Americans once had a shared commitment to the traditional liberal democratic values: individual liberties, human rights, tolerance of dissent, free and fair elections, a free press, due process and separation of powers.
Or more concisely: liberty and justice for all.
Slowly but surely, we have been abandoning these shared values and drifting toward authoritarianism and mob rule.
Who’s leading the charge — left or right — depends on where you sit. Both sides claim to be the true champions of liberal democracy, yet neither seems particularly intent on safeguarding it when doing so hurts their team.
Last week, for example, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found striking levels of hostility toward political and civil freedoms among Republicans.
A quarter of Republicans believe the country has gone too far in expanding the right to vote. Worse, 4 in 10 believe the United States has too greatly expanded freedom of the press. The same share also says that the “right to protest or criticize the government” has gotten out of hand.
This is astonishing coming from a party whose entire raison d’être for eight years was to protest and criticize the White House.
The shares of Democrats agreeing that these rights — to vote, to a free press, to criticize the government — are too expansive were relatively tiny (5, 11 and 7 percent, respectively).
This partisan gulf is not some one-off result.
In February, a Pew Research Center survey found large gaps between Democrats and Republicans on civil and political liberties. Three-quarters of Democrats said that the freedom of news organizations to criticize political leaders is important for maintaining a strong democracy. Slightly less than half of Republicans agreed. Is anyone on the right actually reading those pocket Constitutions they’ve made into such a trendy fashion accessory?
Perhaps this democratic backsliding should not be surprising.
In other surveys over recent years, conservatives have been more supportive of book-banning and other forms of censorship. At the state level, conservatives have used government power to gag speech and ideas they consider offensive, and even to mandate speech they deem politically pleasing (by requiring doctors to spout junk science about abortions, for instance).
A new Florida law, for example, allows any resident to challenge educational materials used in public schools; there, and in other states pursuing similar legislation, the objective is clearly to push back against the teaching of climate change and evolution.
Conservatives who’ve read this far will surely point out that plenty of lefties flaunt their own illiberal tendencies. And that is true, though bad behavior on the left has generally been restricted to narrower settings — such as college campuses, Republicans’ favorite whataboutist foil whenever they are confronted with right-wing illiberalism.
More anecdotally, the past few years have provided lots of vivid examples of pitchfork-wielding lefty students and cowardly administrators shutting down speech with which they disagree. This has led to demands for resignations and, sometimes, threats of violence.
Now of course there are also equally vivid examples of pitchfork-wielding right-wing mobs, inflamed by Fox News and other conservative news organizations, attempting to shut down speech by left-leaning academics. With little sense of irony, these mobs descend on liberals with demands for resignations and, sometimes, threats of violence — often in the name of protecting free debate.
So the question is, what’s changed? What or whom should we blame for this deteriorating commitment to dissent and other liberal values, whether on campuses or in statehouses?
To some extent, Americans — like citizens of other Western democracies experiencing similar backlashes — are actively rejecting democratic institutions and norms they believe failed them. The financial crisis and, before that, stagnating living standards left Americans angry, disillusioned and ready to burn it all down — with the “it” in this case including some of our shared values.
There’s another obvious villain in this story, though: our increasingly corrosive and tribalist partisanship.
“This just shows the degree to which partisan identity and loyalty to a political leader go deeper than a commitment to any particular values,” Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard University, argued last week by phone when I asked him about the Marist findings.
He notes that confidence in Russia’s authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin, has doubled among Republicans since 2015, while declining slightly among Democrats. This is probably not so much due to any actual familiarity with Putin’s murderous quashing of dissent as a perception that he’s on the (Republican) president’s team. The same perception may motivate Republicans’ rising antipathy toward a free press.
Maybe Americans are not exactly hostile toward liberal democratic ideals, so much as indifferent. In today’s partisan climate, that’s just as dangerous.
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