Who thinks who is a threat to democracy? (Part 1)

by John Holbo on September 4, 2022

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing us he wasn’t Twitter. No, I’m kidding, I love Twitter. But I have abandoned blogging and that’s so so sad. So, once again, I’m going to try to do better

I would like to ask: who thinks who is a threat to democracy?

New Quinnipiac poll finds 69% of D’s and 69% of R’s say they think American democracy is in danger of collapse – presumably not for the same reasons.

Biden’s speech called out Trump and Trumpism – MAGA – as threats to democracy and the rule of law. But obviously Trump and his MAGA base don’t see themselves that way. If they’re semi-fascists, they are suffering from severe false-consciousness. They think they are patriots fighting Dem fascists. Or at least they say they think that. Douthat argues today that D’s don’t really believe the hype themselves.

You may believe that American democracy is threatened as at no point since the Civil War, dear reader, but they do not. They are running a political operation in which the threat to democracy is leverage, used to keep swing voters onside without having to make difficult concessions to the center or the right.”

The evidence: failure to engage in outreach to build the anti-Trump coalition! Some Dems, including the DCCC, gave to MAGA candidates in primaries on the theory they will be weak in the general. Is this the behavior of people who think democracy is on the line?

I dunno. Might be.

Suppose you think there’s a 60% chance that Trump is going to run and lose and tank the R party and a 20% chance he’s going to run and win and tank the republic and a 20% chance that he’s going to run and lose and tank the republic by precipitating a constitutional crisis.

How should D’s prepare for that? It’s not totally clear that they shouldn’t try to jam the R’s up by goading them into going more MAGA, thereby increasing the chance Trump will lose clean – but increasing the damage to the republic should Trump win, or lose ugly. Predictions are hard, man.

For my part – yeah. That’s kinda how I see it. Trump is an existential threat to democracy, but an opportunity for D’s to make pick-ups in the suburbs. That makes me sound cynical, but it’s not like I can choose for the R’s NOT to go with Trump.

It comes down to this: is there a better way for D’s to mitigate the risk that Trump and MAGA destroy the country than just … trying to win?

Douthat seems to be saying: now, more than ever, triangulate, to be extra sure you win. But triangulating – running to the middle – is not invariably the way to be sure you win. You can de-motivate your own base and run into other coalition trouble trying that way. Because you give up stuff.

To which Douthat replies: but if Trump is such a threat, the base should stay motivated no matter what! it’s do or die!

Look, man, that cuts both ways: if Trump is such a threat, ‘independents’ and conservatives should come over to the Dem side no matter what! It’s do or die! Plus some of these proposed rhetorical strategies for appealing to fence-sitters are stinkers, insofar as they ask the Dems to argue that Trump is NOT such an exceptional threat, if only because that’s the polite thing to say.

“It’s easy to imagine a Biden speech that offered such concessions without giving an inch in its critique of Donald Trump. The president could have acknowledged, for instance, that his own party has played some role in undermining faith in American elections, that the Republicans challenging the 2020 result were making a more dangerous use of tactics deployed by Democrats in 2004 and 2016.”

‘Bad people on both sides!’ How is hinting Dems are almost as bad, in their way, supposed to convince people they definitely need to vote Dem? This is anti-persuasion to those on the fence and demoralizing to the base, whom it (wrongly!) insults as being almost as bad as Trump!

So, again: are there things – tough things! – the D’s should be doing, to ward off the worst risks, besides just … trying to win? (Which makes it look like we are treating it like any other normal election, yes.) Reform the Electoral Count Act! That’s for sure. Besides that?

So I think Douthat is wrong.

I call this post Part 1 because I’d like to force myself to keep up this blogging thing. Good for the soul. And I want to turn to the R’s next. As I said, I don’t think that MAGA-heads think they are fascists. So, if they are, they are sort of suffering from false-consciousness. So that’s it, I think. But that’s complicated.

What do I really think different types of Trump supporters (and anti-anti-Trumpers) really think about Trump? That’s tough. I usually just insult them. Do I think they really think Joe Biden is a fascist, bent on destroying the republic? Really? Or are they just saying that? Let’s talk about it tomorrow.





SusanC 09.04.22 at 4:03 pm

Some possible theories (which I don’t necessarily believe, just that they are possible explanations to be assessed against the observed behaviour:

A. The dems don’t actually believe it, and it’s all hype. Consider this a variant of the lesser evil argument. If you think the electorate hates you, and your sales pitch as that your opponent is even worse than you are, you have to make out that your opponent is really really bad.

B. Bullshit, in the Harry Frankfurt sense. Politicians of all stripes are just saying stuff with no concern over whether it is actually true, or what the consequences would be if it were true.

C. Revealed preference for Trump. Suppose that the dems are kind of opposed to Trump, but really really hate the left of their own party, such as Bernie Sanders. To the extent that they’d prefer to destroy the republic, or have actual Nazis in power, rather than concede to the left of their own party.


SusanC 09.04.22 at 4:16 pm

“Look, man, that cuts both ways: if Trump is such a threat, ‘independents’ and conservatives should come over to the Dem side no matter what! It’s do or die!”

Not sure that follows. The line of argument seems to be that conservatives don’t consider Trump to be a serious threat, and so are not going to vote dem just to keep him out … and conservatives further think that the dems don’t believe it either, because if the dems did believe it they’d be trying harder to build a broader anti-Trump coalition.

Part of me thinks we are a 3 way politics where triangulation no longer works. If both leftists and the Trumpists are prepared to join forces against neo liberal centrist dems, then trying to be more centrist than they already are is not going to be a gain for the dems.


John Holbo 09.04.22 at 4:35 pm

“Not sure that follows. The line of argument seems to be that conservatives don’t consider Trump to be a serious threat …”

I admit it’s tricky. But suppose, for argument, both lefties and sane righties see Trump as a 20% threat to destroy the republic. They are trying to form an alliance. You would expect considerable coordination problems forming an alliance. That there are coordination problems is not a sign that they don’t believe in the 20% threat.


marcel proust 09.04.22 at 4:54 pm

Do I think [Trump supporters] really think Joe Biden is a fascist, bent on destroying the republic?

Not a fascist, bent on destroying the republic but a pedophile bent on destroying the republic!


J, not that one 09.04.22 at 4:58 pm

I seem to recall Douthat called himself an ultramontanist in his youth. That he might be dicking around now because a threat to democracy doesn’t bother him much seems well within the realm of possibility. Let’s start with facts, not wishful thinking about an imaginary Douthat in an entirely different world.


Cheez Whiz 09.04.22 at 5:35 pm

Beware of Republicans bearing Democrats gift advice on how to win elections.

You’re neglecting a key factor, what does each side mean by “threat to democracy”? Answer that and the issue becomes much clearer. Also, if Democrats are giving money to MAGA candidates I’m not too suprised, since we are in the worst timeline, but all I’ve seen of the fabled DNC (or whichever acronym) ads helping/promoting MAGA candidates are ads describing how radical and dangerous they are. You could argue that this somehow promotes MAGA to people not already on the train, but that’s a stretch, this is really just another instance of begging the Republican Party to get the crazy aunts and uncles out of leadership and back in the basement. I don’t think its gonna work, but they believe they gotta try.


Nicholas Weininger 09.04.22 at 7:55 pm

First, to your question “is there a better D strategy to save democracy than just trying to win?” the answer is yes: namely trying to maximize the number of people in positions of power who will not go along with the destruction of democracy.

This is only equivalent to “just try to win” if you believe every, or almost every, R is about equally likely to go along in the event. But we know that’s not true from the experience of January 2021: a bunch of (at least nominally Trump-supporting!) Republicans, from Brad Raffensperger to Aaron van Langevelde to the Rs in Congress who voted to certify on 1/6, were essential to saving democracy then. And to take maybe the most clearcut case, there is no universe where supporting John Gibbs over Peter Meijer in the MI-3 primary increased the likelihood of having someone in that House seat who will defend democracy.

On the triangulation strategy question, there’s at least one practical reason to think it’d be worth risking demoralization of the D base to capture more swing/independent/unaffiliated voters: the D base is very inefficiently distributed for Electoral College impact. That’s not fair, but that’s the game we’re playing.


john theibault 09.04.22 at 8:26 pm

I’d like to push back a little on the notion that Democrats “gave to” MAGA candidates.

I admit I have only seen one of the supposedly pro-MAGA candidate advertisements sponsored by democrats. But that one merely said the candidate was “hand-picked by Trump to run for Congress,” and was “too conservative”and certainly did not say “vote for him.” Maybe there are others that were more supportive, though I’d be surprised.

I mean, I get that this is a jiu jitsu move because most Republicans now have a Pavlovian reaction that anything Dems don’t want must be good and I agree with the sentiment that the DCCC would probably gain more by saving their funds for democratic candidates in the general election. But won’t their advertisement be virtual identical then? Republicans are just mad that if they were to run a primary ad saying a Dem candidate running in a competitive seat wanted to defund the police and was too far left, it would almost certainly help the candidate more likely to win the general election rather than the one they think they could more easily beat.


AWOL 09.04.22 at 8:26 pm

You take the man who kicked Chunky Reese Witherspoon out of bed seriously?

Douthat is a Lunatic, Catholic troll in a troll of a publication.


both sides do it 09.04.22 at 8:26 pm

Also too, Dems are not unitary actors; DCCC didn’t sign off on Biden’s speech, orgs screaming about voting rights/democracy and putting $/time into expanding them have some overlap w/ Senate and House fundraising apparatuses (apparati?) but not a lot, etc

Not sure how that affects your analysis but think it complicates it

Of course, Douthat bites this even harder, and following his reasoning far enough usually means finding he does so to assume his conclusion


Murc 09.04.22 at 8:58 pm

Some Dems, including the DCCC, gave to MAGA candidates in primaries

Show me where the DCCC made financial contributions to MAGA candidates in primaries.


nastywoman 09.04.22 at 9:21 pm

‘So I think Douthat is wrong’.

I couldn’t agree more – as the Right-Wing Dude seems to have noooo idea about how much not only his ‘dear readers’ believe that American democracy is threatened –
BUT also nearly every US Politician who is not ‘trump’ –
(the Worlds New Word for: Utmost Right Wing Racist Science Denying BAD Stupid)

AND about the whole ‘strategy’ discussion –
or should it better be called: ‘the game plan’ – as Americas Republicans STILL trying to do what the D-Dude tried to frame Biden for: Just playing political games.

Whatever? –
as ‘trump’ is ‘TOAST’ and these desperate Do-huts just try to preserve as many of his crazy fans as they can – it’s just such a relief that after so many years –
where –
somehow? –
US Amateur Fascists successfully created narratives – where suddenly the fighters against Fascism and Stupidity – in the eyes of so many Americans became ‘the Hitlers’ –
FINALLY! – a Democrat told the American people straightforward ‘whasup’ –

AND like in this old joke about ‘the Insane Asylum where the few ‘normal’ caretakers are NOT considered to be ‘normal’ by the Insane majority – Trump called Biden –

OR in other words: besides finishing the Job and turning also in America the word ‘trump’
(and everybody and everything related to him) into THE widely used short synonym for:
‘Utmost Racist Science Denying Stupid BAD’ – there is NOOO much better ‘strategy for Democrats… as Americans are actually ‘NOT that much into politics’ -(and solidaric strategy planning)

And if you guys don’t believe US – we could post part of the TwitterGames we played with ‘the Do-huts’ in the last days – and these guys nearly always lost – which finally is just a GREAT sign that more and more of our fellow Americans realise – whasup.


Alex SL 09.04.22 at 9:57 pm

Of course Douthat is wrong. But understandably so, because “the centre-left needs to become more rightist to win an election” is established wisdom among centrist and centre-right journalists all over the developed world, and no centre-left election loss caused by insufficient turnout of their disillusioned voter base will ever make them reconsider that.

Re MAGAs not thinking they are fascists:

First, a defining characteristic of the right-wing is to divide the people into those that count as real people and those that don’t. It is therefore easy for Rs to believe that they aren’t actually doing an authoritarianism but are promoting the Will of The People, because to them The People are only those who are like them and think like them; everybody else isn’t a Real American. To this can be added the ease with which we can today select only like-minded news sources and social media bubbles, so that it appears to them as if virtually everybody is very conservative, and therefore the libs must be a tiny minority holding power only through manipulation and trickery.

Second, hardly anybody understands what any of these words mean anyway: fascist, nazi, liberal, communist, socialist, capitalist, democracy, or republic. The median R’s understanding of terminology is limited to the idea that the first five of these are Bad and therefore they must be interchangeable labels for what the other side wants. Of course I can’t be fascist, fascist is a label for something bad, and it isn’t me who is bad, it is them. Even supposedly more educated people often seem to think that to count as a fascist you have to follow the playbook of a specific historical fascist movement in every idiosyncratic detail, that a worker who is in favour of free markets is a capitalist, or that communist China can’t be a republic. Because their understanding of political terminology comes from cultural osmosis from other ignoramuses, not from look stuff up in a reliable book.

As an aside, whenever I read about Trump being a danger to democracy, I would like to add it isn’t just Trump but the entire Republican party and its supporting media sphere that are a danger to democracy in the USA. There is no reason to assume that if Trump died tomorrow, the R primary voters wouldn’t merely pick the next leader and continue seamlessly along the current trajectory. The desire to pick ever more extremist candidates, to seed the judiciary with hacks, to destroy the regulatory capabilities of the state that protect the weak from predatory or neglectful companies, to make it harder for minorities and the R’s opponents in general to vote, to gerrymander, to militarise the police, and mass incarceration of the poor and of minorities, all of that preceded Trump’s candidacy by decades and will long outlive him.


Lafa 09.04.22 at 10:22 pm

Thank you, interesting post ! Do you know what Mr Doughat refers to by mentioning 2004 and 2016 ? In 2016, Trump was (fairly) criticized for losing the popular vote and being helped by Russia, but no one seriously called for his election to be overtuned as far as I’m aware.


JakeB 09.04.22 at 11:25 pm

History suggests that Ross I-would-do-anything-for-love-but-I-won’t-Douthat (as I believe Belle once referred to him) almost never produces arguments worth seriously engaging with and this is just more of the same. Exactly what concessions should be made? Give up on trying to mitigate climate change? Give up on trying to prevent the Gini coefficient from rising as high as possible towards a world where Douthat might become a literal court jester? Give up on trying to remember that American history is not an unbroken story of the greatness triumphs and decency of white men, generously bringing the other races and the other gender along with them? It’s not like we can go all conference of Yalta with the Republicans here; they’re not on the other side of the world from us.


Alan White 09.04.22 at 11:51 pm

John–welcome back! You remain the only CT blogger that inspired a poem (which I hope you liked–I loved writing it).

Douthat reminds me of McConnell–mildly anti-Trump but not enough to want to alienate MAGAs, which McConnell knows he needs for electoral sustainability. David Brooks is little more reasonable on all this these days, which says something. But Republicans like Liz Cheney–to whom I contributed (my first time to any rethuglican) merely in salute to her courage, certainly not her stances other than Trump–are almost nonexistent. This is a huge factor on the mind-boggling continued popularity of Agent Orange.

The inequality of the rage/hate among rethugs as opposed to dems is a really big matter. Just today I saw a big FUCK BIDEN sticker on a car, and I’ve seen plenty others. How many FUCK TRUMPS? None. Why? Because of the asymmetry of rage/hate. You might as well have a sticker that says PLEASE KEY MY CAR AND SPIT AS YOU FEEL FIT. But the opposite–which I would dearly love to do to those assholes with such displays–I can’t bring myself to do. I’ve long said that Trump inadvertently stumbled upon the power of emotivism (ala C. L. Stevenson)–say anything–lies, lies, and more lies–as long as it inspires emotional agreement in your audience. And the key emotions are rage tied to hate.

Looking forward to your posts John. Keep coming back!


Moz 09.05.22 at 3:14 am

There’s not necessary common ground between the so-called “sane conservatives” and either supporters of democracy in general or the Democratic Party in particular. A big part of Trumpism is making the cost of defecting as high as possible, even if the benefits of being on side are nebulous. So conservatives inside politics have every incentive to play along even if they’d like to speak up (the Neimoller approach… wring your hands in private, try to persuade anyone wanting to take action not to, then afterwards if you survive wring your hands in public about what a cowardly facilitator of evil you were). More specifically, the number of “sane Republicans” who’ve been de-selected suggests that the cost of being such is high.

Voters may or may not choose sanity in the privacy of the polling booth. Assuming they can, as various existing attacks on democracy seem to be less than completely ineffective. Lots of chances for collective punishment of districts that vote the wrong way even if that has no effect.

But really, what would voting Democrat gain the average Republican non-Trumpist? Can someone lay out the constituencies and what each would gain? It seems to me that far too often their choices are between Trump running amok and only giving them some of what they want, vs Democrats actively working against their interests as they see them.


Moz 09.05.22 at 3:22 am

FWIW outside the USA there are similar issues with managerialist parties “of the left” talking about nice things but refusing to do anything useful.

For a voter who wants, say, action to mitigate the climate catastrophe there’s often no major party who offers to do that, let alone is actually doing it. The soft environmentalism of Labour in Aotearoa (led by Jacinda Ardern who is moderately world-famous for her platitudes) has done almost nothing, not even in the sense of failing to make things worse.

Yes, certainly, they have “committed to climate action” and established policy-making groups, started inquiries and signed up to action plans. But when you look at what they have actually done it’s mostly terrible. They’re discussing a ban on new fossil fuel extraction but extended exploration permits and existing mining operations. They’re talking about public transport but building new motorways. They’re hoping people walk and cycle more while removing cycle lanes and building more roads. And so on, ad infinitum.

Why would I vote for them when I have the option of helping a party that actually does stuff? Even if “doing stuff” is limited to <kicking Green politicians who compromise themselves because Labour have an absolute majority and only want The Greens on board to share blame.


John Holbo 09.05.22 at 4:08 am

As to Dems giving to MAGA:

“I admit I have only seen one of the supposedly pro-MAGA candidate advertisements sponsored by democrats. But that one merely said the candidate was “hand-picked by Trump to run for Congress,” and was “too conservative”and certainly did not say “vote for him.” Maybe there are others that were more supportive, though I’d be surprised.”

I basically agree. As dirty tricks, these are very mild. You are literally just making sure the R’s are informed about the candidates. Dirty tricks that involve no lying or even misleading are not very dirty. And the reasons for Dems doing this are completely transparent. They are trying to secure their 1st best outcome – an elected D. They are risking their worst outcome – an elected MAGA nut. But that’s not dirty, it’s just deeming a somewhat higher risk strategy to be optimal. It may well be so. It may be so for preserving democracy. Plausibly, the way to preserve democracy is to defeat the R’s by not letting them conceal their MAGA-ness.


J-D 09.05.22 at 4:56 am

Beware of Republicans bearing Democrats gift advice on how to win elections.

Hear, hear!

My guess (but it is a guess, which I would be happy to have corrected) is that some Democrats, probably including a majority of the most active and committed Democrats, have a clear opinion that Donald Trump and his supporters are a threat to the existence of democracy, whereas most Democrats, while not clearly sharing this opinion, experience to varying degrees a vaguer sense of unease.

If that really is the situation, then one of the reasonable strategies for active and committed Democrats is to try to increase the clarity and intensity of this concern among the mass of less active and committed Democrats, to the point where they are ready, at a minimum, to turn out consistently to vote for Democratic candidates in elections. If most Democrats did this, it would give them a substantial and perhaps even decisive advantage.

The lower rate and consistency of voter turnout in the USA (as compared with otherwise comparable countries) substantially increases the importance of getting people who sometimes vote and vote more often than not for your party to vote more consistently for your party (as compared with other strategies like trying to increase your appeal to people who are currently more inclined to vote against you). If I were a Democratic candidate in a competitive election, I wouldn’t waste much time thinking about how to get Republicans to support me until I was confident I’d done what I could to get Democrats to vote for me, and I’d be suspicious of anybody who advised me to focus on attracting Republican support.


Sebastian H 09.05.22 at 5:00 am

I believe that Trump is a huge threat to democracy and that most people don’t act like he is a huge threat to democracy in the sense of working very hard on alliances to keep him out.

Part of the problem is that the word ‘ally’ seems to have become confused with other words like ‘vassal’ or ‘servant’. Allies work together on common goals and go their separate ways on differing goals. A common refrain I hear from all over the map is “you aren’t a real ally unless you help us with very extreme things” But that isn’t how allies work. They help you on the things that help for the common goal.

The other problem is that people seem to have a difficult time even talking about prioritizing goals. When you’re trying to deal with an existential crisis like “the end of democracy” it is ok to put other things on hold for a few years. So Republicans probably have to deal with far more pro-choice advocates than they would normally be comfortable with, and Democrats might want to slow down a bit on maximalist medical transition for people under 18 issues. You can fight those battles later.

The fact that no one is really willing to put any of those off till later strongly suggests that either they don’t believe Trump is a real threat or they don’t know how to be partners in a coalition that doesn’t consist of only yes-men. (Or both).


Sebastian H 09.05.22 at 5:11 am

The dirty tricks issue is weird to me. It seems clear to me that Democrats shouldn’t do that purely on utilitarian grounds. If you understand that elections can often be lost in the close seats for reasons that have literally nothing to do with the candidates (high gas prices/scary inflation) you should want the least insane candidate on the other side because a bunch of times they are just going to win and there is almost nothing you could have done.

In all of those cases you shouldn’t have tried to set up a maximally crazy candidate. I don’t know exactly how often those cases come up, but I’m relatively certain the floor of the estimate should be 30-40%.

Again if you really think that Trump crazies are a threat to democracy, you shouldn’t be increasing the chance that fall into an accidental win.

For all the times that candidate quality is largely in play, we should realize that we aren’t perfect at seeing the flaws in our own candidates, and we sometimes identify our opponents as weaker than they really are. So we might not even be pushing the right opposing candidate for the matchup.

If you believe that democracy is at stake, you can only get away with pushing a more extremist candidate to eek out an extra 1-2% if 1) you are absolutely sure that there won’t be a windfall election situation, if 2) you are excellent at understanding the matchup with your own candidate, and if 3) you are excellent at understanding how your opponents appeal to all of the people in the middle who sometimes vote for them. And while such a person may indeed exist in the world, I suspect it isn’t you if you are reading this (I’m absolutely not claiming that it is me).


Alex SL 09.05.22 at 10:26 am

Reading through the growing discussion now, I must admit that I am confused how an alliance of ‘sane Republicans’ and Democrats would look like or even work. It is a two-party-system, so virtually every contested election is R (sane or not) versus D. Republican candidates who don’t toe the line get primaried. End of. There is no way that a ‘sane Republican’ can really do something for an alliance and stay the second half of that phrase.

The only way to break the fever would be for the Republicans to lose election after election, by humiliating margins, for at least twelve years, until they are so demoralised that they shift back to the centre in the hope of winning elections again. But for that to happen, the USA would need a different media ecosystem, a different electoral system, a more competent and confident Democratic party, and probably a different electorate.


nastywoman 09.05.22 at 1:21 pm

and I don’t know why but somehow this… this conversation reminds me on my ‘sister’ Susan (Sarandon) who once had this theory that we all NEED to erect ‘Trump’
in order to heal US from ‘Trump’ for once and for all.

And we warned her –
and told her –
then –
that the American might not see it like her – and that the American people actually might enjoy and like ‘trump’
OR in other words: As WE now ALL have learned that ‘political strategy’ in America might be a mighty misfiring backfiring stupidity – just let’s ALL agree that ‘Trump’ -(and everybody who supports or votes for ‘Trump’ is just a very, ver BAD Person.

AND as we have found out that hardly any American wants to be a ‘BAD’ person Mr. Do-that – should write another OP and telling the American people that the NEVER AGAIN should be BAD –
as only ‘good Americans’ don’t vote ‘Trump’!


Timothy Wong 09.05.22 at 2:03 pm

In searching for a reply to Joe Biden’s Philadelphia speech, rather than engaging in the bloody self-wounding that occurs when we listen to the abyssal nihilism that erupts from the mouths of the iniquitous rogues’ gallery of alt-fact Trumpite mental and moral degenerates, we can instead note that the late, great David Graeber had already penned his reply to Biden some fifteen years ago.

The following quote is from David Graeber’s essay “There Never was a West: or, Democracy Emerges from the Spaces in Between” which can be found in his collection of essays entitled “Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire” (2007)

“1) Almost everyone who writes on the subject assumes “democracy” is a “Western” concept that begins its history in ancient Athens. They also assume that what eighteenth- and nineteenth-century politicians began reviving in Western Europe and North America was essentially the same thing. Democracy is thus seen as something whose natural habitat is Western Europe and its English- or French-speaking settler colonies. Not one of these assumptions is justified. “Western civilization” is a particularly incoherent concept, but, insofar as it refers to anything, it refers to an intellectual tradition. This intellectual tradition is, overall, just as hostile to anything we would recognize as democracy as those of India, China, or Mesoamerica.

2) Democratic practices—processes of egalitarian decision-making—however, occur pretty much anywhere, and are not peculiar to any one given “civilization,” culture, or tradition. They tend to crop up wherever human life goes on outside systematic structures of coercion.

3) The “democratic ideal” tends to emerge when, under certain historical circumstances, intellectuals and politicians, usually in some sense navigating their way between states and popular movements and popular practices, interrogate their own traditions—invariably, in dialogue with other ones— citing cases of past or present democratic practice to argue that their tradition has a fundamental kernel of democracy. I call these moments of “democratic refoundation.” From the perspective of the intellectual traditions, they are also moments of recuperation, in which ideals and institutions that are often the product of incredibly complicated forms of interaction between people of very different histories and traditions come to be represented as emerging from the logic of that intellectual tradition itself. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially, such moments did not just occur in Europe, but almost everywhere.

4) The fact that this ideal is always founded on (at least partly) invented traditions does not mean it is inauthentic or illegitimate or, at least, more inauthentic or illegitimate than any other. The contradiction, however, is that this ideal was always based on the impossible dream of marrying democratic procedures or practices with the coercive mechanisms of the State. The results are not “Democracies” in any meaningful sense of the world but Republics with a few, usually fairly limited, democratic elements.

5) What we are experiencing today is not a crisis of democracy but rather a crisis of the State. In recent years, there has been a massive revival of interest in democratic practices and procedures within global social movements, but this has proceeded almost entirely outside of statist frameworks. The future of democracy lies precisely in this area.”


As for examples of what anarchist anthropologists such as Graeber mean when they speak of stateless spaces, we can turn to James C. Scott’s history of Zomia –“The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia”.

“For two thousand years, the disparate groups that now reside in Zomia (a mountainous region the size of Europe—2.5 million km2—that consists of portions of seven Asian countries) have fled the projects—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée, epidemics, and warfare—of the nation state societies that surround them.[2][4] This book, essentially an “anarchist history”, is the first examination of the huge literature on nation-building whose author evaluates why people would deliberately choose to remain stateless.
Scott’s main argument is that these people are “barbaric by design”: their social organization, geographical location, subsistence practices and culture have been maintained to discourage states from curtailing their freedoms.[5] States want to integrate Zomia peoples and territory to increase their landholdings, resources, and people subject to taxation—in other words, to raise revenue.[1] Scott argues that these many minority groups are “…using their culture, farming practices, egalitarian political structures, prophet-led rebellions, and even their lack of writing systems to put distance between themselves and the states that wished to engulf them.”[3] Tribes today do not live outside history according to Scott, but have “as much history as they require” and deliberately practice “state avoidance”.[6]”



Murc 09.05.22 at 3:32 pm


Well, this is a lot of nonsense.

A common refrain I hear from all over the map is “you aren’t a real ally unless you help us with very extreme things”

I very much doubt this is a common refrain you hear from all over the map, and even if you do… so what?

Don’t talk to me about whether or not a view is “extreme.” That is not and has not ever been relevant. Talk to me about its substantive merits and desirability as a policy position or ideological stance. Whether it is “extreme” or not doesn’t really matter except in an instrumental sense, in that good ideas that are extreme are harder to implement… which means they need more allies.

Moreover, if a specific stance happens to be your core animating motivation, it is entirely reasonable to demand of other members of your political coalition “if you want help with YOUR stuff, you help us with OUR stuff. That is how this works.”

But that isn’t how allies work. They help you on the things that help for the common goal.

This is only one form of political allyship. Another important form is often about reciprocity, providing your support for things you don’t necessarily view as high priorities in exchange for THEIR support for things THEY don’t necessarily view as high priorities. Demanding that people are only obligated to provide support for something there’s a consensus on is a demand that political coalitions only function as lowest-common-denominator organizations where if a group goes “hey, we want stuff done, and we’ll trade our own power for getting it done!” they’re considered to be doing something wrong.

and Democrats might want to slow down a bit on maximalist medical transition for people under 18 issues.

Show me the Democrats running on this. Show me.

Again if you really think that Trump crazies are a threat to democracy, you shouldn’t be increasing the chance that fall into an accidental win.

Let’s be very, very clear about what happened:

A Trumpist was walking away with the nomination. The Democrats cut an attack ad on him, accurately describing his views and pointing out his views were terrible, awful things. Then he won.

Even if you view the ad as “an attempt to help get the guy nominated,” rather than “our first attack ad against the presumptive nominee,” then the onus is still entirely on the Republicans here. Because what happened is the Republicans were going to nominate a fascist, Democrats pointed out that he was a fascist and that this is transparently bad and wrong, and then Republicans kept on MAGAing.

In this scenario the Democrats have done nothing at all wrong. The onus here is entirely on the scum who nominated and ran the guy, and who will vote for him.

Both of your comments seem to have the thesis statement of “It is incumbent on the Democratic Party and indeed Democrats as a whole to compromise in order to defeat Trumpism.” Well, you know what? One, we defeated Trumpsim three times at the ballot box. Two, we have nothing to do with Trumpism. It is a Republican pathology. We will help them fix it, but the last time I checked Republicans were all about “taking responsibility for your own actions” and Trump is one of theirs.

This is like saying “If firemen were REALLY serious about combating arson, they’d cease their maximalist anti-fire positions and come to terms with the sane arsonists to keep the insane ones in check.” And that isn’t how it works. The way you fight arsonists is by clubbing them to the ground and taking their oil and rags. We’ve been very, very successful at said clubbing and taking… and their response has been to try and do a coup, and to set up the NEXT coup.

If your response to this isn’t “these people have to be stopped” but rather “if you don’t stop trying to stop them and instead come to terms with them, I’ll have no choice but to remain on team arson” you are part of the problem.


Dave 09.05.22 at 3:50 pm

“I basically agree. As dirty tricks, these are very mild. You are literally just making sure the R’s are informed about the candidates. Dirty tricks that involve no lying or even misleading are not very dirty. And the reasons for Dems doing this are completely transparent. They are trying to secure their 1st best outcome – an elected D. They are risking their worst outcome – an elected MAGA nut. But that’s not dirty, it’s just deeming a somewhat higher risk strategy to be optimal.”

Was it still not dirty to do it to Peter Meijer, who voted to impeach Trump?


PatinIowa 09.05.22 at 5:10 pm

I’m here to celebrate the fact that no nitwit libertarian has joined this thread to remind us that it’s a republic not a democracy.

Oh, and also that Graeber and Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything,” is a full articulations of points 1, 2, and 3 in the Graeber essay adduced by Timothy Wong at 24.


Alex SL 09.05.22 at 10:53 pm

Timothy Wong,

I am not here to claim some exceptionally democratising influence for a civilisation that can count world-wide colonialism, genocide, and mass enslavement as among its legacies. I am not here to claim that pre-colonial India, China, or indigenous American cultures didn’t have their own anti-authoritarian and self-governance philosophies and practices; of course they had those. And I am not here to defend the idea that history is shaped by the published ideas of outstanding philosophers; instead, there are social/class conflicts, and the winning side picked out of the diverse set of ideas floating around those philosophers who happened to write what they wanted to hear, and that is then later depicted as the Intellectual Tradition that drove everything.

But that all said, your comment is a large number of unevidenced assertions supported entirely by an argument from authority that would work a bit better if I had any idea who David Graeber is and why I should care for his thoughts. The common theme of most of what you quote is that he redefines words to serve his ends.

This is particularly evident where real-life democracies – a thematic cluster of possible government structures for complex, highly organised states – is through sleight-of-hand redefined as not really democracy, and statelessness is redefined as the “future of democracy”. That is hard to take seriously. I could just as well claim that no existing university is a real university because, say, students are brutally forced into a timetable of courses and lectures, but if I go hiking with my daughter and she learns a few plant species from me, that’s the true “future of university”! No, not having a university isn’t what university means, and not having a government is not what democratic government means.

And, “Western civilisation is a particularly incoherent concept” – how? No evidence or argument. This is like those people in my field who reject the idea of species as useless nonsense because there are sometimes hybrids between very closely related species. But try crossing an oak and a dandelion, or a mouse and a dog. That speciation is mostly a gradual process doesn’t mean that species is a useless concept. Similarly, that societies influence each other and people migrate around doesn’t mean it isn’t pretty clear that the Byzantine empire, Roman numerals, Adam Smith, and the Atlantic slave trade were part of Western Civilisation, but the Inca empire, Chinese calligraphy, the Buddha, and the genocidal campaigns of Timur weren’t.


J-D 09.06.22 at 12:47 am

I’m here to celebrate the fact that no nitwit libertarian has joined this thread to remind us that it’s a republic not a democracy.

Oh, and also that Graeber and Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything,” is a full articulations of points 1, 2, and 3 in the Graeber essay adduced by Timothy Wong at 24.

It’s odd to read this, because I read Timothy Wong’s comment before it, and one of the things that struck me was this:

The contradiction, however, is that this ideal was always based on the impossible dream of marrying democratic procedures or practices with the coercive mechanisms of the State. The results are not “Democracies” in any meaningful sense of the world but Republics with a few, usually fairly limited, democratic elements.

So PatinIowa describes as ‘nitwits’ those who say ‘it’s a republic, not a democracy’, and then cites with approval somebody who is saying ‘it’s a republic, not a democracy’.

I am aware of the limitations of the democratic features of government in the United States, in my own country (Australia), and in those other countries generally described
as democracies. However, just because they are limited does not mean they are valueless. It may be that I would be better off if I could move to somewhere where there is no state and no government. It may be that you would be better off if you could. But the option is not available to me, and I doubt it’s available to you either. Clearly neither Timothy Wong nor PatinIowa has taken up such an option. Even if happens to be accurate to tell somebody that all their problems could be solved by an option which happens to be inaccessible to them, it’s not helpful. You might as well tell people that they’d be better off if they could relocate to the past: it may be true, but so what?

On the other hand, attempts to protect, to extend, and to strengthen the strictly limited democratic features found in some modern forms of government are worthwhile (despite those limitations) and to argue to the contrary is folly.


Sebastian H 09.06.22 at 1:50 am

Re transactional allies: that’s fine, though I cannot remember the last time I’ve seen it. Even outside of dealing with independents or Republicans, the Democrats seem to have trouble doing that in-party which led to paralysis re Manchin before just actually giving him what he wanted in return for other things. When they finally did so it immediately worked but they got much less than he offered a year ago. Are there any transactions you’ve seen proposed on the Trumpism issues?

Your attack ad analysis seems to want to focus on blame rather than utility. I provided an entirely functional critique.

Re ‘first attack ad’ the timing doesn’t make sense. If he won, they could run the same ad one week later, and at much lower cost. Running it directly before the primary gives an overwhelming inference of trying to influence the primary, which you don’t seem to try to address at all.

Re the trans issue, Biden’s administration is pushing it by suggesting the ‘watchful waiting’ psychology approach of exploring non trans reasons for having body dysphoria (rape, incest, and very sharp puberty changes often leading the way) are ‘conversion therapy’ which it outlaws.

Eg https://www.economist.com/united-states/2022/06/23/the-biden-administrations-confused-embrace-of-trans-rights


Alex SL 09.06.22 at 1:54 am


I think PatinIowa is referring to Republican supporters who argue that election winners and political outcomes going against the expressed preference of the majority of US voters is fine and as intended because the USA were never meant to be a democracy, whereas my understanding of Timothy Wong’s comment is as in favour of anarchy as a way of ensuring that outcomes are in line with the preferences of the majority of people.


both sides do it 09.06.22 at 3:01 am

Presumably, J-D, the valence 0f a libertarian arguing “WARNAD” would be the opposite of Timothy Wong’s: “this whole democracy argument is asinine because WARNAD, and so obviously it’s just Dems trying to gain partisan advantage”.

Which wouldn’t provide any light, and would only provide heat if they went on to argue something so batshit it was funny

Also: one of the thrusts of David Graeber’s work (which you should familiarize yourself with) is trying to demonstrate how political horizons have been artificially narrowed through inaccuracies – potted histories, just-so stories, bad scholarship – about the past. The point isn’t “only utopia will do, incremental gains are bullshit”; the point is clarifying how domination works more effectively so it can be combated more effectively. Maybe through incremental progress! But we can’t make slow progress toward a target if we can’t see it.


both sides do it 09.06.22 at 3:03 am

Apologies J-D, you didn’t mention you didn’t know who Graber was, Alex SL did


both sides do it 09.06.22 at 3:12 am

Alex SL, it’s funny you mention Buddha having no influence on Western Civilization: we know the French monastery where David Hume learned about Buddhist views of the self, truth and empiricism; after this visit, his writing took on deep affinity with these topics’ Buddhist conceptions.


Timothy Wong 09.06.22 at 4:49 am


In terms of conceptual coherence, compare “Western Civilization” (WC) with “Human Civilization” (HC).

HC is a proper field of academic study as it is the sum total of the historical activities of the human species throughout our terrestrial past, including the millennia before recorded histories.

Human Civilization is also the lifeworld of our quotidian existence. This can be seen in such various examples as the conversation that you and I are conducting at this very moment via the mediums of language and communicative rationality, across the internet , in accordance to the rules which govern the commons which is human Reason. Or when we consider the millions of humans who are at this moment preparing food which is the product of a history and a geography which is quite literally unthinkable if we force our minds into the strait-jacket of that which is WC and that which is not. However, think in terms of Human Civilization and we have a coherent foundation from which we can begin.

“Western Civilization” is a loaded term that is all too often weaponized by such reptilian mass murderous war criminals and torturers as Bushite neo-cons: ideology at its purest. “Proud Boy” skinheads entertain laughable wank pretensions of being the mandarins and paladins of “wEsTeRN ciVilLZaTioN”.

When it comes to WC do we include India? Russia? Israel? The Jewish Diaspora and the history of Judaism? Modern Australian Japanese restaurants? Chinese literature as taught in German universities by Sinologists of very different backgrounds? Is the modern Japanese National Diet a part of WC? The parliaments of Pakistan or Nigeria or South Africa or Turkey? Which portions of contemporary Computer Science, Information Technology, and electronic inventions are WC and which are not? Which video games are WC and which video games are not WC?

If we cannot include India within the ambit of WC then we cannot discuss the ancient Greeks. (See e.g. Thomas McEvilly’s “The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies”) If we include India in the ambit of WC then the term is so broad as to be meaningless and completely incoherent.

The obvious conclusion is that these idiotic questions are moronic on the face of it. We can instead slice with effortless ease through the Gordian knot that sub-intellectuals such Samuel Huntington puzzled over in his plodding, ponderous idiocy (dangerous stupidity that provided the foundation for mass-murderous neo-con warmongering) and speak of something which makes perfect every day and intellectual-academic sense. We can speak of Human Civilization. Naturally, we make geographical divisions in the subdivisions of our areas of study and in our areas of day to day life. But we are above all practitioners of the Human Sciences as described by Wilhelm Dilthey.


Timothy Wong 09.06.22 at 6:07 am


As it happens, I am also an Australian like J-D. So let’s take the commonplace descriptive statement “Australian democracy” and attempt to clarify our terms.

Graeber’s point against those such as Joe Biden who view our contemporary historical moment as one in which “democracy is in crisis” is that this is not a crisis of democracy but is a crisis of the State. For Jurgen Habermas and others this can be viewed in part as a “legitimation crisis”. Modern Rightist politics has adopted a militant radicalism which is actively and expressly destructive of state and governmental institutions. “Defund the FBI” “The election was stolen by the QAnon “deep state”” “The DOJ is the mafia of the Democrats” etc

We who live in “the West” do not live in democracies. No national population, nor a fortiori the human species as a whole, is a fully constituted, self-governing demos. We live in capitalist-oligarchical parliamentary republics with some democratic elements which persist in a state of constant threat from the powerful capitalist-oligarchical forces which are the true causative sources of both global and nation-state social power. (I am defining “social power” here in the Left-Weberian sense as found in the work of Michael Mann).

E.g. all the powerful forces of the Murdoch empire are currently being employed to crush a tiny news and opinion website called Crikey that the vast majority of Australians have never heard of, let alone read. Lachlan Murdoch’s reputation has been defamed and damaged according to that upper-bourgeois wanker by a single article that was read by people that could only number in the hundreds at most. And so millions will be spent to crush this independent news website into the dust. Is this indicative of what would occur if we lived in a “democracy”? Do we in actuality live in a fully constituted, self-governing demos? Or is our situation and condition more truthfully described as the typical machinations of the 500 year old Capitalist World-System as described by Immanuel Wallerstein and his school of World-Systems Analysis?

Happily, I and J-D are citizens of Australia and as such are not subjects (in the monarchial sense of the term) of the British Monarchy. And yet we still strain under that yoke. Within living memory, Australians were drafted into British imperialist wars. A democratically elected Prime Minister was dismissed by an Australian Governor-General in a manner which is far better described by Carl Schmidt than could be described in whatever terms would be employed by a conceptual, blank-slate innocents such as Scott Morrison, notwithstanding the powerful profundity of that man’s intellect.

But Graeber’s point is that the history by which we became citizens and were no longer subjects was of necessity a bloody and at times regicidal revolutionary history against the preponderant force of anti-democracy which was the default setting of the majority of the previous historical periods.

And we are not there yet, if ever we will be.

“It seldom wins and then by the skin of its teeth. It crawls, it goes into hiding but keeps on, putting down its quickly drying track on the historical landscape, on documents and boundary lines, amid building sites and ruins, in drafty doctrinal structures, far from well-situated theories, skirting retreats and silted revolutions.
“What do you mean by the snail?”
“The snail is progress.”
What’s progress ?”
“Being a little quicker than the snail…”
“… and never getting there, children.”

Gunter Grass, “From the Dairy of a Snail”

(continued in next post).


Timothy Wong 09.06.22 at 6:14 am


I’ll cut and paste from a post along similar lines that I have made elsewhere on Crooked Timber recently.

The following is from a review of Domenico Losurdo’s “Liberalism: A Counter-History” that can be found on the Amazon website.

“1. Liberalism does not expand the boundaries of freedom in an organic dialectical process. Liberalism has undergone profound changes in its history, but not because of any sort of internal tendency towards progress. The expanders of liberty have been rebellious slaves, socialists, organized workers, anti-colonial nationalists, and other forces outside of the Community of the Free. Generally, the Community of the Free only grants accessions when faced with powerful opposition from outside its walls.

Ideologies such as white supremacy, social Darwinism, and colonialism were created by liberals as a means of defending the liberty of the Community of the Free. When the American Founding Fathers rebelled against Britain, one of their most commonly stated reasons for doing so was that the British government didn’t respect the freedom Americans had imbibed through their Northern European blood. The Framers saw themselves as the preservers of the freedoms of the Glorious Revolution, a revolution based on the right of freedom-worthy peoples to dominate the supposedly insipid masses. They were explicit in this respect, and the later history of liberalism continued to attest to this tendency.
Liberalism contains within itself the semi-hidden corollary that human behaviour must be strictly regulated in order for freedom to be maintained. In liberalism, individuals have the freedom to compete with one another and rise to the top based on merit. Liberal elites have often interpreted this as proof that those at the top of the social ladder deserve their place. The other conclusion that stems from this is that criminals, the uneducated, the poor, and non-Western cultures fully deserve their servile status. If nature wanted them to be part of the Community of the Free, so goes the logic, then it would allow them to participate in liberty. Therefore, the dominated peoples of the world must hold their position due to their own internal defects. For Losurdo, this belief is what defines liberalism and separates it from radicalism.
In liberalism, liberty has historically been seen as a trait that people possess, one granted by nature. Thus, liberalism easily justifies its tendencies towards inequality by devising various ways of explaining why nature simply doesn’t grant some people the liberty it grants others. Meanwhile, radicalism sees the establishment of liberty as an active process. Interestingly, this indicates that negative liberty possesses a magnetism towards authoritarianism. Losurdo points out that during the early days of Fascism, many liberals in the U.S. and Western Europe such as von Mises, Croce, and the Italian liberal establishment saw Mussolini’s regime as a possible defender of classical liberalism and liberty as it was understood by the Anglo-Saxon theorists of liberalism.

This book is as disturbing as it is insightful. I personally see it as self-evident that many of the authoritarian tendencies that Losurdo identifies have made a comeback with a vengeance in the neo-liberal era, and have strengthened since the start of the Great Financial Crisis. Modern liberals, especially in American academia, often assure themselves that liberalism will not tolerate any serious regresses into authoritarianism, because of the myth of the dialectical process I described at the beginning of this review. I even believed in this to some extent, and if I remember correctly, I recall Slavoj Zizek of all people praising liberalism for this reason. Fortunately, Losurdo has seriously damaged my faith in this tendency in liberalism. Again, I don’t even consider myself to be a liberal, I identify as a Leftist (one of the radicals Losurdo describes). Perhaps it speaks to the pervasiveness of the comforting nature of liberalism’s self image that even its critics unknowingly take refuge in it.”


This is the sort of thing that David Graeber and James C. Scott mean when they speak of anti-statist revolutionary activity in the cause of egalitarian and emancipatory politics guided by the ideal that the people should be become a demos.


PatinIowa 09.06.22 at 8:43 pm

J-D at 30.

There’s a big difference between saying, “It’s a Republic, not a Democracy, thus all your complaints about its undemocratic features are invalid,” and “the construction of the State, as the State, makes democracy (nearly?) impossible.”

The first is a defense of the status quo. I first heard it as an explanation of why the federal government in the US could not and should not interfere with Jim Crow because in a republic, “states rights” rule.

The second is quite the opposite of a defense of a status quo. In fact, it is a claim about the possibilities of the State, that (I hope I’m not putting words in Timothy Wong’s mouth here) dreams of revolutionary change.

You may think anarchists are nitwits. Most people do. I don’t, as it happens. Nonetheless, I never mistake an anarchist for a libertarian Republican.

Hope this helps. Also read the Graeber. It’s fun and good to think with.


PatinIowa 09.06.22 at 8:49 pm

Oops, I see that Alex SL already made my point at 32, and others followed on. That’s what happens when I’m in a hurry.


Alex SL 09.06.22 at 10:03 pm

both sides do it,

I would be very interested to learn where I even so much as insinuated that Buddha had absolutely zero influence on Western civilisation. Note my argument that it makes sense to talk of species even if there are sometimes hybrids between species (or a bit of introgression, to strengthen the analogy). That argument presupposes the existence of some exchange and intermediates, but limited to the degree where the larger entities still maintain their own core characteristics.

Re Graeber, it doesn’t matter who he is. If somebody quotes the scientist I most highly respect in the entire world as making the unsupported statement that the world is flat, that still wouldn’t be an argument, much less correct. I am reminded of a certain Catholic apologist who considers any argument settled for good once he has cited Aquinas’ opinion on the topic in question.

Timothy Wong,


That is an enormous number of words only to repeat the aforementioned fallacy of “toddler and adult are meaningless concepts because there is not a single second where you instantly turn from one into the other”.


I am fully aware that Murdoch has more influence on political decision making than you or me, and I am all for breaking up his conglomerate and taxing billionaires out of existence. However:

If our fellow Australian voters wanted, they could give the Greens, or whatever hypothetical party you could imagine who would, if elected, implement everything you wanted, 151 MPs and half the senators at the next election. I know it is hard to accept that they simply don’t want to do that, because I feel that same way about our fellow Australians in their majority not wanting e.g. to get serious about climate, but that is the reality. They are humans with their own agency, and nobody forces them at gunpoint to watch Sky News or to drive their SUV to the shops. Most to the point, nobody forces them at threat of prison to vote for the parties Murdoch supports. That right there is what makes this a democracy as opposed to a dictatorship. That is simply what that word means, even if a billionaire owns media in that democracy and even if there is conscription (which, again, the voters could all change with a single election), and you or Graeber do not get to unilaterally change that meaning any more than libertarians get to change the meaning of inflation or of theft.

I would also love to see you build, or even only blueprint, a complex society in which there are no power imbalances or rules enforced by the state whatsoever. If I understand you correctly, your ideal is not to have a complex society in the first place. The problem is, as your earlier quotes about the Zomia people having had to flee (!) already correctly hinted at, that people living in anarchy tend to lose against the larger and better-equipped militaries of states. Even without outside conquest, stateless anarchy is not a long-term stable state because any group of sufficiently motivated thugs can re-instate a proto-state. Thus we are also not seeing a crisis of the state. The state will remain a state even if a fascist takes over because democratic institutions have lost legitimacy, and in a stateless chaos, every warlord’s or drug baron’s gang of goons is a proto-state ready to grow over centuries, through inescapable institutional logic and social pressures, into a complex state just as did the Frankish tribal kingdom that formed after the collapse of the Roman empire.

The question is therefore only, do you help defend the highly organised state where the population has the power to decide what happens (be it through election of a party, through plebiscites, or some other institutionalised processes), or do you let a Trumpist take over and ensure that the population loses that power? Turning everything into anarchy is not an option, because it will in the long run be replaced by a state, very likely a dictatorial one.


Caurthey 09.07.22 at 5:22 am

@ no. 28

Re “I’m here to celebrate the fact that no nitwit libertarian has joined this thread to remind us that it’s a republic not a democracy.”

That is false. It’s a dictatorship, and always has been. You’re living in a fantasy land, time to wake up yet? Meet “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” … https://www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html

(CAVEAT— only read the 2 pink elephant article if you’re GENUINELY interested in the truth and therefore “CAN handle the truth” …)

Isn’t it about time for anyone to wake up to the ULTIMATE DEPTH of the rabbit hole — rather than remain blissfully willfully ignorant in a fantasy land and play victim like a little child?


nastywoman 09.07.22 at 10:05 am

‘Turning everything into anarchy is not an option, because it will in the long run be replaced by a state, very likely a dictatorial one’.

But there are (STILL) a lot of Americans -(and Glenn Greenwald) who always believed that by
‘entirely burning down the house –
out of the ashes
be rise –
a better one’
And some of my friends – who thought that Trump would help him into joyful anarchy
are thoroughly disappointed that he didn’t succeed.


anon/portly 09.07.22 at 6:14 pm

It comes down to this: is there a better way for D’s to mitigate the risk that Trump and MAGA destroy the country than just … trying to win?

And Trump isn’t running now anyway. The races now are for house and senate seats and governorships – you might want to do whatever it takes to win as many of those races, and then go for a more conciliatory, triangulation-like strategy in 2024, if Trump is nominated.


anon/portly 09.07.22 at 6:17 pm

Douthat seems to be saying: now, more than ever, triangulate, to be extra sure you win. But triangulating – running to the middle – is not invariably the way to be sure you win. You can de-motivate your own base and run into other coalition trouble trying that way. Because you give up stuff.

I think this is a bit thin. “De-motivate your own base” may (or may not) be a consideration at times, but not if Trump is running in 2024. Look at the huge turnout in 2020. Just as Trump could murder someone in broad daylight and RWers would still vote for Trump, Biden could [my imagination fails me] and LWers (and many non-LWers) would still vote against Trump.


anon/portly 09.07.22 at 6:21 pm

Plus some of these proposed rhetorical strategies for appealing to fence-sitters are stinkers, insofar as they ask the Dems to argue that Trump is NOT such an exceptional threat, if only because that’s the polite thing to say.

I don’t think this is the real problem with Douthat’s strategies.

First, is “Trump is an exceptional threat” necessarily a winning message? Maybe the people who are receptive to this message are already voting against Trump anyway.
Also, I’m not sure the Democratic Party as a whole is capable of expressing the message “Trump is an exceptional threat” effectively. If you want to get 2020 Trump voters to vote D in 2024, maybe you don’t want to tell them that they’re bad people, the “basket of deplorables” message many on the left would like to impart. (For evidence on this, see other comments in this thread).

Trump is very unpopular, so I’m sure there is good messaging of the “Trump is bad” variety, I just expect that the varieties of this message that will work with swing or cross-pressured voters are going to be very different than the ones that progressives will want to see. (Maybe if any Democrat has really helped convince people Trump is bad, it’s Merrick Garland, who was unpopular for not going after Trump more aggressively).

Then second I don’t think Douthat takes the right approach in the first place.
Better than “run to the middle” with things like criticizing his own side for 2016 foolishness or offering up a compromise on abortion, Biden should listen to the “popularists” (like Yglesias or Shor) and appeal to fence-sitters by emphasizing things that appeal to fence-sitters , which can mean “run to the left” in some cases.

Abortion is an issue where the Democratic position is the more popular one, and one which seems to be working well for them in winning elections, so why would Biden offer a compromise there? He should pick an issue where the Democratic position is the less popular one.


PatinIowa 09.07.22 at 6:57 pm

Alex SL at 41 “Turning everything into anarchy is not an option, because it will in the long run be replaced by a state, very likely a dictatorial one.”

This claim irks me and it’s worthwhile to me to unpack my reasons.

Interestingly, one of my priors is the Buddhist (Soto, American, many others) tenet, “Everything, without exception, changes.” So to say that one form of social of organization will be replaced by another is trivially true. Unless we’re contemplating the end of history, each form of social organization will eventually be replaced by some other. To suggest that one form of society is worse than another because it will change into something else doesn’t make sense.

Another of my priors is from Beckett, “People are bloody ignorant apes,” so I tend to imagine that most change will be for the worse. However, experience shows that sometimes change is for the good. For a while, anyway. I’m glad, for example, that the terrorist system, Jim Crow, is gone.

In other words, you can plug in any form of government in the claim and get something lots of people will find plausible. It won’t be “true,” though, even in the little-t sense. It’s a form of received wisdom.

The claim isn’t received wisdom because it’s backed up by centuries of close observation of how societies work. And it’s not received wisdom because it’s logically true. It’s more like “socialism is bad because no one would have incentive to work.” It derives from our culturally conditioned prejudices, and it serves a rhetorical purpose.

In the Republic, for example, Socrates said the democracy inherently leads to tyranny. His goal was to get his interlocutors to agree that aristocracy, ruled by philosopher-monarchs, is the most just of possible constitutions. Anybody who’s ever been to a philosophy department meeting knows better. However, if you can frame the argument to figure reality as a choice between an Anglo-American philosophy department and Stalin, well, “Yes, this certainly must be more just, Socrates.”

All this does not, of course, “prove,” that the goals, and methods, and purposes of anarchism are “True.” What it suggests is that received wisdom is of little use in sorting these things out.

More succinctly: In the long run, we’ll all be dead.


PatinIowa 09.07.22 at 7:02 pm

Edit: Instead of “the terrorist system, Jim Crow, is gone,” substitute, “the terrorist system, Jim Crow has been significantly altered, possibly replaced.”



Bob 09.07.22 at 11:38 pm

This column by Bret Stephens is interesting in the light of this OP and discussion:


Stephens differs from Douthat in that he is what we could loosely call a libertarian conservative (abortion is OK; what he thinks are “high” taxes are not). He has been full-throated in his view that Trump represents a threat to democracy in the US. He has never played the equivalence, or “what about,” game: in one of his columns (I’m paraphrasing) he said that torching a courthouse in Portland is wrong, but it is simply not in the same league, or the same kind of threat to the future of the US as a country, as what happened in Washington on January 6. He voted for Biden.

Nevertheless, Stephens shares Douthat’s concern that what should have been a presidential address concerning a very real and serious threat, an address that should have appealed to a broad base of citizens–who might otherwise disagree on abortion, global warming, or guns–was instead shabby and partisan, equating right wing views on abortion and global warming and gay marriage with the anti-Semitic marchers in Charlottesville and the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. It’s as if Liz Cheney didn’t prove that one can hold all kinds of views that are anathema to the left and still care quite sincerely about democratic institutions and the peaceful, lawful transfer of power.

I agreed with Douthat that Biden and the democrats are not really taking the Trump threat seriously–that it is just another issue that can be used to raise funds and galvanize the base. But Stephens makes the point more clearly when he says that Biden is equating and confusing small-d democracy with big D Democrat policy, some of which, like gay marriage, is a relatively recent addition to the Democrat agenda. And Stephens seems more credible than Douthat, because, far from down-playing the importance of January 6, he believes that Biden and his party are not taking the Trump threat seriously enough.

All of this matters, I think, because if you don’t have a functioning democracy, and the other rights that we associate with it, then your opinion on abortion, global warming, gay marriage, and guns, is simply not going to matter. It will be moot.


J-D 09.08.22 at 12:21 am

In terms of conceptual coherence, compare “Western Civilization” (WC) with “Human Civilization” (HC).

As it happens, I am also an Australian like J-D. So let’s take the commonplace descriptive statement “Australian democracy” and attempt to clarify our terms.

I’ll cut and paste from a post along similar lines that I have made elsewhere on Crooked Timber recently.

No, let’s not.

Many people are concerned about the threat posed by Donald Trump and his supporters to the limited* democratic features of the current US system, and more generally to the well-being of much of the US population, and therefore concerned about what can be done about this threat. This is what John Holbo’s post is about. Timothy Wong wants to discuss a different topic. Fine! Anybody who wants to discuss it can discuss it, but that doesn’t mean they have to discuss it in the comments on this post. Barging into this discussion here with an attempt at derailment just because you think** your topic is more important is rude. I don’t know whether John Holbo objects to this rudeness, but I do.

Yes, I know they are limited. I don’t deny it. Effort dedicated to getting me to accept something which I already accept is wasted effort.
** Even if your topic actually is more important, it’s still rude.


Alex SL 09.08.22 at 7:56 am


(With apologies to J-D for continuing this thread.)

I don’t know about priors, because I am not being Bayesian with history, but my toolkit is science, and although I am not a historian, I would apply the same logic here: there are general ‘laws of nature’ that determine how things will most likely play out; and there are things that just aren’t possible because they provably don’t work.

For example, in the absence of magic potion, a self-governed ‘stateless’ village is predictably toast when the Roman empire thinks it would make a nice addition to the provinces; but it might have a better chance of not being conquered if it is already part of a larger, highly organised state that can field a professional army on par with the conquering legions.

That is not received wisdom, it is deducing most probable paths of institutional evolution from historical data points.


politicalfootball 09.08.22 at 1:45 pm

Bob@49: Biden’s mission is two-fold. First, he has to identify the threat to democracy, but that’s not enough. He must also convince people that democracy is a good idea.

That’s why you bring abortion into the conversation. If US policy were more democratic, it would be more Democratic. Everybody understands this, and it’s the basis of the Republican opposition to democracy. Biden is just saying it out loud, and making the pitch for democracy.

Look at what Stephens objects to here:

Start with the “MAGA Republicans,” who, Biden said, “represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.”

Stephens purports to be arguing that Biden is wrong on the merits, but it’s a bait-and-switch. He doesn’t offer any evidence whatsoever that this is incorrect, but rather, he proposes that anti-democrats must be deferred to. Sure, Stephens is uncomfortable with Trump, but he is no friend of democracy.

As soon as Trump is off the scene, Stephens will find an autocrat that he finds more palatable — someone who won’t object to “sincere doubts about the integrity of the last election.”

The problem is, autogolpe is anti-democratic no matter how sincere it is. As best as I can reckon, Stephens believes that democracy is either undesirable or impossible in the US. I can’t make a confident argument against the latter point, but I am pro-democracy, and I’m glad Biden is, too.


PatinIowa 09.08.22 at 4:56 pm

Alex SL

I’m sure you see the problem with these two claims, taken together:
“I am not a historian.”
“That is not received wisdom, it is deducing most probable paths of institutional evolution from historical data points.”

Okay. Give me one historical data point: Show me an instance of an anarchist polity that became tyrannical.

Being conquered by a larger entity may or may not count. Iran was relatively democratic in 1953 compared to what it became after the US helped overthrow its elected government. I don’t believe that that proves that democracy is an inferior system to whatever the Shah represented (tyranny, in my view). Do you?

One more time: the aim of the Wengrow/Graeber book is this: if you look closely at the historical data points, you’ll find that our account of how societies develop has become a master narrative that obscures a far more various and complicated historical record. According to them, the variety and complexity offer hope for effective political action in the future. It’s a big book, and I’m sure many historians are subjecting it to a great deal of scrutiny. However, I’m always willing to listen to historical accounts that start with, “The story isn’t as simple as you think.”

Whatever else is true, to return to the OP, we’ve got lots of data points that suggest that more or less democratic societies can become tyrannical. Whether your impulses are anarchist, socialist, social democratic, or whatever, that’s the concern of the moment.

(By the way. Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads,” another very large book, offers many accounts of the clashes of empires, of course including Roman legions. I don’t think it bears a great deal on this discussion. I do think it’s a terrific read.)


Alex SL 09.08.22 at 9:38 pm


I have never claimed that democracy is an inferior system. My whole point is that the choice is between having a complex, highly organised democratic society (superior) and a complex, highly organised authoritarian society (inferior), because going back to statelessness is not an option (inferior), and that is because while a stateless arrangement doesn’t automatically turn dictatorial, it does automatically turn complex, highly organised society if there is sufficient population density, technological sophistication, and division of labour, because that situation can only be managed with a high level of organisation.

Data points: the formation of every complex, highly organised civilisation on the planet after critical thresholds of population density were first surpassed (ancient Sumer, Egypt, Hattu, Olmec, Aztec, Inca, Chicha, China, India, Polynesia, etc.), and reversion to statelessness only after depopulating catastrophes such as the introduction of a new plague or societal collapse from unsustainable agricultural practices.

On a partly personal note, if I merely imagine reverting to stateless anarchy because, I dunno, having the power to elect whatever party we want isn’t True Democracy as long as Newscorp and a Governor-General are part of the deal, then: my current job wouldn’t exist, and indeed there wouldn’t be any professionalised scientific research at all; the medical technology and services needed to save the lives of several of my family members could not be maintained; and >75% of the human population including myself would die of starvation and disease, because our survival currently depends on mechanisation, high levels of specialisation and division of labour, and complex supply chains, and we can’t all just become subsistence farmers, especially if we live on less fertile soils and in more arid areas.


TM 09.12.22 at 1:44 pm

I note that Murc’s request at 11 – “Show me where the DCCC made financial contributions to MAGA candidates in primaries.” – has received no answer, and it is easy to see why not: because the claim that Holbo made, that the DCCC “gave to MAGA candidates in primaries” is demonstarably false. John Holbo, don’t you agree that pundits making false statements have a responsibility to retract them and offer an apology?


TM 09.12.22 at 2:02 pm

Although off topic, if the host doesn’t mind, I’ll add a comment on the Graeber debate:

“the aim of the Wengrow/Graeber book is this: if you look closely at the historical data points, you’ll find that our account of how societies develop has become a master narrative that obscures a far more various and complicated historical record.”

I think it’s relevant to point out that what the book characterizes as “our account of how societies develop” is pretty much a straw man. Unfortunately, much of the appeal of the book hinges on the strawmen erected and then demolished by the authors, and most of the rest relies on a host of empirically very dubious and speculative claims.

I won’t go into more detail (it’s really off-topic) but here are some refs to substantiate my claims:


Sam 09.15.22 at 12:57 am


“Show me where the DCCC made financial contributions to MAGA candidates in primaries.”


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