Democracy and the Left: Rana Responds to New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait

By Aziz Rana

I tend to avoid social media, but felt compelled to respond in some way to Jonathan Chait's short essay in New York Magazine accusing Jedediah Purdy and me of being part of an illiberal or authoritarian left, unconcerned with Trump and suspicious of American democracy wholesale. To begin with, this characterization is clearly wrong about both the substance of Jed's work over many years and his own personal political engagements since Trump appeared on the stage. As for me, Chait seems to misunderstand the nature of my arguments in "Goodbye, Cold War," the N+1 essay he references.

My argument is precisely that the only way to overcome the rise of a virulent and dangerous right in the U.S., embodied by Trump, is through an organized and mass political campaign on behalf of *democracy,* in a way that mirrors the great labor, feminist, black, and indigenous freedom struggles of the past. Crucially, this campaign cannot simply be about going back to the institutional status quo of American politics before Trump and calling such return democracy promotion. This is because Trump in many ways is a product of the long-term and anti-democratic structural weaknesses in the American economic and constitutional system (complete with voter disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, political overrepresentation, and corporate dominance of the political process as a whole). Those weaknesses helped to produce the social crises that gave birth to Trump.

In the years before the Cold War, activists fully understood this and sought to improvise -- within the landscape of American institutions -- democratic reforms that would ensure that poor and marginalized groups enjoyed meaningful political and economic power. They understood their reforms (collective bargaining, the right to strike, voting rights, etc.) as democratizing a state that, despite the rosy rhetoric, in reality tended to preserve the interests of the few. To me, one of the great flaws of Cold War liberalism was to reject these structural critiques and to deemphasize the domestic need to conceive of reform as democratizing the society. Indeed, my whole point is that, to the extent that the figures in Chait's "democracy movement" remain trapped in Cold War thinking, they actually haven't reckoned with what democratization in fact requires. I'm painting with a broad and perhaps ungenerous stroke, but in my view much of centrist anti-Trumpism remains too nostalgic for an institutional and ideological past that was not up to the basic challenges facing society.

Let me add a couple notes on the Constitution and constitutionalism, as well as on liberalism and capitalism, since I probably take a more critical position than Jed. I personally am a strong believer in constitutionalism and in the importance of rights to a free political and economic order. I think some of these rights can be found in the American Federal Constitution (free speech, equal protection, procedural due process, etc.), and think those principles should be defended when they are under assault, including through creative uses of existing constitutional spaces. However, I also think -- like generations of past activists -- that the design of the American Constitution has at key moments in the national history preserved racial privilege and strengthened economic oligarchy. Unless these facts are acknowledged and engaged with, it is impossible to talk seriously about reform today. One of the real problems of Cold War thinking was that cold warriors embraced the American Constitution as the only way to combine democracy and rights protections. But in truth the last half century has witnessed the international proliferation of constitutional models. And if anything the American approach -- with limited socio-economic rights (health, education, food), an incredibly difficult amendment process, extensive checks on popular decision-making, and easy susceptibility to economic influence -- looks more like the global empirical outlier.

In a context in which a racial and economic minority have basically claimed comprehensive power over our institutions and are using that power to separate immigrant families and turn over intelligence gathering to torturers, it seems to me that caring about rights and constitutionalism requires confronting the actual violence and "illiberalism" of the current constitutional order. Again, this is a point that labor and black activists in particular have been making for over a century. Similarly, given the degree to which a racially-inflected American capitalism has deformed rights commitments and democratic politics, I do not believe that the latter two can be defended without confronting the former. The American form of capitalism is and remains a threat to both constitutionalism and democracy.

Finally, I take very seriously the danger of political violence. Separately, I also think that a constitutional convention at this moment in time would be more likely to be usurped by destructive forces on the right. What I defend is a mass and nonviolent democratic insurgency that focuses on concrete institutional reforms within the landscape of our existing framework, reforms that elevate the material power of marginalized groups. I named some of these in the essay and will list a few here -- decriminalizing immigrant status and pegging voting to residency not citizenship, ending felony disenfranchisement, confronting corporate influence in elections and government, systematically unionizing labor, etc. (In fact, since Trump's victory, rather than being "unbothered by it," what I have personally tried to do within my own local community is press for similar practical improvements for those facing real threat.) Chait's slippage from my critique of constitutional structure and of American capitalism to the idea that I promote an anti-democratic and "illiberal left" feels to me like an anti-communist holdover. And, as I contend in the essay, this Cold War anti-communism is precisely the type of approach that no longer makes sense of the times in which we live.

Editor's Note: Professor Rana's essay also appears as a public Facebook post and on Professor Jed Purdy's blog.