Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have described Donald Trump as a demagogue with authoritarian tendencies. He has not yet done serious damage to our democratic system, but the threat is definitely there.
That’s only part of their story, however. Democracy was already under stress well before Trump’s election. “Not only did Americans elect a demagogue in 2016, but we did so at a time when the norms that once protected our democracy were already coming unmoored.”
It takes more than a well-designed constitution to sustain a viable democracy. After the decline of colonialism in Latin America, many of the newly independent states based their constitutions on ours, but that didn’t stop them from falling into civil war and dictatorship. “All successful democracies rely on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected.”
Two very general political norms are fundamental. “Mutual toleration” acknowledges the right of rival factions to compete for political power and achieve it, as long as they do so through constitutional means. “Institutional forbearance” is a commitment to abide by the democratic spirit of the laws, not just the letter of the laws. When those two norms break down, one or more parties may use the laws in ways that were never intended, to destroy their opposition instead of competing with them fairly.
What is most likely to weaken or destroy the norms is political polarization based on socioeconomic, racial or religious differences.
In the history of U.S. democracy, the most polarizing issue has been race, but racial polarization has not been a constant. Race has been most polarizing at times when one major party has taken up the cause of racial justice, as opposed to times when both parties have been tolerant of racial injustice.
In the nineteenth century, it was the Republican rejection of slavery that brought the issue to the forefront, “investing politics with what one historian has called a new ’emotional intensity.'” (I find the reference to emotionalism interesting, considering that in our current era of polarization, social scientists have been “discovering” that politics is more emotional than rational.) After the Civil War and Reconstruction, some political peace was restored, but at the expense of the rights of the newly freed slaves. In one of the greatest assaults on democracy in our history, southern whites got away with restoring white supremacy.
Between 1885 and 1908, all eleven post-Confederate states reformed their constitutions and electoral laws to disenfranchise African Americans. To comply with the letter of the law as stipulated in the Fifteenth Amendment, no mention of race could be made in efforts to restrict voting rights, so states introduced purportedly “neutral” poll taxes, property requirements, literacy tests, and complex written ballots….Black turnout in the South fell from 61 percent in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912. The disenfranchisement of African Americans wiped out the Republican Party, locking in white supremacy and single-party rule for nearly a century.
By keeping race off the agenda at the national level, the two major parties were able to find more common ground. For most of the twentieth century, they were both “big tents” that included many of the same kinds of people. Married white Christians constituted a majority of both parties. The Democrats had the southern white conservatives, but the Republicans had midwestern and western white conservatives. The Democrats had working-class New Deal liberals, but the Republicans had educated middle-class liberals.
Democratic support for civil rights legislation in the 1960s did more than anything to re-polarize the parties, as people of color embraced the Democratic Party but southern whites abandoned it. Declining support for traditional religion among Democrats contributed as well. “The two parties are now divided over race and religion–two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility than traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending.”
As for being “big tents,” the parties have moved in opposite directions. The Democratic Party has become more diverse, being a party of white and black, native-born and immigrant, religious and secular, gay and straight. The Republican Party has become less diverse, the home of the embattled white Protestant minority, the people who used to run the country but have been losing power recently. Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that the Republican party has led the way in weakening democratic norms in order to maintain their social and cultural dominance. Ironically, it is now the Republican party that is noted for trying to lock in single-party rule by suppressing the black vote.
While the authors focus mostly on race and secondarily on religion in this story, gender is also important. The Democratic Party has also become the party of women’s rights, while the Republican Party has become the party of angry men. That also is a reversal, since it was northern Republicans who originally supported the Equal Rights Amendment.
Erosion of democratic norms
Even in the twentieth-century period of relative political cooperation, democratic norms were challenged or violated by some leaders. Franklin Roosevelt exercised unusual power during the crises of Depression and war, running for president four times (legal but unprecedented), issuing over 300 executive orders a year, and trying unsuccessfully to expand the Supreme Court so he could appoint more justices. In the 1950s, attacks on Democrats by militant anti-communists like Joe McCarthy helped Republicans win the presidency and control of Congress. One of those red-baiting anti-communists, Richard Nixon, went on to use the presidency to attack the people on his “enemies list” in illegal ways.
The authors see a more ominous “unraveling” of democratic norms beginning in the 1990s. Newt Gingrich set the tone as he rose to the position of Speaker of the House, presenting a hostile, hard-line, no-compromise front against the moderate Democrat Bill Clinton. One sign of deviation from traditional practice was a dramatic increase in the use of the Senate filibuster to block majority-supported legislation. Democrats also made heavy use of it during the George W. Bush administration, while Republicans stopped following the practice of “regular order,” which had given the opposition a chance to speak on legislation and propose amendments. During the Obama years, so many of the President’s appointments were filibustered that Senate Democrats changed the rules to disallow the filibuster for appointments other than to the Supreme Court.
Until relatively recently, Supreme Court appointments by the President have rarely been rejected by the Senate. When President Reagan appointed arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, Democrats could have blocked it with a filibuster but instead supported it unanimously. But when President Obama appointed the moderate and highly qualified Merrick Garland, Republicans took the unprecedented step of refusing to consider the nomination at all. Then they changed the rules after the 2016 election to keep the Democrats from filibustering President Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the open seat, insuring that conservatives would keep their 5-4 majority.
So now we have a potential autocrat in the White House, leading a party of embattled conservatives desperate to maintain their hold on power. The “devil’s bargain” between this man and this party could be bad news for democracy.