Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY) on January 16th 2018
A bracing, revelatory look at the demise of liberal democracies around the world--and a road map for rescuing our own
Donald Trump's presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we'd be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang--in a revolution or military coup--but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one.
Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die--and how ours can be saved.
At the centre of this book by Levitsky and Ziblatt, is their concern about the way in which authoritarianism can emerge through democracies, much in the same way that Timothy Snyder highlighted in his ‘On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century’. With the election of Donald Trump in the US, the way in which the Brexit referendum unfolded, the popularity of Marine Le Pen in France and most recently the election of the far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban, these books seem more necessary than ever to understand the weaknesses in democracy that can permit the entry of a far-left/right sentiment – but ultimately what could be classified as authoritarianism.
Although the authors do highlight the ways in which the most obvious examples of democracies dying in the Third Reich in Germany and with Mussolini in Italy, they extend that argument by pointing to examples within Latin America, such as Venezuala’s Hugo Chavez. In the context of the US, they point to the fact that Donald Trump’s election is not an anomaly, but rather a logical conclusion to the direction that democratic races for the last 40 years have taken:
“Today, however, the guardrails of American democracy are weakening. The erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary. Donald Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it. The challenges facing American democracy run deeper. The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that ex- tends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. America s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have fueled an insidious reaction and intensifying polarization. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, its that extreme polarization can kill democracies.” (p.9)
For Levitsky and Ziblatt, it is one of the failures of democratic institutions, that they do not curtail the excesses of popular sentiment. The authors provide some useful examples from gatekeepers in Germany who felt that they would be able to restrict the activities of Adolf Hitler by entering into an alliance with him, and so allowing an emerging ‘popular’ sentiment to have its voice – what they refer to as a ‘devil’s bargain’. (p.15)
How to recognise the emergence of this authoritarianism though, here the authors provide four key markers to recognise ‘outsiders’ who will attempt to subvert democratic processes. Governments should be concerned when a politician:
1. Rejects the rules of the political game in words and action.
2. Denies opponents legitimacy
3. Encourages violence against opponents, or at least tolerates it
4. Willing to curtail civil liberties, including the media (pp.21-22)
The emergence of these figures is not as rare as might be thought. Levitsky and Ziblatt run off a list of names in just an American context, who emerged to play the kind of role that Donald Trump is playing now: Coughlin, Long, McCarthy and Wallace, are all names who had remarkable success and almost changed the face of American politics. Perhaps most startling of all in this book, is the claim that it was relatively easy for these figures to gain 30-40% of the American electorate vote – and with that admission the further acknowledgement that it is not the electorate that quells popular forms of fascism, but rather ‘gatekeeping’ within the political parties themselves:
“We often tell ourselves that Americas national political culture in some way immunizes us from such appeals, but this requires reading history with rose-colored glasses. The real protection against would-be authoritarians has not been Americans’ firm commitment to democracy but, rather, the gatekeepers—our political parties.” (p.37)
This gatekeeping function, in the US context, has been carried out through their primaries system, a way for the party itself to remove the potential for demagoguery to emerge, and to keep the party’s main political mandate at the fore of the party’s political landscape. What then when an outsider emerges who is able to make the primaries system irrelevant?
“By the time Trump rolled to victory in the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries, it was clear that he had laid waste to the invisible primary, rendering it irrelevant. Undoubtedly, Trump’s celebrity status played a role. But equally important was the changed media landscape. From early on in the campaign, Trump had the sympathy or support of right-wing media personalities such as Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage, as well as the increasingly influential Breitbart News. Although Trump initially had a contentious relationship with Fox News, he reaped the benefits of its polarized media landscape.” (p.58)
Democracy is not the sole preserve of a space governed by rational arguments and logic, it is very much at the mercy of the way in which debates are constructed, and due to that fact, the role that the media play in propping up, or breaking down a political race. By some markers, in the last US presidential race, Donald Trump is said to have received around $2 billion of free media coverage throughout the course of his election run, a startling figure, which perhaps explains why he was not in need of the Republican gatekeepers and was able to bypass their system of self-correction.
With the four key markers of the authoritarian described above, the authors move on to describe how a democracy itself can lend itself to electing such a figure. Here, Levistky and Ziblatt use the frame ‘collective abdication’, based on two elements. The first that the gatekeepers think they can reign in the authoritarian, so that he can be controlled. The second, and perhaps more worrying, is that there is a collective overlap among the mainstream politicians ideologically, that the authoritarian is still more desirable than an alternative. (p.67)
Once authoritarians take control, then the system itself is open to be changed in order to ensure that they maintain their power and control. For almost 150 years, we have heard of how black voters are frequently disenfranchised from the political process, a practice that still continues to this very day. The law itself, and the law of democracy, becomes whim to narratives around race and class, with political elites often constructing it according to their immediate needs:
“a complex ballot that made it nearly impossible for illiterates to exercise the franchise, and since most of the states black residents were illiterate, black turnout plummeted. But that wasn’t enough. In 1888, Governor John Richardson declared, “We now have the rule of a minority of 400,000 [whites] over a majority of 600,000 [blacks]. . . . The only thing that stands today between us and their rule is a flimsy statute—the Eight Box Law.” Seven years later, the state introduced a poll tax and a literacy test. Black turnout, which had reached 96 percent in 1876, fell to just 11 percent in 1898. Black disenfranchisement “wrecked the Republican Party,” locking it out of the statehouse for nearly a century.” (p.91)
With both the political and media class playing their role in ensuring structural violence of the state, the law then becomes a third weapon in reinforcing authoritarian structures. The authors importantly make mentions of how democracies use a security crisis, in order to entrench authoritarian measures. These measures are easily enacted, but once on the statute book, take a great deal of effort to remove:
“Citizens are also more likely to tolerate—an^ support—authoritarian measures during security crises, especially when they fear for their own safety. In the aftermath of 9/11, 55 percent of surveyed Americans said they believed it was necessary to give up some civil liberties to curb terrorism, up from 29 percent in 1997. Likewise, Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans would have been unthinkable without the public fear generated by the Pearl Harbor attack. After Pearl Harbor, more than 60 percent of surveyed Americans supported expelling Japanese Americans from the country, and a year later, Japanese American internment still enjoyed considerable public support.” (p.94)
I have to be honest, this book is depressing in the sense that it is easy to understand the mechanics of how fragile so-called democratic processes are, and the extent to which they are subject to the desires of the most powerful in society. There is a certain irony that perhaps Levitsy and Ziblatt do not notice themselves when the try and analogise democracy with the divine-right of monarchies about halfway through the book. There is a paternalistic element to a democracy that somewhat betrays its true nature, which has little to do with democratisation, but more to do with how democracies themselves are constructed:
“Just as divine-right monarchies required forbearance, so do democracies. 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. If one’s rivals quit, there can be no future games. This means that although individuals play to win, they must do so with a degree of restraint. In a pickup basketball game, we play aggressively, but we know not to foul excessively—and to call a foul only when it is egregious. After all, you show up at the park to play a basketball game, not to fight. In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play.” (p.107)