Democracy is always fragile

Protecting it requires all of us.

When “citizens” turn into “taxpayers,” is there trouble in River City? Noting how commonplace the latter term has become, Marilynne Robinson says yes. When I define myself as a citizen, I have a community—and children and grandchildren—to care about, and I may be pleased to share in the public expense of founding a land-grant college or building a public library. But when I define myself as a taxpayer, the aspirational aspect of community membership weakens. I fix attention on what government is costing me. The generosity and mutual regard that flourish when I savor and am supported by my connection with others lose their purchase on who I am.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors of government at Har­vard, contend that democracy, always and everywhere, is fragile. Having studied democratic breakdown in Latin America and Europe, they know that even when good intentions result in well-developed documents and institutions, authoritarianism can kill democracies. The authors offer not only convincing evidence for their thesis but a summons to vigilance. This summons aims primarily at democracy’s professionals, or what we may call the political class.

But directly or indirectly, the political class gains influence through support from the electorate. Thus, the book engenders questions beyond the focus the authors have settled on. How do you sustain, among voters, the understanding and engagement necessary for empowering truly responsible leaders? How, in other words, do you form a citizenry and not just a rabble of taxpayers?