Can America Preserve Democracy without Retreating from it? Robert C. Lieberman on the Four Threats

Four Threats

Robert C. Lieberman joins the podcast to discuss a book he coauthored with Suzanne Mettler, Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. Rob is a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. This is the 48th episode of the Democracy Paradox podcast.

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Racism and racial conflict are always there, always a powerful and important part of American politics. But when they combine with polarization, with this kind of partisan antagonism, and when that becomes the dividing line between the parties, that’s really dangerous. That’s what happened in the 1850s. It led to civil war. That’s what happened in the 1890s. It led to violent conflict and mass disenfranchisement. And it’s happening again today.

Robert C. Lieberman

Key Highlights Include

  • An account of the 1898 insurrection in Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • Is polarization the fault of both sides or is one party responsible?
  • How the election of 1896 affected American democracy.
  • How polarization, conflicts over who belongs, rising economic inequality, and executive aggrandizement interact to threaten democracy in the United States.
  • Does the preservation of democracy really require democratic backsliding?

Podcast Transcript

I view American history as the story of American democracy. The creation of the constitution is an important step, but it does not end there. The key events in American history either continue to move the country toward its democratic ideals or retreat away from them. How we study American history says a lot about our values and our aspirations for the future. 

I invited Robert C. Lieberman to discuss his book (coauthored with Suzanne Mettler) Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy. We’ll touch on different moments of American history where democracy faced serious challenges, but we spend a majority of the conversation on a forgotten moment of American history: the 1890s. This is the period of our history where Jim Crow laws really take root and white supremacists terrorize African Americans. It is a tragic period for those who suffered, but it was also a tragic period for American Democracy.

Rob identifies four threats to democracy. They are polarization, conflict over who belongs, rising economic inequality, and executive aggrandizement. Moreover, he argues these four threats have converged for the first time in American History. So, our conversation explore history as a way to understand the current political moment. 

There is a lot more I wish Rob and I had time to explore. Like every episode, this is a complex topic with a lot of perspectives and viewpoints. So, I invite you to join the conversation at You’ll find a full transcript of the episode and an area to leave comments about anything you liked or add your own thoughts. You can also send me an email at But for now this is my conversation with Rob Lieberman…


Rob Lieberman, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.


Thanks so much for having me.


So, Rob, your book really stood out to me as one of the strongest books of 2020. It was really an excellent book.


Thanks very much.


What really stood out to me though, was the way that you approach it. Because there’s a lot of books written about the crises of democracy. We’ve got about three different books that I’ve seen that are How Democracy Dies, How Democracy Ends. What I loved about your book was the way that it truly incorporates American history to tell a story about democracy. And the absolute most striking part of your book is the section on the 1890s. You give an account of an armed insurrection in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. And it caught me completely off guard because it was not part of any American history course that I ever took. How did you learn about it?


Yeah, that’s really one of the most arresting episodes that we discovered when we were researching this book. It’s in the history. It’s increasingly well-known. But you’re right. It’s not something that people typically talk about. Let me just give a little bit of backstory to the Wilmington insurrection. It comes in the 1890s when African-Americans are still voting in large numbers in Southern States. African-Americans vote for the Republican party and the Republicans have been actively courting their votes as a way of staying competitive in Southern elections. But there’s also this populous movement that’s growing up at the time. A movement of poor, mostly white farmers in the South, in the West. And what happened in North Carolina and other Southern States was Republicans and populists would join together on what were called fusion tickets and run together, run slates of candidates together.

And they were successful in many places in the South and particularly in North Carolina in the late 1890s. And they had elected a state governor, a state legislature, and the mayor and city council of the city of Wilmington, which was the largest city in North Carolina at the time. Well in 1898, the white supremacist democratic party in North Carolina decided they’d had enough of this and shortly after the election of 1898 in November, they basically took over the government of Wilmington, North Carolina by force starting out with violent raids by white supremacist militias. They torched the offices of The Daily Record which was a black owned daily newspaper in Wilmington, one of the few daily black newspapers in the country.

And this was a city that had been a real success story. There was a black middle class emerging. Blacks had some measure of political power or were routinely competitive in the electoral system with whites in North Carolina. And this can really only be described as a coup d’état. They burn, the newspaper offices, march down to city hall, killed several hundred people in a riot, and forced the city council to resign at gunpoint. Rode them out of town and installed their own government. It wasn’t the beginning, but it was one of the really signal events in the retaking of the South, an undermining of democracy that had developed in the Southern States in the decades after the civil war.

So, this was not a moment just when democracy was under threat and people were worried about how things were going to go. This was an actual armed rebellion against a democratically elected government. That was the beginning of a process across the South that took voting rights away from three or 4 million African-American men who had gained those rights in the decades after the civil war. So, it was a really dark moment for American democracy.


So, I just finished a book called Assault on Democracy about the interwar period that discussed the rise of fascism within Europe and the rise of authoritarianism. And really got into a conversation with the author Kurt Weyland. And what struck me about a passage in that chapter was the similarities between fascism in Europe and what was happening right then. You write, “The third prong, men who could ride included the paramilitary red shirts, who often appeared on horseback brandishing weapons as they sought to intimidate African Americans from voting.” Red shirts, I mean, it sounds exactly like the black shirts in fascist Italy. It’s dark and it’s incredibly disturbing.


Yeah. This was one of the features of politics in that period, especially in the South, were these paramilitary organizations like the KU Klux Klan, which was founded in the aftermath of the civil war by a group of former Confederate officers. And that was a feature of Southern politics and Southern life for decades both before and after these events in Wilmington. That the racial order that emerged out of this period in the 1890s, the rise of Jim Crow and state sponsored segregation and the disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the South, was supported both by law and custom, but also by this constant threat of violence.


Now Rob, the 1890s for me, when I studied American history and grew up, it was just a period that you passed over. Teachers described it as just a section where nothing really happened. So, your chapter really struck a chord with me for recognizing how much was going on and how important it was for the story of American democracy. But I want to get back to that initial question. How did you learn about it?


You know we actually came on this particular event through a former graduate student of Suzanne’s, my coauthor, Suzanne Mettler. Suzanne was talking to her and describing the book as it was evolving at the time. And this former student said, ‘Oh, you should look at this story about Wilmington, North Carolina.’ And it was one of those things that, at least for me, it wasn’t that I had never heard of it. I knew about it. It was lodged in the back of my head somewhere and I had a bit of familiarity when I heard about this suggestion from Suzanne’s student.

But the more we dug into it, the more it seemed like really a just pivotal and incredibly important event. Not just because it sort of symbolized a lot of these threads that were running through American politics at the time and that were really dangerous. But because it was such a convulsive violent event in a way that we don’t think about American politics in these terms. So, it turned out to be a really pivotal part of our process of writing the book was learning about this event. And then as you say it, I think it occupies a really important place in this story that the book tells.


Now, you write about America as a democracy. You described this as a story of threats to American democracy. But should we be thinking more of our history as a process of democratization or can we really think of this story as being about American democracy from the beginning of its founding?


I think it’s clear that American democracy was not a full democracy from the beginning and we know this history pretty well. African-Americans were excluded until after the Civil War that we excluded in the 20th century. Women didn’t have citizenship rights in most important respects until the 20th century. But we’re used to thinking about the United States as sort of gradually and progressively fulfilling this democratic ideal that was laid out at the founding.  And we think about that as a sort of constant gradual slow process when we’re always moving forward. But I think it’s more useful to think about American democracy as a process of democratization. Democracy is not an on-off switch, not an either- or thing.

We like to think about democracy as a continuum. You can be more or less robust, a more or less complete democracy. I think it’s fair to say that the United States wasn’t anything close to a complete democracy until the 1960s or 1970s. And the way we wanted people to think about it is to think about what direction are we going at any one moment. Are we moving forward? Are we moving toward a more complete, more robust democracy or are we moving backward? And the book focuses on these five periods in American history when the United States was really at risk of moving backwards.


Rob, the book is called Four Threats. It would be malpractice if I didn’t give you an opportunity to describe what those four threats are.


Sure. What we discovered is in these five periods of American history: the 1790s, the very earliest decades of the Republic; the 1850s and the run-up to the civil war; the 1890s; the 1930s and the great depression; and the 1970s in the middle of the Watergate scandal. The common feature of these five periods was that they shared some combination of these four threats and these are things that we know from looking at democracy elsewhere are threats to the health and sustainability of democracy.

So, the four threats are: political polarization, the sort of us versus them; what we call conflict over who belongs, conflict over membership in the political community, what groups are really considered full parts of the political community and what groups are considered on the outside. In the United States that’s usually a racial question. The third thread is high and rising economic inequality. And the fourth threat is what we call executive aggrandizement. The growth of executive power and the power of the presidency. And what we find is that in all of the periods, when democracy was under threat, some combination of these four threats was present.


Well, let’s walk through some of these threats with you. The first one is polarization and we see probably the fiercest, most dangerous moments in our history, based on the case studies that you bring up, to me at least, involve polarization in some fashion. It made it difficult to resolve problems. Situations that involve fierce polarization are difficult to come to a resolution. So, polarization is the first of your four threats. Is polarization really the fault of both sides or is there typically a villain on one side or the other?


That’s a great question, because we often talk about polarization in this very sort of clinical way, especially in political science, and it means a number of different things. Let me just unpack it a little bit. Often, it means, we think of it as meaning, elite disagreement. Disagreement among elected officials, members of Congress who are either clumped in the center or very far out to the left and right extremes. It can also mean the way political parties organize themselves and compete against each other, especially as a response to electoral competition. So, when elections are very close and when control of the government is really honestly up for grabs in every single election then political parties have a strong incentive to distinguish themselves from each other and to be seen to be different from each other. So, that drives them apart.

And then we also talk about political polarization in terms of what a lot of political scientists called social sorting. And that’s also very acute right now. That is we Americans, not elected officials or political elites or party activists, all of us tend to sort ourselves out, so that the people that we live with and work with and go to school with and go to church with increasingly tend to be people who share our political perspective. And so we’re really, the country is really, dividing itself up into these two almost irreconcilable groups. And that creates and amplifies this dynamic of us versus them.

A lot of political scientists have talked about what’s called negative partisanship. That is people are motivated at least as much by the fact that they hate the other side as much as by the fact that they are rooting for their own side. I want my team to win, but I really want the other team to lose. And so those dynamics tend to reinforce themselves. So, we can talk about polarization in the sort of clinical terms as if it’s a both sides kind of phenomenon.

At the same time, what we’re facing right now in the United States, and this has only gotten worse, I think, since the election of 2020, is that right now the problem is not just divergence. It’s not just that Democrats and Republicans are on opposite teams and disagree with each other about things. It’s that one of the major political parties in the United States is really not a pro-democracy party anymore. So, we can talk about polarization and polarization is a real challenge, but on top of that we have this additional problem with the United States today that one of the two parties has really, in terms of its support for democracy, just gone off the rails.


And that’s where I struggle with the concept of polarization, because… The 1890s are another great example. So, the 1890s  you’ve got southerners that are incredibly angry at the Republican fusion party that is starting to actually win elections within North Carolina, for instance, within Wilmington. But I believe that they also had the governor’s office at the time. And they’re fighting between each other. You have a lot of polarization between Republicans and Democrats. It was one of the most severe periods of polarization in America’s history. So, during periods like that if you’re talking about finding resolution on something where people just wouldn’t agree with each other that’s a dangerous type of polarization.

But we’re talking about fundamental issues to our democracy. We’re talking about the rights of African-Americans in the South during this period. I just find it hard to say that if you’re standing for those rights of African-Americans that you should try to find a sense of compromise, because the only sense of compromise would be to give up on a part of the community, which to be honest is kind of what happened. Didn’t it?


Yeah. One of the things that connects today and the 1890s is that polarization is not acting by itself. Polarization in the 1890s was accompanied by really two other threats, racial conflict and economic inequality. Today in the early 21st century, for the first time ever in American history, we have all four threats acting at the same time. And that’s what we feel makes this moment so dangerous and why the outcome of the 2020 election doesn’t necessarily downgrade the level of danger if you will.

So, you’re absolutely right that the confluence of polarization, the sort of us versus them dynamic, with racial antagonism and economic inequality, in particular, makes these kinds of moments especially dangerous when the divide between us and them is also a divide between visions of a multi-racial democratic future. And that’s why the parallel, I think, between the 1890s and today is so striking. And so, worrisome. It’s also true that often the resolution of these moments of crisis has come largely at the expense of African-Americans. So, if we say that democracy survived the 1890s, the way it survived, the way things calmed down, and the way the parties sort of climbed off of their extreme antagonistic positions was by essentially agreeing to give up on the rights of African-Americans.

The Republicans who had been the champions of African-American suffrage and civil rights in the South, basically realized in the 1890s that they could win elections without contesting the South. So they said to the Democrats, ‘Yeah, you can have the South and we won’t interfere.’ And in fact, after the coup in Wilmington, African-American Republicans in North Carolina asked President McKinley to intervene on their behalf and he politely declined. And that became the pattern that the Republican party, sort of gave up on the South. So, this has been a recurring pattern that the resolution of crisis comes at the expense of African-Americans and at the expense of the aspiration to build a multi-racial democracy.


I feel like this section is so fascinating to me because there’s a lot of complex factors going on. It’s also one of the cases that involves three of the four threats. You’ve got a period where the right to vote is being stripped away, not just from African-Americans, but also from other people as well. I didn’t realize it was  so pervasive until I actually looked at the numbers, and I ran the numbers for South Carolina for their presidential votes. And I found that from 1876 until the election in 1900, which is just after this coup. Literally the vote is depressed to 25% of the 1876 figure by the time you get to 1900 in the state of South Carolina.

I thought of that because in Schattschneider’s famous book, The Semisovereign People, he talks about how the right to vote was stripped away, not just from African-Americans, but also from a lot of whites. And so when you just look at the number of people that are participating within democracy by the time you get to the end of that period, it reminds you that it’s not about just one segment of the population. These threats to democracy start to affect much wider segments that think that they’re immune to it, but they’re obviously being affected directly.


And the backdrop to that is the Reconstruction Era from the 1860s, formally to the 1870s, but its effects persisted to the 1890s. This was one of the great democratizing moments in American history.  Participation rates, as you note, were very high, and among both black and white voters. Blacks were being elected to office. A number of them were elected to Congress. Two United States Senators were black. And in this period, something like 1500 black office holders were elected or appointed to office across the South in these decades. So, it’s not just that this happened in the 1890s, but it was rolling back the progress that had been won as a result of the Civil War and as a result of the political pressure by Northern Republicans in the 1860s and 1870s and beyond.

So, it was even more tragic if you can imagine that because it represented a real backward motion from serious progress that had been made and purchased at an incredibly high cost in the Civil War. And it is the most stark example, certainly in American history, of that kind of democratic backsliding.


Now, one of the other challenges during this time period is economic inequality. And you have populism rising up. And the fusion candidates that were Republican in the South were a fusion of populists and the African-American population into a coherent electoral force within the South. But populism beyond the South was oftentimes on the side of the Democrats. And you have William Jennings Bryan who’s the big champion of populism. It’s difficult for me to unravel the fact that the Democrats, the party that is oppressing racial minorities in the South, is the party championing somebody who’s supposed to be a hero for challenging economic inequality and a champion potentially for democracy. How do you resolve that discrepancy?


You have to remember that William Jennings Bryan, who was the great populous tribune, and the Democratic nominee for president in 1896 and that several times again, he was a Democrat and the Democrats in 1896 and for a long time thereafter were the party of white supremacy in the South. So, on the one hand there’s no reason to suppose that Brian would have done anything other than continue to support the rise of Jim Crow and the institution of segregation in the South and continued voting restrictions and in the minds of white Democratic Southerners these things were part and parcel of their attempt to regain power in the South that they had lost as a result of the Civil War and reconstruction.

And they saw it starkly in those terms. They called themselves redeemers. ‘We are redeeming the South from the depredations of the Northern Republicans who are forcing this multiracial democracy on us.’ So, there’s no reason to believe, regardless of what Bryan himself may or may not have personally believed, there’s no reason to believe that he would have deviated from that as a matter of policy, because that was seen by Southern Democrats as existentially important to their power. What’s interesting to me is not so much what Bryan and the Democrats might have done if say he had been elected, but what the Republicans would have done. The Republicans believed that they didn’t need the South to win national elections. If they lost a national election in 1896 because the South voted Democratic, they might have rethought that stance.

So, the question is would the Republicans have sort of continued their efforts to champion democratization and black voting rights in the South, if they had lost that election. So, this is a relational problem. It’s not just what Bryan would or wouldn’t have done and what a populist government would have looked like. It’s how does the other party respond?  In the end, as I said before, the Republicans pulled back from supporting black voting rights in the South because they figured they didn’t need the South anymore. But if that calculation changed, then I think the early 20th century would have looked very different.


Now your fourth threat Involves executive aggrandizement. And you don’t note it’s occurrence until we get to FDR, until we get to Roosevelt. And I can understand why because the federal government grew dramatically during that period so there was a lot more power within the federal government. But it almost comes across as if it’s just windows where that’s a real threat. Is executive aggrandizement, really something that’s a persistent threat that never goes away or are there really just special periods where that becomes a real threat to American democracy?


The way we lay it out, executive aggrandizement is really a 20th century problem. It’s not that there weren’t powerful presidents before or that the power of the presidency didn’t grow before Roosevelt or before Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt. Take your pick. But that the balance between presidential power and power in the other parts of the political system really starts to tilt in the 20th century and it really takes off with Roosevelt and then accelerates in World War II and after World War II as the government grows and gains the sort of control and surveillance capacity over the population that then Nixon is able to weaponize. So, it looks like it’s pretty steady growth.

Now, occasionally Congress did try and take some of its power back after Watergate in the Vietnam war and the CIA excesses that were revealed in the Church Committee in the seventies.  Congress passed the war powers resolution which tried to pull back some of the president’s military authority, it passed the budget act of 1974 which tried to control the budgetary authority of the president. So, there was at least then a tussle between the President and Congress over power. But it’s hard to see that right now.

There was a thought that Joe Biden is such a creature of Congress, spent basically his entire adult life in the Senate, that maybe he would be more comfortable with a sort of righting of the ship and rebalancing authority back to Congress. Except that under the polarization, getting Congress to do anything serious seems almost impossible, except through these crazy reconciliation and other kinds of special rules which really limits the maneuverability of Congress. So, all the incentives continue to be, as they were in Franklin Roosevelt, for the president to try to get around the problem of a kludgy and blocked Congress and to try to do things by himself as much as he can. So again, it’s a dynamic that feeds on itself.


You’ve read Master of the Senate, right?




Yeah. And what I loved in that book was how it explained that it wasn’t just the fact the executive was doing more, but they had more information than Congress did. All the experts were getting hired under the executive branch and Congress, particularly the Senate within that book about Lyndon Johnson, but Congress just didn’t add the personnel and it just wasn’t designed to do it that way. And today we see it that Congress relies on lobbyists because they’ve continued to not add the personnel to provide the information.


Well, they did. Congress did in the post-war decades from the forties to the seventies add personnel and add capacity. They created the Office of Technology Assessment and what used to call it the General Accounting Office. These were supposed to be counterweights on the legislative side to rectify exactly that problem that Congress didn’t have access to the same kind of information and expertise that the executive branch did, because they didn’t want to get constantly snookered by the president. After the Gingrich revolution in the nineties, the Republican controlled Congress started stripping away a lot of that capacity. So, we’re back to a much more imbalanced executive heavy system. The other thing I point out is that, you know, when that great book about the Senate in the 1950s when Lyndon Johnson is majority leader, is this is a period of relatively low polarization.

So, even in that asymmetrical information environment where the President and the White House and the executive departments have all this information and all these employees and all this capacity, Lyndon Johnson was able to maneuver his way through a Senate of Democrats and Republicans who were much more able and prone to form coalitions with each other even when they disagreed. So that the lack of polarization in a way kind of made up for the Senate’s lack of capacity. Now we’ve got a Congress that has very little capacity and is incredibly polarized. So that the idea of a coalition that includes both Democrats and Republicans for anything, it’s almost impossible to contemplate.


Do you find it ironic that it was the Gingrich Congress that pulled back the power from Congress by reducing the resources that it had? Because I think of the Gingrich Congress as being a real moment of expression by Republicans that Congress is going to check the power of the Presidency, but the way you just described it they actually undermined the power of Congress for the future.


Yeah, I think that is ironic. But that was really the beginning of the spiral toward the kind of partisan conflict and polarization that we see today. There are a couple of great books about this Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s book, It’s Even Worse than it Looks documents it really well. And then Julian Zelizer’s recent book about Gingrich really chronicles how effective Gingrich was at sort of changing the dynamic between Congress and the President. But again, this is about competition for power. It’s not necessarily about governing.

The Gingrich proposition was not necessarily, we can govern better than the Democrats, because we have better information or better ideas. It was, we can beat the Democrats and here’s how we can do it: by selling chaos, by drawing very sharp lines between us and them. And by painting Democrats as extremists and us as ordinary Americans. That was the proposition more than we can be more competent at it than they are. After all the Republicans are by and large, especially by the 1990s, the anti-government party. So, they’re coming and taking over a government that they’re not really that interested in running.


There’s a brilliant line in your book where you write, “Racism was not just a goal, but also a means to an end and that end was political power.” I know we’re not talking about racism at the moment, but it reemphasizes that a lot of these different problems that we come across, whether it’s those who belong, whether it’s economic inequality, it all comes back to the same concept, which is the idea of some people are trying to take political power away from the people.


That’s been a very, very powerful strategic tool. The opportunity to stoke racial antagonism among your supporters and to divide the country between people who want to restore some kind of imagined old hierarchy and people who want to change the narrative. So, racism and racial conflict are always there, always a powerful and important part of American politics. But when they combine with polarization with this kind of partisan antagonism and when that becomes the dividing line between the parties, that’s really dangerous. That’s what happened in the 1850s. It led to civil war. That’s what happened in the 1890s. That led to violent conflict and mass disenfranchisement. And it’s happening again today.

The other period of really intense polarization that we write about in the book was the 1790s. And again, a fascinating period that almost dissolves the country over the election of 1800 on a few other things. That was polarization by itself without any of the other threats. It was pretty convulsive. There was no fundamental disagreement in the United States in the 1790s about race or about the status of African-Americans or about the rightness of slavery. So, even polarization by itself was dangerous. But polarization, when it’s fused with these other things, can be extraordinarily dangerous.


Now, the periods that you’ve got that don’t involve polarization, like the 1930s with FDR and the 1970s with Nixon, I think are interesting because they represent the threat to democracy of executive aggrandizement. And you go deep into examples where that becomes a true threat, both under FDR and under Nixon. But what I find is interesting is they also represent periods where, as that epoch kind of changes and the balance of power shifts, they actually become periods of deepening democratization in different ways.

So, like, I think of after FDR, you have Eisenhower come into office and I feel that Eisenhower’s sense of moderation of not just simply attacking the new deal program, but finding ways to accept it and embrace different parts of it and allow it to become a part of the American political experience for both Democrats and Republicans, allowed us to be able to accept certain parts of a bigger government that was capable of doing things that set us up for the 1960s. The 1970s when Nixon left, it was a real crisis, but like you just said, because there wasn’t the polarization, we were able to resolve some of those problems and actually deepen democracy going forward at the time. So, I guess what I’m asking here is, is polarization really the real threat that exacerbates and makes the other threats become toxic?


Yeah, again, it’s really the combination. Both the 1930s and 1970s were real moments of crisis. And I don’t think we can underestimate that. You know, Roosevelt comes into the office at the trough of the depression in 1933, looking across the Atlantic at democratic regimes that are falling like dominoes and fascism is starting to rise. And then in the 1970s Nixon almost brings the whole house down, but I think you’re right. Without polarization, we’re able to get past these crises in a more intact way, I think. And in fact, ironically, for sure during the Trump era, everyone was thinking about Nixon. Right? You know. When’s he going to be impeached? How long are the Republicans going to stick with him?  That was the question that drew me to Watergate in the first place was, how long are the Republicans going to stick with this guy?

And in Nixon’s case, the answer was until like the day before he resigned. But what resolves , the Watergate crisis in the end was everyone in the system sort of played their constitutionally prescribed roles. Members of Congress investigated and, in the end, it was a small group of members of Congress, of both parties, Democrats and Republicans that agreed that Nixon had to go that that tipped the whole thing over. But not just members of Congress and the parties, there was the courts, there was the Department of Justice. It was the press uncovering the things that had happened to the administration. Would that have happened in a more polarized environment? Probably not.

And I think we saw what that looked like in the two Trump impeachments. That there was very little interest on one side in actually investigating and uncovering truth about a series of events and then evaluating those events based on the evidence in front of you. This was a partisan dog fight. And before a word was uttered in the impeachment proceedings, we pretty much knew what the outcome was going to be because the partisan lines were so starkly drawn. So, polarization is, I think, the underlying problem. It’s this us and them dynamic. But it’s polarization in the presence of these other threats and the combination and the confluence that’s really dangerous.


Now in your book, there’s another quote I want to get to. You write, “Looking across the periods, we find a deeply disturbing pattern. On several occasions, political leaders effectively preserved American democracy by restricting it.” That’s just such a powerful quote for me. And to me, it encapsulates the real fear and the danger that your book tries to highlight and raise so that people are aware of it. So, the question I’ve got for you, Rob, is can we preserve democracy without retreating from democracy?


That is the question, I think, of the early 21st century.  This is a recurring pattern. The 1890s is an obvious example of saving the form of democracy by writing millions of African-Americans out of it. Even the 1790s where we resolved the crisis with the election of 1800 in which Jefferson peacefully takes office, first peaceful transfer of power between parties in history, even that happens because of the three-fifths compromise in the constitution, which gives expert representation and extra power to the white slave holders of the South who give their votes to Jefferson without the three-fifths clause. Adams probably would have been reelected and we would have been still in this situation of partisan antagonism and who knows what would have happened.

So, it is a recurring pattern. I think we’re pushing in two different directions on this right now. On the one hand, last spring and summer, one of the things that gave me hope was watching the Black Lives Matter protests after the George Floyd and other murders that were so flagrant and public. Not just the fact of the protests, but the sort of overall pattern of the protests. These were protests, people marching, not just in the usual places, not just in big cities, but in small towns and rural places all over the place. Like places where you wouldn’t expect protest activity and a wide range of different kinds of people were participating.

So, it seemed like a moment of real reckoning for a lot of Americans with the country’s history and with racial inequality. That’s not to say that there is a straight line between Black Lives Matter and a better, more complete flourishing democracy. It’s a lot of work and a lot of hard politics and conflict between here and there. On the other hand, what’s the reaction in a lot of places to the events of last year. It’s voter suppression. Rather than trying to find a way to enlarge the democracy and to make it possible for people to vote and to express their views and to express their opinions. Try to make it harder.

Again, we don’t know what the outcome of all these state laws is going to be. We don’t know what the consequence is going to be. We don’t know to what extent they’re really going to suppress voting opportunities. We’ll have to wait and see how they pan out and there’s research on both sides. But there are these two competing impulses in the country right now toward expansion of democracy and toward contraction of democracy.  And that’s what makes this such a perilous moment.


There’s another quote that I think goes alongside it really well. And again, you write, “Political leaders and citizens through politics rescue democracy.” I found it really inspiring to say it that way. Because I do believe democracy, when it’s at its fullest, is a government of the people. Meaning that it’s not just the decisions of the elites, but it’s also the behavior and decisions of everyday citizens that really determine the sense of democracy that you have that really guide our process to something that is an even more fully form of democracy. But a quote like that begs a very simple question, rob. How?


Yeah, that’s a really hard question and one that, you know, I don’t think Suzanne and I in the book even really fully get our minds around. What we focus on in the book is asking citizens to consider democracy itself when they’re thinking about politics and national affairs. We want to avoid a lot of the things that people talk about that are really just kind of fantastical – Get rid of the electoral college. The electoral college is a manifestly undemocratic feature of the American constitution, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. So, let’s think about what’s the low hanging fruit. What are the things that citizens can sort of consider when we’re thinking about what our democracy looks like?

But I have to say, even since the election, and certainly since the events of January 6th, even getting Americans to agree on what the state of democracy is right now is a challenge. So, I hate to leave on a disheartening note, but it’s, really hard to imagine how we can get our fellow citizens to sort of keep democracy in view all the time. We recur a couple of times with the book to Abraham Lincoln’s words. Lincoln was the great sort of prophet of American democracy. And he several times, particularly at Gettysburg and then his second inaugural, referred to American democracy’s unfinished work.

And I think if there’s one plea it’s that we remember that democracy is not something that is. The other person I would quote on this is John Lewis or paraphrase. So in the powerful New York Times op ed piece that was published on the day of his funeral said something like ‘Democracy is not something we are, it’s something we do. It’s not a state, it’s an act.’ And I think we need to remember that.


I think one of the things that gets lost when we talk about democracy as just an abstract concept is if democracy is the government of the people, then we need to find ways to actually govern. And one of the concerns that I have with democracy, and this touches on your point about struggles with economic inequality is, if we continue to find ways to obstruct opportunities to govern and it’s not about the particular policy that goes into effect. But if we’re not trying to find solutions through government, we’re just trying to avoid making decisions, I think that eventually comes to a road where if we say government can’t work, we’re essentially saying democracy can’t work.


Right. And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If government doesn’t work, then increasingly people will believe that it can’t work. And that fuels the cycle.


Yes, exactly. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Rob. This has been excellent conversation.


Well, thanks for having me.

Key Links

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

Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation” by John Lewis in The New York Times

Follow Rob Lieberman on Twitter @r_lieberman

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