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.


 

How science got women wrong

“Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong” by Angela Saini

“Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong” was second on my reading list. It sheds light on gender bias in anthropology, biology and psychology. I was drawn to the book as it combines science and gender – two topics that I love. The author, Angela Saini, delivers an abundance of interesting findings and defies scientific gender myths of the past. In other words, you learn tremendously and will most likely find yourself thinking about the book throughout the day. Though scientific, it is nonetheless an easy read and I definitely recommend it.

Why reading “How Science Got Women Wrong” is important

Reflecting on questions regarding gender is important to me because, like most women, I have been subjected to sexism. Often, the prejudice ideas are said to be supported by scientific evidence. An example could be: “Men drive better than women because a larger portion of their brains are devoted to white matter – which means that they are better at spatial visualisation”. Or, as written in a 1978 Playboy magazine: “Do men need to cheat on their wives? A new Science says yes”.

Most of the time, it’s hard for me to argue because, for all I know, it might be true; even if I intuitively might feel that there is a bewildering gap between the conclusions of gender science and what it really is to be woman (perhaps men feel an equivalent bewilderment when misrepresented by science). Therefore, I want to learn more about this. Then at least, I can have a discussion on the topic instead of blindly accepting what people tell me to be true.

Yes, reading one book isn’t enough. Who knows, maybe the author isn’t telling the whole story. Maybe her findings are biased. But, the more I read, the more I learn. Eventually, my opinions will be my own and I won’t always have to accept whatever people tell me about my gender.

What I learned

It probably sounds silly but, “why the book is important to read” is best answered by reading it. I learned about male and female brains, their immune systems and their sexuality. How science has historically suppressed or forgotten about women. And, how a lot of studies are influenced by confirmation bias.


* I am not sure wether the term “gender” or “sex” is most inclusive of transgender people. I know that “gender” refers to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. Sorry if I used the wrong term.


James Baldwin

“The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin

“The Fire Next Time” is a short book written by James Baldwin in the early 60s. It depicts the United States’ race relations of the time. I found the book interesting because Baldwin writes about his experiences and opinions with a deep insight in human psychology. Instead of seeking vengeance, he advocates for a more compassionate solution in which black people and white people accept each other. “The Fire Next Time” is political but also beautiful because Baldwin’s writing is extremely poetic. The book was written a while ago but his analysis of race relations in America is still relevant today.

The Fire Next Time

“The Fire Next Time” is made up of two essays. The first is entitled “My Dungeon Shook” and the second, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”.

The parts and quotes that I find especially compelling are: 

  • Baldwin’s analysis of Christianity at the time. He details his own experiences with the Church. How he became Christian and then eventually saw the Church’s deep rooted hypocrisy and racism.

“The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them…That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.”

  •  Baldwin’s encounter with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the militant Black Muslim movement. He notices Muhammad’s magnetism but can also see the movement’s blind hatred of white people. Baldwin therefore decides not to join The Nation of Islam (NOI). He was convinced that black separatism wasn’t a solution.

“It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets. I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father. I felt that I knew something of his pain and his fury, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets—because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine—we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.”

  • Baldwin’s description of white people’s narrowness of thinking. How accepting black people would lead to a loss of identity for white people.

“They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.  They have had to believe for so many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men.  Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.  To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.  In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of identity.  Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame…Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

  • His solution, love.

“I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace— not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

  • And, this is a James Baldwin quote that I like:

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”


Photograph by Steve Schapiro, the Selma-to-Montgomery protest marches 1965

Being gentle

Here’s a video of me talking about the importance of being gentle with yourself. I discuss the benefits of giving yourself time to simply be in the present moment, especially if you’re a person with a goal-oriented mindset. The video is part of my 1,5 months of challenges. I’m trying to learn how to be more comfortable talking to a camera or to a public.

Being gentle with yourself:


 

“The Other Side of Paradise” by Staceyann Chin

A few days ago, I finished reading “The Other Side of Paradise” by Staceyann Chin – the poet and political activist that I previously introduced in this post.

The book is a memoir of Staceyann’s early life. She grew up in 1970’s Jamaica, abandoned by her parents and then later abused by multiple people. On top of that, her journey into adulthood was hard because, as a lesbian, she also had to struggle with her sexuality and its acceptance in a Jamaican culture. The book ends when Staceyann decides to move to New York – a place where she thought being gay would be easier. Interestingly, she mentions in an interview that being black in America is almost as problematic as being a lesbian in Jamaica.

My thoughts

I truly enjoyed reading the book. Even-though the subject was heavy, the book wasn’t. To me, Staceyann writes with humor and her style is light. It was hard and sometimes heartbreaking to imagine that this was her actual life. It’s therefore comforting to know that she is happy now with her daughter Zuri.

Earlier this year, I read a beautiful book called The Color Purple. The two books are very different but, the protagonists felt similar in a way. They are both brave, strong and a little naive.


 

Learning how to play the guitar: Don’t know why – Norah Jones

Here’s a song that I have started to work on recently. I originally thought that it was Norah Jones’ song. But, a guy called Jesse Harris actually wrote and first performed it. Her version of “Don’t know why” is a cover. Anyway, I like it because it brings back plenty of memories from when I was a child. We used to listen to this song in the car and when we cooked with the family at home.

Don’t know why – Norah Jones


Here are the other songs that I’ve learned:
– Shiver, Lucy Rose
– Without me, Mac DeMarco


 

1,5 months of challenges

Today, I created a list of small personal challenges that I would like to accomplish in the next 1,5 months. Initially, this was meant for the month of June, as a 30-days project.  But, I couldn’t wait to start. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to make the challenge last a little longer. So, I’m starting my 48-days project tomorrow (14/05 until the 01/07).

Why I am doing this:

Often, I use “lack of time” as a way to explain why I don’t do certain things that I’d like to do. Most of the time, it’s true. I’m busy and it’s hard to start doing new things that I’m not used to doing. Following old habits is way easier than starting new ones.
But, right now, I’m done with all my exams. I have a lot of free time and there are plenty of things I would like to start doing more. A short list of things that I have been putting off and have been wanting to do has been on my mind for a while. It’s what I’ve put on paper today.

Additionally, I also love challenges. I enjoy starting projects – making life a little more interesting for me. This is one of those silly projects.


My List of challenges: 

1. Read one book per week:

This is probably one of the challenges that I have been looking forward to the most. I absolutely love reading. However, I have to admit that it’s still not an integrated part of my daily life.
When I start a book and really like it, I read a lot. Once I’m done with the book though, it can take up to a few weeks or even months until I start a new one. To prevent this from happening, I have created a list of books that I want to read. Tonight, I am finishing off The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin.

Here are the books for the following 1,5 months:

Earlier this week, I also created a page on my blog with a list of books that I have read (2017/18). Here it is.

2. Make time for one long drawing session per week:

I usually only draw when I have A LOT of time. It’s not the kind of activity that I can do for 15 minutes, stop, and then continue the next day. I must have enough time to activate the part of my brain that allows for the certain creative focus that I need. If I am stressed or have a lot to do, it’s hard for me to let go completely and start drawing for hours.
This year, I don’t think that I have made one single drawing. I miss it though, and, I think that now is the perfect opportunity for me to draw more.

On top of making time for one long drawing session per week, I would like to try a life-drawing class. I have been wanting to do this since I moved to Stockholm in September. But, I haven’t as I always found an excuse to do something else. I’m therefore adding this to my 48-days challenge.

3. Meditate 30 minutes everyday:

Last Summer, I meditated from up to 30 to 90 minutes everyday. It felt so good to clear my mind and allow my mind to relax – get a sort of “shower for my brain”. My life was a little crazy back then but, I felt content and okay the whole time. I’m certain that meditation was the reason for this, and, I’m therefore grateful that I was meditating at that time.

I do think that practicing yoga in the mornings gives me a similar effect to meditation. But, I know that meditation is the ultimate tool for making ‘me’ the best version of ‘me’. It’s just a lot harder to do.
It’ll be nice to bring meditation back to my life again 🙂

4. Get better at speaking and expressing myself:

Here’s why and how:

5. Open up my hips:

My hips are the only part of my body that are not really flexible. They need to be open for Ashtanga in order for my knees to stay healthy. It’s also good to have flexible hips for climbing.
I know that it’s easy to work on opening them up
. But, I never do. So, once again, this is the perfect opportunity for me to do so.

6. Other:

Of course, I also want to keep doing the things that I already do. Write on this blog. Learn how to play guitar. Practice yoga. Climb.


 

Gender, to me

Listening to kids

The other day, I discovered Staceyann Chin, a spoken-word poet and political activist. I was immediately drawn by her fearlessness, her strength and the way that she communicates her beliefs.
She speaks beautifully.

On her Youtube channel, Staceyann posts “living room protests”: short conversations with her daughter, Zuri. The themes are usually political but sometimes the subjects of the conversations are random.
One of the things that I like about the videos is the way that Staceyann makes space for her daughter to express herself. Zuri is given time to find her words and formulate her own opinions. It made me reflect on the importance of starting conversations with kids and, of course, listening to them.

Listening to kids

I know the topic of this post might seem trivial or obvious. But, I have found that this normal exchange between adult and kid doesn’t always happen. A lot of grown ups often treat kids as “kids” in the sense that they don’t take children seriously. They either always correct and interrupt them or won’t start meaningful conversations with them at all.

I honestly don’t understand why. Personally, I have had several interesting conversations with kids. And, as a matter of fact, children’s perspective on things often open up new ways of thinking for me.
Also, remembering myself as a kid, I can’t say that my thinking process has changed a lot throughout the years. I’m still the same ‘me’ and I can relate to thoughts that I had when I was a child. Yes, I’ve had more experiences since my 6th birthday. I also hope that I know more now than I did then. But, would a conversation with me be more interesting today than 14 years ago? Maybe. Although, maybe not.

I think listening to kids is important because it teaches them to think critically and independently. They learn how to both listen to themselves and express themselves.
Another reason why I think open dialogue is crucial within a child’s upbringing is because I don’t believe critical thinking is taught well in most schools. Kids are often taught how to learn things by heart. But, they usually aren’t taught how to express themselves or how to be creative and think for themselves.

Here’s one living room protest:

Other “living room protests” that I liked:
Girls Can Do Everything!
I Wanna Be An Immigrant But I Don’t Wanna Move!
Strong Black Girl!


 

Gender, to me

Gender, to me

The notion of gender is confusing to me. Of course, there are biological differences between men and women. I am sure that if I had been born a man (in the strict sense of the word), my personality wouldn’t be the same as it is now. My appearance, obviously, wouldn’t either.

But, I often forget that I am a woman and think of myself as more of a “human”. 

Somehow though, my gender seems to be important to other people. I have been told countless amounts of times to dress more feminine. That, because of my gender, I probably can never beat a guy at sports. People are often surprised when I tell them I love science. I’ve also heard that being a woman makes me more empathetic, more emotional. Better with kids, bad at taking risks. That my orientation skills are probably bad too. I’ve learned that, because I am a woman, I should shave my body, close my legs when I sit down and that, my sexuality comes second to a man’s sexuality.

It is as if a whole story has already been written for me. And, to me, it seems like a large part of being a woman, or being a man, is a construct of society. But, why does society attach such importance to my gender? Am I not just – me?

I know that we aren’t all going to wake up tomorrow and that suddenly, the notion of gender will be gone. I also know that it makes sense to distinguish men and women, to a certain degree. The purpose of this post isn’t to abolish any sort of categorisation. But, I’m writing about this because these are some of my recurrent thoughts.
It isn’t always easy to do things that defy norms. Sometimes, being a woman restricts me. I’m sure that being born a man would restrict me in other ways. I just wish that the importance placed on gender in our society would be smaller. It might allow everyone to be a little bit more themselves.


 

Learning how to play the guitar: Wish you were here (update)

I have spent the last few weeks studying for an exam that I passed yesterday. I am finally done with it and only have one exam left, in about a month. The intense studying explains the lack of activity here on the blog. I honestly haven’t had the energy to do anything else than study, eat and sleep. I have, however, practiced playing “Wish you were here” by Pink Floyd. It’s still a work in progress (especially that solo at the start). But, it’s quite a bit better than when I started learning the song. So, here it is:

Wish you were here – Pink Floyd