Democratic breakdowns: part I

This semester I am once again teaching a course about democratic transitions. The class is about why some countries democratize while others do not. However, a new strand of research has underscored the importance of democratic breakdown as an important element of the democratization paradigm. Many scholars believe that to better understand democratization, we also need to study its polar opposite.

Political scientists no longer argue that the end of history is here. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a widespread enthusiasm about the prospects for democratization. In the epic struggle of ideas, free market and democracy triumphed over communism and its inefficient state-coordinated economy. These days the mood is more cautious. Democracy is no longer inevitable, and even long-standing democracies have to be protected from backsliding into authoritarianism. Still, two years ago it would have been unthinkable to suggest that American democracy is in trouble.

It is in this context, that my class is reading How Democracies Die, a new book by two prominent political scientists. The novelty of the book is that it brings a comparative perspective into the study of democratic erosion in America. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt begin their analysis by underscoring an important point. Democracies used to die sudden, violent deaths. Consider that during the Cold War era almost 75% of all democratic breakdowns occurred via military coups (p. 3). Some examples include Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Ghana, Greece, and Guatemala. These days, however, elected officials are responsible for democratic erosion and we can see it in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, and Sri Lanka.

Given the fragility of the democratic order, the authors argue that democracy needs to be defended, and that task rests on the shoulders of political parties. However, since the 1980s, two crucial rules of politics are being broken by American political elites. Democrats and Republicans no longer see each other as legitimate political opponents, and thus mutual toleration is no longer the norm. Also political parties no longer practice institutional forbearance, understood as self-imposed restrain. In other words, the party in power uses its prerogatives to the maximum, and therefore political fragmentation deepens.

To explain how authoritarian leaders gain power, Levitsky and Ziblatt focus on Europe in the interwar period (1919-1939). This was a time of great political uncertainty, and the economic depression undermined most political institutions. Widespread dissatisfaction meant that populism was on the rise, and mainstream politicians were tempted to align themselves with radical leaders to boost their popularity. Political elites in Germany thought, for instance, that Hitler could be controlled. They were wrong, and he dismantled the Weimar Republic in a short time. We can observe similar scenarios playing out in Italy under Mussolini and more recently in Venezuela under Chavez. Nonetheless some European countries resisted the urge of collaborating with authoritarian figures, most notably Belgium and Finland. In both countries political parties performed their proper function and exercised what political scientists call distancing. Authoritarian politicians and parties were never legitimatized and therefore democracy survived in both countries.

Levitsky and Ziblatt develop a litmus test that helps us identify would be authoritarians. They write: “We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including, the media” (p. 21-2). Donald Trump fails on all four indicators (p. 65-7). Trump, however, is not an aberration. America has seen its share of demagogues, such as Huey Long, Henry Ford, and Joseph McCarthy. All of them enjoyed high levels of popularity, but American political parties prevented them from claiming the presidency. Although primaries were introduced in the early 1900s, not every state used them and delegates were not loyal to their candidates. All of this meant that few party bosses decided who would represent their party during presidential elections. The process was not very democratic, but it provided an efficient and effective check on would be authoritarians.

All of this changed in 1968. Both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were shot dead, and in that year alone the Vietnam War claimed 16,592 American soldiers (p. 48). The tense political situation caused riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Soon afterwards the McGovern-Fraser commission made primary elections more democratic – primaries became binding and political candidates picked their delegates to ensure loyalty – but weakened the political system in the process by exposing it too much. Sometimes more democracy is not the answer to political problems.

The new system worked for some time because it is still difficult to secure the required number of delegates. Trump, however, took advantage of this new political environment; weakened even further by the Citizens United case which allows corporations to flood elections money. Trump also used social media to run a very aggressive campaign. Although top conservative leaders had not endorsed Trump, he could still raise enough money and campaign well enough to secure the presidential nomination. Levitsky and Ziblatt accuse the Republican party of political abdication. They argue that since Trump is an authoritarian leader, he needed to be stopped by his own party. Instead, Republicans embraced him over Hillary Clinton and the 2016 presidential contest became normalized. (TBC).

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