Monday, March 14, 2016

Relax, our democratic capitalist regime is perfectly stable

Remember when political assassination was a thing? Source:

I'm not too worried about the future of democracy in the US.

To be clear, there are significant challenges that threaten regime stability in the near-term: inequality, partisanship, rent-seeking, kludgeocracy, and anti-democratic legislative institutions to name a few. But none of these involve Donald Trump or the perceived rise in anti-liberal memes like white nationalism or censorship, as some commentators have suggested. Vox even went so far as to publish an essay asking whether Francis Fukuyama's grand 'End of History' theory is challenged by the current election.


Let's take Jonathan Chait's argument, which sees some liberal groups' waffling over democratic first principles in reaction to Trumpism as deeply insidious. First, protesters were celebratory when Trump cancelled his rally in Chicago a few days ago. In Chait's reasoning, this is scary because true democratic ideology should encourage at all times people's ability to engage in political speech (meaning Trump's right to hold a rally).

Gimme a break. Protesting is fun, and I suspect the announcement of Trump cancelling his event was an exciting outcome that provided a cool narrative about the whole thing. No need to imbue mob sentiment with sinister philosophical agency or outsized meaning.

Chait also provides another disturbing data point along similar lines by polling his (liberal) twitter followers:

His interpretation of this result is symptomatic of a widespread conceptual mistake made by lots of commentators about recent liberal efforts to 'silence' non-PC speech.

When discussing free speech and censorship, it's important to distinguish between formal rules and informal norms. Mass action and lobbying is constantly trying to shift the status quo of both. Looking at the recent highly-publicized efforts by liberals to shut down or disrupt speakers at various events, I see them operating mostly on the 'norm' level. The claim, "disrupting Trump speeches is an acceptable tactic" is not at all similar to "Trump should not be allowed to give speeches". This difference is vast, and lots of commentary conflates the two.

The level of analysis matters also: college students might try and get a certain upcoming speaker they find offensive uninvited, but that doesn't mean they want to change event rules to disqualify any offensive speaker ever. Nor does it imply support for restricting the speaker's freedom to attend events at other colleges or off-campus. Maybe those protesters in Chicago just wanted to send a message that their city does not welcome bigotry and hate.

It's entirely reasonable for protesters to try and shame Trump and Trump's racist ideas out of existence. This is a far cry from desiring an isolated pause to foundational principles in civil society.

When Obama urged liberals not to try to prevent political opponents from making their case, but to 'win arguments' with them instead, the mass action we've seen (and will likely see in Cleveland at the GOP convention) is precisely that--winning the argument. Shaming Trump into oblivion, and building such a consensus that everyone else participates in the shaming, is a victory as far as it relates to the national public discourse. Working towards this goal doesn't have to travel with support for censorship or weakening free speech laws, and doesn't seem sinister to me in the least.

Trump as a techno-barbarian warlord in a post-apocalyptic future seems unlikely


The most extreme freakout comes from Jedediah Purdy, who fits this election into the context of political scientist Francis Fukuyama's The End of History thesis and wonders whether the doom of modern liberal democracy is upon us. For what it's worth, he does a pretty good job of describing aspects of this much misunderstood book. But Fukuyama's argument is about forces much deeper than the civility and trends of a single country's politics.

Fortunately for us, the most significant structural threats to the primacy of modern liberal democracy are [at the moment] essentially science fiction, and don't have much to do with Trumpism or Bernie Sanders-brand socialism.

One--which Fukuyama himself explicitly acknowledged--is transhumanism. Liberal democracy uniquely satisfies people's desire for recognition in a stable, widespread way. But this is a contingent result of our psychology, which is grounded in biology. Changes in human psychology from biotechnology might mean people want radically different psychic goods, undermining the dynamic equilibrium that democracy and capitalism provide.

A second credible threat to modern liberal democracy is a radical change in the actual or expected material well-being of the population. We're not talking unemployment or wage stagnation here: disaster scenarios, nuclear catastrophe, pandemics, and other existential risks could plausibly shift the social consensus among powerful groups away from our current institutional setup.

According to Fukuyama, modern liberal democracy is stable in the long-run in part because it allows for the constant revitalization of systems that provide material and psychic goods. While disasters or radical technology could certainly change this fact, it's hard to see how a global wave of regime change happens just because one election in the US has gotten some folks riled up.

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