The Death of Democracy

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

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 in 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 crises “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 perpetrated 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 the 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 to 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 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 during 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 they 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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9 thoughts on “The Death of Democracy

  1. Thank you John for this superb reprint.
    Hungary’s Orbán and Trump have long been mutual admiration societies for each other.
    But while Trump was defeated at the last election, Orbán bounced back at the recent last election in Hungary with an over two third majority.
    He remains the hero to be emulated in the US for Fox News’ arguably most vicious anti-democracy figure – Tucker Carlson.
    Undeterred with La Pen’s defeat in France but heartened by her near victory, he got together with her straight after the French election to advocate the forming of conservatives alliances in Europe.
    This comes close to an alliance of soft neo-fascists in Europe, posing as Christian Democrats.
    In the article below, being a Hungarian speaker, based on the Hungarian political literature in the media, I point to some ways, how Orbán is able to ride hide on populism in Hungary and prograssively erode democracy there from an elected leadership position. ‘Democracy recession’ is indeed an apt term to describe this extremely dangerous process.


    Andris Heks 08.04.2022

    Orbán has been a highly controversial, nationalist-right-of-centre Christian Democrat; a somewhat illiberal figure within the EU and NATO.
    He has been called a ‘Putin ally’ and his rule in Hungary, a ‘Fürer’s democracy’.

    An independent European committee was in Hungary to scrutinise the fairness or otherwise of the recent election which Oran won with a record of an over two third majority.
    The committee just announced that while there were no significant election irregularities, the government’s long imposed national media restrictions on the opposition made the information availability about the competing parties’ platforms a completely uneven playfield in the mainstream media.

    Orbán, for example, refused to have even a single pre-election debate with the leader of the opposition Márki-Zay before the elections.
    The opposition party only received five minutes time to present its platform on the national TV.
    But Orbán was able to appear regularly both on the national TV and radio, presenting his platform to interviewers who demonstrated so much bias towards him, that the sessions were more info-commercial propaganda than genuine interviews.
    However, unlike in Russia, there are plenty of independent and anti-government portals also available on the Hungarian internet, even though they attract much smaller audiences than the restricted national mainstream media.

    On the right, Orbán has been close to Trump and Netanyahu and on the left to Putin and Xi Jinpin, all authoritarian nationalist leaders.
    He, however, has had ongoing stoushes with the EU, of which Hungary is a member. For example, following his huge election victory at home, the EU just announced that they started another investigation against his government’s suspected constitutional rule of law and ethical standards breaches, incompatible with the EU’s constitutional standards.
    Already, in 2018 the EU wanted to suspend Hungary’s voting rights in the EU Parliament because of Hungary’s radical anti-migrant policies.
    For example, Hungary was the first country in Europe to build a wall to prevent refugees from illegally entering the country.
    Yet, as the years passed, Hungary’s stand started to have an impact on the hardening of the rest of the EU countries’ border policies towards refugees too, including Poland and Italy.
    Orbán is on a mission to effect a renaissance of conservative Christian Democracy in the ever more secular Europe. However, his model courts fascism.
    His government introduced anti-gay legislation opposing marriage equality and liberal sex education in schools, in the name of child protection.
    The Orbán government’s position is that a father must be a man and a mother a woman and it banned liberal sex education in schools.
    In this Orbán found an ally in Poland but fierce opposition from the EU Parliament. Concurrent with the current election, the government also conducted a referendum about the validity of its anti-gay and child protection legislations.
    Its hope was to use a possible positive result to counter the EU Parliament’s opposition to its illiberal policies. However, the referendum failed to give a legal victory to the government because only half of the number of voters necessary for a valid result bothered to vote.
    But because the majority of those who voted backed the government’s position, Orbán is still trying to use the outcome of the referendum to boost his position against the EU’s stand.

    Following his historic landslide, forth-in-a-row, Hungarian election victory on the 3rd of April 2022, Orbán gave a rare 90 minutes international press conference.

    In it, Orbán explained his relationship with Putin and the EU and NATO.
    He said that his position on Russia was shaped by Nato’s decision in 2008 not to admit Ukraine and Georgia to NATO.
    He took this to mean that the new reality of geopolitical politics was a NATO stand not to expand further East, where now Ukraine would remain a buffer zone between NATO and Russia. Nor would NATO expand further South, where Georgia would sit between the NATO allies and Russia.
    In this situation of relative international stability, he set out to pragmatically develop extensive trade relationships with Russia (and China), particularly in the energy field.
    Todate Hungary meets 64% of its oil and 85% of its gas needs through Russian imports. And they are at discount prices.
    For example, because of its long term contracts, Hungary receives gas from Russia for one fifth of its market price.
    This has helped to protect Hungary from the highly inflationary impact of Europe’s long standing energy supply shortage.
    According to the EU in 2019 the Hungarian economy showed the greatest growth in the whole of Europe.

    Orbán denies that he was and is a Putin ally. He says that foreign policy cannot be just be based on virtuous values alone.
    There is the need to compromise to trade with nations with autocratic regimes too if it is in the national economic interest.
    That is also the position of some other Eastern European countries, like Slovakia too as well and Austria and Germany in Western Europe.
    Hungary and Slovakia now broke with Germany and Austria and they will pay in roubles for their gas from Russia.
    In spite of tightening sanctions against Russia, oil, gas and coal supplies are exempted from boycott in Europe.
    This is the EU’s position despite pressure from some EU members to totally boycott all trade with Russia. For example, the three Baltic states are the first NATO and EU countries now to shut down all gas import from Russia.
    Orbán explained that although he personally does not believe in sanctions as they also hurt Hungary, the rest of Europe and the world, Hungary supports the EU’s decision to impose severe sanctions on Russia to maintain consensus.
    But together with some other EU members, like Germany and Slovakia, Hungary vetoed stopping the flow of gas and oil from Russia to all European nations.
    Had this not happened, he argued, the Hungarian economy would have been brought to a standstill and destroyed.
    However, NATO did vote for arming Ukraine during its war with the Russians.
    And although Orbán acknowledges that the Russians are the aggressors and he sides with NATO, he refuses to send armaments to Ukraine.
    Nor does he allow the flow of armaments from other NATO countries to go through Hungary to the Ukrainian border.
    He says he has two hundred thousand reasons for this; which is the number of Hungarians living on the Ukrainian side, bordering on Hungary.
    He says that allowing weapons to enter Ukraine through the Hungarian-Ukrainian border where they live, would make them a target of the Russian missiles.

    Hence Orbán’s stoush with Zelenskyy is ongoing, as the latter sees Orbán’s position both on weapons and energy boycott to disadvantage Ukraine in its armed resistance to the Russian invasion.
    However, Hungary, on per population head basis is the largest recipient of Ukrainian refugees in Europe, and unlike with the non-European refugees before, it opened its borders to all refugees from Ukraine and the Hungarians have been accepting them with open arms.

    Following his election victory, Orbán says that Putin phoned to congratulate him. In a long conversation, Orbán claims that he asked Putin to get together with Zelenskyy and the French and German leaders in Budapest to bring about a cease fire now before any detailed peace terms negotiations.
    He said that Putin was ‘positive’ about his suggestion, however, Putin said that Ukraine first needed to agree to certain pre-conditions. (In other words, Putin is continuing to stall.)

  2. I was hopeful that the defeat of Mr. Trump in 2020 would end his rampage, but he continues to undermine our democracy. The elections this year will again be nail-biters. The Trumpsters are likely to gain strengths at the state level, and they might regain the Senate. Still, the old “Never Trump” movement seems to be renewing and political donations to Trumpsters are much weaker this time around. There is also the possibility that the Trump litmus test (“Was the 2020 election stolen?”) could produce Republican candidates so extreme that they’ll have a harder time being elected.

    One other factor to keep in mind are the continuing investigations of Mr. Trump, which have been slowly grinding along, as he continues to delay every step with another lawsuit. A big question is whether we’ll see an indictment appear before the election. Especially critical will be the release of the results of the investigation into the Jan 6 insurrection. I hope it comes in August, long enough before the election to avoid the appearance of blatant political intent. If they present evidence that Mr. Trump deliberately incited the insurrection, that could take away a big chunk of his support.

    All in all, I am pessimistic about the long-term ability of the American body politic to cope with the problems it faces. I had expected that the collapse would come well after my own death, but now I’m beginning to fear that I have been too optimistic.

  3. Lots of discussion on this in my circle of associates. Consensus is democracy, if not yet dead, is demonstrably comatose. (Those referenced, who had the means are living elsewhere. The rest of us must be content with where we are.)

  4. The real problem isn’t the autocrats–Trump or whomever. We the People are the real problem because we elect them. Too many of us like them and want to be like them. We need to look in the mirror. Why isn’t anyone seeing this??? Things won’t get better until WE get better and that does not look likely for who knows how long into the future!

  5. Is Democracy dead? We never had a democracy in the true sense, the Founders insured that by putting their thumb on the scale with such loopholes as the Electoral College, two senators for each state, regardless of population, etc.. Our 1787 operating manual reminds me of the reporter that asked Gandhi what he thought of Western Civilization. Gandhi said, “It would be nice.” Afraid of “mob rule” the Founders guaranteed tyranny by a minority by making it nearly impossible to change the Constitution. Some 18,000 amendments have been proposed, I’m told, but only 27 have succeeded in passing and only one has been repealed. I believe a tipping point will come if a state like Texas or Florida flips blue. Like the loss of power in congress and the presidency 1860, this lost of power caused secession and civil war. This autocratic fraction does not go gently into the night, without a fight. On a side note, can you imagine a “well regulated militia” slaughtering children in their schools, or others in grocery stores or churches? Troubled waters ahead.

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