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Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman

Reviewed by Nolan Mccarty

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“Unprecedented” may be the single most commonly used word to describe the political career and administration of Donald Trump. From his unorthodox campaign for president to his penchant for proclamation by tweet to his norm-busting and illegal behavior in office, the claims of “never before” have piled up. In the end, many observers concluded that he was responsible for an “unprecedented” crisis for American democracy.

In their new book Four Threats, Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman push back persuasively against this narrative. Indeed, the book opens with an apparent description of the Era of Trump:

Embroiled with intense conflict, both sides had become increasingly distrustful of each other. Every action by one camp provoked a greater counterreaction from the other, sometimes straining the limits of the Constitution… Leaders of the dominant party grew convinced that their only hope for fixing the government was to do everything possible to weaken their opponents and silence dissent. (p. 1)

But the passage describes the 1790s rather than our contemporary politics. Thus, there is nothing entirely new about the challenges faced by American democracy.

Mettler and Lieberman identify four threats: political polarization, economic inequality, conflicts over the boundaries of the American community, and executive aggrandizement. They then show various combinations of these threats playing a central role in a variety of democratic crises throughout American history: the Federalist-Republican conflicts, secession and the Civil War, the establishment of Jim Crow, the Great Depression, Watergate, and, of course, the Trump Era. Importantly, none of the earlier crises was seeded by all four threats. The Democratic-Republican era was rife with polarization but lacked inequality, conflicts over citizenship, and executive aggrandizement. Secession and Jim Crow involved all the threats except executive aggrandizement. The threats of the New Deal and Watergate revolved around the expanding reach of executive power and its abuse. It is only in our current era that all four threats play important roles. So while all of the ingredients of democratic crises have recurred time and time again, today’s concoction is indeed “unprecedented.”

The book does an excellent job of arguing how each of these threats poses a great danger to democracy, and the historical chapters provide vivid detail on how democratic erosion and backsliding have been tied to these factors. Less well developed, however, is how intricately intertwined the threats are. Political polarization depends on the ability of political leaders to exploit conflicts over economics and identity. Executive aggrandizement emerges precisely when parties to that conflict find constitutional rules and norms constraining to their pursuit of power.

Indeed, if one looks more closely at each of the episodes, the case could be made that all four threats are always present and reinforcing (especially if one slightly redefines the threats to be economic conflict rather than inequality and constitutional hardball instead of executive aggrandizement). The battles of the 1790s did polarize around competing economic visions and pitted the descendants of the English against new immigrant communities. The Alien and Sedition Acts were assertions of federal authority to impede the right to criticize and mobilize against the president. All the boxes can be checked. (Jim Crow is left to the reader as an exercise.)

Thus, the main lesson of Four Threats is not the lack of originality of our troubles, nor is it that our democracy has four distinct vulnerabilities. Rather, it is the ongoing challenge of our constitutional order to resolve the conflicts associated with the inequalities of a market-based economy and a multiracial society.

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