My seven-year-old son asked me last week what would happen in a nuclear war. This no longer seems surprising. We have a President so boorish, mean, and impulsive that he is called a moron by his own Secretary of State. President Trump lies so obviously that his constant prevarications have torn asunder our common reality. His tweets and insults assault the sanity of our daily lives. The President is unwilling to unambiguously denounce fascists, anti-Semites, and racists. His abuse of women is notorious. The Republican Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations says that the President is like a petulant child endangering the world. Major publications are publishing primers on the 25th Amendment’s procedure for removing an incompetent President.

For decades, many of us living in Western-liberal-representative democracies had thought such worries relics of a past age. We were, we now know, naîve to believe in the stability of modern liberal-representative democracies. We looked away as skyscrapers built by migrant laborers sprouted for cosmopolitan elites in Dubai. We turned a blind eye to resentment against illegal immigration and applauded as the European Union created a new constitution without a vote. All the while we ignored how the working classes around the world were hollowed out, squeezed, disenfranchised, and abandoned; financial markets soared, CEOs paid themselves 370 times the salary of their average employee, and global cities became our playgrounds. And while this was happening, we elected Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, three of the least politically experienced and most polarizing Presidents in our nation’s history.

Our confidence in the stability of representative democracy now seems like a dangerous nostalgia for a “golden age of security” that lasted from the 1950s through to the first decades of the 21st century. It seems our faith in representative democracy during the last 50 years could go on only because nobody cared.

In retrospect, it may be possible to mark the beginning of our democratic crisis. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave the commencement address at Yale University. The President told the graduates they were entering a very different world. Past graduates had found themselves in a world beset by great questions. When John C. Calhoun graduated in 1804, the nation was divided over the questions of a national bank and slavery. When William Howard Taft graduated Yale in 1878, the nation was grappling with questions of reconstruction, the “cross of gold,” and the progressive movement. In the 1930s, at the end of Taft’s career, the United States was again buffeted by forces of political and economic division surrounding economic liberalism and the New Deal. For nearly 200 years, politics in the United States had been riven by dramatic disagreements “on which the Nation was sharply and emotionally divided.” Such ideological and political divisions, Kennedy optimistically proclaimed in 1962, were specters of a distant past. He announced:

“Today these old sweeping issues very largely have disappeared. The central domestic issues of our time are more subtle and less simple. They relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals — to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.”
— John F. Kennedy, 1962

This was one of the worst timed speeches in political history. Kennedy’s confidence that major political questions were behind us — that political problems had transformed into “administrative or executive problem[s]” — quickly ran into the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the 60’s counterculture, and the Civil Rights revolution; the 1980s brought the Reagan Revolution; the 21st century saw the rise of the Tea Party and the outbreak of Occupy Wall Street. And then there is Donald Trump.

In spite of being so completely wrong, Kennedy’s technocratic faith — his belief that “the kinds of problems” we face today are those “for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided” — sounds eerily familiar. His belief that expert analysis should and would replace political contestation is bipartisan boilerplate. Tony Blair offered a new free-market Labor Party. Immanuel Macron, a former investment banker and founder of the Centrist En Marche, and Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats are beloved by educated elites because they elevate competence over ideology. Bill and Hillary Clinton built the former’s presidency and the latter’s campaigns on the promise of a third way that melded Blue Dog Democratic centrism with technocratic competence. George W. Bush, in the midst of a war, depoliticized major decisions in Iraq by saying that “our commanders on the ground will determine the size of the troop levels.” And President Barack Obama was deeply deferential to the “expertise of conventional authorities: generals and national-security professionals, political operatives like Rahm Emanuel, and, above all, mainstream economists and bankers such as Larry Summers and Tim Geithner.”[1] Relying on administrators, Obama regularly bypassed Congress and governed to an unprecedented extent through the administrative state. Jedediah Purdy writes that President Obama personifies the technocratic style of our anti-political times.[2]

It is my thesis that our crisis of democracy is deeply entwined with the rise of the technocratic and anti-political approach to politics. In a 2016 column, David Brooks sought to defend politics against what he called the anti-politics of populism. Brooks argued that politics is about the engagements among plural people who have different opinions in a common public sphere.

“Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions…. The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled….But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own. Plus, it’s better than the alternative: rule by some authoritarian tyrant who tries to govern by clobbering everyone in his way.”[3]

Brooks’ defense of the messiness of a pluralist politics gets something right. Politics is based upon what Arendt in The Human Condition calls the “fact of human plurality.” Politics is that centripetal force, a magnetic or charismatic center, around which a diverse and chaotic multitude gathers and is held together. And the politician is that person who speaks or acts in such a way as to enable the people to say what they share in common in spite of their differences.

But even as he praises the messiness of politics, Brooks recoils from the tumultuous nature of populist politics. The problem with populists, he writes, is that they refuse to recognize expertise. They don’t like the social scientists and technocrats that Brooks believes are most qualified to govern our democracy. He dislikes the Tea Party and also the Bernie Sanders contingent of the left for the same reason: They want to elect people who are immature political actors, people who “don’t recognize restraints.” The populists Brooks demeans are political precisely in the way that Kennedy thought was a thing of the past. They are pugilistic rather than bureaucratic. They have ideologies and they want total victories for themselves. They are not inclined to listen to experts. They prefer “soaring promises and raise ridiculous expectations.”[4]

By David Shankbone — Own work, CC BY 3.0

Brooks is right that populism can be crude, coarse, and dangerous. Right-and-also-left-wing populisms threaten the stability of a liberal democratic consensus around technocratic governance of stable, liberal representative democracies. With the rise of populist politics in the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Hungary, traditional liberal democracies are experiencing a crisis. The weakening of that democratic consensus is scary and dangerous. This is especially so because it was the weakness of Western democracies in the 1930s that led to the rise of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes across Europe.

Driven by real fears, it is only natural to seek to defend the institutions and norms of liberal representative democracies that are currently under attack. We should and must do so. But so much reflection on democratic crisis today assumes only the defensive posture of protecting our crises riddled-democracies; It is my hope that we can take advantage of this crisis to make democracy stronger.

A crisis, writes Hannah Arendt, “tears away façades and obliterates prejudices.”

“The opportunity provided by the very fact of crisis — which tears away façades and obliterates prejudices — [is] to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter…. A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgments. A crisis becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices.”
— Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis in Education”

Populist and authoritarian movements have exposed the fantasy of peaceful, stable, and just liberal representative democracies. The forgotten middle class has risen up and said enough; black Americans subject to police violence are insisting that black lives matter. Around the world, millions of citizens of these democratic regimes are rebelling; they are raising fundamental questions about previously taken-for-granted assumptions concerning political inclusion and exclusion, ethnic and racial prejudice, and economic and social inequality.

If Arendt is right and a crisis only becomes a disaster when we respond to it with prejudices, we need to look upon our prejudices with open eyes.

In what follows, I suggest four prejudices that have been exposed by our democratic crises. Four prejudices that we must obliterate; at the very least, we must open ourselves to revisiting these questions.

First, populist movements have revealed the prejudice widely held by many in this room that democracy by its very nature is liberal. By liberal, I don’t mean left-wing or progressive. The liberal tradition has its source in the freedom from oppression, whether it be the oppression of tyrants, aristocrats, oligarchs, or the democratic majority. Liberalism speaks the language of civil and human rights. The nobility of the liberal tradition is that it recognizes that human beings and political citizens possess certain natural and political rights that are crucial to the thriving of human dignity.

Against the liberal tradition of plurality and individual rights, the democratic tradition has its foundation in the power and equality of the people. As Tocqueville understood, Democracy is about the “equality of conditions.” No one has the traditional, political, or God-given right to rule over me.

What is too often overlooked is that the liberal and democratic traditions are generally opposed to each other. [5] Liberalism opposes and suppresses the coarser elements of democratic freedom. As Tocqueville observed,

“A very civilized society tolerates only with difficulty the trials of freedom in a township. The civilized community is disgusted at the township’s numerous blunders, and is apt to despair of success before the experiment is completed.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Tocqueville saw the spirit of the United States in townships governed by farmers, teachers, and shop owners. The township includes “coarser elements” who resist the educated opinion of the experts and politicians. Which is why township freedom is usually sacrificed to enlightened government. A government by elites and experts risks actively disempowering the people.

When liberalism triumphs over democracy, the people no longer feel they have a meaningful opportunity for participation concerning important decisions. The very idea of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is too often opposed by elites who in the name of pluralism and civilization foreclose democratic possibilities and alternative ways of free peoples choosing to live in their own way.

Once we understand the contradictions between liberalism and democracy we can understand how the victory of a particularly liberal idea of democracy carries with it a democratic deficit that can contribute to right-wing and also left-wing anti-establishment populist parties.[6]

A second prejudice exposed by our crises of democracy is that modern representative democracy should be individualist and cosmopolitan and is endangered by collectivist nationalism. Politics, Arendt reminds us, is the gathering of a group of diverse persons around certain common experiences and shared beliefs. Insofar as political elites — especially those political elites on the social-democratic left — have defined politics as the pursuit of individual interests, they either ignore or reject the political need to “mobilise passions and create collective forms of identifications.”[7] Elite and technocratic democratic politicians recoil from arguments about rootedness, belonging, and fundamental questions about how to organize our common world and shared existence. Technocratic democracy forgets that politics must not only feed the people bread but also must inspire and give them meaning. It is the rootlessness and homeless of modern life, Arendt argues in The Origins of Totalitarianism, that leaves people susceptible to totalitarian movements that satisfy their deep human need for belonging. Human beings need stories they can tell about themselves that give purpose and significance to their individual existences; only when our lives are understood to serve some higher purpose can we bear the pain our insignificant human lives. Especially in the modern age when religious and traditional explanations of collective purpose have lost their public impact, it is natural that large numbers of people seek to justify the tribulations of their lives with artificial but coherent collective narratives. It is because of their prejudice against collective religions, traditional, and national identities, that liberal democrats cede the terrain of defining what it means to be an American, a German, or a Turk to right-wing populists who are often the only ones eager to define a national vision of a people.

A third prejudice made evident by our worldwide democratic crises is that we imagine our political antagonists to be evil. Instead of understanding political opponents as people with different opinions and different interests, the moralists of the anti-political elite imagine the populists as violent outsiders who threaten the post-political consensus. So confident in their access to the truth, liberal, centrist, and even conservative elites refuse to engage in debate with those populists who disagree; instead, elites present both right-and-left-wing populists present as moral enemies to be destroyed and eradicated; they are deplorables and anarchists. The moralization of the political opposition as evil is much easier than having to consider them as political adversaries.[8] What is more, the moralization of democratic politics makes democracy impossible insofar as democracy requires that we agree to share a common world with those who in their plurality are fundamentally different from ourselves. When our opponents are evil, no common democratic world is possible. On all sides, we can retreat into our comfortable bubbles of affirmation; we live content in the echo chambers of our superiority. But we recoil from the hard work of democracy, of listening to and learning to find commonalities with those with whom we disagree.

Taken together, these three prejudices — that democracy is liberal, that democracy is individualist, and that democracy moralizes our opponents as evil and undeserving of sharing in a liberal democracy — reveal a fourth and overriding prejudice underlying our democratic crisis: Democracy today is prejudiced against politics by its distinct preference for security over freedom.

By David Shankbone — Own work, CC BY 3.0

The prejudice against politics is governed by a profound fear: the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and through the means of force now at its disposal. Having lived through totalitarianism, and having witnessed the dropping of nuclear bombs, we today are deeply aware that politics may well destroy the political and economic worlds we have built; it may also destroy the earth itself.

From out of the fear of politics comes, as Arendt writes, a horrible hope:

“Underlying our prejudices against politics today are hope and fear: the fear that humanity could destroy itself through politics and through the means of force now at its disposal, and linked with this fear, the hope that humanity will come to its senses and rid the world, not of humankind, but of politics. It could do so through a world government that transforms the state into an administrative machine, resolves political conflicts bureaucratically, and replaces armies with police forces.”
— Arendt, The Promise of Politics

Terrified by the danger of politics in an age of horrifying technical power, it is all-too-likely that democracies will seek to replace politics with technocratic and bureaucratic administration. But such a hope, Arendt argues, will more likely lead to “a despotism of massive proportions in which the abyss separating the rulers from the world would be so gigantic that any sort of rebellion would no longer be possible, not to mention any form of control of the rulers by the ruled.” We will, in other words, trade our political and democratic freedom for the security of expert rule.

Hannah Arendt knew that democratic freedom is tenuous. She famously wrote in The Crises of the Republic in 1970,

“Representative government is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.”
— Hannah Arendt, The Crises of The Republic

Arendt saw the weakness of representative democracy to be its basic idea, that citizens should turn over the time-consuming work of self-government to professional politicians. This fundamental anti-political prejudice of representative democracy is magnified in an age where technology brings the terror of massive political abuses.

Most liberal-minded people today are fearful of public power. We say power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but the insufficiency of this formula is lately all too apparent. We are scared of the power that emerges when people act together. So we prefer a government of experts, not least because it frees us to spend our time on private pursuits like consumption and family. The disempowerment of the people in representative democracy embraces our bourgeois preference to be freed to pursue our individual interests, to be relieved of the duty of politics and public virtue. Much easier to leave governing to the experts.

For Arendt, the rise of massive technocratic bureaucracies leads to what she calls “the rule of nobody.” The fact that politics is apolitical and governed by technocratic departments does not mean that it is less tyrannical or less despotic. On the contrary, “the fact that no world government — no despot, per se — could be identified within this world government would in no way change its despotic character.” Such a bureaucratic government “is more fearsome still, because no one can speak with or petition this ‘nobody.’” Bureaucracy is anti-political because “any sort of rebellion would no longer be possible.

Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College

[1] Jedediah Purdy, “America’s Rejection of the Politics of Barack Obama,” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/obamas-attempt-to-redeem-america/492710/

[2] Id.

[3] David Brooks, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/opinion/the-governing-cancer-of-our-time.html

[4] Id.

[5] Chantal Mouffe, “The End of Politics and the Challenge of Right-Wing Populism,” in Populism and the mirror of democracy, ed. Francisco Panizza (2005), 53

[6] Id. 53.

[7] Id. 55.

[8] Id. 58.