How democracies die

“How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

I used to believe that the process in which a democracy turns into an autocracy was sudden, requiring the help of a military coup. Conversely, as learned in the book, democracies often die gradually. Demagogues come to power democratically and then slowly undermine the rules of democracy.
But, is there a recognisable process or pattern in which seemingly stable democracies die? Can a “would-be” authoritarian be identified before it is too late? Is it possible to prevent a democracy from dying?
And, is American democracy in danger?

These are questions that are brought up in the book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. For me, it wasn’t the easiest read as I haven’t read a lot about American politics up until now. However, it was definitely worth it. Here are the main things that I have learned:

Can a “would-be” authoritarian be identified before it is too late?

Levitsky and Ziblatt analysed how healthy democracies gradually died in multiple countries. Based on their findings and on a book called “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes” (1978), they came up with a set of 4 behavioral warning signs that can help identify a “would-be” authoritarian.

  • The first warning sign is rejecting (in words or action) the democratic rules of the game. An example of this could be: not accepting credible electoral results or attacking laws and constitutions.
  • The second warning sign is denying the legitimacy of political opponents. For example, the “would-be” authoritarian accuses his opponents of treason or criminal activity.
  • The third warning sign is tolerating or encouraging violence (this one is pretty self-explanatory).
  • Finally, the fourth warning sign is showing a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. For example, introducing laws that restrict criticism of the government.

Interestingly, the politicians that usually meet these four dangerous criteria are populist outsiders. Political figures who claim that they support the common people in their struggle against the privileged elite. In Latin America, of all 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders (Fujimori, Chávez, Morales, Gutiérrez and Correa). All of the five populists weakened democratic institutions.

By the way, Trump meets all of the critera above.

How can authoritarians be filtered out democratically?

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the responsibility for filtering out authoritarians lies with political parties and party leaders – “democracy’s gatekeepers”.  Pro-democratic parties can, for example, keep “would-be” authoritarians off party ballots at election time. They can also choose to systemically distance themselves from, rather than legitimize, extremists. A few other ways to prevent “would-be” authoritarians to seize power were mentioned in the book along with historical examples of successful democracy gatekeeping practiced by political parties in Europe between the wars.

Why has American democracy worked reasonably well since the end of the Civil War?

America has had its fair share of extremists. Examples such as Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace come to mind. Why haven’t they succeeded in seizing power and turning America into an autocracy?

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that America’s well functioning (though not entirely perfect) democracy is largely due to the gatekeepers – the political parties, rather than American’s commitment to democracy.

I found it interesting to learn that the old process in which presidential candidates were chosen was one of the reasons why extremists haven’t been able to, historically, seize power in America. Candidates used to be nominated in national party conventions made up of delegates from each state. These delegates were chosen by state committees rather than being popularly elected. This made the nomination process a lot less democratic than today’s system. It also explains why women and minorities were historically excluded from the presidential nomination. However, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the old system was effective in filtering out dangerous candidates. The delegates had to have worked for years with the mayors, senators and congressional representatives that were ultimately going to nominate them. They couldn’t be outsiders. This allowed parties to successfully filter out extremists and dangerous candidates.

Can a well-designed constitution be enough to secure democracy?

Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that the answer is no. Constitutions are always incomplete and are also always subject to competing interpretations. They should therefore be reinforced by vital unwritten norms or rules. The two most important norms for democracy are:

  • Mutual toleration:
    Referring to the idea that even-though we disagree or even strongly dislike our opponents, we nevertheless accept them as legitimate – the belief that political opponents are not enemies.
    Put this way: “When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain. If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat, we have much to fear if they are elected. We may decide to employ any means necessary to defeat them – and therein lies a justification for authoritarian measures”. In fact, in every democratic breakdown studied by the authors, the argument for consolidation of power has been the label of opponents as an existential threat.
  • Institutional forbearance (= “patient self-control”):
    Meaning that even-though an action might not violate the law, it should be avoided as it violates its spirit. For example, for most of American history, the two-term limit wasn’t a law but a norm of forbearance. “If every branch of government used every possible Constitutional power at its disposal, it would be impossible to govern. And when it is impossible to govern, executives often become authoritarian.”

Is American democracy in danger?

America’s democratic norms were born in a context of racial exclusion. Democrats and Republicans had a lot in common as long as the political community was restricted largely to whites. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act democratized the United States, but also, polarised it. Creating an environment where the unwritten norms of democracy have been increasingly neglected.

“By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.” (…) “For the first time in American history, the U.S. Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court” – a norm that had stabilized American democracy for more than 150 years.

On top of this, in 2017, Donald Trump became president. He meets all four of the behavioral warning signs that can help identify a “would-be” authoritarian. During his first year of office, he has also (unsuccessfully) followed the usual strategies employed by elected authoritarians to consolidate their control: “capture the referees, sideline the key players and rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field”.

So yes, American democracy is in danger. However, it isn’t dead. In the last chapter, Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss different possible outcomes and try to come up with solutions. Hopefully, it isn’t too late to prevent American democracy from dying.


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