It’s election season in the US and more than one of the Democratic primary contenders is touting one form or another of the following: “Our Democracy is in Danger; Our Democracy is at Stake; This Election is About the Future of our Democracy.”
I’ve had conversations with family members, close friends, and acquaintances, but the jury seems to be out on what damage — if any — Donald Trump is doing to our democracy. Some say “the foundations of our democracy are deep and strong. They can withstand four more years of the same.” Others, more reminiscent of Chicken Little, are almost shouting “the sky is falling, the sky is falling.” Still others suspect that “we’re crying wolf in a crowded theater.”
Since I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t foresee the future, I decided to go back and take a look at the highly regarded 2018 book titled How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Professors of government at Harvard University.
Here are some thoughts from the book’s Introduction starting with the question my friends and family have been trying to answer: “Is our (American) democracy in danger?”
The Cold War
The failure of democracy is not new. Democracies have failed before. During the Cold War, the authors note:
Coups d’etat accounted for three out of every four democratic breakdowns.
What happened in Chile provides a good example.
On September 11, 1973, President Salvador Allende of Chile was the victim of a coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Allende had been elected three years earlier ‘at the head of a leftist coalition’.
According to the authors:
Within hours, President Allende was dead. So, too, was Chilean democracy.
[For more information on Chile during the Cold War be sure to take a look at our Chile post here.]
Levitsky and Ziblatt go on to say, though, that in today’s world:
Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders — presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power . . . [often] democracies erode slowly in barely visible steps.
Venezuela is a good example of what’s happening today.
Hugo Chavez was popularly elected in 1998, coming to power as a political outsider promising to build a more “authentic” democracy, by using oil wealth to improve the lives of the poor. In April 2002, he was briefly toppled by the military, but he persevered. He maintained a democratic veneer even as his regime gained control over much of the media, arrested or exiled opposition politicians, and eliminated presidential term limits.
After Chavez’ death, his successor Nicolas Maduro won questionable reelection. By 2017, “nearly two decades after Chavez first won the presidency . . . Venezuela was widely recognized as an autocracy.”
According to Levitsky and Zeblatt:
This is how democracies now die. Blatant dictatorship — in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule — has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. . . . Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves . . . .
Here are 10 more takeaways from the intro to the book.
1. Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal,” approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts.
2. People don’t immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.
3. An essential test for democracies isn’t whether ‘extremist demagogues’ emerge, but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to keep them from gaining power in the first place.
4. When fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.
5. Institutions alone aren’t enough to rein in elected autocrats. Often these individuals use the institutions of democracy to kill it. For example, they pack the courts, buy off the media, and rewrite the rules of politics to ‘tilt the playing field’ against opponents.
6. Democracies work best where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms. Good examples of these norms are mutual toleration and restraint.
7. Democratic norms in the US began to erode in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. Donald Trump may have built on this process, but he didn’t cause it.
8. The erosion of democratic norms in the US is rooted in extreme partisan polarization and conflict over race and culture.
9. There are reasons for alarm in the US today. But other countries’ experiences teach us that breakdown is neither inevitable or irreversible.
10. We need to learn from other countries to see the warning signs — and recognize the false alarms.
In sum, I don’t like what I’m reading, but I’m not jumping to conclusions either. I’m anxious to read the book’s case studies to see what I can figure out. I hope you’ll join me. You can buy the book on Amazon by clicking on the image below. It’s my affiliate link.
Or you can check it out from your local library.
Let me know what you think of the author’s argument in the comments.