If Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk has it right, modern democracies are not the stable entities that those of us who value freedom and human rights would like to believe. According to research that he did with Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne and reported on in The New York Times, there are warning signs in democratic countries such as Britain, Australia, Sweden, and the United States that hint at a risk of ending up in the kind of autocracy on exhibit in Venezuela.
Mounk and Foa have three factors that they take as indications of trouble to come. First is the popular support for continuing democracy, and the second is the willingness to try other forms of government. The third assesses the actual support that “antisystem parties and movements” have.
Is this suggestive of something that happened recently in this country? Of course, and we’ll get to that. But we have to consider the terms and how they’re being used before deciding where we’re going.
A key point of contention is on the difference between the words, democracy and republic. Though there is a strong belief on social media that the two have significant differences, in their roots, they mean basically the same thing. “Democracy” is Greek, while “republic” comes from Latin, but they both refer to the rule of the people. The argument is typically about how much the people get to rule on. And here’s where the term, constitutional, comes into play. In the British model, the constitution isn’t one codified document, and is instead made up of traditions and statues and rulings that leaves a lot of fluidity and not so much that will be hard to change. By contrast, the American system with a written document that has a high bar for alteration, and the way that we appeal to that document whenever a particular right is being challenged illustrates the importance that we place in a standard on a pedestal.
All of this requires us to be clear on the line between things we should compromise on and things on which we will stand firm. And that suggests the third factor, support for ideologies that oppose government. The Bundy protests and the militia movement that’s been building during the Obama years are examples of this. As are the Tea Party movement and now the Republican Party as a whole, seemingly. In the latter case, we get to see what happens when people who are suspicious of government are put in charge of it.
But this will bring into sharp focus the question of principles and compromise. How much we’re willing to bend and how much we will keep straight is something we have to be clear on. People who come storming into office, on fire to change the way things get done, often end up settling into the pattern. As with a written constitution, this fact offers its own measure of stability.
Unfortunately, the machinery of modern government can be used to support a free society or to create tyranny. We can compromise on all manner of policies, but the essential bedrock has to be a common respect for rights. Our society can survive on that. I hope that Trump finds the presidency to be what it’s been to many who have held that office—bigger than any one person and productive of growth in those who are allowed it. Regardless of what he does, our system will last or fail, depending on what we allow.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.