How Democracies Die (part 3)

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In the last chapter of their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss the prospects for sustaining democracy in the face of the threats from Donald Trump and other such demagogues. They think it can be done, but it will take a lot of work.

The global challenge

The impression one gets from recent news is that democracy is in retreat all over the world. The authors do not think that the evidence supports that pessimistic conclusion.

The number of democracies rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, peaked around the year 2005, and has remained steady ever since. Backsliders make headlines and capture our attention, but for every Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela there is a Colombia, Sri Lanka, or Tunisia—countries that have grown more democratic over the last decade.

The bad news is that the election of Donald Trump appears to be a setback for democracy not only in the United States but around the world. The Western powers under the leadership of the United States have played a role in encouraging democratic principles and institutions since World War II (although I would add that our pro-democracy principles have often been compromised by self-serving economic policies). Trump’s “America first” nationalism is weakening the Western alliance and strengthening the position of undemocratic countries like Russia and China. I find it especially ironic that Republicans who in the past demanded unwavering opposition to our Cold War adversaries now look the other way while Trump offends our democratic allies and cozies up to dictators.

The future at home

The authors describe three possible futures for the United States after the Trump phenomenon runs its course. The most optimistic is that our democratic norms and institutions quickly recover from whatever damage his presidency does to them. That might be realistic if Trump alone were the problem. But as the authors have discussed, the deeper problem is the polarization of our politics arising from deep disagreements over race and religion, compounded by an economic system that is leaving too many people behind.

That raises a second and more troubling possibility, that the Republican party, having become the party of Trump, maintains its power with a white nationalist appeal. That would entail running the country primarily for the benefit of a shrinking population of white Christians, and resorting to undemocratic means of suppressing the more diverse majority. “Such a nightmare scenario isn’t likely, but it also isn’t inconceivable.”

The most likely future is “one marked by polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare–in other words, democracy without solid guardrails.” The authors point to the state of North Carolina as the best example of “what politics without guardrails might look like.” For those who don’t live here, I’ll just say that Republican legislators gerrymandered the state so that they could win 10 of 13 Congressional seats with only 53% of the vote, passed voting laws that targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision” according to a federal court, and reduced the powers of the governor right after a democrat was elected to that position. The state is hardly a dictatorship yet, however, since Republican efforts at one-party domination have been vigorously resisted by the opposition party and the courts.

Reducing polarization

Political leaders will either have to learn to cooperate and compromise despite the polarization, which the authors think is doubtful, or they will have to move beyond the polarization. Although the authors call on both parties to reconsider what they stand for, they put the main responsibility for change on the Republican party, since they consider it “the main driver of the chasm between the parties.” They see more of the obstructionism, partisan hostility, and extremism on that side of the aisle.

For Republicans, they recommend changes in both organization and constituency. The leadership will have to regain some control, relying less heavily on outside donors and right-wing media. And the party must become more diverse:

Republicans must marginalize extremist elements; they must build a more diverse electoral constituency, such that the party no longer depends so heavily on its shrinking white Christian base; and they must find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism, or what Republican Arizona senator Jeff Flake calls the “sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery.”

As for the Democrats, they should resist calls to focus on white working-class voters at the expense of their black and immigrant constituencies. But what they can do is address economic concerns that cut across race and religion. As I have argued before, they can emphasize universal benefits programs such as universal health insurance, basic income guarantee, job training, paid parental leave, subsidized child care and prekindergarten education.

Now I think I’ve been reading and writing enough for a while about the culture wars and the partisan divide. What I’m thinking about lately is the fiscal problem of how the country might pay for the more progressive public policies many Democrats advocate. Stay tuned.

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