It is difficult to argue with Ira Katznelson’s diagnosis of the representative institutions he sees as the bedrock of liberal democracy. They are badly broken and have lost the confidence of large and growing segments of citizens in the United States and elsewhere. But Katznelson doesn’t pursue the difficult question: Why do some groups in liberal states fundamentally distrust the institutions of democracy?
In the United States, answering that question requires a hard look at two crucial areas: the systematic exclusion of some groups from full citizenship rights and the breakdown of the “non-convertibility” principle of money and politics. Any effort at restoring faith in legislatures and revitalizing their health will be built on an understanding of these issues.
First, by systematic exclusion I mean not only the historic exclusion of blacks from the founding through the mid-twentieth century, but also current exclusions facing immigrants (particularly Latino and Asian) and the continued second-class citizenship of particularly poor African Americans. Indeed, the triumphs of liberalism Katznelson finds in the New Deal and after World War II reinforced white supremacy through the discriminatory provisions of the Federal Housing Administration, the exclusions of most nonwhite Americans from social security, and the racial exclusions of the GI Bill. Today, video evidence and social media have made clear what black communities have always known: liberalism’s promise of the equal protection of citizens’ bodies has never been honored in the case of blacks. Voting rights for nonwhites, precariously won during the mid-twentieth century, are once again under wholesale attack. And as even shallow analysis of the Ferguson and Baltimore situations show, black property is still not safe from state predation. Recent research by Andrew Kahrl documents how throughout the twentieth century, until this very day, the state enabled unscrupulous economic actors to prey on property in poor and particularly black communities.
Democracy's most dangerous critics fight to maintain race and gender dominance.
Moreover, public opinion systematically excludes the black mainstream. Michael Rogin argued that black opinion is routinely demonized in the press and within public discourse. The massive racial divide, particularly between blacks and whites, undermines what Jürgen Habermas describes as the foundation of democratic discourse: a shared understanding of political common sense.
Another worrisome fact from the standpoint of liberal democracy is that state action on behalf of racial progress has usually come from the bureaucracy and the courts. On the rare occasions that American legislatures have extended racial justice, they have generally done so in response to pressure generated by mass movements.
If racially marginalized populations distrust legislatures for refusing to protect their full inclusion in the state and civil society, the failure of legislatures to actively protect white supremacy and patriarchy has led to a growing distrust of liberal democracy on the right. The most dangerous critics of liberal democracy today are fighting—sometimes by means of terrorism—to maintain the logics of racial and gender domination. Donald Trump’s surge in the polls over the summer is a manifestation of support among some white Americans for dismantling liberal institutions in order to resurrect the old racial norms.
Second, Katznelson could pursue more deeply the degree to which representative institutions are shunned today because of their capture by corporate interests, particularly the financial sector. The bank bailouts during the Great Recession, the home-mortgage crisis, and “too big to fail” all undermined the idea that wealth cannot be converted into political power. The role of organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in writing and winning corporate-sponsored legislation at all levels of government furthers mistrust in representative institutions. And the Citizens United decision makes an outright mockery of popular concerns for an uncorrupted political system.
Many black activists and theorists have questioned over the years whether, even under the best conditions, the liberal state can address the monumental challenges of systemic racial and economic inequality. Do liberals have the will to attempt the needed changes? Can liberal democracy embrace immigrants and marginalized groups as full citizens? The despair at the root of these questions is not going away, and not only because Congress is gridlocked. Even when it moves, these groups face their own crisis of representation.