How Democracies Die

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Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown Publishing, 2018

This is a fitting moment to reflect on the strength of our democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt are not just pursuing an academic investigation of democracies around the world; they are sounding the alarm about ours. They state frankly that they consider the election of Donald Trump a threat to democratic norms and institutions. “In 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.”

The authors point out that in recent decades, most breakdowns of democracy have occurred not through military coups, but through the democratic election of leaders who used the powers of their office to promote authoritarian rule. “Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

All societies produce an extremist demagogue from time to time. In the most democratic countries, they usually don’t get elected. The threat to democracy arises when “fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream….” First those established parties fail to stop them from being elected; then they fail to stop them from violating democratic norms.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a demagogue as “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.” By that definition, I agree with the authors that Trump is the worst demagogue to make it to the White House in my lifetime, and probably in American history.  (To be fair, he appeals to some real economic concerns as well as to prejudice and misinformation, but he seems to have no coherent policy for actually addressing those concerns.)

Warning signs

The authors suggest four warning signs to help identify leaders with undemocratic, authoritarian tendencies:

  1. The leader “rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game,” for example by flouting the Constitution or undermining free and fair elections.
  2. The leader “denies the legitimacy of opponents,” for example by describing them as criminals or subversives.
  3. The leader “tolerates or encourages violence,” for example by encouraging mob attacks or failing to condemn violence by supporters.
  4. The leader “indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media,” for example by using civil or criminal law to suppress dissent and criticism.

Signs of Donald Trump’s undemocratic tendencies include rejecting President Obama’s legitimacy as president, claiming that millions of illegal immigrant voters cost him the popular vote, advocating that his opponent be locked up, promising to pay the legal bills of supporters who assault protestors, failing to condemn violent hate groups, and declaring the mainstream media “enemies of the people.” Yet to be determined is whether he welcomed–and maybe actively encouraged–Russian interference in the 2016 election on his behalf, and to what extent he has obstructed justice by trying to impede the investigation.

Undemocratic leaders generally arise from the ranks of populist outsiders. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, that “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Republican party as failing gatekeeper

Every democracy needs gatekeepers to keep authoritarian demagogues from being elected; or if elected, from using their office to subvert democracy. In modern American history, the gatekeepers have normally been the mainstream political parties.

Striking a balance between gatekeeping and respecting the popular will has always been tricky. Too much gatekeeping, and party bosses are selecting leaders in the proverbial “smoke-filled room.” Too little gatekeeping, and populist sentiment can sweep loud-mouthed bullies into power. Primary elections, which were first introduced as a Progressive-Era reform, only became decisive in the 1970s. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate in 1968, was the last candidate to get a presidential nomination without competing in the primaries. In the Democratic party, the influence of primaries is reduced slightly by having elected officials–so-called “superdelegates”–make up 15-20% of the convention delegations. In the Republican party, primaries rule, so the party base chooses the candidate. It’s not surprising that thirteen out of eighteen outsiders to compete in the last six presidential elections have been Republicans.

Establishment Republican leaders have also been weakened by powerful conservative interest groups funded by extremely wealthy donors like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, as well as by right-wing media outlets like Fox News. In order to protect democracy, party leaders have to be prepared to distance themselves from potential autocrats by keeping them off ballots, working to defeat them if they run, and avoiding forming alliances with them. Although some Republicans have stood up against Trump, the authors see more abdication than resistance within the party.

One reason why leaders cooperate with a budding dictator is that they mistakenly believe they can co-opt him, discovering only too late that he has become too powerful to control. Another is that their own agenda overlaps enough with his that they forfeit the long-term health of their democracy for some short-term gain. Most Republicans seem willing to tolerate Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his narrow white Christian nationalism in return for the tax cuts and weak government regulation sought by their wealthy donors.

Subverting democracy

Unlike a military coup, the subversion of democracy by an elected demagogue proceeds slowly, in “baby steps.” For example, it is accomplished by “quietly firing civil servants and other nonpartisan officials and replacing them with loyalists.”  It is accomplished by gradually changing the political rules to stack the deck against an opposing party, or making life so difficult for the most outspoken opponents that other potential critics are intimidated.

The firing of FBI Director James Comey and the campaign to discredit the FBI is especially worrisome. We are about to see whether Trump will allow the investigation to proceed in accordance with the law or take more drastic action to obstruct it.

As of this time, the authors conclude that the President has “repeatedly scraped up against the guardrails, like a reckless driver, but he did not break through them.”  His transgressions have consisted mostly of “insult, lying, cheating, and bullying,” which are undermining civility but not replacing the rule of law. The greatest danger is that he might exploit some crisis to consolidate his power. Suppose the country were to experience a serious terrorist attack by a Muslim immigrant? I can easily imagine the President’s support going from 40% to 70%, emboldening him to declare martial law, round up and inter Muslims, crack down on dissent, and put an end to the Mueller investigation. Here’s food for thought:

A survey conducted in June 2017 asked, “If Donald Trump were to say that the 2020 presidential election should be postponed until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote, would you support or oppose postponing the election?” Fifty-two percent of Republicans said they would support postponement.

If asked to choose between following the leader and following the Constitution, half of one of our major political parties would choose the leader.


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