Is This the Death of Democracy in America?

The United States has pulled back from the brink of authoritarianism before. But a new study reveals the daunting challenges the country faces in preserving its democracy.

How Democracies Die
Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt
Jan 2018

How do democracies die? How do we prevent them from collapsing? How far down the path of democratic collapse has the United States slid?

These are the questions posed by political scientists Seven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their study How Democracies Die. It’s a grim prognosis. Drawing on the work of political scientist Juan Linz and others, they develop a four-part test for identifying threats to democracy.

The four key indicators of authoritarian behaviour, they argue, include rejection of (or weak commitment to) the democratic ‘rules of the game’; denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; toleration or encouragement of violence; and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. It’s a useful model and, as they also demonstrate, Donald Trump’s administration fails the test on all counts.

The crisis posed by Trump’s presidency sets the urgent context which drives their study, but Trump didn’t appear out of nowhere. There’s been an ongoing realignment of American politics since the civil rights movement of the ’60s which has intensified political partisanship, they argue. The political consensus which allowed for decades of relatively peaceful and stable democratic governance was predicated on the ‘big tent’ diversity of both Democratic and Republican party supporters, which prevented the emergence and dominance of specific ideological identities in either party. But to America’s discredit, it was also predicated on racial exclusion, and on both parties’ tacit agreement to look the other way when it came to the disenfranchisement of black Americans (through voting requirements, for example), particularly after the Reconstruction period following the US Civil War. White politicians on both the centre-left (Democrats) and centre-right (Republicans) tolerated each other while collaborating in the political exclusion of black Americans.

That all began to change with the civil rights movement in the ’60s. Single-party, authoritarian white rule was gradually dismantled (or at least seriously challenged) in southern US states. The Democrats’ grudging embrace of mainstream civil rights initiatives brought greater diversity into their tent, while ideologically driven Republicans who sought to maintain white political dominance in the US gradually transformed their party into the overwhelmingly white, evangelical, pro-big business party it has become today. The realization that white Americans could become a minority in mid-21st century America led the Republicans down the road of increasingly desperate partisanship, to the point where they have pursued outright anti-democratic initiatives like redrawing electoral districts to benefit themselves and imposing strict voter ID rules designed to disenfranchise non-whites. Unfortunately, the Democrats have responded in deeply partisan ways themselves. The result has been America’s troubling drift toward authoritarianism and democratic dysfunction. In the short term, it’s led to Donald Trump’s presidency.

How can America’s democratic fabric be repaired?

Levitsky and Ziblatt place great emphasis on democratic norms. They don’t subscribe to the view that democratic safeguards can be hard-wired into constitutions; what matters more is behaviour and attitudes, they argue. Chief among these are mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. For decades Americans of both political stripes were able to agree to disagree. They accepted their shifting electoral fortunes; lawmakers from both parties would remain friends, carpool together, sometimes support each other’s legislation. This is a marked difference from today, when adherents of each party are more likely to express hatred for each other; even encourage violence against the other. They reject each other’s legislation out of policy, not out of principle. Partisanship has intensified so deeply that according to a 2010 poll, 33 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans are opposed to intermarriage between the two parties (compared to four and five percent, respectively, in a similar poll taken in 1960). Somehow, the authors argue, this partisanship must be overcome and Americans must re-learn how to live tolerantly with each other.

Institutional forbearance (self-control; restraint) is also important. Lawmakers at all levels — from the president to governors to congressional representatives — have an array of legal tools they could wield against each other. But democracy only works when they choose not to. For most of American history few of these legal tools — filibusters, vetoes, executive orders, impeachment — were used as political tools to oppose or undermine the other party. The democratic spirit of cooperative governance was given precedence over partisan use of the letter of the law. But since the late 20th century both parties, at every level of government, have taken to using every possible tool against each other. This slide into democratic obstructionism was pioneered by the Republicans under Newt Gingrich and his adherents, but has since come to dominate the party’s approach to politics. It also has strong adherents among the Democratic Party, many prominent politicians of which argue they must fight fire with fire.

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that this is a destructive downward spiral which must be resisted. They urge Democrats not to heed calls to play the same game, and they argue that a method must be found of de-escalating obstructionist politics. Forbearance must return to American politics.

But how to do all this? That’s a question which offers no quick or easy answers.

The study is unsettling in many regards. Chief among the most troubling – -albeit accurate — conclusions the authors draw is that the stability of American democracy has relied on racial exclusion. Slavery was the issue all key parties avoided when the US constitution was first developed and the country’s system of government initially established. When it finally became unavoidable, it resulted in horrific and deadly civil war. Following the Confederate defeat and occupation of the southern US by Union troops, there was a brief moment when it looked like a true multi-racial democracy could flourish in a post-Reconstruction era US. But the moment passed, and the country’s white leaders looked the other way as southern US states enacted a series of anti-democratic laws designed to disenfranchise black voters and ensure the dominance of white populations in those states.

What is to be done?

How Democracies Die aspires, at times, toward a certain universalism, seeking to develop a model for authoritarian threats to democracy which can be applied globally. This broad reach proves to be both a strength and weakness. On the one hand, it is useful to look at examples from other countries: the authors use Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, as well as contemporary Venezuela and Peru; and to lesser degrees Hungary and Austria. These case studies can isolate and reveal elements (use of executive orders, undermining public trust in the media, etc.), which may be too immediate and close to home to treat objectively in the context in which we live (they develop, or crystallize, certain abstract properties when studied with the space of time and geographical distance).

But at the same time, there are problems with treating political systems like cars, as though one can compare them side by side to see how well they each perform under differing circumstances. Political systems aren’t cars; they are indelibly affected by all sorts of regional minutiae of history and culture, which helps to explain why things turn out one way in one country but differently in another. A brief study such as this is unable to get at those deeper minutiae, and the brevity of these international examples means their use as comparators is not entirely convincing. Yet they are helpful, while bearing in mind that this study is predominantly one about the US.

Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t have all the answers, but they make a laudable effort at tackling what is perhaps the most critical problem facing America today. The question ‘what has gone wrong with American democracy?‘ is difficult to answer, since the answer inevitably involves intangible qualities. That much is clear: the political system hasn’t changed, but Americans have. How and why?

The authors’ focus on behavioural norms as a solution is not entirely convincing (even if it is an accurate diagnosis), for reasons they fully admit. Behavioural norms and unwritten rules can be anti-democratic as well. It was precisely this type of unwritten, normative behaviour which led to decades of (ongoing) racial exclusion; such behaviour has also been used to disenfranchise women and other groups in the recent past. If, as they observe, unwritten norms relied on racial exclusion in order to work, are they really the way to build a multi-racial democracy? Such norms have an uncanny tendency to lend themselves toward the exclusion of others; are they really a reliable route toward an inclusive democracy?

They also dwell on the importance of political parties as ‘gatekeepers’, and chastise the Republicans for having failed to take appropriate action to stop the rise of Trump (while several key Republicans demonstrated their dislike of Trump, they responded to him with silence or abstention, rather than outright opposition which might have helped prevent his election). It is imperative, the authors argue, for parties to take responsibility for stopping the rise of leaders who threaten democracy, and to avoid succumbing to the lure of benefiting from an anti-democratic leader’s popularity. They cite the example of Austria, where in 2016 the centre-right Austrian Peoples’ Party cooperated with their erstwhile ideological foes the Greens to prevent the far-right Freedom Party from gaining power (the right-wing endorsed a Green candidate for president). While it cost them votes from supporters, their support brought enough of their followers with them to prevent the far right candidate’s election. The point is a useful one, but again political gatekeeping can backfire on democracy as much as it can be used to preserve it (witness how long it took women or black candidates to be treated seriously as leadership contenders by the white male gatekeepers of mainstream parties).

Also, fairly little attention is paid to the important issue of economic inequality. While the authors do identify in their conclusion the need to tackle economic inequality as a critical element in preserving American democracy, the issue merits a greater role in any study of what has gone wrong with America. Mutual tolerance is much easier when people have equal access to the things a society has to offer: education, health care, housing. How much has the drift away from democracy been fueled by corporate and elite-driven greed, on the one hand; and the desperate struggle of low- and middle-class families to survive, on the other? The issue is not much explored in this book, except briefly in conclusion, while other scholars have treated it as the key issue facing American democracy. The fact that partisan struggle between conservatives and socialists has been the downfall of so many democracies indicates the significance of not just political elements but economic realities.

All that said, there is still hope. Levitsky and Ziblatt point to examples of other times when America teetered on the brink of authoritarianism, but pulled itself back: Roosevelt’s effort to pack the courts; McCarthyism in the ’50s; the Nixon administration’s drift toward criminality and authoritarianism. But each time the US stopped its downward slide and emerged stronger, even strengthening its democratic institutions (key to tackling the threat to democracy in each case, the authors note, was bipartisan forbearance, tolerance, and shared commitment to democratic norms). But the intense partisanship facing today’s America may be the greatest challenge it faces since the Civil War.

The authors draw from other examples around the world; cases both where politicians failed to prevent the collapse of democracy as well as cases where politicians of all stripes cooperated to overcome the threats their democracy faced. These lessons are important. “History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes,” they observe, and that’s probably the best way of putting it. It is, however, curious that they don’t discuss Russia or China, because that’s one of the distinguishing characteristics of today’s threat to global democracy: not just that democracy is at risk in America, but that it’s either at risk or non-existent in all three of the world’s superpowers: Russia, China, and the United States. That is a unique threat to global democracy the likes of which has not been seen in centuries.

The other sobering observation made by the authors is that the world has yet to see a truly successful multi-racial democracy. It is, perhaps, the next necessary step in the world’s democratic evolution. But will America achieve it?

RATING 8 / 10