Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, Crown Publishing, New York 2018
Are we facing today the twilight of democracy? Patrick E. Kennon, a retired CIA analyst, argued this point more than twenty years ago in a book entitled The Twilight of Democracy. On the front of its dustcover it said: “Those societies that continue to allow themselves to be administered by individuals whose only qualification is that they were able to win a popularity contest will go from failure to failure and eventually pass from the scene.” On the back cover it added: “Washington isn’t the problem – Democracy is.” Kennon was convinced that democracy had reached its expiration date even though it was still being touted as an ideology. Democracy, he wrote, “is an earthbound, human creation subject to the entropy of all such creations. It now travels a course of declining relevance much like that of the European monarchy from the power of Elizabeth I to the impotence of Elizabeth II.” (p. 255) Replacing democracy, he foresaw, would be a new elite of experts: military, administrative, and private-sector specialists who would administer the state of the future in a bureaucratic fashion. Under such a scenario, he concluded that by 2050 the developed, first world “would have largely retired its politicians. The internal affairs of the country would be run by faceless but expert bureaucrats under the general supervision of equally faceless representatives of the population as a whole.” (p. 279)
It’s not obvious that Kennon’s vision is coming true. Today we are being ruled by a shaky business man who has convinced his followers that he is a master at making deals. He is also a media figure who has learned to stir their emotions into political frenzy. He may not be much of a democrat but he is also certainly not a faceless expert specialist operating an anonymous bureaucracy. We seem to be traveling on a different road from the one Kennon saw ahead. But he seems to have been proved right in assuming that the future of democracy is by no means assured. The result of this realization has led to a spate of recent books entitled The Crisis of Democracy, The Plot to Destroy America, Democracy in Decline?, How Democracy Ends, and Democracy: The God that Failed.
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is another contribution to this genre. Its title is, however, somewhat misleading in that the book is largely concerned with the United States. Its central question is to what extent Donald Trump represents a threat to American democracy and what to do about it – with illustrative references to the failure of democracies in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, post-Communist Russia, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela, and passing references to various other places. This perspective structures but also limits the authors’ discussion of how democracies may fail. Their eye is on internal forces for failure; they are not concerned with the collapse of democracies due to foreign interventions, to military, economic, or environmental disaster, or to ideological and religious rifts. And their explanations are given in psychological terms: the authoritarian personality, the need for toleration and forbearance, the dangers of radical opposition in that it might provoke a political reaction. They do not ask whether there are structural changes in society that are destabilizing the democratic order
Levitsky and Ziblatt see American democracy threatened above all by the rise of an authoritarian figure who is set to undermine existing political institutions and practices. They identify four indicators of authoritarian behavior: 1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. 2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. And they then proceed to document all four of these behavior patterns in Donald Trump. Trump is therefore on their view a serious threat to American democracy.
The two authors allow that authoritarian personalities exist in every society but, they argue, healthy democracies have procedures for keeping them in check. These are not, however, to be found in the existence of a written Constitution. “There is nothing in our Constitution or our culture,” they write, “to immunize us against democratic breakdown.” (p. 204) Other checks are needed to bring this about. The first is the fostering of a spirit of toleration and forbearance. If democracy is to work, political opponents must be respected as citizens and not be treated as enemies to be suppressed. And politicians need to restrain the use of their power so a not to undermine the democratic system for the sake of their own cause. In Levitsky and Ziblatt’s telling, the Republican and Democratic Parties have in the past served as “guardrails” that have kept American democracy in place by fostering these two fundamental political virtues. Through a process of selection and vetting of presidential candidates, the two parties have managed to keep authoritarians more or less at bay. The existence of political parties has thus proved essential for the survival of democracy. But the Republican and Democratic Parties have become less powerful in recent decades and they have therefore increasingly lost their guardrail function. This is due, the two authors think, to a polarization affecting all of American society and politics. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme polarization – one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. 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.” (p. 9)
The authors sketch three possible scenarios for post-Trump America. The first, optimistic one, is that Trump will fail and that the Trump interlude will be “taught in schools, recounted in films, and recited in historical works as an era of tragic mistakes where catastrophe was avoided and American democracy saved.” (p. 206) But they are not convinced that the end of Trump’s presidency will be enough to restore a healthy democracy. “A second much darker future is one in which President Trump and the Republicans continue to win with a white nationalistic appeal.” (p. 207) This would, of course, not be possible in a democratic way. Levitsky and Ziblatt are, however, convinced that – conceivable as it is – “such a nightmare scenario isn’t likely.” (p. 208) There remains a third possibility. “The third, and in our view, most likely post-Trump future is one marked by polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare – in other words, democracy without solid guardrails.” (p. 208) Levitsky and Ziblatt call this also a scenario in which democracy is left in a half-life state.
They proceed to consider how such a development may be prevented. They argue that it would be wrong for the opposition to use the same hardball tactics adopted by Trump and his Republican followers. They write: “In our view, the idea that Democrats should ‘fight like Republicans’ is misguided. First of all, evidence from other countries suggest that such a strategy often plays directly into the hands of authoritarians. Scorched-earth tactics often erode support for the opposition by scaring off moderates. And they unify progovernment forces, as even dissidents within the incumbent party close ranks in the face of an uncompromising opposition. And when the opposition fights dirty, it provides the government with justification for cracking down.” (pp. 215-216) The advice seems plausible, but it fails to address the question whether there will not be a point at which only all-out opposition can be effective. Clearly, America is not at this point and so Levitsky and Ziblatt’s reasonably suggest that “opposition to the Trump administration’s authoritarian behavior should be muscular but it should seek to preserve, rather than violate, democratic rules and norms. Where possible, opposition should center on Congress, the courts, and, of course, elections.” (pp. 217-218) So, not violence in the streets, but maintenance of the democratic values of toleration and forbearance in the building of broad opposition coalitions.
But the two authors understand that resistance to the abuses of the Trump administration is not enough. They believe, rather, that “the fundamental problem facing American democracy remains extreme partisan division – one fueled not just by policy differences but by deeper sources of resentment, including racial and religious differences.” They are convinced that “America’s great polarization preceded the Trump presidency, and it is very likely to endure beyond it.” (p. 220) They see the Republican Party as the main driver of the political chasm that has opened up. Hence: “Reducing polarization requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not refounded outright.” (p. 223) And Democrats must address the problem of economic and social inequality. “The very health of our democracy hinges on it.” (p. 230)
Important as these considerations are, Levitsky and Ziblatt do not pursue them far enough to come to a compelling analysis of the state of democracy in the 21st century and particularly that of US American democracy. One obstacle on the way is their tendency to describe the situation in binary terms, as if there was a clear choice between being authoritarian and being democratic. Neither authoritarianism nor democracy is one thing; there are different degrees and forms of each and the two even occasionally overlap as in the so-called peoples-democracies of the Soviet era. Moreover, not every form of government is viable at any given moment. There are external constraints that make one system more viable than another at a given time. Thus, the radical democracy known to the Athenian state of the fourth century is not possible for us. Levitsky and Ziblatt follow mainline American thinking when they conceive the matter in an essentially voluntarist fashion. It is all a matter of choice for them. We must get ourselves into the right (democratic and anti-authoritarian) state of mind and then act according to its dictates. It’s all a matter of good will.
But we should ask ourselves what the constraints are under which modern democracy has developed and how and why these may be changing – and how then we are to proceed in this shifting terrain. The rise of Donald Trump is linked to an accumulation of wealth made possible by new technologies, to a globally operating financial system, and to the messaging power of the electronic media. The concentration of power in the hands of authoritarian leaders parallels and is accomplished through the accumulation of economic, financial, and informational power. The important point to understand is that we are not facing just another authoritarian in Donald Trump, but a newly evolving form of authoritarianism. Reforming America’s political parties and striving for greater equality and less polarization may be good things, but they are not enough in the face of a newly forming system of political power.