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11 May 2019

How Democracies Die

Tag(s): Foreign Affairs, Politics & Economics
I am indebted to my son Andrew for recommending a book called How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.[i] They are Professors of Government at Harvard University. Levitsky’s research focuses on Latin America and the developing world. He is the author of Competitive Authoritarianism and is the recipient of numerous teaching awards. Ziblatt studies Europe from the nineteenth century to the present. He is the author, most recently, of Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. They show that democracies can die with a coup d’état – or they can die slowly. This happens most deceptively when in piecemeal fashion, with the election of an authoritarian leader, the abuse of government power and the complete repression of opposition.  All three steps are being taken around the world - not least with the election of Donald Trump- and I would suggest that we must all understand how to stop them.

They draw insightful lessons from the past hundred years of history – from the rule of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile to the steady undermining of Turkey’s constitutional system by President Recep Erdogan – to shine a light on the breakdown of many democratic systems of government in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Notably they point to the dangers of an authoritarian leader faced with a major crisis, real or faked.

Based on years of research, they present a deep understanding of how and why democracies die; an alarming analysis of how democracy is being subverted today in the US and beyond; and a guide for maintaining and repairing a threatened democracy, for governments, political parties and individuals.

As academics no doubt of a tendency to left-wing bias, as indeed are probably the majority of academics in the developed world, it is not perhaps surprising that they should point out that some of President Trump’s behaviour is akin to that of previous leaders of other countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America who, after taking office through legitimate means, have steadily dismantled the constitutional apparatus to impose authoritarian rule. However, their approach to the problem is one of academic rigour and they also demonstrate with painstaking thoroughness that the process did not start with Trump. He has merely accelerated it.

Like most Americans, they initially thought that America was somehow immune from the kind of developments they have studied professionally in many other benighted places. Surely their Constitution, their national creed of freedom and equality, their high levels of wealth and education, and their large, diversified private sector should inoculate them from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

But now they see that American politicians treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of US democracy, including the courts, the intelligence services, and ethics offices. And they can see that such things are taking place in several countries where most people have assumed that democracy was well-established and secure. Populist governments have assaulted democratic institutions in Hungary, Turkey and Poland. Extremist forces have made dramatic electoral gains in Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and most recently in Spain. And in the United States, for the first time in history, a serial bankrupt with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.

The general tendency is to think that democracy dies suddenly, usually at the hands of men with guns in a military coup d’état. During the Cold War, coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns. Democracies in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey, and Uruguay all ‘died’ this way, at least for a period of several years. More recently, military coups toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014.

But there is another more subtle but equally destructive way to break democracy. 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. People forget that Hitler rose to power through the ballot box. But once he controlled the tools of power he quickly used them to destroy democracy and ‘unleash the dogs of war’.  But more often democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.

In Venezuela, as I write this, the opposition is seeking to gain control of that ruined country through force having attempted every legitimate method. But Hugo Chavez moved quite slowly to establish his dictatorship, now in the hands of his successor, Nicolás Maduro. He was a political outsider who came to power through the ballot box, railing against previous ‘corrupt’ regimes. He then gradually built one of the most corrupt regimes in history, bankrupting an oil-rich nation. Over twenty years ten percent of the population have fled the country. Contrast this with the 0.3% who went into exile from Chile in the Pinochet years, often referred to in the book as a violent overthrow of democracy, when in fact Pinochet was defending the constitution and indeed left government voluntarily after he called and lost a plebiscite to give the people the right to decide what kind of government they wanted.

Extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in most countries. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace. An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.

It is not sufficient to rely on institutions to safeguard democracy. Most Americans believe in their Constitution as the principal safeguard of their rights and freedoms. But this is not the case. The Constitution of the United States of America has been faithfully copied and imitated around the world, sometimes word for word. And in many of these countries it has failed at the first sign of a would-be dictator. The Philippines, for example, adopted the US constitution for its own. When President Marcos had served the maximum of two terms he stuffed the courts with his own supporters, and declared himself President for life, and duly ruled the country until his death, looting it for billions with his infamous wife Imelda.

Even in America it had to be changed numerous times, many of those almost immediately. The authors of the constitution in 1787 in Philadelphia did not envisage political parties but under John Adams and Thomas Jefferson they emerged, again almost immediately, as the best way of managing power.

Americans believe faithfully in the separation of power, so called ‘checks and balances’ but these do not work as institutions. They only work well with mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Initially there was no limit to the number of terms a president might serve despite the fact that one of the chief reasons for the declaration of independence was to get away from the so-called tyranny of an unelected king. An elected president who behaves like a king would be just as bad. Fortunately in George Washington they had a wise and decent leader who stood down of his own volition after his first two terms thus setting a precedent that all his successors felt obliged to follow until President Franklin D Roosevelt sought a third term in 1939 as he led the country out of the Great Depression.

At a similar crisis, the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln’s response was to concentrate the powers greatly unto himself. After the war this was reversed by the Supreme Court. But unlike in most countries, the Supreme Court has itself become a political battleground. Each of the two main parties seeks to stuff it with judges sympathetic to their own political philosophy, something quite unthinkable for us Brits who seem to get along without a written constitution (but more of that later.) But at least in the case where a Supreme Court Justice dies in a president’s last year of office, his nomination would go through. But in President Obama’s last year of office the Republicans refused to support his nomination.

This was the first time in history that the US Senate had refused even to consider a presidential nominee, stating that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” The authors use this case as an example of the unravelling of US democracy before Trump’s election. They also cite the election of Congressman Newt Gingrich in 1978 who used the language of warfare in politics, quite at odds with the then Republican leadership. Gingrich accused his Democratic rivals of “trying to destroy our country”. He recruited many like-minded party members through a new media technology, C-SPAN.  As he climbed the party ladder – becoming minority whip in 1989 and Speaker of the House in 1995 - he never softened his approach.

Gingrich did not create the polarisation of politics but he rode its cusp and set a new tone. In 1993, four months into President Bill Clinton’s first term, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole claimed that Clinton’s modest popular victory meant the traditional honeymoon period in which deference was given to a new president was not warranted, and so orchestrated a filibuster to block the president’s $16 billion job initiative. Filibuster use was already on the increase in the 1980s and early 1990s but it reached epidemic proportions in the first two years of Clinton’s presidency.

After the Republican landslide of 1994 Gingrich was now Speaker of the House and the Republicans adopted a no-compromise approach. This led to the dangerous failure to compromise over budget negotiations and hence the government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996. There have been many more such shutdowns since. Gingrich left Congress in 1999 but his successors upped the pace of politics as warfare.  On his inauguration President George W. Bush promised a return to cooperation in Congress but no such cooperation ensued. Bush governed hard to the right and so the Democrats responded in kind where they could. The number of filibusters in Bush’s last year of office reached 139, even double that of the Clinton years.

This practice of abandoning the norms of civil government was followed at local level, with the gerrymandering of political boundaries, largely designed to reduce the impact of African-American and Latino voting. The parties had become divided on racial and religious grounds rather than minor variations from a central consensus. The largely white Republican Party could see that according to demographic forecasts they would be in the minority by 2040, and so took every action possible to restrict voters’ rights. An example was the widespread insistence of ID in the voting booth, with the knowledge that African-Americans are less likely to have a driver’s licence.

The emergence of Barack Obama as a serious presidential candidate sent the right wing of the Republican Party, now known as the Tea Party, into overdrive with its extremist support in the media. Obama was cast as Marxist (echoes of McCarthy), anti-American (ditto), secretly Muslim and not even qualified to stand as was not even born an American[ii].  The authors give many other examples of how the Republicans in particular but both parties in general adopted more aggressive, less cooperative forms of politics gradually dropping the norms of behaviour that protect the functioning institutions of democracy.

Before considering the effect of Donald Trump the authors demonstrate the three ways in which elected authoritarians seek to consolidate power: capturing the referees, side-lining the key players, and rewriting the rules to tilt the playing field against opponents.  They show that even authoritarian presidents like Juan Peron of Argentina, Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Recep Erdogan of Turkey did not try any or more than one of these in his first year of office. In his first year of office Donald Trump attempted all three of these strategies.
  1. Trump demonstrated striking hostility to the referees – law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies, and the courts. Soon after his inauguration, he sought to ensure that the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency, would be personally loyal to him, apparently as a shield against investigations into his campaign’s Russia ties. He fired the head of the FBI, an unprecedented move before his ten-year term was up. He also removed New York attorney Preet Bharara, whose investigations into money laundering reportedly threatened to reach Trump’s inner circle.
           Trump also attacked Judges who ruled against him. After Judge James Robert of the Ninth Circuity of the U.S. Court of          Appeals blocked the administration’s initial travel ban, Trump spoke of “this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country.”

           He inevitably attacked the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), always respected by previous administrations. Its director Walter Shaub repeatedly criticised the president-elect during the transition. The administration responded by launching numerous attacks leading to Shaub’s resignation.
  1. His administration also mounted efforts to side-line key players in the political system. An open democracy needs a free press but Trump repeatedly accused outlets such as the New York Times and CNN of dispensing “fake news”. In a February 2017 tweet, he called the media the “enemy of the people”, an echo of terms used by Stalin and Mao. He threatened media owners with retaliatory action, e.g. during the campaign he threatened anti-trust action against Amazon, perhaps because of Jeff Bezos’ ownership of The Washington Post.
  2. His creation of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity evokes memories of the Jim Crow South. I have already referred to the new rules in many Republican controlled districts and states that require voter ID which is likely to be discriminatory against ethnic minorities. The Commission, hiding behind the false threat of election fraud, is trying to standardise these rules on a national basis. Independent analysis has revealed only handfuls of fraud but that is not stopping the Commission.
There is a widespread fear that democracy is in retreat all over the world, but this is exaggerated. For every Hungary, Turkey and Venezuela there is a Colombia, Sri Lanka or Tunisia, countries that have grown more democratic over the last decade. And importantly, the vast majority of the world’s democracies – from Argentina, Chile and Peru[iii] to Greece, the Czech Republic and Romania, to Ghana, India, South Korea, South Africa and Taiwan – have remained intact to date.  

In the US Trump represents a real threat to democracy. So what do the authors think will happen? They are not optimistic about the ideal scenario of political failure by Trump; in which he both loses political support and is not re-elected or, more dramatically, is impeached or forced to resign. Because the soft guardrails of democracy have been weakened over decades, simply removing Trump will not restore them.

A worse scenario is one in which President Trump and the Republicans continue to win with a white nationalist appeal. They retain the White House; regain both Houses of Congress and a solid majority in the Supreme Court. They then manufacture durable white electoral majorities through a combination of large-scale deportation, immigration restrictions, the purging of voter rolls and the adoption of strict voter ID laws. This is unlikely but certainly not inconceivable as it is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic minorities gave up their dominant status without a fight.

For the authors the most likely scenario is more of the same, i.e. more polarisation, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare.  The response to this should not be for the Democrats to fight back in equal measure because then the guardrails of democracy will wither and die. Instead, reasonable politicians and indeed citizens on all sides must work together for consensus and compromise and gradually rebuild the mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

I said that I would comment further on the British situation. We may not face the threat of authoritarianism but we do face some of the other challenges described here. The country has certainly become polarised over Brexit and also over the role that capitalism plays in society. In trying to untie the Gordian knot the Government has ignored many of our constitutional norms. Ordinary people have lost what little faith they had in our political leaders. The norm of cabinet responsibility appears to have gone. And we even have the embarrassment of a leak from our most important security councils. We are not in good shape and certainly not in shape to criticise our American friends and cousins for the difficulties they face.

[i] How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future. Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt. Crown. New York 2018
[ii] He was actually born in Hawaii in 1961, two years after it became the 50th state of the union.
[iii] But in the book the authors include Brazil in this list and may perhaps take a different view since the latest election.

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