The impending collapse of democracy—that’s not small beer. So imagine the alarm of New York Times subscribers when, on October 3, an essay titled “Democracy Challenged” appeared in the newspaper with the subhead, “Representative government faces its most serious threats in decades.”
If the New York Times wishes to limit gun ownership in America, articles like this can hardly be said to help. Before leaving the house the day the article was published, I opened our front door as slowly as I could, motioned to the family to stay in place until I had peered up both ends of the street, and then instructed everyone to walk behind me as we all moved as noiselessly as possible toward the sidewalk and our several destinations. “Do what you can to save representative democracy in America!” my wife whispered to the kids as they set off for school.
I am joking, of course. The piece, written by Joseph Kahn, the paper’s new executive editor, appeared in what the Times calls “The Morning Newsletter.” Though this morning’s item concerned the country’s worst nightmare, it was only four paragraphs long. And it was hard to fathom. The subhead’s reference to the most serious “threats” to “representative government” “in decades” was perplexing, since any real threat to democracy would be deadly and single, not one among several competing threats. And there was no threat to American democracy decades ago, unless Kahn was referring to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which were threats of a whole different order than what he went on to claim were the perils faced by American democracy now.
These included “a deterioration in the integrity of constitutional democracy” (whatever that means), “manipulation of state election laws” (which turned out to have no effect on the upcoming election), “and a global trend toward autocracy in places where democratic institutions once seemed solid”—a “trend,” if that’s what it is, that does not pose a direct threat to America and that, anyway, Kahn never connects to specific countries. Kahn finished his alarm by inviting readers to continue to read “our coverage in a collection called Democracy Challenged.” Just make sure to stay on the lookout as you peruse the collection!
The most curious aspect of the Times’s crusade to save American democracy is how short-lived it was. One minute the paper was running articles declaring that the election of the right-wing Giorgia Meloni as Italy’s prime minister would plunge not just Italy but all of Western democracy into fascism, and the next—a few weeks later—it was publishing an article by the paper’s chief fashion critic exploring Meloni’s sartorial style: “The first female prime minister of Italy wears Armani.”
It could be that, in its current desperation to keep its head above the crowded media waters, the Times is confusing its most successful section, “Wirecutter,” which evaluates and recommends consumer items, with the rest of the paper: we spent months testing different political systems—fascism, communism, autocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy—and we found democracy to be the most convenient and the most affordable.
Here was Jedediah Purdy, a Duke law professor, writing an essay for the opinion pages titled, “The Republican Party Is Succeeding Because We Are not a True Democracy.” Purdy observes: “Aristotle called democracy ‘the rule of the poor’ and he was onto something. Democracy, when it works, puts the ultimate political power in the hands of people who work, worry, and wish they could promise their loved ones more than they can. It gives us back a bit of our world.”
Never mind the weird last sentence. Aristotle never called democracy “the rule of the poor” in any positive sense. He was factually describing democracy and contrasting it with oligarchy’s rule by the wealthy. He believed that the wealthy tend to be “insolent and rather wicked in great things,” but he also held that the poor, who are “extremely wretched and weak, and have an exceeding lack of honor,” have the tendency to become “villains and too much involved in petty wickedness.” For Aristotle, it was the middle class, neither haughtily insolent nor resentfully villainous, that “most easily obeys reason.”
But the idea, for the Times’s top editors, that poor people can be just as venal and cruel as rich people is as intolerable as the idea that American democracy has always been rambunctious and occasionally violent, and that what is happening in the country now, as troubling as it sometimes is, is par for the American democratic course.
A more plausible threat to America’s democracy is the Times’s frequent distance from reality. Consider an article that appeared after the fatal shooting of six people at a Walmart in Virginia just before Thanksgiving. For years now, as the Times pushed its notion of “systemic racism” and other supposedly entrenched injustices, the paper has divided the country along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. It has proclaimed a “Great Resignation” and a revolution called “quiet quitting” from what it characterized as a brutal and oppressive world of everyday work. But in this article, titled “‘We Were a Family’: Victims in Walmart Shooting Had Bonded on Overnight Shift,” coworkers of the people who had been murdered spoke about the fact that “they were often buoyed by the camaraderie they found”; that, as one person said, “we were a family when I was there. . . . everyone loved each other.”
The people killed were a young black woman, a late middle-aged white woman, two young black men, a late middle-aged white man, and a young Latino man. United by work, they did not remotely resemble the different groups the Times portrays, again and again, as being at one another’s throats. The person who killed them was their supervisor, a young black man for whom, it seems fair to say, the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion either did not arrive in time or had no effect.
The Times will keep telling its stories about American democracy being under siege—except when its side wins elections—even as it continues to undermine democracy with one panic after another; even as social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, sometimes enabled by the federal government itself, pose an actual threat to democracy by manipulating information to favor the progressive worldview. How progressives love their alarms, their procedures, their interminable investigations, their prosecutors, and their congressional committees. How they love, in other words—and in the midst of democracy’s purportedly looming extinction—their self-aggrandizing routines of business as usual.