[Marxism] Democracy and Its Discontents

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat May 18 07:09:30 MDT 2019


NY Review, JUNE 6, 2019 ISSUE
Democracy and Its Discontents
by Adam Tooze

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
by Yascha Mounk
Harvard University Press, 393 pp., $29.95

How Democracies Die
by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Broadway, 302 pp., $15.00 (paper)

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America
by Timothy Snyder
Tim Duggan Books, 359 pp., $27.00

How Democracy Ends
by David Runciman
Basic Books, 249 pp., $27.00

For the American right, Donald Trump’s inauguration as the forty-fifth 
president of the United States was a moment of political rebirth. 
Elements of American conservatism had long fostered a reactionary 
counterculture, which defined the push for civil rights as oppression, 
resisted the equality of women and the transgression of conventional 
heterosexual norms, pilloried the hegemony of the liberal media, and was 
suspicious of globalism and its corporate liberal institutions, 
including the UN and the WTO. Already in the 1950s this reactionary 
politics had secured a niche on the right wing of the GOP. It was 
reenergized by the Goldwater campaign and the conservative backlash 
against the social revolutions of the 1960s. Reintegrated into the 
mainstream GOP by Ronald Reagan, it then flared into the open in the 
ferocious hostility to the Clintons in the 1990s. With Trump it finally 
claimed center stage. For the right, the explosion of “truth-speaking” 
by Trump and his cohorts, the unabashed sexism and xenophobia of his 
administration, and its robust nationalism on issues of trade and 
security need no justification. His election represents a long-awaited 
overturning of the consensus of liberalism.

Centrist Democrats also view the administration as historic, but for 
them it represents the betrayal of all that is best about America. The 
election of a man like Trump in the second decade of the twenty-first 
century violated the cherished liberal narrative of progress from the 
Civil War to the New Deal to the civil rights movement to the election 
of Barack Obama. This was a self-conception of the United States 
carefully cultivated by cold war liberalism and seemingly fulfilled in 
the Clinton era of American power. The election of a man as openly 
sexist and xenophobic as Donald Trump was a shock so fundamental that it 
evoked comparisons with the great crises of democracy in the 1930s. 
Parallels are readily drawn between Mitch McConnell and Paul von 
Hindenburg. There is talk of a Reichstag fire moment, in which an act of 
terrorism might be exploited to declare emergency rule. Such references 
to the interwar period are both rousing and reassuring. They remind us 
of good battles decisively won. Not for nothing does the anti-Trump 
movement refer to itself as “the resistance,” recalling memories of 
midcentury antifascist heroics.

But though this rhetoric is based in history, what is surprising is how 
recently it developed. Only a few years ago the mood in the Democratic 
Party establishment was not one of defiant resistance. What prevailed 
was bland futuristic complacency. The evolving diversity of America and 
the manifest political preferences of the Californian digital oligarchs 
would guarantee the Democrats’ grip on power. Trump’s supporters were 
not just deplorable, they were doomed to extinction. On both sides of 
the Atlantic, it was the job of centrist intellectuals to swat down 
critical talk from the left about the rule of undemocratic technocrats 
and the hollowing out of democracy.

America’s revived left wing, mobilized by Bernie Sanders and drawn to 
organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), does not 
doubt the disastrous consequences of the Trump presidency. Yet for the 
left he represents not a historic rupture but a continuity. As Jed Purdy 
put it in Dissent last summer, Trump is “not an anomalous departure but 
rather a return to the baseline—to the historical norm.”1 Trump exposes 
starkly what the civility of Obama and his administration obscured—the 
subordination of American democracy to capitalism, patriarchy, and the 
iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.

For its steadfast radical critique, the American left once earned the 
dismissive scorn of centrists. Now that the center is panicking, the 
left senses an opening. An insurgency in the Democratic Party backed by 
the DSA appears to have a genuinely broad base. Among a swath of young 
Americans, talk of socialism has lost its stigma. This is not a moment 
of democratic crisis but an opportunity the likes of which the American 
left has not seen in many decades.

As different as their positions are, one thing these three sides have in 
common is that their goals are resolutely national. Trump promises to 
make America great again. Centrist Democrats are scandalized that Trump 
ever called America’s greatness into question and promise to repair the 
damage he has done. The preoccupation with Russian meddling is a call to 
rally around the flag. Meanwhile, the left draws its inspiration from a 
narrative that is no less patriotic and nationalistic than that of its 
centrist and right-wing opponents. Purdy in Dissent calls on activists 
to take up the national tradition that goes back to Radical 
Reconstruction, the left wing of the New Deal, and civil rights. In 
Tablet, Paul Berman has revived Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country 
and its insistence on the continuing tradition of radical republicanism 
from Walt Whitman to John Dewey and beyond.2

The scope for a truly internationalist or cosmopolitan politics in the 
United States is limited. It would be unrealistic for any politically 
minded person not to reckon with this constraint. Nor should one waste 
time imagining how America might shed its creaking eighteenth-century 
constitution, the oldest that is still in use. But if patriotic appeals 
are simply the sine qua non of politics in this country, the historicist 
tone of America’s crisis talk is nevertheless puzzling. How can 
references to World War II, the Gilded Age, the Civil War, or the 
Revolution not seem anachronistic at a moment when accelerating climate 
change, the last great burst of population growth in sub-Saharan Africa, 
and the rise of Asia, driven by China’s authoritarian capitalism, are 
transforming the world?

While a nonnationalist politics may be unrealistic, one must wonder 
whether the full-throated embrace of the national narrative as proposed 
by Berman and others is not doing “the resistance” a disservice. Tim 
Shenk, coeditor of Dissent, has sensibly suggested that American 
progressives should turn to addressing the country’s fundamental social, 
economic, and political problems not as the burden of an exceptional 
nation but simply as a matter of justice and practicality, as any other 
democracy would.3 Given the current mood, especially among younger 
activists, it may turn out that the historical significance of the Trump 
crisis is to immunize an entire generation against any form of 
celebratory American exceptionalism. Yet as Trump himself is keen to 
point out, his victory can be seen as a harbinger of a broader wave of 
nationalist populism around the world.

In The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to 
Save It, Yascha Mounk, the former executive director of the Tony Blair 
Institute for Global Change, addresses the comprehensive revulsion that 
supporters of a roughnecked illiberal democracy à la Viktor Orbán or 
Donald Trump express toward elite technocratic liberalism, exemplified 
by the politicians and corporate leaders who gather annually at Davos. 
With good reason the gilets jaunes and many of those who voted for 
Brexit imagine that the governing class regards them with disdain. Their 
reaction is a truculent reassertion of popular sovereignty. Though the 
youth vote continues to swing to the left, it does not do so uniformly. 
Mounk traces an alarming rise in authoritarian attitudes, even among 
younger Europeans and Americans. Support for strongmen and military 
leadership is increasingly prevalent among those in their twenties. The 
United States, far from being a democratic exception, fits squarely in 
this mold, with high levels of support for authoritarian rule.

While these findings are striking and original, Mounk’s analysis is less 
so. To explain the shift toward authoritarian thinking, he points to 
three forces: the collapse of elite control over political media with 
the rise of the Internet, the failure of economic growth to distribute 
wealth, and white anxiety about increasing diversity. It’s a familiar 
list of worries, and he calls for a familiar list of fixes: greater 
responsibility of media outlets in disseminating hate speech, greater 
attention to economic inequality, and a sustained effort to ensure that 
“people and nations should again feel they have control of their lives 
or their destiny.” This is all very well. But if undemocratic liberal 
technocracy is the ultimate driver of the popular revolt, how can a 
technocratic list of solutions offered by a technocratic think tank be a 
credible answer? How can efforts to ensure that people again “feel” in 
charge, rather than a program of politics that actually empowers them, 
not sound like an obfuscation?

The most thought-provoking book comparing democratic crises in different 
nations has been written by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and 
Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die places America in a broader 
investigation into how elected autocrats subvert and undermine 
democracy. Democracies are fragile because they depend on competing 
parties accepting common norms. Norms are essential because without 
them, “constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks 
of democracy we imagine them to be.” Once placed in a position of power 
and freed by the erosion of democratic norms, elected authoritarians 
will seek to influence the referees in the system, forcing judges to 
retire, stifling the press, and tilting the playing field permanently 
against their opponents. There can be no doubt that America’s political 
system at this moment is under threat on all three fronts. And for those 
engaged in America’s solipsistic national debate, Levitsky and Ziblatt 
have a sobering message: “American democracy is not as exceptional as we 
sometimes believe. There’s nothing in our Constitution or our culture to 
immunize us against democratic breakdown.”

What, then, can stop the slide into illiberalism? The restoration of 
democratic norms requires building a new consensus. Levitsky and Ziblatt 
cite the example of Chile, where the violent confrontation between left 
and right in the early 1970s that resulted in Augusto Pinochet’s bloody 
coup was overcome by a new culture of bipartisan cooperation in the 
so-called Democratic Concertation. In the US today, the problem lies 
first and foremost with the GOP. It has repeatedly behaved like an 
anti-systemic party that does not consider itself bound by common 
democratic norms. “Reducing polarization,” Levitsky and Ziblatt 
conclude, “requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not 
refounded.” There is no other way to break the party’s addiction to what 
former Republican senator Jeff Flake called the “sugar high of populism, 
nativism, and demagoguery.”

But how can this be done? Levitsky and Ziblatt point to the reformation 
of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union after 1945. The 
consolidation of Konrad Adenauer’s CDU around democratic norms 
undoubtedly made a crucial contribution to the success of democracy in 
postwar Germany. But what relevance does it have to American politics? 
Can one seriously imagine anyone in the GOP taking lessons from Angela 
Merkel and her counterparts?

For all their facility as analysts of political procedure and form, 
Levitsky and Ziblatt are strikingly naive when it comes to power. The 
overthrow of Chilean democracy in 1973 was not merely a deterioration 
into extreme partisanship. It was a violent clash over fundamental 
social and economic reforms during the cold war. Among the forces that 
enabled the destruction of Chilean democracy were the security and 
foreign policy apparatuses of the United States. Likewise in Germany, as 
Levitsky and Ziblatt admit, it took the absolute defeat of Hitler’s 
regime in 1945 to set the conditions for the reconstruction of German 
conservatism. And there, too, the cold war influenced the course of 
events, as it made Adenauer’s Westbindung (attachment to the West) seem 
infinitely preferable to the Soviet alternative.

For the GOP to transform itself, will America need to experience a 
catastrophe similar to that of Germany in World War II? Levitsky and 
Ziblatt pose the question but never fully explore its implications. 
Their limited, case-by-case comparative approach and their focus on 
national political institutions and cultures leave such questions of 
international politics to one side and offer no basis on which to 
consider the connection between cold war and post–cold war geopolitics 
and the trajectory of modern democracy.

One author who does address the crisis of Western democracy as an 
interconnected international development is Timothy Snyder. Snyder made 
his reputation as a scholar of Eastern European history. The Ukraine 
crisis of 2014 turned his engagement with the region’s history into a 
vehicle for thinking about the contemporary transatlantic political 
scene. Historical narratives do not merely reflect and describe 
realities, they can help shape them. The central organizing idea of 
Snyder’s latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, is 
that democracy is threatened by two types of deterministic worldview, 
which he calls “inevitability” and “eternity.” The first is the 
determinism of the “end of history” and modernization theory, which 
declares that “there is no alternative” to liberal democracy. This, 
broadly speaking, is the worldview of the liberal elite in the 
West—Mounk’s technocratic liberals. The disappointments and resistance 
that their top-down programs of modernization engender give rise, in 
Snyder’s view, not to a genuine popular reaction, but to a second type 
of elite mythmaking, in the form of “eternity politics,” or mythic 
nationalism. Whereas modernizers promise a better future for everyone as 
long as we all follow the one best path, mythic nationalism “places one 
nation at the center of a cyclical story of victimhood.” Against the 
dark backdrop of a world of threats, the governing elite promises not 
progress but protection.

Our current situation, as Snyder sees it, has been shaped by the wild 
oscillation between the determinism of modernization theory and the 
determinism of nationalism. Both foreclose any real debate and all 
practical alternatives. They are both inimical to genuine democracy. One 
licenses domineering technocracy; the other, cruder forms of 
authoritarianism. True history, which in Snyder’s definition is a matter 
of contingency and individual choice, is the best intellectual antidote 
to these dangerous worldviews.

At a very general level there is much to agree with in Snyder’s 
approach. History is indeed an urgent preoccupation of politics and of 
democratic politics in particular. Determinism, whether of a 
social-scientific or mythical variety, should be viewed skeptically. One 
can also agree with Snyder that we must seek to understand Russia, 
Ukraine, the EU, and the US as part of “one history.” But the question 
is how to assemble that “one history,” and the challenge in doing so is 
to apply to ourselves the same standards that we apply in our criticism 
of others. If the health of democracy is the issue, how well does 
Snyder’s kind of history promote democratic health? And does it succumb 
to mythmaking of its own?

The Road to Unfreedom is undeniably engaging. Written in Snyder’s 
epigrammatic style, it takes us on a dizzying ride through Europe’s past 
and present. It is a history in which there are perpetrators and 
victims. Snyder’s starting point is Ivan Ilyin (1883–1954), an itinerant 
nationalist and sometime-fascist thinker who has acquired a new vogue in 
post-Soviet Russia. Vladislav Surkov, a close political adviser to 
Vladimir Putin, cited Ilyin approvingly to justify his designs for a 
“sovereign democracy” that prioritizes “centralization, personification 
and idealization” over individual freedom. For Snyder these are the true 
inspirations for Putin’s aggressive politics, and Ilyich and Surkov are 
the masterminds behind the global backlash against complacent liberal 
visions of modernization.

Yet the construction of such a network of influence is a rich field for 
mythmaking in its own right. Among experts in Russian politics there is 
no agreement that the ideologues around which Snyder builds his account 
in fact have the significance he attributes to them.4 Where did the 
clash between Putin and the West originate? Was it driven by an obscure 
nationalist turn on the part of the Kremlin, or by broader and more 
obvious geopolitical conflicts?

As part of his account of the rise of Russian aggression, Snyder refers 
several times to Putin’s attendance at a NATO conference in Bucharest in 
the spring of 2008. But he never mentions the subject of that 
acrimonious meeting. In dispute was the proposal, sponsored by the Bush 
administration, for accelerated membership applications to NATO by 
Ukraine and Georgia. This provoked a hostile reaction not only from 
Russia but from Germany and France as well. They had no interest in 
seeing Ukraine welcomed into their exclusive European club and no desire 
to raise tensions with Moscow. What was at issue was not neofascist 
mythmaking in Moscow, but post–cold war geopolitics. The obvious text to 
consult to decipher the Russian position is Putin’s speech to the Munich 
security conference in 2007, which was not so much an ethnonationalist 
declaration as a clearly articulated denunciation of American 
unilateralism. Snyder does not discuss it.

Even more telling is Snyder’s treatment of the Ukraine crisis and its 
effects on the US. Can one really understand the clash of 2013 in 
Ukraine with reference to the machinations of Putin’s regime alone, 
without considering the clumsy diplomacy of the EU and the wider 
economic and geopolitical background? As Snyder has insisted in an 
earlier work, Bloodlands (2010), Ukraine’s history has been shaped by 
the clash of tsarist, German, and Soviet imperial projects. What is 
surprising is that in The Road to Unfreedom he does not approach recent 
history in the same way, as the result of a many-sided power struggle.

It would be fatuous to suggest that NATO and the EU are involved in an 
expansionist project akin to that of Nazi Germany. But it would be no 
less fatuous to insist that geopolitical rivalry did not have a part in 
the crisis that exploded in Kiev in November 2013, when negotiations 
concerning Ukraine’s prospective membership in the EU broke down, 
opening the door to Putin’s intervention. Poland, the Baltics, and 
Scandinavian countries had supported Ukraine’s EU membership—in pushing 
the Eastern Association agreements with six post-Soviet states from 2008 
onward, they were using the EU to pursue a strategy of containment in 
which “Westernization” was not simply an end in itself but also a means 
of hardening their eastern fortifications against Russia. Moscow did not 
misunderstand what was at stake.

For Snyder, the malign influence of Russia’s antidemocratic turn does 
not end in Eastern Europe. In his final chapters he reproduces media 
reports of Putin’s meddling in the US and French elections of 2016 and 
2017. But if one wants to understand this, one must address the 
geopolitical factors that Snyder slights. Hostility to Hillary Clinton 
was not, as Snyder suggests, the result of misogyny among the Kremlin’s 
ideologists. Clinton’s views of America’s relations with Russia date 
back to the unipolar triumphalism of the 1990s and found clear 
expression during her time as secretary of state. Clinton may not have 
fomented the protests in Russia in December 2011, as Putin believes, but 
she made no secret of her support for the opposition. With the Ukraine 
crisis still in flux, Moscow could have no interest in a Clinton 
election victory, especially with Trump as the alternative.

Rather than discussing this geopolitical backdrop to the election of 
2016, Snyder recounts the now familiar litany of allegations about 
Trump’s business connections to Russia. The findings of Robert Mueller’s 
investigation are frustratingly inconclusive. And it is precisely this 
radical uncertainty that we have to come to terms with in our historical 
moment. We are still trying to decipher whether the American crisis is 
best understood as the result of self-dealing by a kleptocratic elite, 
the political sociology of the Rust Belt, the complacency of Clinton’s 
campaign managers, or the persistence of American racial divides. It is 
unlikely that outside interference decisively affected the election, but 
even that cannot be excluded. It is this deep indecipherability that 
defines our situation. Snyder’s tone of prophetic certainty and his 
bombastic call for resistance against the dark and all-pervasive forces 
of Russian neofascism is illuminating more as a symptom of the times 
than as a work of history.

By contrast, the great virtue of David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends is 
that he takes our bewilderment as his starting point. Instead of 
offering a definitive narrative or specific policy prescriptions, 
Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge, discusses a variety of 
ways to make sense of our present. The result is a collection of 
diagnoses that are insightful and useful, whether or not one agrees with 
his ultimate conclusions.

Runciman argues for the need to break with the compulsive return to the 
interwar period. Could Trump’s presidency really have the makings of a 
descent into fascism? It cannot be ruled out. Moments like the 
Charlottesville rally reveal the depth and breadth of rightist 
undercurrents. But these are not the battle-hardened fascist squads of 
the 1920s and 1930s. If the emergence of a mass fascist movement seems 
implausible, what about the coups that haunted Latin America and 
southern Europe in the 1960s and 1970s? Runciman throws cold water on 
the idea. As the memory of conscription, mass mobilization, and total 
war fades, so too do the truly violent political passions of the 
twentieth century. Both the threat of fascism and the mobilizing slogans 
of antifascism are hollow, Runciman suggests. Mass nationalist rallies 
even of the type orchestrated by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and the 
Law and Justice Party in Poland seem more like pastiche than the genuine 
article.

This is reassuring at one level. Democracy is unlikely to die with a 
bang. But all the more likely is the possibility that it will expire 
with a whimper. There doesn’t seem to be the level of national 
solidarity that would be required to address the challenge of mounting 
inequality by raising income and wealth taxes or undertaking 
comprehensive welfare reform—the reforms that were the achievements of 
the mid-twentieth century and that were in large part spurred by the 
huge mobilization efforts of the two world wars.

Runciman argues that once we leave behind the dark memories of the 
1930s, we can expand our historical imagination to include a wider array 
of threats. Democracy has no clear answer for the mindless operation of 
bureaucratic and technological power. We may indeed be witnessing its 
extension in the form of artificial intelligence and robotics. Likewise, 
after decades of dire warning, the environmental problem remains 
fundamentally unaddressed. For Runciman these developments come as no 
surprise, and he cites Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of modern 
evil and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to show that we have been aware 
of these issues for many decades.

Bureaucratic overreach and environmental catastrophe are precisely the 
kinds of slow-moving existential challenges that democracies deal with 
very badly. And given the West’s failure to address them, we should 
expect to see ever-louder calls for energetic authoritarian answers. It 
is symptomatic of our moment that meritocratic authoritarianism is 
finding defenders not among the kind of sulfurous ideologues that 
populate Snyder’s book, but among anodyne professors of political 
science. For example, Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy (2016) 
has revived the nineteenth-century argument for rule by the qualified, 
what he calls epistocracy. In this respect we live under the shadow not 
of Moscow but of Beijing. But as Runciman points out, though 
authoritarian meritocracy may promise more decisive policymaking, it 
also increases the likelihood of catastrophic missteps.

Finally, there is the threat du jour: corporations and the technologies 
they promote. As Runciman reminds us, corporations are at least as old 
as the modern state, and they may outlive it. The networks of Facebook 
and similar companies are more extensive than any hierarchical state 
organization. Runciman regards Mark Zuckerberg as a far more serious 
threat to US democracy than Trump. But what kind of threat is it that 
the likes of Zuckerberg pose? Twenty-first-century oligarchs may be 
profit-driven and intolerant of the checks and balances of the rule of 
law, but in the US at least, they try to seem the mild-mannered sort, 
eager to spout the platitudes of corporate social responsibility and 
susceptible to political pressure.

On every subject he discusses, Runciman’s conclusions are deflationary, 
and this is refreshing. It is tempting to say that his book makes the 
perfect antidote both to the superheated American national debate and 
the certainty of Snyder’s dark narrative. Yet this should not obscure 
the quiet prophecy in Runciman’s own account. It can be traced to his 
innocent-sounding quip that repeated references to the 1930s are 
psychological tics of a political midlife crisis. The premise for his 
vision of our current situation is that democracy is a political form 
with a life span, a beginning and an end. We have not reached the end 
point, which is why talk of an immediate terminal crisis is exaggerated. 
But we must acknowledge that we are in late middle age.

This argument marks a remarkable slide from history into organicist 
metaphysics. And it is an ironic one. Runciman’s suggestion that 
political constitutions have a natural life cycle is reminiscent of 
Oswald Spengler, the author of The Decline of the West and the exemplary 
political and cultural writer of the Weimar Republic. Like Runciman, 
Spengler employed a natural philosophy to organize world history into a 
series of quasi-biological trajectories. He viewed the situation of the 
West as being close to the end of a natural cycle of civilizational 
ossification. For Runciman this process is most advanced in polities 
like Greece and Japan. They are not dead but caught, he argues, in a 
post-historic state, paralyzed by fiscal constraints and demographic 
decline.

At this point Runciman’s grand vision converges with that of Alexandre 
Kojève, another prophet of the end of history and the inspiration for 
Francis Fukuyama’s now notorious 1989 essay. Beyond biological 
metaphors, what these writers have in common is their intellectual and 
political posture. Rather than raging against the dying of the light, 
Runciman, like Spengler and Kojève, invites us to adopt a stance of 
disillusioned realism. If we can see the decline of democratic polities 
all around us and can diagnose the multiple causes of their eventual 
demise, that does not excuse us from the responsibility to make them 
work until the bitter end. This is Runicman’s way of saying that “there 
is no alternative” to liberal democracy.

Democracy has long been the benchmark of Westernization. Talk of a 
crisis in democracy has relevance precisely because the rise of the 
Chinese economy under Communist Party leadership puts that benchmark in 
question. Runciman is stoical. He ends his book with an imaginative 
projection of the future: Monday, January 20, 2053, the inauguration of 
President Li, who succeeds the controversial President Chan-Zuckerberg. 
Due to climate change, Washington, D.C., is now balmy in January. The 
Democrats and the Republicans are still around, but the party system is 
in disarray, as it has been for decades. Congress is deadlocked. The 
dollar is worthless. Li’s ties to China are an open secret, but 
Americans are far beyond caring. In any case, he no longer controls the 
nuclear codes. But the flag still flies and the inaugural speech is 
predictable: “He reminded his audience that the United States of America 
was, first and foremost, still a democracy. It always would be.” As Li 
leaves the stage, one of his predecessors is heard to remark, “He 
protests too much.”

How is this fantasy meant? Presumably less as a deterministic prediction 
than as a provocative thought experiment. And it succeeds in posing the 
most pressing question of the present. Assuming current trends continue, 
will America accept its relative decline with equanimity? The concern 
must surely be that Runciman’s vision of a passive America is in fact 
overly optimistic. In a perspicacious Op-Ed, Larry Summers recently 
asked, “Can the US imagine a global system in 2050 in which its economy 
is half the size of the world’s largest? Even if we can imagine it, 
could a political leader acknowledge that reality in a way that permits 
negotiation over what such a world would look like?”5

Trump has responded to that question in his characteristic belligerent 
and petulant manner, launching an ill-conceived trade war. But on this 
policy, at least, he is not alone. Across the American political 
spectrum, if there is agreement on anything, it is on the need for a 
firmer line against China. Rather than the stoical acceptance of a new 
reality suggested by Runciman’s scenario, is not the more likely outcome 
a reconfiguration of American democracy like the one that occurred in 
the 1930s and 1940s, when the executive branch was given unprecedented 
power to confront external foes? The risks in a confrontation with Nazi 
Germany and the Soviet Union were enormous. By comparison, our troubles 
with Putin’s Russia are trivial. The perils of a new cold war with China 
will not be.

1
“Normcore,” Dissent, Summer 2018. ↩

2
“The Philosophers and the American Left,” Tablet, November 25, 2018. ↩

3
“Hannah Arendt’s Answer to Paul Berman on the Contemporary American 
Left,” Tablet, December 6, 2018. ↩

4
See Sophie Pinkham, “Zombie History; Timothy Snyder’s Bleak Vision of 
the Past and Present,” The Nation, May 3, 2018. ↩

5
“Washington May Bluster but Cannot Stifle the Chinese Economy,” 
Financial Times, December 3, 2018. ↩

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