Puget Sound Professor Seth Weinberger explores how domestic extremists threaten the future of American democracy.

I am a scholar of international security. For most of my life, I’ve been focused on threats like nuclear annihilation and “Great Power war”—conflict with China or Russia. But today, for the first time in my life, the most significant threat to our country comes from within. Since 9/11, there have been 107 deaths in the U.S. from jihadi violence—and 114 deaths from violence by right-wing domestic extremists, many of them white supremacists. But the numbers don’t represent the true nature of the threat. The very future of our nation is endangered by those who are not committed to liberal democracy.

When I use the word “liberal,” I’m not referring to the left, in the political sense of Democratic versus Republican views, but rather classical liberalism, an intellectual tradition that goes back to John Locke and Adam Smith. They argued that individuals have inherent rights that cannot be violated or abridged by the whims of elites or majorities. It’s perhaps the “liberal” that matters more than the “democracy.” Slavery was a democratic institution—after all, the majority of people in the country wanted or tolerated it. So democracy itself is not inherently a good thing; it requires liberal restraint, like respecting the rights of minorities, to work well. It is the liberal part that allows people who are unlike one another to live together, confident that their rights are guaranteed.