Protecting And Renewing Liberal Democracy — Before It's Too Late

A large police presence watches over protesters and supporters during a visit by President Donald Trump to view border w
A large police presence watches over protesters and supporters during a visit by President Donald Trump to view border wall prototypes in San Diego on March 13.

In our polarized America, and throughout the world, political partisans no longer see their opponents as merely wrong ― but as enemies of all they hold dear. Our politics has become a Hobbesian state of nature, where an ugly trench warfare is fueled by a financial arms race dominated by the wealthy ― too often to serve their own narrow interests. And so our sense of common citizenship withers.

In this barren terrain, our most pressing problems go unaddressed ― improving health care for the millions who need it; addressing immigration and the plight of Dreamers; confronting income inequality and the struggle of those dislocated by economic change; curbing the scourge of gun violence; addressing the stubborn persistence of racial and social injustice. Equally damaging is the delusion that scorched-earth politics ― simply beating down the other side — will yield lasting solutions, as opposed to political reprisal. Partisan legislation passed by one temporary majority can be, and is, gutted by the next.

It was not always so. 50 years ago, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats passed landmark civil rights legislation. Both parties supported environmental protection and the founding of the EPA. A significant number of Republicans voted for an assault weapons ban. Even in the most consequential partisan battle ― Watergate ― courageous Republicans stood up against presidential misconduct. But in the age of President Donald Trump, poisonous political dysfunction may yield a constitutional crisis that sabotages our laws and Constitution.

This month I’m joining with an international group from across the ideological spectrum in launching the Renew Democracy Initiative. RDI’s founders and supporters include Mario Vargas Llosa, Garry Kasparov, Natan Sharansky, Lawrence Tribe, Bret Stephens, Rob Reiner, Anne Applebaum, Henry Louis Gates, Jon Meacham and Max Boot. Our proposal is to unite the center-left and center-right in opposition to the forces of division, hatred, tribalism and unreason that threaten liberal democracy ― the social and political pathology personified, but not originated, by Donald Trump.

The RDI website sets forth our mission, including a detailed statement of principles. I hope you will give it a look and consider joining us. My purpose here is to say why this cause should matter to those, like me, who view America and the world through a progressive lens ― including the vital, and too little noted, common ground we share with reasonable voices to our right.

The RDI mission statement says: “It is essential to defend and refine the values and institutions of liberal democracy before they are further crippled.”

Among those values are the integrity of democratic elections; freedom of the press; equal justice under the law; the independence of the judiciary; a rational and humane immigration policy; and a representative democracy that makes government accountable to its citizens.

These are not abstractions — they make possible social justice for minorities, women and LGBTQ Americans; economic security for the middle class and poor; and a better future for the young.

Nor are these merely American values. They offer hope to people around the globe — including those, as we note, menaced by “nationalists, neo–fascists, xenophobes, racists and anti-Semites.” We emphasize that “Western proponents of the liberal-democratic order must first promote these values at home, and defend them abroad without paternalistically imposing them, or repeating past errors such as uncritical alliances with authoritarian regimes.”

That posture, sadly, does not characterize Donald Trump’s administration.

So how did he become our president? Boiled down, because our politics became a zero-sum contest vulnerable to the forces of unreason — which, to be blunt, burgeoned within the Republican party before consuming it. It is that which my conservative colleagues eloquently oppose — not just as a matter of party, but because the concerns we share include the compassion and moral health of America as a whole.

Do we always agree about means? Of course not. But, as our mission statement says, we “are still joined by a broad set of common values, including respect for free speech and dissent, a belief in the benefits of international trade and immigration, respect for law and procedural legitimacy, a suspicion of cults of personality, and an understanding that free societies require protection from authoritarians promising easy fixes to complex problems.”  

Equally fundamental, we share a commitment to finding solutions ― through compromise and mutual respect ― that can better the lives of more Americans and renew our sense of a shared democracy.

Perhaps phrases like “compromise and mutual respect” are not a rousing call to the barricades. But that’s the point ― look where we are without them. The wounds go deep, and it is time to heal them.

Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.