“Democracy in America … is suffering from unforeseen evils, as well as enjoying unforeseen blessings. It will probably be worse before it is better,” wrote The Nation’s founder E. L. Godkin in a July 1896 article for The Atlantic, expressing a sentiment that resonates across eras in the magazine’s pages.
“Democracy in the United States is at greater risk than ever before,” wrote Robert D. Kaplan in December 1997, expressing another.
In the 161 years since it was founded on the eve of the Civil War, The Atlantic has borne witness to some of American democracy’s darkest hours. The magazine has survived, and published accounts of, the secession of the South and the failure of Reconstruction; the attempted packing of the Supreme Court and the Watergate scandal; impeachment hearings against three U.S. presidents and the assassination of four others—moments, not unlike now, when the country’s liberal institutions appeared gravely threatened and tenuously held together.
In the magazine’s earliest days, the question of slavery loomed large, presenting what our founding editor James Russell Lowell wrote was “a crisis in our domestic policy more momentous than any that has arisen since we became a nation.” Lowell and the magazine’s other founders were all staunch abolitionists; to them, and to other early contributors, slavery was a corruption of and threat to America, and emancipation a necessary antidote.
In our second issue, Edmund Quincy contended that the South’s efforts to preserve slavery had long ago degraded the country’s democratic institutions. He condemned the outsized influence exerted by the small minority of the country’s population that comprised “the entire sum of all who have any direct connection with Slavery” over nearly a century of American politics, and called for the end of the “tyranny” of the “slaveholding aristocracy.”
“Are we forever to submit to be cheated of our national rights by an oligarchy as despicable as it is detestable,” he asked, “because it clothes itself in the forms of democracy, and allows us the ceremonies of choice, the name of power, and the permission to register the edicts of the sovereign?”
Lowell adopted a more optimistic but similarly urgent tone in an 1860 presidential endorsement of Abraham Lincoln. “The encroachment of Slavery upon our national policy have been like those of a glacier in a Swiss valley,” he wrote. “Inch by inch, the huge dragon with his glittering scales and crests of ice coils itself onward, an anachronism of summer, the relic of a bygone world where such monsters swarm.” He urged readers to cast their votes for Lincoln as a bulwark against the further expansion of slavery and a steadying force for the fragile Union.
Following the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, Frederick Douglass anticipated a new threat to democracy: “a denial of political rights to four million loyal colored people.” In a December 1866 article, he warned, “No republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.” He entreated Congress to protect the equal citizenship and suffrage of African Americans. A decade later, Reconstruction would end and the Jim Crow era begin, bringing to life the very fears Douglass had outlined in The Atlantic.
Meanwhile, as the 19th century neared its close, national politics became mired in cronyism, corruption, and inefficiency. Future president Theodore Roosevelt argued in favor of both campaign finance reform and civil service reform in our pages, worrying that the influence of money was corrupting political office and public service. “The minute that we make men’s bread and butter depend upon their political action, that action ceases to be influenced by considerations of the public weal, and is taken from considerations of private benefit,” he wrote in February 1895.
Another future president, Woodrow Wilson, focused his critique on the inefficiency and lack of clear leadership in Congress. In an 1886 article, he warned:
The grave social and economic problems now putting themselves forward, as the result of the tremendous growth and concentration of our population, and the consequent sharp competition for the means of livelihood indicate that our system is already aging, and that any clumsiness, looseness, or irresponsibility in governmental action must prove a source of grave and increasing peril.
In the face of such peril, he advocated for legislative reform that would increase congressional transparency and productivity. He expanded on this line of thinking 15 years later in “Democracy and Efficiency,” criticizing America’s overconfidence in its model of self-governance and calling for the country to open itself to learning from the rest of the world. Out of such a process, he hoped the U.S. might develop “responsible leadership instead of government by mass meeting; a trained and thoroughly organized administrative service instead of administration by men privately nominated and blindly elected; a new notion of terms of office and of standards of policy.”
Writing about American democracy in the following decades, as fascism began to take hold abroad, political commentators Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann were less concerned with efficiency than with the danger of political ignorance and misinformation.
“The political situation and problem of America in world affairs can be put in one sentence: America is at once the most powerful and politically the most ignorant of modern nations,” wrote Niebuhr in January 1932. He went on to elaborate:
The average citizen has a vague sense of pride in identity with a nation which seems to play so large a part in world affairs. But his knowledge of the method of its power and its effect upon other people is rudimentary. Yet his is the vote which holds politicians in awe and prevents them from initiating policies demanded by every consideration of international common sense. Thus the phenomenal power of the American empire is scarcely under conscious control.
In 1919’s “The Basic Problem of Democracy,” Lippmann expressed a related fear about the “breakdown of the means of public knowledge.” In the absence of “contact with objective information,” he contended that a society could “commit incredible follies and countenance inconceivable brutalities.” And, he wrote, it could become vulnerable to a dangerous form of leadership:
Demagoguery is a parasite that flourishes where discrimination fails, and only those who are at grips with things themselves are impervious to it. For, in the last analysis, the demagogue, whether of the Right or the Left, is, consciously or unconsciously an undetected liar.
Writing half a century later, David S. Broder, too, warned that the country could become vulnerable to populist manipulation. He argued that a cycle of growing legislative unproductivity and public mistrust had weakened American institutions and that, if that cycle continued, voter frustration and government dysfunction might enable the rise of a new kind of politician. He wrote:
A plausible demagogue may appear and say, “Give me power and I will make things work again. I will restore order to your lives. I will see that there is discipline again. I will make the streets safe, and I will remove those who are disturbing our peace of mind. It may not be pleasant, but I promise you it will be effective. … And we will save our country”—but, of course, destroy freedom and democracy in the process.
It was just that kind of transformation, from liberal democracy to autocracy clothed in hollow democratic institutions, that Raymond D. Gastil and Robert D. Kaplan would revisit in the wake of the Cold War ending twenty years later. Gastil warned in 1990 that the machinations of democracy would not always lead to the advancement of civil liberties. Kaplan made the same observation in 1997, and expressed concern that “the democracy we are encouraging in many poor parts of the world is an integral part of a transformation toward new forms of authoritarianism,” and that, as globalization and technological advancement expanded the distance between governors and the governed, the United States was in danger of becoming oligarchical.
In a sense, 140 years later, Kaplan voiced the same concerns Edmund Quincy had in 1857: that democracy could be corrupted and made oppressive; that a minority of voices could exert disproportionate control in American governance. But, though the epic of American democracy, as told in The Atlantic’s archives, contains rhymes, the lines are never quite the same. The particular battles of the magazine’s abolitionist founders have been consigned to history; new battles have begun, and with them come new reasons for fear—and, maybe, for hope.
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