Fissures in the Fundament: Challenges and Choices for Liberals and Conservatives
When Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano started erupting last month, it came as no surprise to experts or residents of the Big Island. Monitoring the rumblings of lava flows has been going on for decades, but even so, they cannot predict how long or how far the eruption will go this time.
Politics occasionally experiences eruptions, too. While they might be anticipated by some, their impact—both long-term and short-term—are harder to predict. Political eruptions on both sides of the Atlantic in the past few years have taken the form of surprise election results (Donald Trump as exhibit A), referendums (Brexit as exhibit B), and the emergence of movements and parties that represent a serious challenge to the established political leadership (Alternative for Germany as exhibit C).
They stem from a mix of distrust, fear, and alienation directed toward political leaders and institutions. They also represent a direct confrontation with what has been the hallmark of democratic systems of government during the past seventy years: the cornerstone of individual rights and respect for the institutions that guard them.
Political volcanoes are spitting fire and stones into the political atmosphere of countries that have been part of the bedrock of liberal democracies since the end of World War II.
Similar to the eruption in Hawaii, political volcanoes are spitting fire and stones into the political atmosphere of countries that have been part of the bedrock of liberal democracies since the end of World War II. While we felt the occasional tremor or saw the occasional flare-up over the past decades, it was never expected that the larger infrastructure or the consensus around it were under threat. The question is whether that bedrock is going to be able to withstand and adapt to forces pushing against it today.
In the case of Hawaii that meant evacuations, loss of property, lives thrown into chaos. But it did not mean the Big Island was existentially in question. Not yet.
In today’s political environment, disruptions to democratic systems of government are not unusual. There have always been fierce debates and struggles within them. But the system has not been in question even if the build-up of pressures has to be released in order to create room for adaptation, reform, and resets.
But what of today? Is that consensus holding? Is the belief in both the process and the institutions of democracy diminishing? Is respect and mutual tolerance still intact despite debates and disagreements?
On both sides of the Atlantic the answers are not evident. There are trends emerging that are poisoning the political atmosphere like the sulphur dioxide poisoning the air around volcanoes.
The neutrality of governing institutions; the freedoms of press and speech; the independence of the judicial system; the respect for debate, elections, and the protection of individual rights—all these basic ingredients of liberal democracies have been shared in the past as part of checks and balances. They are the guard rails.
The test of democratic norms comes with a shared belief in them by individual citizens as well as in the institutions that serve them—particularly the political parties—that give voice in the political arena. The parameters of liberal democracy are set around a continuous, often cantankerous, battle over the right balance between the central importance of individual human freedom and the need to sustain a national consensus of values and goals. It is about the right balance between local and national governing processes and institutions. It is about the need to get the equation right regarding the indispensability of individual rights and the community of common goods.
Just as the U.S. Constitution begins with the words “we the people,” the German Basic Law refers in its opening lines to “the German people.” Both testify to the shared value system, even if the outline of the responsibilities of citizen and government differ in emphasis.
There was always a dynamic relationship between the conservative and liberal voices in healthy democracies, the former protective of individual rights and suspicious of government intervention, the latter supportive of community commitments and the positive role of government. Both perspectives are important and needed.
There was always a dynamic relationship between the conservative and liberal voices in healthy democracies, the former protective of individual rights and suspicious of government intervention, the latter supportive of community commitments and the positive role of government. Both perspectives are important and needed. They are not necessarily enemies—they are the basis of checks and balances in a healthy society.
But the confidence in that balance can be undermined by anxieties and a search for conspiracies. While Hawaiians can’t conjure up credible conspiracy theories about what caused the lava flow to erupt—aside from blaming the fire goddess Pele—there is all too much room for divisions and accusations over race, religion, economic anxiety, or identity to be exploited in the political arena. The result is that the “we” of a liberal democracy becomes fractured. Like the fissures emerging around a volcano, fissures can erupt around our political institutions.
In “Our Divided Political Heart,” E.J. Dionne described the challenges we face in the U.S. today: “we are a nation of private striving and public engagement, of rights and responsibilities. Americans understood that individualism needed to be protected from concentrated power in both the private marketplace and the government. They also understood that individuality seeks expression in communal as well as individual deeds and that the self longs for autonomy but also embraces the encumbrances and responsibilities of family, friendship, community, and country. These truths have been usually accepted albeit in different ways by progressives and conservatives alike. Yet it is this deep American consensus that is now in jeopardy.”
That consensus is similarly challenged elsewhere, including in democracies in Europe. The uncertainties of economic insecurity or rapid societal change induce people to seek shelter in alternative explanations of change and disruption.
Many citizens of many countries in North America and Europe no longer express confidence in democratic institutions and in the politicians that lead them. Some observers even claim that we are in an era of a “democratic recession.”
Yet the track record of democratic systems—be it in the Federal Republic of Germany or the United States of America—has been based upon the ability of the political order to rethink, reform, and reset its priorities when confronted with crises, challenges, and hard choices. In both of those countries we have seen the terrible price paid when that fails. In the United States, one price was a civil war. In Germany, the price was a total collapse into Nazism, the Holocaust, and a catastrophic war. The ability to recover from such disasters was facilitated by efforts to reestablish a consensus on the values, institutions, and stability of democratic government in which all citizens have a stake.
Built into that recovery is the necessity and benefit of a dynamic dialogue between thoughtful conservatives and progressives who grasped that democracies are best conceived in unending but necessary arguments—not as a zero-sum political game.
The political eruptions we are experiencing now are engendered when governments are no longer seen to be responsive, to be effective at solving problems, to be able to govern, and our publics start to lose interest in the traditional left-right political conversation. They drift into tribal corners enticed by incentives of feedback loops in the media of all kinds. People spend more time saying who they are not rather than who they are. The loss of trust in both the principles and policies of our democracies is at risk. Parties, leaders, and movements emerge to take advantage of that open political space.
The institutions of democracies cannot thrive without trust. But nourishing them requires a belief in their capacity to reform and renew in the face of challenges.
In looking at the strengths of German and American democracies, Yascha Mounk argues in “The People vs. Democracy” that, “The problem […] is not that […] the U.S. Constitution and the German Grundgesetz are inherently faulty or hypocritical. It is, rather, that they have not yet been realized.” President Obama captured that same spirit in a speech given in Selma, Alabama: “What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
Healthy democracies can and should debate and engage in arguments with more opportunities to renew their political landscape for the better.
While Hawaiians cannot debate with a volcano, they must still rethink, reset, and reform how they adjust to its impact on their environment. Healthy democracies can and should debate and engage in arguments with more opportunities to renew their political landscape for the better. That starts with the assumption that our opponents are not enemies. That continues with fixing political fissures all along the way toward a more inclusive society, restoring, rebuilding, and renewing and sustaining a common conception of why we make that effort.
Volcanoes created the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, the current eruptions and lava flows are likely extending the fundament of the Big Island. Perhaps the current challenges facing democracies will also lead to an enlarged fundament of the political environment but that depends on whether the eruptions subside and cool off. Pele can’t help us there. Only citizens make a difference.