How Democracies Die

We all know of democratic institutions that have ended by revolution or coup. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two professors of government at Harvard University, highlight another way that they increasingly end — through a slow erosion of institutions by those who were democratically elected to oversee them.

In How Democracies Die (Crown Publishing, 2018) the authors apply their knowledge of the collapse of democratic institutions from Europe and Latin America to analyze the erosion of democratic norms in the United States. While the constitutional system and the norms in the United States under Trump are still preserving democracy, the erosion of norms is alarming. Trump has the tendencies of the European and Latin American demagogues that Levitsky and Ziblatt have spent their lives studying; and he is doing much that demagogues elsewhere have done to undermine democratic institutions. So far, the Republican congress has also adopted a policy of appeasement very much like what we find where demagogues have assumed power. They have largely failed to play the needed gatekeeping role.

At the outset of the book Levitsky and Ziblatt outline how “fateful alliances” in many countries have allowed demagogues to assume power. In many cases, those who undermine democracies come into their leadership as political outsiders. To gain respectability, they are dependent on political insiders opening doors and pursuing their agendas. As the authors note: “A sort of devil’s bargain often mutates to the benefit of the insurgent” (15). Many times the political outsiders display authoritarian behavior, but the insiders think they can keep them under control, so support them for reasons of political expediency. Rather than blocking would-be dictators, the “fateful alliances” help usher the insurgents into power. “The abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism” (19).

In many cases, the demagogues come to power because of a lack of good mechanisms for gatekeeping. In the U.S. authoritarian figures have emerged again and again throughout history. Henry Ford is one such extremist. He railed against Jews, bankers, communists, and was impressive enough to Adolf Hitler to receive his praise in Mein Kampf (43ff.). Ford at one time had political aspirations. He nearly won a senate seat in 1918 and was in discussions for a presidential run in 1924. However, the party establishment of the time was able to successfully block him. Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin are two well-known autocratic figures from the 1930s. Joseph McCarthy is perhaps the most famous example from the 1950s. Like Trump, these leaders played to populism. Unlike Trump, they were successfully blocked from ascendency to the presidency.

Levitsky and Ziblatt think there are two main reasons that account for Trump’s success: 1) the Citizen’s United decision, which made it much easier to have nearly unlimited funding of elections; and 2) the emergence of new media. The latter includes both Fox news and various right-wing radio and TV personalities, which David Frum has called the “conservative entertainment complex” (see 56) as well as social media. Trump was a great beneficiary of both. Despite the NeverTrump movement and warnings from a few Republican Party insiders, public opinion during the election was able to hold strong, in no small part because of the aid of commentators like Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, as well as the increasingly important Breitbart news.

There are four main indicators of authoritarian behavior that the authors highlight: 1) the rejection of democratic institutions, or at least a weak commitment to them; 2) the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; 3) the toleration or encouragement of violence; and 4) the desire or willingness to reduce civil liberties (see 23ff., 61ff.). Even before his election, Trump displayed all four in ways by now familiar. The Republicans abdicated their responsibility to democracy, failing to take a principled stance against him. Often for reasons of expediency, they supported him despite his unfitness for office and of the clear danger even to the constitutional order that many of them indicated he presented.

They did this for reasons that are common in such circumstances. 1) They thought they might control him. (There was much talk that he would be different once he assumed office). 2) There was “ideological collusion.” While even on the eve of the election, 78 Republicans came out supporting Clinton in a piece in the Washington Post, only one of them was an elected official (69). Those in office chose political expediency. Like others who have made fateful alliances, they thought they could control him, or that given that he would push along their agenda of tax cuts and court picks, the risk was worth it.

Once in power demagogues set about to subvert democracy. As Levitsky and Ziblatt note: “The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.” Though there is no exact blueprint, certain steps are very common. One is the attempt to “capture the referees” (78). Independent checks and balances are a hindrance to power, so insurgents will typically try to win them to their side, or failing that attack them as they work to undermine their independence. “Contemporary autocrats tend to hide their repression behind a veneer of legality” (83). So the demagogue works within the system to capture independent checks and to eliminate independent voices. Some things prove easier to do: One can fire civil servants and  non-partisans and replace them with loyalists (79). If the courts or intelligence community is independent, then it is typical to undermine them. The long-game is to gain them to one’s side though, since this is a way to create a ruse of legitimacy. If one succeeds in capturing them, then they can be used as a weapon to investigate or prosecute one’s enemies and to protect oneself and one’s allies (78ff.). Other independent voices in civil society also need to be quieted. If one has an independent press, then one can attempt to intimidate them into self-censorship. Trump’s threats to open up libel laws for bias in the press is one of his attempts to do this. Failing this, he, like various authoritarian leaders, undermines their legitimacy. His well-known accusations that they are “enemies of the people” and produce “fake news” are clear and repeated attempts to undermine the significance of their independence. Another typical course of action is to undermine influential and independent business leaders, who might pose a threat. Trump’s threats to sue Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon and the Washington Post, for breaching antitrust law come to mind, as well as his threats to hinder the proposed merger of Time Warner and AT&T. Authoritarians also often do what they can to silence alternative cultural voices, such as actors, stars, athletes. From attacks on Susan Sarandon to NFL players, examples in the Trump administration are not wanting.

Another part of the long game is to ultimately change the rules of the game and even the constitution itself. Rule changes can occur in numerous areas. In voting procedures, we have seen the attempts that preceded Trump have increased, as various voter suppression tactics — from gerrymandering to voter ID laws and the purging of voter registration lists. All of these target those who tend to vote Democratic.

Very often autocrats benefit from exploiting crisis “to justify power grabs” (95). In some famous cases, such as Hitler’s Reichtag fire and Putin’s allegations of Chechen terrorist attacks, there is considerable question about whether the crises were even real or fabricated. Nonetheless, in both cases, power was able to be expanded as civil liberties were sacrificed for security purposes. Very often leaders are able to consolidate power after such crises as their popularity also soars. As rules of the game are often rewritten in such times of crisis, it’s not unusual that people hardly notice.

While Levitsky and Ziblatt think that the constitution is very important, they emphasize that it alone will not secure a democracy. Numerous countries with constitutions similar to our own have had failed democracies. Argentina and the Philippines are just two examples (100). In addition to the constitution, the authors emphasize the importance of “strong democratic norms.” These include toleration of differences among the political parties and “institutional forbearance” (see 102 ff.) The former mean that one can respect one’s political opponents without viewing them as enemies. In democracies, this often means that one doesn’t make full use of some powers that may not be explicitly prohibited in the constitution, but that have emerged as unspoken rules for interaction that secure civility and the long-term functioning of the political system. As Levitsky and Ziblatt colloquially describe the thought behind this: “Think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow” (107).

The authors describe the breakdown in such norms in various regimes where democracy has failed and highlight the decline of such norms in the U.S. system as politicians have increasingly come to play what Mark Tushnet has called “constitutional hardball” (109). Many things not explicitly prohibited are then done even where long-standing custom dictates otherwise.

Some of the best parts of the book outline how the gatekeepers and the unwritten rules emerged and functioned in the history of American politics, and the threats to the democratic norms that the country experienced. In the history of the U.S., the gatekeeping that did emerge and the “democratic norms” were accompanied by exclusionary policy toward African Americans and women, such that the U.S. for most of this history could not be characterized as fully democratic.

It was by no means an easy road to where we ended in the 1970s, when women and African Americans were more meaningfully included into U.S. politics. From there, though, the authors highlight the decline in the democratic norms that began in the 1980s. Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were among the first to reintroduce “constitutional hardball,” undermining nearly all efforts for cooperation with the Democrats when they were in power. Americans for Tax Freedom and various heavy donors associated with them, as well as the emergent Tea Party, all have continued to contribute to the erosion of democratic norms and unwritten rules of governance. Democrats have reacted to that, with their own incursions, but the authors leave no doubt that in recent history this problem has largely been perpetuated by the Republican Party. All of this leads us to Trump, who the authors’ view as a unique figure in the history of U.S. politics in the ways that he undermines democratic norms. The book usefully highlights instances that display his autocratic character and his attempts to undermine checks and balances of the U.S. political system and to capture the traditional guardians of our democracy.

Though our constitutional checks have so far proved able to guard against their ongoing attack, Trump’s undermining of the norms of democracy are worrying. One reason is that his rhetoric begins to normalize both attitudes and behavior that undermine our constitutional system. Writing of his behavior, they note: “Never has a president flouted so many unwritten rules so quickly” (195). Where there is a long-standing norm against nepotism, he breaks with it, appointing his daughter and son-in-law in key advisory posts within his administration. Where there is a norm of divesting investments, he breaks with it in ways that the governmental ethics commission has been critical. Where a civility with former rivals and outgoing presidents has prevailed, Trump has ended it, having threatened to have Hillary Clinton investigated and having falsely accused Barack Obama of having spied on him during his campaign. He has not only attacked the press in ways that we are by now familiar with, but he has also at times excluded them from major press events. He has attacked the judiciary and the intelligence community, after reportedly having asked for James Comey’s commitment of personal loyalty. His pardon of Joe Arpaio directly undermined a decision of one of the branches of government put in place to check presidential power. So Trump has flouted typical restraint. Trump has also lied at a level truly unprecedented. According to PolitiFact, in the 2016 election 69% of his public statements were mostly false. The New York Times showed that he made demonstrably false statements at least once a day his first forty days in office (198). None of this shows any likelihood of abating.

Through all of this, Trump is undermining American soft power abroad. As the authors note: “America is no longer a democratic model. A country whose president attacks the press, threatens to lock up his rival, and declares that he might not accept elections results cannot credibly defend democracy” (206). The U.S. is in “a period of democratic recession” (205).

Levitsky and Ziblatt see two main forces that are responsible for this situation: One is America’s racial and religious realignment. The other is the growth in economic inequality. The new racial and religious demographic fuels polarization, and politicians have become increasingly beholden to outside money, not controlling their parties themselves. We now need a “multi-ethnic democracy” where the politicians are not as beholden to their funders.

How Democracies Die is an extremely informative book. But it is especially in the proposal of what to do in the final chapter on “saving democracy” that the book disappoints a bit. The main point of the authors is that democratic norms are essential to the functioning of democracy. The authors’ thus end with something of a moral plea to return to democratic norms and expand them for an inclusive society. As the note in the closing pages: “Ultimately…American democracy depends on us–the citizens of the United States. No single political leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either. Democracy is a shared enterprise. Its fate depends on us all” (230).

That is true enough. But it also doesn’t get us very far.

Nonetheless, this book does a great service in at least clearly describing typical steps that lead to failed democracies. That will surely be useful for those trying to prevent the further erosion of ours.



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