The Rot of Democracies

If America succumbs to its internal divisions, to its preoccupation with partisan feuding and its desire to withdraw from international politics, the world order, such as it is, will crumble.

American flag
John Taggart / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke chair in strategy at CSIS. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

Sitting on a shelf in my sunlit study are two massive works of history by the late, great scholar Zara Steiner, each dealing with the international politics of the 1920s and ’30s. The first volume is The Lights That Failed; the second is The Triumph of the Dark. They came particularly to mind when I learned of the latest poll results from the University of Virginia Center for Politics, in which about three-quarters of Joe Biden and Donald Trump voters say that representatives of the opposing party are “a clear and present danger to American democracy,” and that censorship should be introduced, the First Amendment to the Constitution notwithstanding.

Grim stuff, as the journalists David French and Robert Kagan both have argued in powerful essays that raise the specter of civil war and the collapse of American democracy. The available data tend to support their views, although arguably these essays underplay the resilience of the American political system. But there is enough going on in the United States and abroad to make one think of the interwar period, when, as Yeats wrote in his famous “Second Coming,” “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

What Steiner has to teach us is that the issue goes beyond the United States. All historical analogies are suspect, and the argument ad Hitlerum is, as has often been pointed out, a polemicist’s mark of desperation. Let us stipulate, therefore, that at the moment, no Hitlers or Stalins are on the prowl in the world. But that is not the point of analogizing the present to the interwar years. There are thuggish regimes and ruthless dictators, to be sure, and they are armed with tools of repression that the totalitarians of almost a century ago could only dream about. It is, however, the rot of democracies that is more troubling, and in this respect the interwar period still has its lessons.

In that time, whose living memory has vanished with the passing of the older generation, cancel culture was real; George Orwell, among others, felt it. On one side, intellectuals infatuated with communism, or who were simply following the dictum that there are no enemies on one’s left, felt comfortable preventing critics from being able to publish or even getting jobs. On the other side, a minority, now somewhat forgotten but important at the time, became infatuated with toxic forms of nationalism, and not only among the future Axis powers.

Internal, politically driven violence was rife; in France it culminated in a riot in Paris on February 6, 1934, launched by an array of right-wing groups. (Many of their leaders subsequently found a home in the collaborationist Vichy regime.) More insidious, however, was the spreading belief that parliamentary democracy could not handle the challenges of the fractured post–World War I landscape. James Burnham, later an American conservative, declared that “the managers” would and should take over, because representative governments could not manage their countries. Plenty of reasonable people agreed that democracy could not cope with the era’s economics; even Winston Churchill had some doubts.

In a world racked by economic dislocation, demagogues flourished, and not just in Europe. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared “the Kingfish,” Louisiana Governor Huey Long, the most dangerous man in America. The shocks of the 2008 financial crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, globalization, and the proliferation of information technologies are not yet equal to the Great Depression in human impact. But they have destroyed many jobs and deprived others (truck drivers, for example) of autonomy, and with it a kind of worker’s dignity. They have, in their own way, contributed to the radical discontent that has fueled Trumpism in the United States and its equivalents elsewhere.

In America, the 1930s were also the apogee of isolationism that had been born in part from disgust—excessive and ill-informed, but powerful nonetheless—over the conduct and outcome of the First World War. No surprise then that students at elite institutions such as Yale flocked to the original “America First” movement, vowing to keep the United States out of the Old World’s wars. Here, too, are echoes that we can yet hear today.

These phenomena were all understandable, and all products of a disjointed but interconnected world. And yet it was not nearly as interconnected a world as ours is today, when a group of South Asia scholars in the United States who criticize the government of India and some manifestations of Hindu nationalism can suddenly find themselves receiving hate emails and death threats. Worse, as Freedom House has recently documented, authoritarian governments can and do reach across international borders to punish, coerce, or even kill opponents of their domestic policies. And more and more, they have done so with impunity.

In short, liberal democracy feels as though it’s in a pretty bad way, and in many places, it is. No competing advanced ideologies as comprehensive and lethal as Nazism or communism are on offer, although that could conceivably change. What is certain is that dictators, whether Xi Jinping or Ayatollah Khamenei, Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong Un, have at their disposal devastating weapons of precision repression and murder. The repeated and generally successful crushing of dissident individuals and movements in their countries and elsewhere is remarkable. Even a profoundly corrupt and incompetent regime, such as that of Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, can hang on despite multiple internal and external pressures, partly with the transnational assistance of governments and corporations eager to help.

It could get worse. We have yet to see where new technologies—targeted biological weapons, ubiquitous surveillance, drones of every type and kind—will take us. We have yet to experience the full external shocks of climate change, and we have yet, for that matter, to see what will happen when someone again lights off a nuclear weapon in anger. It was not without reason that Churchill spoke of the possibility of the world sinking “into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” It all could happen, and if the first half of the 20th century has anything to teach us, it is that calamitous misfortune and horrifying deeds can occur, a lesson viscerally absorbed by the statesmen who attempted to piece the world back together in the first decade after World War II.

Perhaps the biggest difference between that era and this one, however, lies in the United States’ role. It is no coincidence that at one of the bleakest moments in 1940, when Britain looked as though it might very well succumb to Nazi invasion, Churchill could speak of “the New World, with all its power and might” stepping forth “to the rescue and liberation of the Old.”

Churchill could pin his hopes on the world’s biggest economy and its liveliest (if turbulent) democracy, the United States. The problem today is that there is no United States behind the United States. If America succumbs to its internal divisions, to its preoccupation with partisan feuding and its desire to withdraw from international politics, the world order, such as it is, will crumble. The reverberations can already be felt: When the senior foreign-policy official of the United Arab Emirates, a close American ally, explains his country’s preliminary efforts to reach accommodations with an illiberal Turkey and an imperial Iran in terms of uncertainty about American purpose—“Afghanistan is definitely a test and to be honest it is a very worrying test”—there is reason for concern.

The temptation for Americans today is to fight our internal fights and retreat, if not into isolation then into self-absorption. Many think of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the way an earlier generation thought about World War I, despite the differences in scale. And even more see in globalized trade and commerce only the current reality of fractured supply chains and lost manufacturing jobs. This is a danger not just for Americans but for a wider world, because without American muscle—financial, cultural, and military—politics defined by the rule of law, civil and religious liberty, and free and fair elections will come under strain. We know that freedom around the world, measured in various ways, has been in decline for a decade or more. What Roosevelt and his enlightened Republican opponents—including their 1940 presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie—understood is that American liberties would be profoundly less safe in an illiberal world. It is not clear that American politicians, or large swaths of the American public and its elites, grasp that today.

Zara Steiner diagnosed a significant part of the tragedy of the 1930s in the atomization of the international system. States “began to follow their own independent trajectories as they struggled to find their place in a weakened international order,” she wrote. Her account is more bloodless, but also yields more insight than those that focus exclusively on the rise of the great tyrants of the 1930s. An America consumed by internal strife will be a difficult enough place. Should it lead to a world in which an internally divided America does not or cannot exert global influence and pressure to sustain basic norms of decent behavior and governance, our lot will be immeasurably worse.