This is one of the most astute accounts of today’s political situation I have found, despite having been originally published in 2003– back in the days of Bush. While other books like How Democracies Die were able to put Trump into context, these were post-mortem analyses. Zakaria predicts Trump:
[Today being part of the establishment isn’t the default route to high office.] The success of George W. Bush was not due to his being the candidate of the establishment but due to his being the candidate of his family; he had the two things you need in a partyless system– name recognition and a fund-raising machine. Anyone who has both, whether they have experience in politics or not, is now at a huge advantage. Thus in this new, more “democratic” system, we have seen many more political dynasties, celebrity officials, and billionaire politicians than before. And this is only the beginning. As the political party declines further, being rich and/or famous will become the routine path to high office.
This book has more red ink in it that the Bible I got when I was eight. I tried to be judicious in my highlighting, but there is so much that rings true. The basic premise of the book is that democracy and liberalism are not the same thing: democracy is about elections, how leaders are selected. While constitutional liberalism, as Zakaria defines it, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source– state, church or society. This includes a web of elements including the rule of law, private property rights, the separation of powers, freedom of speech and the press, and the right of assembly. You can have liberal autocracy. There have been relatively free societies governed by kings and dictators. The Book of Mormon models this in the form of King Benjamin, but opts for a system of judges as ye will not always have righteous kings. But you can also have an illiberal democracy in which elected leaders take away rights and rule arbitrarily. Just in the past few years, American democracy has been labeled a “flawed democracy” by The Economist.
In essence: the ends do not justify the means. In many ways, Zakaria’s argument is a conservative critique of today’s politics. It doesn’t align with many of the goals of today’s Democratic party. Zakaria would argue that the attempts to pack the Supreme Court or abolish the electoral college, while having a feel of being more “democratic” undermine the principles of constitutional liberalism. Then again, Republicans haven’t exactly been exemplars of upholding constitutional liberalism themselves, giving Trump free reign to rule as an autocrat and doing little to check his power or standing up to mob rule. I chuckled when I realized Zakaria’s argument is essentially Mike Lee’s one-liner: “We are not a democracy.” I hardly ever agree with Mike Lee. But it’s kind of true. The reason our democratic republic has lasted so long are the non-democratic elements in it, both those built into the constitution and those not.
Zakaria ties the downward trend in American democracy to a similar moment in time cited in How Democracies Die: the suicide of the Republican and Democratic parties in the 70s. This is something that doesn’t seem to be common knowledge, but the candidates of both political parties weren’t originally selected democratically. They were selected by party leaders behind closed doors. This was made more “democratic” when primaries were implemented, essentially removing the one thing political parties actually did: vet party candidates.
Zakaria’s solution to our political dilemma is to delegate more authority. That’s how our republic works. Authority is still ultimately drawn from the people, but decisions should be made by wise delegates with as little pressure from the passions of democracy as possible. One branch of government already operates this way: the Supreme Court. Many elements of our bureaucracy such as the Federal Reserve have decisions isolated from political pressures, as decisions are made by experts. This argument overlapped with Tom Nichol’s arguments in The Death of Expertise, but would also perhaps make Friedrich Hayek cringe who was suspicious of supposed experts. The argument that more decisions should be made by experts doesn’t sound appealing to either the left or the right at the moment: Republicans think experts are all phonies in cahoots with pornographers and won’t even trust an epidemiologist to wear a mask. Democrats do try to come off as the party that trusts in “science,” but science itself has come under attack by political agendas and pressures.
I can’t recommend this book enough!