IN THIS FRIGHTENING look at the (parlous) state of American democracy, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine those critical factors that they conclude have been common to all modern autocratic states.
Since the end of the Cold War, they note, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals but by elected governments themselves. Elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine.
“Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box”. Often they note, there’s no single moment – no coup, suspension of the constitution etc – that may set off society’s alarm bells. Democracy’s erosion is imperceptible.
They layer this framework on the present US administration and wonder: how close is the US to those other autocratic states? What happened that the country should be where it now is? And they hazard a guess, based on their reading of other countries, where the road ahead lies.
The framework they use (to identify the typical modus operandi of autocrats) was first mapped out by Juan Linz in his seminal book of 1978, “The Breakdown Of Democratic Regimes”. Building on Linz’ work, they developed a set of four warning signs.
(1) The rejection of democratic rules of the game, such as neutralizing or cancelling elections or the constitution, banning or restricting basic civil rights (such as the right to vote) or undermining the legitimacy of elections by refusing to accept credible electoral results
(2) Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents… by baselessly branding them as criminals, foreign agents or threats to national security
(3) Toleration or encouragement of violence…thru ties to armed gangs, the encouragement of mob attacks on opponents, the tactic endorsement of violence by their supporters and their approval or praise of other political violence in other countries
(4) Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media: as seen thru examples such as the expansion of libel or defamation laws, threats and punitive actions against rival parties, civil society or the media, and the praise of other government’s repressive measures.
It’s not a stretch to see how easily Trump fits the playbill. Even before his inauguration, he tested positive on all four measures:
- A weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game (when he questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and even suggested he might not accept the results of the election)
- He consistently insisted that there would be voter fraud and that millions of illegal immigrants and dead people would be mobilized to vote for Hillary Clinton (so much so that before the election, 73% of Republicans believed that the election could be stolen from him.)
- He denied the legitimacy of his opponents, first with Obama and his “birther” campaign and then with Clinton who he branded a criminal (with his rally cry of “Lock her up”)
- Like the Blackshirts in Italy and the Brownshirts in Germany, he tolerated and encouraged violence (as he shouted at one of his rallies, “If you see anybody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them would ya…Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you I will pay the legal fees.”) He even issued a veiled endorsement of violence against Hillary Clinton when he said, “if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks…Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know”
- The final warning sign (apart from his praise of other dictators such as Putin and Duterte) was his readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics, such as his promise to arrange for a special prosecutor to investigate and jail Hillary after the election and his threat to punish unfriendly media (“among the most dishonest group of people I’ve ever met”) by opening up the libel laws to bankrupt them.
So what happened? How did a clearly visible autocrat make it all the way to the elections and then the Presidency? Where did the party fail in its traditional role as a steward of democracy?
Democracy, they note, is, in every country, heavily dependent for its continuity on “Gatekeeping institutions” which are aimed at eliminating dictator-leaning candidates at an early stage. These are supported by a series of core shared norms and codes of behavior…what they call “the guardrails”. These, more than constitutions are democracy’s foundations.
Trump was the most successful but not the first extremist to woo and win voters’ afffections.
Such figures have long dotted the landscape of American politics. Men such as Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest; Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long (whose intimidation and bribery of the state’s legislature, the press and anyone who opposed him saw him regarded as “the first true dictator out of American soil”); billionaire Henry Forde, widely admired as a plain spoken businessman and who the Nazi government had awarded with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle; all American hero Charles Lindbergh, an advocate of racial purity (who was also awarded a Nazi Medal of Honor…by Herman Goring); Senator Joseph McCarthy whose blacklisting, censorship and book banning, all in the name of protecting America, earned him the approval of nearly half of the electorate; and governor George Wallace who mixed racism with populist appeals to working class whites’ sense of victimhood and economic anger.
None of these men made it through the filter of their party’s powerful insiders and nomination systems.
This changed after the debacle of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the nomination of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. What emerged was a system of binding presidential primaries (and the Democrats’ undemocratic dependence on “superdelegates”). Though these primaries ostensibly gave the power to party members, delegates depended on their passage through the “invisible primary” (i.e the insider allies of donors, newspaper editors, interest groups, state-level politicians etc) to be considered for nomination. This system successfully kept out the crazies (such as Pat Robinson, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes). But the dramatic increase in the availability of outside money and the explosion of alternative media, along with the gung-ho radicalism of Fox News, tilted the scales away from ‘party-blessed’ establishment politicians to the rich, the famous and the extreme. Witness the candidacies of fringe politicians such as Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain (The Godfather Pizza CEO) and Bernie Sanders. Sanders was cut off at the knees by Democratic insiders. But the Republican party elders were helpless in blocking the unendorsed outsider Donald Trump.
The long successful barrier of Gatekeeping Institutions had failed. Mainstream politicians compounded this institutional failure by doing nothing. Key Republicans sat back and watched with horror as Trump shredded the usual norms…but Party ideology trumped any fidelity to the idea of American democracy. This did not have to be the case. Levitsky and Ziblatt point to other similarly endangered democracies when politicians put the rule of democracy above that of party politics. For example in 2016, Austrian conservatives backed the Green Party candidate to block the election of the far right (led by Norbert Hofer); in France, Francois Fillon urged his members to vote for Emmanuel Macron to keep Marine Le Pen out etc.
But in the US, there was a “collective abdication”. Some Republican leaders refused to endorse Trump. But none were prepared to endorse Hillary. They all simply fell in line, based on the misguided belief that the authoritarian could be controlled and on an “ideological collusion”: the rationalization that the authoritarian’s agenda sufficiently overlapped with the party’s values.
If the Party’s Gatekeeping role failed, what of the broader guardrails that protect democracy? These the book notes are:
- mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals;
- and forbearance or the understanding that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.
These the authors contend are the only real restraints that prohibit autocrats from using the very programs that define democracy against it.
For constitutions and the safeguards they offer, though lofty, tend to be vague, ambiguous and can easily, legally be side stepped. The clearest examples are those many, mainly Latin American, countries whose Constitutions and even electoral systems are modeled, almost to the word, on the US constitution and model. Such diligence did not prevent electoral fraud in Argentina in 1930 and 1943, or President Marcos’ use of martial law or Brazil’s Gertulio Vargas’ legal maneuvers to stay in power.
Strong democracies depend on these strong, often unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. When these norms breakdown, so does democracy.
In every case of democratic breakdown – from Franco, Hitler and Mussolini to Marcos, Pinochet, Putin, Chavez and Erdogan- the justification for the consolidation of power has been accomplished by the replacement of mutual toleration for a norm where opponents are labeled as existential threats.
Similarly, the second critical guardrail of institutional forbearance or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right” collapses when parties engage in “constitutional hardball”… when the intent is to permanently defeat one’s partisan rivals – no matter the effect on democracy.
When Presidents and parties view (elected) opponents as mortal enemies; when politics becomes a zero sum game (where for one side to win the other must lose), then the mutual toleration, respect and forbearance necessary for the compromises of the political process turn politics into warfare.
In recent times, Nixon never embraced norms of mutual toleration. He viewed sections of the public as opponents and the press as enemies…threats to the nation. He told his aid H. R. Haldeman, “We’re up against an enemy, a conspiracy”. But then the guardrails held.
By the time US politics had reached the stage when in 2016, for the first time in US history, the Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court, the guardrails had well and truly been dismantled.
The key point they note is that Trump’s autocratic tendencies found fertile ground in the no-holds-barred divisiveness of American politics where your opponent is your enemy and compromise is a dirty word. This divisiveness, a sharp tact away from the civility and mutual respect that tends to be the underpinning of democracies, was sharply escalated after Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.
Gingrich exacerbated the already increasingly hostile nature of US political debate to the level of virulent partisanship that defines its present war-like norm.
“You are fighting a war. It is a war for power” he said. He questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism and accused them of trying to “destroy our country”. As House Speaker, his ideological aversion to compromise and his willingness to obstruct legislation spelt the end of that body’s traditional collegial combativeness.
Politics had become warfare; the use of the filibuster and later (in Bill Clinton’s case) impeachment and the debt limit had become weaponised.
This intense partisanship meant the beginning of government dysfunction.
And it escalated markedly under Obama’s presidency. Gingrich called him “the first Anti-American president”. Egged on by Fox News (whose “no compromise” views viciously attacked any moderate Republican) as well as by Trump and the Tea Party movement, 37% of Republicans believed that he was not born in the US.
Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude that the intensity of partisanship has meant that being a Democrat or Republican has become not just an affiliation but an identity. They identify that the seeds of this mutual distrust predate Gingrich. They point to the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Their thesis is that until then both parties were “big tent” parties. They were divided on issues such as taxes, spending, government regulations etc. But they overlapped on the potentially explosive issue of race. Both parties contained factions that were for as well as against civil rights.
It was the Civil Rights Act that redefined the parties: Democrats became the party of civil rights and Republicans became the party of the (white) status quo. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans (who in the past were able to broker compromises) gradually disappeared. Add to this the huge influx of new Latino immigrants and the Democrats have become a party of ethnic minorities while the Republican Party has remained almost entirely a party of whites (90%).
The other issue that further sundered any overlapping of the parties was Roe v Wade. The Evangelicals, embraced by Reagan, flocked to the Republicans (76% identify as Republican) pushing that party to positions of anti-abortion, anti-gay Rights and support for school prayer…even as the Democrats have become an increasingly secular party.
The two parties are now deeply divided over race and religion – the two most deeply polarizing of issues…which tend to generate the greatest intolerance and hostility. From a Republican perspective, well aware of the growing percentage of non white voters, and aghast at the presence of a non white (and therefore not a real American) president, the need to “Take our Country Back” set the terrain for a populist to “Make America Great Again”, even if this meant (further) trampling on democratic norms.
They write, chillingly:
“If, twenty five years ago, someone had described to you country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought of the United States”
The authors note that Trump’s first year in power follows the archetype of power consolidation as evidenced by Chavez, Fujimori and Erdogan:
- Capture the referees
- Sideline the key players
- Rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field against opponents.
He’s demonstrated striking hostility toward the referees – law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies and the courts by firing those who stood up to him (FBI Director Comey and US Attorney Preet Bharara), attacking them (He called the judge who ruled against his initial travel ban as a “so-called judge”) and even threatening to use the FBI to go after Democrats; or by simply bribing them (evidenced by his huge tax discounts to the powerful and wealthy, who can now shut up and count their cash)
He continues to try to sideline the free press by branding them “fake news”, “enemy of the American people”, pledging to “open up the libel laws” and “challenge the license” of NBC and other networks. In similar vein he’s tried to punish critics by withholding funding from “sanctuary cities”.
He’s created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity run by one Kris Kodach (described as America’s “premier advocate of vote suppression”). The aim ostensibly is to cut down on voting fraud (of which there’s none) but with the real mission of making it harder for low-income minority citizens to vote. The new laws which mandating strict voter ID’s favour whites five times more than blacks, and will in effect disenfranchise over 21 million Americans. To date fifteen states have adopted these laws.
Trump’s norm breaking has been breathtaking and groundbreaking.
- Among these are the long-standing norms of separating private and public affairs, such as those governing nepotism and financial conflicts of interest.
- He continues to question the integrity of the American electoral process (84% of Republicans believe “meaningful amount” of fraud has occurred)
- Continues to attack Hillary Clinton and Obama
- Brazenly lies (only 17% of his statements have been classified as true)
- Has abandoned any presence of respect for the media (more than 50% of Republicans now favour shutting down critical publications)
- And routinely bullies and insults anyone he chooses including foreign heads of (friendly) states.
So far, some of his more egregious anti-democratic attempts (such as packing the FBI with loyalists or blocking the Mueller investigation) have been thwarted. But the authors are concerned. Presently his popularity is very low. But with continued improvements of the already strong economy, this can quickly change. And should there be any crisis triggered by war or terrorism, Trump like every other authoritarian leader will exploit it fully, “using it to attack political opponents and restrict redoes Americans take for granted. In our view, this scenario represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today”
Chilling words indeed