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Opinion | Richard North Patterson

Fighting the assault on liberal democracy

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/Adobe Stock

The warning in Freedom House's 2018 report is stark: "Democracy is under assault and in retreat around the globe, a crisis that has intensified as America's democratic standards erode at an accelerating pace."

This reverses what many assumed was an irresistible global arc toward greater freedom, tolerance, equity, prosperity, and opportunity. But history tells us that human progress is neither irrevocable nor inevitable.

That's why I've joined with an international group from across the ideological spectrum in launching the Renew Democracy Initiative. Founders and supporters include acclaimed writer Mario Vargas Llosa, world chess champion Gary Kasparov, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Tribe, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, human rights activist Natan Sharansky, African-American studies scholar Henry Louis Gates, historian Jon Meacham, and Washington Post columnists Max Boot and Ann Applebaum. The group's purpose is to unite the center-left and center-right in opposition to the forces of autocracy, hatred, tribalism, and unreason that threaten liberal democracy worldwide — the dystopia personified, but hardly originated, by Donald Trump.

In its most virulent form, this deadly convergence was the genesis of World War II — in which the millions killed by war were joined by six million murdered by hate. In response, the United States joined with other nations to build alliances, create international institutions, provide foreign assistance, and advance the ideals of democracy and human rights. Like America, this liberal democratic order was far from perfect. But it created the relative stability and peace necessary to expand freedom, and the Cold War, and liberate Eastern Europe.


Within America itself, we strove to achieve greater social, racial, and economic justice. Despite grave lapses, we became a model which inspired global aspirations to democracy and human rights.

No more. Cosseted by Trump, autocrats around the world kill or jail opponents. Rising anti-Semitism moves bigots to kill Jews and governments to repress discussion of the Holocaust. The separation between cults of personality and the institutions of government erodes.


Nor does Trump distinguish between constitutional governance and personal desire. He attacks our electoral process, our law enforcement institutions, our courts, and the media. He slanders and bullies critics, stokes tribalism and distrust, and pits one group of Americans against another. And so our civic life, already fraught, grows ever more toxic. As noted in the mission statement of Renew Democracy Initiative: the “relentless partisanship has led major parties to abandon common cause, leading to the debilitation of vital civic institutions . . . Debates over immigration, education, health care, trade, national security ,and taxes have been politicized to such extremes that the compromises needed to craft sound, sensible solutions are unlikely to be reached.”

America has become polarized and paralyzed — an insular and dysfunctional country mired in scorched-earth politics instead of a force for global betterment.

Thus our mission statement declares: "It is essential to defend and refine the values and institutions of liberal democracy before they are further crippled." Among them are the integrity of democratic elections; freedom of the press; equal justice of the law; an independent judiciary; and a humane immigration policy. These are not abstractions — they are the essence of an open and decent society.

Nor are they merely American values. They offer hope to people around the world. Thus our iniative emphasizes 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 version of America.

But Trump is spurring Americans of goodwill across the political spectrum to rediscover the moral framework we share in common. Personally, I'm left of center, and my colleagues to the right often have a different view about solving one problem or another — or even, at times, about whether the solution creates more problems than it cures. 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 understanding that free societies require protection from authoritarians promising easy fixes to complex problems."


Equally fundamental, we believe in compromise, civility, diversity, mutual respect, and a politics which appeals to the best in us. Only through such values can America renew its sense of purpose and Americans recover our sense of common citizenship.

We hope you'll consider joining us.

Richard North Patterson's column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is "Fever Swamp." Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.