America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    America on the Brink

To Make the World Select for Democracy

What have we gained from cosmopolitan liberalism?

John M. Owen IV

Protestors atop a Soviet tank during the 1968 Prague demonstrations hold up a sign that reads “unauthorized entry strictly prohibited”; CTK/Alamy Stock Photo.

Is democracy an inevitability, or an achievement? Can we be confident, in America, that constitutional self-government is here to stay, regardless of how we pummel it? Or is it fragile, contingent, something to cherish, but never to take for granted? Two decades ago, as the twentieth century ended, democracy seemed permanent in the United States, and indeed a juggernaut elsewhere. The Soviet empire had recently collapsed; China was reforming its economy; there seemed no alternative.

The 1990s now seem as distant as the 1950s. America is famously polarized into cultural tribes, each regarding the other with contempt and alarm. In the White House sits a populist entertainer with little evident commitment to constitutional norms. Sober scholars publish books with titles such as How Democracies Die 11xSteven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York, NY: Crown, 2018).   and The Road to Unfreedom.22xTimothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (New York, NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2018). The coronavirus that burrowed into the country in early 2020 has made vices of the old American virtues of individual liberty and decentralized government. China’s relative competence in public health has lent its increasingly autocratic regime a new luster, notwithstanding its being the birthplace of the virus.

In thinking about the predicament of the American republic, we find ourselves looking not only within the country but abroad—at beleaguered democratic allies, at elected leaders sidling toward dictatorship, at Russian mischief, and at Chinese wealth and assertiveness. Scanning the world for trends in domestic regimes is a democratic tradition. For democrats hold the twin convictions, seldom defended but deeply felt, that self-government is an international phenomenon and democracies are in some way interdependent. If constitutional rule is spreading in the world, it is good for democracy in the United States; if authoritarian giants such as China and Russia are thriving, it is ominous for us.

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