The Shortlist: How Endangered Is American Democracy?

Van Reybrouck is a skilled polemicist, but his solutions to remedy “democratic fatigue syndrome” are naïve and unfeasible. Echoing the ancient Greek practice of drawing lots, he suggests replacing the American House of Representatives with a random sample of citizens, like a jury pool. That seems like an utterly impractical way to govern nowadays and reflects the same demonization of political experience that led the country to favor a reality television star over a former secretary of state in 2016.

Van Reybrouck fetishizes direct democracy, like citizens’ councils, but ignores the way existing electoral institutions could be made more responsive to the popular will through reforms like proportional representation or nonpartisan redistricting. The solution to democratic fatigue syndrome is to make elections more democratic, not to get rid of them altogether.

OUR DAMAGED DEMOCRACY
We the People Must Act
By Joseph A. Califano Jr.
317 pp. Touchstone. $27.

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On Aug. 6, 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, calling the act “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.” But more than 50 years later, his vision of a peaceful revolution hasn’t turned out as planned. “I have never been so concerned about the destiny of our democracy,” writes Califano, now 86, who was Johnson’s chief assistant for domestic affairs.

“The two greatest forces devaluing the value and power of an individual citizen’s vote in America are gerrymandering and money,” Califano says. In one telling anecdote, he recalls Johnson complaining about how demeaning it was to “beg for money from folks that all want something.” Califano urged him to propose public financing for presidential and congressional campaigns. “The House will never go for it,” Johnson said. “There are about 100 members who run without any serious opposition. If there’s public financing they’ll all face serious opponents in running for re-election. Forget it.”

Today, Califano writes, there are 402 safe House seats, referring to House members who won by 10 points or more in 2016. It’s hard to argue with his analysis, although his book often reads like a laundry list of problems — from an imperial presidency to a dysfunctional Congress to a polarized public — without a coherent narrative. What would Johnson think of Donald Trump? Califano doesn’t say, but one can only imagine.

THE PEOPLE VS. DEMOCRACY
Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
By Yascha Mounk
393 pp. Harvard University. $29.95.

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For decades, it was assumed that democracy, with its free and fair elections, and liberalism, with its broad protections for civil liberties and individual rights, went hand in hand. But today “we are seeing the rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy,” Mounk writes. This has pitted far-right parties in Europe, which now appeal to a sizable chunk of the electorate while demonizing immigrants and minorities, against technocratic institutions like the European Union, which impinge on individual liberty in the name of collective solutions.

Mounk’s material is densely packed and he has a tendency to repeat himself, but his book provides important insights into the present political moment. He cites three reasons for the weakening of liberal democracy: the rise of social media, which is “empowering once-marginal movements and politicians” in ways good but often bad; an increase in economic inequality, which he calls “affluence without growth”; and a nativist backlash against an upsurge of immigration and ethnic diversity, which politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orban in Hungary have exploited.

“To save democracy,” Mounk writes, “we need … to unite citizens around a common conception of their nation; to give them real hope for their economic future; and to make them more resistant to the lies and the hate they encounter on social media each and every day.” As his book shows, that’s easier said than done.

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