We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

The Fragile Republic

3 0 1095

When the U.S. president used his power to target immigrants, the press, and his political opponents, the sheer overreach of his actions shocked many citizens. Tensions among the country’s political leaders had been escalating for years. Embroiled in one intense conflict after another, both sides had grown increasingly distrustful of each other. Every action by one camp provoked a greater counterreaction from the other, sometimes straining the limits of the Constitution. Fights and mob violence often followed.

Leaders of the dominant party grew convinced that their only hope for fixing the government was to do everything possible to weaken their opponents and silence dissent. The president signed into law provisions that made it more difficult for immigrants (who tended to support the opposition) to attain citizenship and that mandated the deportation of those who were deemed dangerous or who came from “hostile” states. Another law allowed for the prosecution of those who openly criticized his administration, such as newspaper publishers.

Much of this may sound familiar to anyone living through the present moment in the United States. But the year was 1798. The president was John Adams, and the legislation was known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams’s allies in Congress, the Federalists, argued that in anticipation of a possible war with France, these measures were necessary to protect the country from internal spies, subversive elements, and dissent. The Federalists disapproved of immigrants, viewing them as a threat to the purity of the national character. They particularly disliked the Irish, the largest immigrant group, who sympathized with the French and tended to favor the opposition party, the Republicans. As one Federalist member of Congress put it, there was no need to “invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all the world, to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility.”

Critics of the new laws raised their voices in protest. The Republicans charged that they amounted to barefaced efforts to weaken their faction, which happened to include most Americans not of English heritage. Two leading Republicans, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, went so far as to advise state governments to refuse to abide by the Sedition Act, resolving that it was unconstitutional.

Political conflicts boiled over into everyday life. Federalists and Republicans often resided in different neighborhoods and attended different churches. The Federalists, centered particularly in New England, prized their Anglo-American identity, and even after the American Revolution, they retained their affinity with the mother country. Republicans saw themselves as cosmopolitan, cherishing the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality, and they championed the French Revolution and disdained Great Britain. As early as 1794, partisans in urban communities were holding separate Fourth of July ceremonies. Republicans read aloud the Declaration of Independence—penned by Jefferson, the founder of their party—as evidence that independence had been their own achievement, whereas Federalists offered toasts to their leader, President George Washington. The Republicans viewed themselves as the party of the people; one prominent politician among them chided the Federalists for celebrating not “we the people” but “we the noble, chosen, privileged few.”

On the streets, mock violence—the burning of effigies—was swiftly devolving into the real thing, as politically motivated beatings and open brawls proliferated. In one case, on July 27, 1798, Federalists in New York marched up Broadway singing “God Save the King” just to antagonize the Republicans; the latter responded by singing French revolutionary songs. Soon, the singing contest became a street fight.

Watching the growing chaos and division, Americans of all stripes worried that their experiment in self-government might not survive the decade. They feared that monarchy would reassert itself, aristocracy would replace representative government, or some states might secede from the union, causing its demise. The beginnings of American democracy were fragile—even at a time when some of the U.S. Constitution’s framers themselves, along with other luminaries of the era, held public office.

Of course, the early republic was by no means a fully realized democracy. The bold democratic ideals of equality and government by consent, which were enshrined in the nation’s founding documents, were paired with governing practices that repudiated them, most blatantly by sanctioning slavery. The U.S. Constitution established representative government, with public officials chosen directly or indirectly by a quickly expanded electorate of white men of all classes, who gained suffrage rights well before their peers in Europe. Yet nearly one in five Americans, all of them of African descent, were enslaved, lacking all civil and political rights. The Constitution not only implicitly condoned this practice but even granted extra political power to slaveholders and the states in which they resided.

After two centuries of struggle, the United States democratized. Not until the 1970s could the United States be called a truly robust and inclusive democracy. That long path included numerous periods when the country lurched toward greater authoritarianism rather than progressing toward a stronger democracy. Time and again, democratic reforms and the project of popular government were put at risk of reversal, and in some instances, real backsliding occurred. In the 1850s, divisions over slavery literally tore the country apart, leading to a destructive civil war in the next decade. In the 1890s, amid the convulsive changes of the industrial era and an upsurge in labor conflict and farmers’ political organizing, nearly four million African Americans were stripped of their voting rights. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Americans welcomed the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who was willing to use greater executive power than his predecessors—but others worried that Roosevelt was paving the way for the type of strongman rule on the rise in several European countries. During the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, in the wake of unrest over racism and the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon tried to use the tools of executive power that were developed in the 1930s as political weapons to punish his enemies, creating a constitutional crisis and sapping citizens’ confidence in institutions of all kinds.

These crises of democracy did not occur randomly. Rather, they developed in the presence of one or more of four specific threats: political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power. When those conditions are absent, democracy tends to flourish. When one or more of them are present, democracy is prone to decay.

Today, for the first time in its history, the United States faces all four threats at the same time. It is this unprecedented confluence—more than the rise to power of any particular leader—that lies behind the contemporary crisis of American democracy. The threats have grown deeply entrenched, and they will likely persist and wreak havoc for some time to come.

Although the threats have been gathering steam for decades, they burst ever more vividly and dangerously into the open this year. The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it precipitated have dramatically exposed the United States’ partisan, economic, and racial fault lines. Americans of color have disproportionately been victims of the novel coronavirus. African Americans, for example, have been five times as likely as whites to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and have accounted for nearly one in four deaths related to the coronavirus that causes the disease—twice their proportion of the population. The pandemic-induced recession has exacerbated economic inequality, exposing the most economically vulnerable to job losses, food and housing insecurity, and the loss of health insurance. And partisan differences have shaped Americans’ responses to the pandemic: Democrats have been much more likely to alter their health behavior, and even the simple act of wearing a mask in public has become a partisan symbol. The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May have further highlighted the deep hold that systemic racism has long had on American politics and society.

President Donald Trump has ruthlessly exploited these widening divisions to deflect attention from his administration’s poor response to the pandemic and to attack those he perceives as his personal or political enemies. Chaotic elections that have occurred during the pandemic, in Wisconsin and Georgia, for example, have underscored the heightened risk to U.S. democracy that the threats pose today.

The situation is dire. To protect the republic, Americans must make strengthening democracy their top political priority, using it to guide the leaders they select, the agendas they support, and the activities they pursue.

Not long ago, lawmakers in Washington frequently cooperated across party lines, forging both policy alliances and personal friendships. Now, hostility more often prevails, and it has been accompanied by brinkmanship and dysfunction that imperil lawmaking on major issues. The public is no different. In the 1950s, when pollsters asked Americans whether they would prefer that their child “marry a Democrat or a Republican, all other things being equal,” the vast majority—72 percent—either didn’t answer or said they didn’t care. By contrast, in 2016, a majority of respondents—55 percent—expressed a partisan preference for their future son-in-law or daughter-in-law. For many Americans, partisanship has become a central part of their identity.

Vibrant political parties are essential to the functioning of democracy. Yet when parties divide lawmakers and society into two unalterably opposed camps that view each other as........

© Foreign Affairs

Get it on Google Play