“It’s come to that. I tremble for my country.” These chilling, Jeffersonian words could be the refrain of an unwritten elegy on the fate of the republic.[i] They are the lament of a judicious person I know in Washington, D.C., a person who has served in previous administrations of both political parties and now works as a policy adviser. They are words to express the inchoate angst lurking inside us. Could anyone—even someone stunned by the last presidential election—have foreseen our present predicament of government unhinged and politics gone vile? Yes, it’s come to that, and I, too, tremble for my country.
Another who trembles is my friend and colleague at Indiana University, Jeffrey Isaac, a political theorist who has written about democracy in dark times, warning twenty years ago that we need a more robust conception of democratic practice to reinvigorate a liberal democracy in decline. Authoritarian populism, he foresaw, is a real threat to liberal democracy.[ii] In his most recent book, Against Trump, he details the immediate threat posed to liberal democracy in the US and elsewhere—what he calls the frightening shadow cast over our politics—and argues for the revival of left liberalism, a coalition of leftists and liberals, based on a kind of agonistic respect, working to defend and deepen liberal democracy.[iii]
I, for one, before the outbreak of Trumpism, had presumed the hegemony of liberalism (understood as the political philosophy that stresses individual freedom and rights and the protection of civil liberties) over democratic values of equality and inclusion. And there is an argument to be made over which tradition—liberalism or democracy—is foundational to the other.[iv] I remain inclined toward forms of deliberative dissent consistent with agonistic and fugitive conceptions of a democratic corrective.[v] But the present mayhem undermines both liberal and democratic values.
Let us not confuse authoritarian populism with democracy, nor dissociate democratic from liberal values. We must seek a proper balance between democracy’s and liberalism’s overlapping concerns for freedom and equality, while recognizing their distinct emphases. Together they can constitute our political culture in its fittest, although necessarily flawed, form. We tremble for our country not because it is imperfect but because it has fallen so far short of its guiding ideals and lost touch with its vital character. We have forgotten who we are and have become a people adrift, consumed by political turmoil devoid of vision. We flail rather than deliberate the compelling issues confronting us.
The immediate answer to our troubles is to no longer succumb to the agenda set by the discourse of authoritarianism and demagoguery. To resist requires us to align our politics with liberal-democratic values, absent absolutist and denigrating language. Perhaps the prescription seems obvious, but it is a minimal condition presently unmet. We must face issues of social and economic injustice and questions of war and peace with renewed commitment to our belief in government of the people, by the people, and for the people. This is the true liberal-democratic faith to live by in an interconnected world. The myth of exceptionalism—taken in the sense of a chosen people, an innocent nation, an unfettered capitalist juggernaut—is a false creed of national salvation.[vi] Surely, we can secure an inclusive space for spirited, reasonable, and ongoing deliberations of contested opinions and differing viewpoints.
The devil in this sordid affair is a totalizing, absolutist, and demonizing arrogance that plumps for the narrowest of perspectives. That is the demon of the abyss where there is no bottom to hit. Kenneth Burke understood that we might build an alternative politics only “by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss.”[vii] Better political relations require a broader perspective, a dose of humility, and a spirited deliberation informed by the values of equality, diversity, inclusion, rights, and freedom. There is the sacred symbolic space where we might find common ground sufficient to deliberate our substantial differences.
[i] Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “I tremble for my country,” appears on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. and is drawn from his Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII.
[ii] Jeffrey C. Isaac, Democracy in Dark Times (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), p. 156.
[iii] Jeffrey C. Isaac, #Against Trump: Notes from Year One (New York: Public Seminar Books, 2018), pp. 18, 26.
[iv] Josiah Ober, Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
[v] See, for instance, Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), Ernesto Laclau, The Rhetorical Foundations of Society (London: Verso, 2014), and Sheldon S. Wolin, Politics and Vision (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
[vi] Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003); Godfrey Hodgson, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).
[vii] Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 272.