Fareed Zakaria: “What Will it Take to Save American Democracy?”

I’m gratified to see that Fareed Zakaria, in his current special on the challenges democracies currently face, is picking up my views on the rise of political fragmentation and the risks it poses:

On the anniversary of January 6, as we think about the future of American democracy, it’s useful to look around the world at what scholars have called a “democratic recession.” From Hungary to Poland to Turkey to India, democratic norms, values and institutions are under stress.

And it’s not just happening in fledgling democracies. Consider, for example, modern Germany. …Today it appears to be an almost preternaturally stable democracy.

But behind that calm lie more turbulent currents. As the scholar Richard Pildes notes, for decades, Germany’s two main political parties taken together usually got around 90% of the vote. But they got just under 50% in the 2021 federal election.New parties and new movements are emerging.

Pildes calls this “political fragmentation,” and it’s happening across the Western world. France’s socialist party — one of Europe’s most successful — is now a shadow of its former self. Spain has had to hold four elections in four years to arrive at a workable coalition. Ever since 2018 ushered in the right-wing populists, Italian politics has been in turmoil, saved now by a technocratic government headed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Even the Netherlands took a record 225 days to form a coalition government in 2017.

Why is this happening? Some of the reasons are familiar. An age of rapid technological change, accelerating globalization and increasing ethnic diversity have created great anxieties. These anxieties then lead to distrust in traditional institutions and established parties. New figures crash onto the political scene, some of whom peddle fear and offer simple solutions to get rid of all this new complexity and take the country back, back to when times were more stable, back to when the country was great (in the misty, often mistaken memory).But why does American democracy feel more threatened than, say, French or Spanish democracy?..

We often hear that, unlike in fledgling democracies, America’s institutions are strong. But, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” If people abuse them, attack them, disregard them, they will slowly collapse.And so all our efforts must be devoted to making people act virtuously. In particular, Republicans must come to realize that they can and should disagree with Democrats vigorously on taxes, regulation, inflation, the environment — whatever they want. But now they must come together with those same Democrats to preserve a credible and legitimate political system. For all of us, that is the most important political issue right now, not your views on Iran or green subsidies. Those differences can wait. Let’s first save American democracy.

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