Monthly Archives: August 2018

Survival of the Richest

Robots revolt in R.U.R., a 1920 play

Professor and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff recently penned an article that went viral,
“Survival of the Richest.” It outlines how the super wealthy are preparing for doomsday. Here is a recap followed by a brief commentary.

Rushkoff was recently invited to deliver a speech for an unusually large fee, about half his academic salary, on “the future of technology.” He expected a large audience but, upon arrival, he was ushered into a small room with a table surrounded by five wealthy men. But they weren’t interested in the future of technological innovation. Instead, they wanted to know things like where they should move to avoid the coming climate crisis, whether mind uploading will work and, most prominently, how to “maintain authority over [their] security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

That’s when it hit me: At least as far as these gentlemen were concerned, this was a talk about the future of technology. Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, they were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: escape.

Rushkoff continues by expressing his disdain for transhumanism,

The more committed we are to this [transhuman] view of the world, the more we come to see human beings as the problem and technology as the solution. The very essence of what it means to be human is treated less as a feature than bug. No matter their embedded biases, technologies are declared neutral. Any bad behaviors they induce in us are just a reflection of our own corrupted core. It’s as if some innate human savagery is to blame for our troubles.

Ultimately, according to the technosolutionist orthodoxy, the human future climaxes by uploading our consciousness to a computer or, perhaps better, accepting that technology itself is our evolutionary successor. Like members of a gnostic cult, we long to enter the next transcendent phase of our development, shedding our bodies and leaving them behind, along with our sins and troubles.

The mental gymnastics required for such a profound role reversal between humans and machines all depend on the underlying assumption that humans suck. Let’s either change them or get away from them, forever.

It is such thinking that leads the tech billionaires to want to escape to Mars, or at least New Zealand. But “the result will be less a continuation of the human diaspora than a lifeboat for the elite.”

For his part, Rushkoff suggested to his small audience that the best way to survive and flourish after “the event,” would be to treat other people well now. Better act to avoid social instability, environmental collapse and all the rest than to figure out how to deal with them in the future. Their response?

They were amused by my optimism, but they didn’t really buy it. They were not interested in how to avoid a calamity; they’re convinced we are too far gone. For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. They are simply accepting the darkest of all scenarios and then bringing whatever money and technology they can employ to insulate themselves — especially if they can’t get a seat on the rocket to Mars.

But for Rushkoff:

We don’t have to use technology in such antisocial, atomizing ways. We can become the individual consumers and profiles that our devices and platforms want us to be, or we can remember that the truly evolved human doesn’t go it alone.

Being human is not about individual survival or escape. It’s a team sport. Whatever future humans have, it will be together.

Reflections – I don’t doubt that many wealthy and powerful people would willingly leave the rest of us behind, or enslave or kill us all—a theme endorsed by Ted Kaczynski in The Unabomber Manifesto: Industrial Society and Its Future. But notice that these tendencies toward evil have existed independent of technology or any transhumanist philosophy—history is replete with examples of cruelty and genocide.

So the question is whether we can create a better world without radically transforming human beings. I doubt it. As I’ve said many times our apelike brains—characterized by territoriality, aggression, dominance hierarchies, irrationality, superstition, and cognitive biases—in combination with 21st-century technology is a lethal combination. And that’s why, in order to survive the many existential risks now confronting us and to have descendants who flourish, we should (probably) embrace transhumanism.

So while there are obvious risks associated with the power that science and technology afford, they are our best hope as we approach many of these “events.” So if we don’t want our planet to circle our sun lifeless for the next few billion years, if we believe that conscious life is really worthwhile, then we must work quickly to transform both our moral and intellectual natures. Otherwise at most only a few will survive.

Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with permission.)
http://darrellarnold.com/2018/08/14/sexual-abuse-in-the-catholic-church/

For those who hoped that the Catholic church had begun to appropriately handle its systemic sexual abuses from the 1980s and 1990s, the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is deeply disturbing. The report indicates that in the state of Pennsylvania alone, over a period of 70 years, more than 300 priests were accused of the systemic sexual abuse of over 1000 individuals and the systematic cover-up of this abuse. This report comes just weeks after the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop of Washington, who had been accused of sexual abuse of children and adults over decades, and after recent revelations of systemic clerical sexual abuse in Chile and Australia.

With a focus on the Pennsylvania report the New York Times reports:

“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”

Though one might hope for internal church reforms — and perhaps that this will spur a new conversation about the possibility of women and married priests, including openly gay married priests — the report shows that the time has passed for waiting on such internal reforms.  A legal investigation of such systemic abuse, accompanied by other means of law enforcement, is the only likely way to adequately address these abuses. The church-directed efforts have shown too clearly the risk of such studies being overseen by individuals who have conflicting interests in the results.

The background for this tragic state of affairs — regarding why the church has ended up in this situation in the first place — also still needs to be more clearly articulated. The church hierarchy, unfortunately, has been as inept at these reflections as at self-reform. Various factors — both cultural and structural — have created an institution that is dogmatic, authoritarian, sexually repressed, and unable to muster the self-criticism and self-monitoring needed.

Fundamental to the culture is a belief common among Catholics that those with power in the church are those who God has blessed and chosen. There is an assumption that the Holy Spirit guides the church in its decisions on the election of the Pope and the appointment of the hierarchy, and that those in the priesthood have been called. Consequently, not only is it presumed that all of these clerics are due respect and honor, but it is very often assumed that to question them is to question God’s providence. It is really a very strange mental knot to tie. But many have tied it, and those benefitting from it, just pull the knot tighter and tighter.

Add to this the fact that the culture of the priesthood is enormously gay, but of a self-loathing, repressed variety and, as should be clear now, also too often tainted by sexual tastes of a quite sinister variety. As a gay former priest told me years ago: He and his generation of Catholics grew up thinking that you would either get married or become a priest. Many like him, who had sexual orientations outside the norm, thought the priesthood was their calling since marriage clearly wasn’t. Given the prevalence of thinking like this, the fact that the institution of the church has ended up in its mess should hardly be surprising.

It is against this backdrop, of course, that not only the clergy generally, but the hierarchy as well, has been filled with people very uncomfortable with their own sexuality, very often with individuals who feel that their own sexual inclinations are morally wrong. But unfortunately, their own moral sensibilities have not given them the ability to control their sexual drives. Twisting themselves ever more tightly into their own emotional knots generally did not work to make them well and whole. Quite the opposite.

Structurally, it is of course a problem that very often the fates of those in the hierarchy who make the most important decisions on this issue are tied up with those who have been involved in the most heinous of crimes at the local parishes, or have been involved in abuse power relationships at the countries Catholic seminaries, or have been sexually abused at the nation’s minor seminaries, with the 14 to 18 year olds, under the tutelage of their loving mentors. It’s as unsavory as you would think, as we should all be aware now.

All bishops passed through some of these institutions. Some of them passed through all of them. And their decision-making on the sexual abuse cases can hardly be thought to be non-self-interested. In many cases, some of these young men were clearly exploring their own sexuality, sometimes failing in their own eyes to live up to their aspirations. Tied to this is the further structural issue that the promotions within the church come top-down. Those who cooperate with the authorities of the institution are those who move into the hierarchy of the institution.

Unfortunately, dark chapters probably remain to be written about how many in the hierarchy have put in words for their own lovers. But that aside, when it comes to the issue of how to handle sexual abuse issues within the church, those in power have very much rewarded “discretion” — in this case, that means, there has been an interest in covering up enormous injustices because of a fear of how the exposure of those injustices would affect the church, financially and culturally.

Of course, the cover-up always has a background moral justification. The good of the church (keeping up the morale of the majority of congregants and ensuring their continued participation in the church, as well as ensuring the financial viability of the institution) trumps the good of the altar boy molested, or the good of the minor seminarian, often enough viewed as just discovering what he really likes anyway. And add a bit of earlier mentioned theology to that: Remember, God has chosen those in power. To question them is to question God.

The congregants themselves want to trust the authority of those who have spiritually advised them, who have been their confessors and accompanied them on their life journeys in some of the most pivotal moments, from birth and baptism, through growth into adulthood, with confirmation, to marriage and funerals — all moments where the church officials, including many of those guilty of the crimes, have played a key role in helping congregants make sense of questions of meaning, overcome emotional travails, deal with life’s difficulties and celebrate its joys.

The abusers clearly abused this trust, but so did the bishops, even those who were not themselves the abusers, but who were involved in the cover-up. How many of them sent reassuring emails or had reassuring phone calls in which they communicated their remorse at the tragedy of the situation but affirmed the abused and their families that the church was handling this internally, that appropriate steps would be taken, and of course, that those who wrote would be in the prayers of the church?

Part of the problem is that the church has supported authoritarian beliefs, playing on the eagerness of the congregants to accept the decisions of authorities. Part of it has to do with a clerical system that is bound to attract people ill at ease with their own sexuality. Affecting Catholic culture in a deep enough way to address this authoritarianism would be quite a feat. But addressing some structural issues could help. Isn’t it time that the church rethink celibacy? Isn’t it time that it rethink women in the priesthood? Isn’t it time it rethinks its disdain for homosexuality and allows priests who are open about their homosexuality? These moves would mean that many different kinds of individuals would be attracted to the clergy than have been in the past. These would be slow steps that might begin to correct the sexual sickness of the institution. They would also bring the Catholic church into alignment with decisions of other mainline Christian churches.

But the resistance is strong — and it comes in the form of old, and dated, theological arguments, arguments based on authority, but offered with the pretense that they flow from pure reason. Jesus, the more Orthodox theologians will say, did not have female apostles. And so, the church may not have female priests. Rather than analyzing such decisions against the background of the unique culture in the Middle East of the time of Jesus, as the church does on an array of issues (from slavery to views toward hierarchical rule in politics), those making the arguments pretend that static gender roles exude from pure rationality.

Yet, their arguments are willful, not rational. They resonate in our own culture only with a very small minority of basically quite conservative churchmen, largely also politically and personally invested in the false assumptions of the argument. When evaluating whether the argument is really rational, it is informative to consider how many outside of this system actually find the argument compelling. Virtually none of those in non-Catholic Christian denominations do. Only a small percentage of American and European Catholics do. But the church’s Orthodox will argue that the fact that only the few see the reason doesn’t make it less rational. That is true enough in theory. But in the case at hand, it merely unveils a lack of ability for self-questioning and modernization.

Even these changes in the requirements for the priesthood, which would in principle just bring Catholics into sync with mainline Protestant understanding of the role of women and gays in the contemporary world, would go some way in beginning to redress the systemic sexual abuse within the church. In the Pennsylvania case, seven percent of the priests were involved in such abuse and its cover-up. This is far beyond the norm.

My own experience within Catholic institutions — while perhaps anecdotal — also provides some evidence of the severity of the problem.  Among my decades of background at Catholic institutions, I was a seminarian at a Benedictine monastery for two years in the mid-1980s. There, of the eight clergy who were faculty members there, five had believable allegations of sexual misconduct brought against them. Two were brought to court for pedophilia charges against children under 12. Three had allegations brought against them for misconduct with young seminarians. That’s 62.5%. You’d be hard-pressed to find another organization with similar levels of such problems. Changes have occurred since I was there. But as the Pennsylvania report indicates, the Catholic church is still enormously sick. Unfortunately, it seems to have little capacity for understanding its own sickness, let alone for making the changes needed to appropriately address it.

We can, unfortunately, expect little movement on the issues I’ve mentioned. So the time has come for more external controls. More investigations are needed. Statutes of limitations need to be extended. Some of those involved need to go to prison. Maybe external controls will help move the recalcitrant institution to make needed changes. Let’s hope so — for the good of the children.

A note about the author:

My particular interest in this issue is related to my background having grown up Catholic and having studied philosophy and theology and taught philosophy in Catholic institutions. I attended Catholic grade school and spent some time in a Catholic high school. Besides having studied at the mentioned Benedictine monastery as a Catholic seminarian, I completed my bachelor’s degree at an archdiocesan university and finished my master’s degree in philosophy at a Jesuit university, where I was also briefly enrolled in their master’s program in theology, before going to Germany where I did my doctorate in non-Catholic university. From 2010 until August of 2018 I was a philosophy professor at an archdiocesan university in Florida (where I also served one year as an Interim Dean). I am now in the midst of a transfer to a Florida state college.

Review of Richard J. Bernstein’s, Why Read Hannah Arendt Now


© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission) http://darrellarnold.com/2018/07/08/why-read-hannah-arendt-now/

Freedom—as Hannah Arendt understands it—is only possible in a participatory political life. Such a form of life, which cultivates individuality and spontaneity, can be contrasted with totalitarianism, which ultimately aims at the total domination of the individual. Our responsibility is to ensure our own freedom—that is, to ensure collective, participatory forms of political life under which such freedom is possible.

Richard J. Bernstein explores these and other of Arendt’s ideas with clarity and brevity in Why Read Hannah Arendt Now? His focus is on central themes in her work that are relevant to issues we are facing today (8). Though he mentions international issues of importance, with the exception of the question of Israel, his contemporary focus is on life in America under the Trump administration. The topics he covers in Arendt include her views on refugees, states and statelessness, Israeli politics, race, the banality of evil, truth and lying in politics, the American revolution, and personal and political responsibility.

Arendt’s view of politics is normative. When she describes politics, as well as key concepts like “power” and “freedom” she does not merely describe the way politics is understood to work in the real world or offer views of “power” or “freedom” that are generally accepted. She makes distinctions necessary to understand a political realm that we might strive for, freedom that we might hope to achieve and power the way it would be justly wielded. Her discussions of these issues—the premise of Bernstein’s book—are worth serious consideration in our present context, as they provide intellectual tools for countering tendencies toward authoritarianism that we can see emerging in various places throughout the world.

While humans have free-will, [according to Arendt] Arendt does not identify this with freedom. Human freedom, which she characterizes as “public freedom,” is a social and political achievement. It requires the development of human freedom of thought and individuality. An expression of human free will is the ability to form one’s own judgments and develop one’s own opinions and perspectives.

It is the making up one’s own minds in the public sphere that characterizes public freedom that she thinks we are to strive for. Arendt’s focus in her discussion of the public sphere is on how perspectives are formed under conditions of dialogue and exchange. While this was part of life in the ancient Athenian polis, it was also an emphasis and achievement of the eighteenth-century philosophes, who exchanged views in salons. It is in the give and take with others that individuals achieve better judgment. Judgment, she emphasizes in a text that sounds more than a bit like Habermas’ later thought, “rests on potential agreement with others…and the thinking process…finds itself always and primarily, even when I am quite alone in making up my mind, in an anticipated communication with others with whom I know I must finally come to agreement.” (101-02).

Arendt’s writing on the American revolution drives home her view of the importance of the public sphere. The American, as opposed to the French, Revolution delivered not just on “liberty” (as Arendt defines this, the ending of their own domination by a political authority). The American Revolution also delivered on “freedom”—and for Arendt this entails “constitution-making.” The context of the American revolution, where the colonies had already been much involved in the daily tasks of self-government created conditions for a successful revolution: “the fight for independence … was the condition for freedom, and the constitution of the new states” (qtd. 106).

But the independence was not enough to guarantee freedom. In the constitution, the Founding Fathers, set up conditions for continued self-government that makes freedom possible. Among the important conditions for this were, of course, the balance of powers, states rights, and limited government. But also key was the creation of public spaces for public discussion, for opinion formation (107). Jefferson, she highlights, had even set up local wards or “elementary republics” for self-government. His fear was that without them, in Bernstein’s words, “public freedom would wither away” (109).

In various of Arendt’s work, she emphasizes the importance of such local wards—in contexts as varying as the American Revolution and modern political uprisings. In writing on the Budapest uprising of 1956, she noted their emergence, even in a short period: “The neighborhood councils emerged from sheer living together and grew into country and other territorial councils, evolutionary councils grew out of fighting together; councils of writers and artists, one is tempted to thinker, were born in cafes, students’ and youths’ councils at the university, military councils in the army, councils of civil servants in ministries, workers’ councils in factories, and so on. The formation of a council in each disparate group turned a merely haphazard togetherness into a political institution” (qtd. 113-4).

In Arendt’s view such community building impulses, while again and again being forgotten, can re-emerge. They provide one of the best hopes against the totalitarian temptations, which also remain present in modern societies. In Bernstein’s words: “Arendt expresses what was always fundamental to her and should be fundamental for us—the desire of people to have their voices heard in public, to become genuine participants in shaping their political life” (115).

One of Arendt’s most famous works, The Origins of Totalitarianism, offers a penetrating analysis of the emergence of political forms that run antithetical to the participatory forms that Arendt thinks provide our opportunity for realizing human freedom. Totalitarian regimes move to destroy freedom and institute “total domination.”  “The logic of total domination” characteristic of such totalitarian regimes involves three steps.

First, totalitarians eliminate judicial protections of the person, stripping people of their legal rights. Second, they move to impinge even on moral acts of conscience. This can happen, for example, when individuals are forced to choose between various morally objectionable choices. As Arendt noted “When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or sending his wife and children…to their death…The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder” (qtd. 30). Third, they move toward the destruction of individuality. In Arendt’s words “For to destroy individuality is to destroy spontaneity, man’s power to begin something new out of his own resources, something that cannot be explained on the basis of reactions to environment and events” (31). Arendt views the final aim of such totalitarian regimes as the transformation of human being into “living corpses” (31). Individual no longer express their own lives and make decisions for themselves. They are totally dominated.

In Arendt’s discussion of totalitarianism and in other work, she also makes important points about refugees and the denial even of “the right to have rights.”  Arendt is perhaps most famous for her comments on the banality of evil in her evaluation of the Eichmann case. Her main point, whatever one’s assessment of how appropriate her analysis was for Eichmann himself, is that the great evils of the Third Reich, monstrous as they were, did not generally occur because the people carrying out these deeds were monstrous. Though we may want to think of evil in mythological terms, Arendt suggests that we rethink this. As she noted in a later assessment of the Eichmann trial: “However monstrous the deeds were, the doer was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think” (qtd. 63). The evil of totalitarianism in the Third Reich occurred as people moved on with their normal everyday lives, following orders and climbing career ladders with a lack of much concern for those around them.

Some of Arendt’s deepest insights concern truth, lying, manipulation and self-deception in totalitarian regimes. Though there may be new elements to our “post-truth” culture, totalitarian regimes had long ago mastered propaganda that played on a willingness of people to suspend disbelief. In Between Past and Future Arendt had noted: “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and truth defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearing in the real world—and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed” (qtd. 75).

In other work, she notes similarly important points about the erosion of truth in totalitarian societies: “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part” (qtd. 77). In Bernstein’s prescient discussion of her views: “People who feel that they have been neglected and forgotten yearn for a narrative that will make sense of the anxiety and the misery they are experiencing — one that promises redemption from their troubles. In such a situation, an authoritarian leader can exploit the anxieties that people are experiencing and successfully blur the distinction between lies and reality. Argument and appeal to facts are not really important for such propaganda. An appealing fictional story can be foolproof against factual truth, reality, or argument.” (77)

The use of appealing fiction for purposes of manipulation occurs in what Arendt calls “image making.” In image making, facts are dismissed that do not line up with the cultivated image of a political movement. As Bernstein notes, “the image becomes a substitute for reality” (77). Clearly, those with despotic tendencies can play on that, encouraging individuals to dismiss as “fake news” or as a conspiracy from elites anything that conflicts with a cultivated political image. Arendt’s words on this are still pertinent. “Contemporary history,” she notes, “is full of instance in which tellers of factual truth were felt to be more dangerous, and even more hostile than the real opponents” (qtd. 79). On the same topic, she notes “Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing than reason, than reality, because the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear” (qtd. 80).

Such incredibly insightful observations on truth and lies in politics are just some of the many ideas of relevance to us today that Bernstein highlights. Bernstein succinctly presents Arendt’s views on these varying issues. And he makes appropriate bridges to present policies and dynamics in U.S. and international relations. If the book has a flaw it is that the various ideas are not presented systemically. Some might also regret what the book doesn’t do. It doesn’t speak of Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger, for example. But none of that is precisely the point of this publication. In the main, the book does very well what it sets out to do, which is to describe why we should read Hannah Arendt now.

We will benefit indeed from taking earnestly Arendt’s warning that “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up wherever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social and economic misery in a manner worth of man.” (qtd. 34).

Faced with a world in which such temptations are attractive to many, our best antidote may be to cultivate the forms of participatory democratic form that Arendt argues can allow the development of greater human freedom. Arendt—skeptical as she was of narratives of inevitable progress or inevitable decline—would emphasize that our freedom is key, as is our understanding of responsibility.

Review of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: “How Democracies Die”

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission) http://darrellarnold.com/2018/07/12/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 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 ascendancy 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 Reichstag 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 means 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 is 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.