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by Dusty Sklar
Discussed in this essay: How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Penguin/Random House, 2018, 320 pages.
THESE DAYS, all sane Americans are wringing their hands over the threats to our democracy posed by the Trump presidency and the Republican power monopoly in Washington. Two thoughtful Harvard professors of government have now come along to teach us lessons from history about how other democratic governments have slid into authoritarianism. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years examining the demise of democracies in Europe and Latin America. They never expected to study the breakdown of democracy in the U.S., but they do conclude that Trump’s presidency has put it in danger by threatening the gradual weakening of the media, intelligence services, ethics rules, and the judiciary, and the rewriting of electoral rules, the redrawing of districts, and the rescinding of voting rights to make sure that those currently in power don’t lose elections.
Levitsky and Ziblatt are as repelled as anyone by President Trump, but for them, one of the early signs of trouble was already present in President Obama’s term last year, when he nominated Merrick Garland to replace Justice Antonin Scalia upon his death. Garland was reputed to be a centrist liberal, and Senate Republicans did something that hadn’t happened in over a hundred and fifty years: They declined even to hold a hearing for Garland, an erosion of the norms that help to sustain a democracy.
How vulnerable are we? The authors don’t feel that it’s necessary to circumvent the Constitution in order to jeopardize democracy. They remind us that we have suffered extremist demagogues in the past: Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace in politics, and numerous others in business, religion, and the media. None of these have wielded presidential power, however.
The crucial question, they say, is whether political leaders, and particularly political parties, can keep such figures from gaining power in the first place. “[W]hen fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream,” they write, “democracy is imperiled.”
A second challenge is for democratic institutions to be able to constrain an authoritarian leader. Constitutional checks and balances won’t save us if institutions become political weapons used to control the powerless. The examples they give include packing the courts, buying off the media, bullying the private sector into silence, rewriting political rules to foil opponents — in short, using “the very institutions of democracy to gradually, subtly, and even legally . . . kill it.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that if our system of checks and balances has worked well in the past, this was because of “mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.” These norms began weakening in the 1980s and 1990s, a process that accelerated in the 2000s with the growth of extreme partisan polarization. As they see it, “America’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have fueled an insidious reaction and intensifying polarization. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.”
THEY EXHORT US to learn from others who have risen to the challenge of the great democratic crises of the past. One striking example is the democratization of Western Germany after World War II.
They also argue that opposition to Trump’s authoritarian rule should try to preserve, rather than overturn, democratic rules and norms. Opposition should center, if possible, on Congress, the courts, and elections. Public protests should seek to defend rights and institutions, rather than disrupt them. They see the most powerful forces driving our country’s polarization as racial and religious realignment, and growing economic inequality.
They end the book by reminding us that “few societies in history have managed to be multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, America will truly be exceptional.”
Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. She recently appeared here with “Spy vs. Spy: Anti-Nazi Undercover Work in Los Angeles.“