How Democracies Die
By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Let me confess up front: I have not yet read this book. I’m screwing up my courage to do so. However, I’ve heard just enough about it to be extremely concerned and intrigued.
The authors argue that in recent times authoritarian leaders have actually come to power through democratic processes. The good old days of military coups seem to be a relic of the past.
Once in power, these leaders all share four common traits:
- They reject or show a weak commitment to democratic rules or norms
- They deny the legitimacy of political opponents
- They encourage or tolerate violence
- They demonstrate a readiness to stifle or limit civil liberties of opponents, including media
Once you have an authoritarian leader in power, democracy begins to die, the authors argue.
Quickly, if the country is a multi-party democracy, the party of the leader becomes a vehicle for the leader to assert his or her will. There is no room for dissent within the party. Those who dare to dissent are either expelled or leave. Total loyalty is all that matters. The idea that there are issues about which reasonable people might disagree is unacceptable.
When reflecting on the United States, Levitsky and Ziblatt make the important point that our democracy was imperfect from its inception. The Civil War and Constitution notwithstanding, it was not until 1965 that full legal and civil rights were guaranteed by law to all citizens. That really wasn’t all that long ago, given our history and aspirations stated in our 18th-century Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
It is therefore not a complete surprise that our democracy is not as strong as we might have imagined. While we have rule of law in this country and rights guaranteed by the Constitution, we also have norms to inform how we are meant to operate and relate to those with whom we have political differences.
Those norms, developed over decades of bipartisan give-and-take, grease the wheels of democracy. They act as a pressure valve on partisan power. They are a tacit acknowledgment of “what goes around comes around.”
Not since the mid-19th century, Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, has the Senate refused to consider the Supreme Court nominee of a sitting president. Once that norm was broken, it paved the way for others to override myriad other norms. That it was perfectly legal for this to happen does not make it right or good for democracy.
I’m no fan of authoritarians of any political persuasion. Unfortunately, precedents have been set in this country that could benefit those currently out of power. The urge to use those precedents may prove irresistible. That would be tragic.
To walk back from the brink in this country and keep our democracy alive will require people of good faith on all sides of various partisan issues to sublimate their tribal affiliations and focus on the greater good.
Can we do that?
Only God knows.