Image credit: Arthimedes /

Last fall, long before Vladimir Putin had declared war on Ukraine while issuing a scarcely veiled existential threat to the global friends of modern democracy, an Open Letter in Defense of Democracy appeared online at The Bulwark, a conservative political journal, and The New Republic, a beacon of liberal opinion. 

The open letter had been drafted by the late Todd Gitlin, one of the Presidents of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, in collaboration with the neoconservative commentator William Kristol, and Jeffrey Isaac, a political scientist on the liberal Left.  

We signatories were a motley bunch: Noam Chomsky and Jelani Cobb; Public Seminar founder Jeffrey Goldfarb and my co-executive editor Claire Potter; Francis Fukuyama and the former Midwestern right-wing talk radio host Charlie Sykes; Michael Tomasky, the current editor of The New Republic, and my old friend William Galston, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at Brookings. Those signing included veterans of the New Left and champions of the Tea Party movement that had made life difficult for liberals after the election of Barack Obama. Yet the Presidency of Donald Trump had united us in fear for the future of liberal democracy.  

As such open letters often are, this one was a wan prayer. It was more interesting in terms of the heterogeneity of those who signed it than for the forlorn alarum with which it concludes: “Now is the time for leaders in all walks of life—for citizens of all political backgrounds and persuasions—to come to the aid of the Republic.”

At roughly the same time this open letter was publicized, I had been working on two special issues of Public Seminar, one on constitutions and new beginnings, the other on Black Lives Matter and the claim that such social movements are constitutive of democracy in America, as my colleague Deva Woodly has argued in her recent book Reckoning. 

Because he was reviewing Woodly’s book at my invitation, I was also in contact with Sidney Tarrow, emeritus professor of politics at Cornell, a friend of Public Seminar and frequent contributor to its pages. We agreed that I should organize a future special issue about the topic of his recent book, Movements and Parties: Critical Connections in American Political Development.  

Hence this special issue of Public Seminar, which brings together two scholars of American Political Development with two of the public intellectuals who signed the Open Letter in Defense of Democracy, to discuss what the links and tensions between social movements and political parties may auger for the future of the republic.

As the participants in our little symposium sent in their comments, I was particularly struck by the first remarks to arrive, from Bill Galston. 

Reading his implicit plea for strengthening the power of institutional elites to moderate the demands of social movements, and thinking of the open letter in defense of democracy that both Bill and I had both signed, I realized, as I wrote to Bill, “that it’s quite unclear precisely what form of the American regime we are all ostensibly defending, at this juncture in history. Is it the current form as you describe it, which is so peculiarly open to popular pressure from the bottom up? What if our current form is less able to withstand illiberal challenges from the grassroots than any previous iteration of the regime? Some of the Claremont folks on the Right seem strangely giddy at this turn of events. But some of the militant supporters of BLM, and of insurrection on the Left aren’t too upset, either. A conundrum.”

So where do the American friends of democracy go from here? 

Or, as Sidney Tarrow puts it, “What role do popular uprisings play in our democratic dilemma?”

As it happens, this is also a question raised by current events in Ukraine, a nascent liberal democracy forged by a founding democratic revolt, the Maiden “Revolution of Dignity” in 2013–14.  

At stake is the future of the modern democratic project, not only in Europe—but also in America today, as Sidney Tarrow, Elisabeth Clemens, Megan Ming Francis, William Galston, and Michael Tomasky discuss in this week’s special issue of Public Seminar.  

James Miller, co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar, teaches at The New School for Social Research. His most recent book is Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).