnic, religious or tribal cleavage, right? Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other or Christians on one side, Muslims on the other, or people from one ethnic group on one side and one ethnic group on the other side. And from election to election, the outcome hinges mostly on mobilization, or perhaps who happens to have had a little bit more population growth over the previous four to eight years. 

The United States doesn't really fit that. Though there are clear demographic patterns to who votes for Democrats and who votes for Republicans, a huge number of white people vote for the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party; a huge number of non-white people vote for the Republican Party rather than the Democratic Party. And in fact, when you look at some of those demographic cross tabs, there's been significant change from 2016 to the current polls: White people are much more likely now to vote for the Democratic Party than they were in 2016. And non-white people, especially Hispanics but not just Hispanics, are much more likely to vote for the Republican Party than they were in 2016.

In the first case, it's easy to know why elections are so close: There's two demographic blocs, they don't shift very easily, and so each time it's just a question of mobilization; if they happen to have a similar population, it’s always going to be close. In the second image, it looks like there's actually a lot of persuasion going on. A lot of people are changing their minds. People who voted for Trump in 2016 are now voting for Biden. People who voted for Hillary in 2016 are now going to vote for Trump. But if that's the case, why are those voter flows so similar in size to each other, that even though the composition of the tribes keeps changing, it so happens that we end up with similarly close-run elections?

Galston: Well, first of all, I think the focus on ethnicity, which made sense in many past elections, is getting less significant now. Or to put it very simply, the issue of class is rising in importance and the issue of ethnicity is declining in importance. And the fundamental marker of class in the United States, but not only in the United States, is education. You have this phenomenon across the industrialized West where the working classes are shifting to the right and educated people are shifting, not sharply to the left, but they feel more comfortable in parties that endorse multi-ethnic diversity and that focus on issues other than bread-and-butter issues. The professional middle classes are not worried about their daily bread, as much as the working class is, and therefore can afford to focus on issues such as abortion, such as climate change, and yes, such as the fate of democracy, as they understand that fate. 

It is a fluid picture, as it's not all Hispanics that are shifting in the direction of the Republican party. It's principally working-class Hispanics with less than a college education. And similarly, in the early 1990s, Republicans commanded the vote of whites with a college education. Now, it's the Democrats who do. And during that period, Bill Clinton ran just about even among working-class voters with the two Republicans he faced. And now Donald Trump commands them by a two-to-one margin. So, yes, the elections have remained close because it happens that in this fluid picture, about as many college-educated people have shifted towards the Democrats as working-class people have shifted towards the Republicans. And until that symmetrical shift is upended by demographics of one sort or another, or unless one party or another figures out how to appeal across class lines (which has become more and more difficult in American politics) I think our elections will continue to be close.

Mounk: Let's dive a little bit into this question of what Thomas Piketty has called the Brahmanization of the left, the fact that the left used to be the organized political force mostly of working-class people, of poorer people, of less educated people, and not just in the United States, but in most European countries as well. It has now become the political force of the highly educated. That is a remarkable transformation. And I guess I wonder how that happened and whether it's your fault, Bill. 

Galston: I know where you're going.

Mounk: Because you are a critic of these developments. I think you're one of the voices that rightly lambasts the Democratic Party for the ways in which they are giving up on the working class. But you were, of course, one of the intellectual progenitors of the Third Way and of Bill Clinton's ascent in the United States. You were an important advisor to Bill Clinton. And I've put a similar version of this question before to people like Tony Blair and David Miliband in this podcast, so you’re in good company. But I wonder whether Bill Clinton in the United States and New Labour in Britain sort of free-rode on the unthinking working-class commitment to the left in a certain generation of people. That was probably the right way to build majorities for doing things that I think broadly were right in the 1990s and early 2000s, but ended up in ways that nobody foresaw and perhaps could foresee at that time being part of that key transition, right? 

One way of describing the electoral strategy of Bill Clinton, of Tony Blair, is to say, look, we already have a lot of working-class voters, we need to do better among the middle class. And we're going to do better among the middle class through a mixture of economic moderation, social liberalization (relative to some of the laws and customs that were on the books then) certainly sort of fighting with a particular kind of conservative vision of what society should be like, but without any kind of cultural radicalism. That succeeded in attracting the middle classes to those political parties, but perhaps it succeeded too well, because those parties, or those classes, then came to dominate, certainly in the party apparatus. And, slowly, as the kind of sociological backing for the left link with the working class gave away, as unions declined, as the kinds of economic battles of the post-war era declined, those people became alienated. They no longer saw the Democrats or Labour as the only party fighting for their economic interests and because they increasingly thought that the cultural mores of those middle and upper middle class voters that were now in the left column were very different from how they see the world and what they preferred. Is that a fair picture? 

Galston: Well, first of all, I can't answer for Tony Blair or David Miliband, both of whom I respect very much as leaders, but I can answer for myself. And I'll begin where everyone who charges me with these political crimes begins. And that is with the famous New Democratic Manifesto that I published in 1989 with my co-author, Elaine Kamarck. And far from an argument for abandoning the working classes, even by implication, it was an argument for reconnecting with them. The background was the election of 1988, where the middle fell out for Michael Dukakis and the Democrats. The Democrats at that point scored well with upper income professionals and with downtrodden minority groups, but very poorly in the middle. And our argument is that we needed to reconnect with the interests and values, as we put it, of people struggling to get into the middle class and people struggling to stay in the middle class.

Far from a move towards cultural progressivism, we recommended a move towards cultural moderation. And if you look at the signature social policies of the Clinton administration, they involve first of all an anti-crime bill, which is now being denounced by the left as a source of mass incarceration, etc. (I think that charge is also false, but let's leave that aside for now.) And secondly was welfare reform, which redeemed the promise that Bill Clinton made during his campaign to end welfare as we now know it. And as a result, I think of those two measures plus an economy that was working for everyone—if you go back and take a look at the statistics, working-class incomes, the incomes of African Americans and Hispanics were expanding as rapidly as professional and upper-class incomes during that period, you will find that Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 with a substantially larger margin than he got in 1992, and that he left office with a 66% approval rating, which is astronomical by current standards. The record will also show that Bill Clinton, for a Democrat, did very well with working-class voters, especially in his re-election campaign. I should also say that the hegira of working-class voters from the Democratic Party started in the late 1960s, because working-class voters were outraged in particular by the counterculture and by the apparent lack of patriotism of the Vietnam protesters. And so Nixon did well with working-class voters in 1968, and he did extraordinarily well with working-class voters against McGovern in 1972. So the New Democratic Party, as Elaine and I understood it, represented a concerted effort to get back in touch with working-class and lower middle-class voters, and, if I may say so, a reasonably successful one. I guess my argument is that the real shifts began early in the 21st century, rather than at the end of the 20th. And part of that had to do with the rise of the environmental movement, which Al Gore represented and which many working-class voters saw as a threat to their livelihoods (with some justification, by the way) and then exacerbated by shifts in the direction of cultural progressivism that occurred in the second decade of the 21st century, generating the situation that we now find ourselves in. 

Let me complexify this one more time. We all, across party lines, made a huge mistake right at the beginning of the 21st century when we allowed China to enter the World Trade Organization on concessional terms. That was a united project of the leaders of both political parties, and it was a catastrophe. In the first decade of the 21st century, the United States lost 5.3 million manufacturing jobs, about a third of its manufacturing base, 30% to be precise. And that set in motion a chain of events that led us to where we now are.

Mounk: So that's an interesting way of shifting the story a little bit about where it comes from. I'm reflecting on whether there's subtle differences in the British trajectory and the American trajectory. It probably was true in Britain as well that in the 1980s when the Labour Party had its years in the wilderness, it probably did well among certain sections of upper-class professionals as well as retaining a sort of traditional loyalty among mining communities and other kinds of working-class constituencies. I wonder whether the nature of the shift in appeal to the middle class was parallel to what you're saying or not. Certainly, one of the famous lines from New Labour's campaign, for example, is, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.

So this certainly wasn't the Brahmin left of today. It wasn't faculty lounge politics, as James Carville would say. But perhaps there's something less direct here, where the problem is not the particular policies that either New Labour or the Democrats pursued, but the sort of sociological shift in milieu that resulted from it: Suddenly, it was the dominant party at universities in the way it hadn't been in the past. And then when universities subsequently shifted in the 2000s and 2010s in terms of what was expected of somebody to believe, or to profess to believe in order to be in good standing, that is what did the damage. 

The question I have, though, goes a little bit beyond that, which is what would the Democrats or parties in Europe and elsewhere have to do to recapture the working class and the poor voters who are not now voting for these parties, but also the kind of aspirational middle class?

Galston: I don't have a simple answer to your question, but I do have a suggestion as to where to begin. Two points. Number one, I think people who are accustomed, and I mean this analytically, to a kind of quasi-Marxist framework for analysis, namely that the economy is the base and the rest is superstructure, I think are going to have to adjust to the fact that we now live in an era in which cultural issues may be as basic as economic issues are in determining political behavior. Now let me get specific. I cannot think of an issue that has been more harmful to the left than its inability to get its arms around the immigration issue in the United States and Europe, opening the door for huge political gains on the right. And so recommendation number one would be to converge (as Europe finally, as I understand it, is beginning to) on an answer to that question. In that respect, I think Europe is now ahead of the United States, where we are still clashing. And you have advocates on the left who see the issue principally in humanitarian terms. You have advocates on the right who see it principally in cultural terms. And then you have people in the middle who are viewing it, I think, as principally an economic issue, who have the better side of the argument but who cannot get together across party lines to forge the kind of comprehensive and balanced agreements that are necessary. 

Having said that, if you'll permit me, since I'm now an old man, another dive into history, the United States in the first two decades of the 21st century had numerous opportunities to enact the kind of legislation that we desperately needed now or then in 2006, 2007, and then again most fatefully in 2013, where a famous bipartisan gang of eight in the Senate of the United States put together a comprehensive immigration reform that passed the Senate with 68 votes—68 votes. And then it got to the House of Representatives. It commanded a clear majority in the House. But because it did not command a majority among the Republican caucus, which was then the majority, the Speaker of the house, John Boehner, in an act that I'm afraid will or should be on his tombstone, refused to bring the bill to the floor of the House because he would thought he would lose the support of his own party caucus. And with that refusal went, unfortunately, the last serious effort to ward off the now virtually unlimited, all-weapons-allowed debate over immigration that has disfigured American politics and continues to. Immigration was the most important issue in Donald Trump's 2016 campaign according to the best political analysts I know. It was the issue that pushed him over the top. And it could be the issue that pushes him over the top eight years later, the forthcoming election. So that would be a start on the cultural front. And I actually think that, you know, that the Democratic Party in the United States under Joe Biden has begun to rebalance its economic strategy. It's more comfortable with government intervention into the economy than, say, Bill Clinton was (it’s also more necessary, I would say). It is more comfortable with trade restrictions, with looking at trade on a bilateral as well as a multilateral basis, more comfortable with tariffs, etc. 

In other words, there has been a shift towards economic nationalism, which has narrowed the gap between the two major parties in the United States, interestingly enough, which is one reason why a lot of bipartisan economic legislation actually passed in the first two years of the Biden administration. Because he was no longer making a neoliberal argument.

Mounk: Do you think that we will get to a genuine political realignment sometime after Joe Biden and Donald Trump are off the stage? And what would that realignment look like? Or rather, what are the different kinds of scenarios for it? Perhaps Democrats move somewhat to the left on the economy, certainly become more comfortable with a bigger government role in the economy, become more active in making sure that working people actually profit from economic activity and economic growth, but in which they are clearly moderate on cultural terms. And we haven't hit the particulars in a lot of detail here beyond immigration, but I imagine that part of that would be to divorce themselves from the cultural politics of the highly-educated American elite and the form of identity politics that has now become de rigueur within it. I think that opening is absolutely there and that a Democrat who stands for that in a clear and unabashed way would do very well. 

The question is whether there is a potential for realignment on the other end, whether the attempts by some Republican candidates, office holders, and intellectuals to turn themselves into a kind of multiracial working-class party can succeed. Now, obviously, those obstacles are also very large, including the fact that there is a part of a Republican base that doesn't want to be part of a working-class multiracial coalition. And there certainly are big differences in economic interest and cultural outlook between many of the traditional Republican voters and the ones that those elements within the party want to expand to. But it seems to me that these are the two kinds of obvious ways in which realignment might happen. You can sort of when you squint very hard see a path towards either one, but there also seem to be significant structural obstacles in both cases such that we could continue sort of bumbling through the slightly incoherent form of politics we currently have in which the incompetence of one party in terms of its electoral strategy is masked by the incompetence of the other political party in terms of its electoral strategy. And so nobody has to course correct because two parties that are going off course are somehow in equilibrium. 

Do you think we're going to get an electoral alignment? If so, when might that happen? And in particular, which form would it most likely take?

Galston: I don't know whether we're going to get a political realignment in the classic sense. What I do know is that suppressed arguments are going to break out in both political parties after the conclusion of this election. Why do I think that? Simple. Unless one candidate or another chooses to disregard the Constitution, whichever one takes power in January of 2025 will be limited to a single term. Joe Biden could not succeed himself. Donald Trump could not succeed himself. And both, to put it bluntly, are or will be octogenarians. There will be a long suppressed debate in the Democratic Party, which Joe Biden had succeeded in muting with his unity strategy, which was pursued very intentionally from the moment he got the nomination in the late spring of 2020. That unity strategy masks a host of ongoing disagreements within the party, which I think will burst out into the open. And similarly, If Donald Trump takes power, he will do his best to suppress the debate in the Republican Party about his policies. But I can tell you this for sure: The ambitions of the young will be an effective counter to the dominance of the old. And Donald Trump may want to restrain debate, but particularly after the first two years in his administration, ambitious younger people will be making arguments of their own about the way forward—a fortiori, as we academics say. If Donald Trump loses for the second consecutive time, there will be a really fundamental debate within the Republican Party about the path that he has led them down, because many Republicans are hungry for a party that can not only win close elections, but also can build governing majorities, which right now, neither party has and they both know it. They both want it. And so it's an unstable situation. Neither political party is satisfied with the share of support in the electorate that it now has, and for good and sufficient reason. So both are strongly motivated to open up the debates that have been suppressed. I do not think, to come to particulars, that the Republicans are going to abandon the more nationalist, culturally conservative, working class-friendly approach that they are now taking because they are not convinced that the possible gains from that strategy have yet been fully realized, and with good reason.

If they are really serious, as you put it, about building a multi-ethnic working class party, they still have a long way to go. The progress with Hispanics has been measurable but limited up to this point, and with African Americans, virtually nonexistent. So there are votes to be harvested in that path if they can make it consistent, but they face the kind of obstacle that you pointed out. I do think, by the way, that the shift among Democrats that you talked about, somewhat to the pro-government left on economic policy, but the working class, middle class center on cultural issues, does represent the path of the future. Biden has executed one of those two strategies, but not, regrettably, the others. As a matter of fact, he's allowed himself to become the pawn, I think, of the cultural left more often than has been good for him. He stood up on defund the police, and I think it helped him win the 2020 election, or to put it more simply, I think if he'd gone along with that, he would have lost the 2020 election. But on other issues, particularly immigration, he has found himself unable to resolve or unwilling to resolve the debate within the party.

Mounk: I would love to speak to you about what I know you're working on, a new book which is about the role of the darker emotions in politics. Why is it that we need to take seriously emotions like nationalism, for example, in order to understand the political imagination and in order to channel them into a positive form of politics, in order to ensure that it isn't the generally dangerous and scary political forces that end up with a monopoly on them? How did you come to think about this project? Why is it that our inability to understand and grapple with these kinds of emotions is such an obstacle to a more successful democratic politics?

Galston: This is not the first time that a political crisis has stimulated new thinking. As a matter of fact, I think that most new thinking in political philosophy arises out of a sense of crisis. And I gradually arrived at the view that what I'll call liberal naïveté about human nature was contributing to our inability to understand the threat to liberal democracy that was being mounted in Europe clearly, but elsewhere around the world and certainly in the United States. That we are constantly blindsided, we liberal Democrats, when emotions and patterns such as anger, hatred, humiliation, resentment, fear of various kinds, and what St. Augustine called the libido dominante, the urge to dominate others, comes to the fore in politics. We tend to believe that certain things that were central to the past will not be part of our future, that history in that sense is linear and progressive, and it leads away from the dark passions toward the rule of reason. This has been a dream, I would say, since the Enlightenment. But I think a more defensible form of liberal democratic thinking and practice takes a very different premise as a point of departure. Namely, that these things are always going to be present as possibilities.

Our job as defenders of liberal democracy is to understand what turns these possibilities into actualities, and then do our best to make sure that the circumstances that lead to the eruption and even the reign of the dark passions do not come into being. Let me give you an example. I speak to you as a former German appealing to your own history. At the end of World War I, there were different paths that the victorious allies could have taken. And one path, call it the path of magnanimity, would have been to say that World War I was a catastrophe to which all contributed in some measure. That yes, there was a losing side, but the most important task was for the concord of Europe to be reestablished on a solid basis. There were people making that argument.

But the Treaty of Versailles was anything but that. It was a punitive peace. And leading thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes criticized it as that. And they said that no good would come of this peace, and no good did come of that peace. Why? Well, Hitler played on the sense of national humiliation that the Treaty of Versailles had generated among Germans. Humiliation and resentment are closely tied, and resentment is one of the most powerful dark passions that unscrupulous but ambitious politicians can mobilize. So it is really, really important that when looking at the consequences of political action, the implications for the sentiments of those who feel that they're on the losing side for one reason or another are taken into account, not when they erupt into a crisis of rejection, but well before that.

And so every time I hear a liberal politician say that so and so is on the wrong side of history, I reach for my pen, because that is to say that history has a side. History has a direction. You know, some things that happened in the past are unthinkable for the present or the future. So of course, I mean, the massacre of Srebrenica was unthinkable in the heart of Europe—until it happened, right? And there were many people who could not bring themselves to believe that Vladimir Putin would break the rules of Europe that had been established after World War II, but he did. Why? Because, I would argue, of accumulating resentments—and whether or not they could have been warded off by different policies is a very difficult question. Accumulated resentments and humiliation at the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia becoming less than what it was in the days of the Soviet Union. And when Barack Obama dismissed Russia as a “regional power,” Vladimir Putin heard those words and he said, no, we aren't. We have been more than that and we will be more than that again. We will get back what we lost. And if you look at human history, these cycles are noticeable. I'm not saying that human history is simply cyclical (I'm not a fan of Polybius) or circular (I'm not a fan of the Platonic doctrine of the circularity of human history, either). But I am saying that it is not linear. It is anything but that. History doesn't end. History has no side. And it doesn't end, it has no side, because something fundamental does not change, and that is us. And if we inspect ourselves honestly, we will see that some of these dark passions, this sense of resentment, we can all feel in certain situations where we think we've received less than our due, where some people have taken advantage of the situation, taken advantage of us, et cetera. In small but telling ways, we can find these seeds in ourselves, and we have to ask ourselves, if we were in less fortunate situations than we are, how would we feel, how would we act? Would we be vulnerable to these sorts of appeals to the dark passions that politicians throughout history have always been adept at? 

Mounk: What are the implications for the practice of statesmanship? If you're thinking about how you build a polity and sustain a polity that doesn't fall prey to those dark passions, but that is deeply aware of the power that they hold over big parts of the population and potentially, depending on the circumstances, over all of us. What does that mean for how you steer the ship of state? And how is it that a failure of reckoning with the dark passions, the naïve belief that those passions are of the past and in the more enlightened present most people have grown beyond them and we no longer have to deal with them, has led us astray and perhaps helped to understand, helped to explain why it is that so many democracies are in trouble today.

Galston: Let us begin by taking a page from the findings of behavioral economics to the effect that the pleasure of gain is exceeded by the pain of loss. When you lose something that you had, the sentiments that the loss arouses are extremely powerful and leave you open to the claims of those who say you've lost something that was rightfully yours and, with my leadership, you will get it back.

Statesmanship in these circumstances requires sensitivity to the sense of loss that large sections of a population may feel for one reason or another. And so, wise statesmen will do their best to minimize the concentration of losses. So let me give you an example that I've already mentioned. At the end of the 1990s, we had more than 18 million manufacturing jobs. Ten years later, we had a little bit more than 12 million manufacturing jobs. How did we think the people who experienced those losses, and more to the point, the communities that experienced those losses, how did we think they were gonna feel? I have to say, looking back at the decade when that happened, it is remarkable how little discussion there was of this historic change in the American economy, which happened by historical standards in the twinkling of an eye. Did we think that the people who lost those jobs were simply going to take their losses and go work at Walmart for half the previous salaries? We should have known better. 

We had committed ourselves really across party lines to a course of action that made that outcome almost inevitable. It was one of the great historic mistakes of American statecraft. And I know exactly why it happened because I was there. And that is the 1990s convinced us that globalization could be made to work for all the classes in the society because it was working for all of the classes in society. And we assumed that that was a permanent phenomenon. The wind was in our sails: We could get all the efficiency gains, all the price gains from globalization, and at the same time, proceed with an economy that all were benefiting from, as they did in the 1990s. And then something big changed. That ended, and we reaped what we sowed, a bitter crop of resentment that turned out to be eminently mobilizable.

So lesson number one for statesmanship, as you consider your policies: Try to imagine the possibility of concentrated losses creating resentments and backlash and tailor them accordingly. There is no way that any policy in a large democracy can make all of the people or all the groups happy all of the time, but a certain awareness of the balance of gains and losses among different parts of the society is required. And if people get the sense that they simply don't matter, they're not visible, they're not being heard, their interests are not being taken into account, the likelihood that the dark passions will be mobilizable by unscrupulous leaders rises astronomically.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.