Brandeis at 75

American Democracy in Peril

By Robert Kuttner

Three people try to hold up a badly cracked Roman-style column.

Illustration by Nick Lu

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Brandeis Magazine.

Part of Past as Prologue

America barely survived the Trump administration’s multiple assaults on democracy.

Our norms and institutions are still imperiled. In addition to the obvious threats — the efforts to suppress voting and overturn elections, sometimes by violent force — one of our two major parties now dwells in a universe where evidence doesn’t matter. Some Republicans are frank admirers of neofascism. The captivity of House Republicans to their most extreme far-right faction only adds to the peril.

The sane, competent Biden administration understands Trumpism was seeded by a steady decline in working-class Americans’ economic prospects. The administration has made expansive use of federal investment and regulation to improve working families’ lives, more so than any administration since Franklin Roosevelt’s. Yet Joe Biden does not get full political credit for this, partly because his most transformative programs were blocked by Congress and partly because many voters believe he’s too old for the job of president.

Meanwhile, the sheer extremism and fragmented leadership of the Republicans is damaging their appeal, so much so that the contest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination might become a self-destructive demolition derby. Thanks to Republican extremism on issues ranging from the destruction of reproductive rights to gutting Social Security, Democrats fared a lot better in the 2022 midterms than most commentators projected, picking up a Senate seat and nearly holding the House of Representatives.

Even if America dodges another bullet in the 2024 elections, I worry about the ever more extreme concentration of corporate monopoly, and the deepening concentration of wealth and political power, which come at the expense of ordinary working people. The Democrats’ failure to challenge that 40-year trend allowed Donald Trump to pose as a faux populist, using racist nationalism to conceal a corporate governing agenda.

So the revival of liberal democracy, while necessary, is not sufficient. A radical restoration of economic democracy is also required.

Robert Kuttner is the Heller School’s Meyer and Ida Kirstein Professor in Social Planning and Administration.