About a year ago a journalist I find most trustworthy recommended a book that seemed well suited to my unease about the direction our nation was headed. Fareed Zakaria pitched How Democracies Die by Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. I read the book; it did not quell my fears for our country. In fact, it convinced me that our democracy might be in more serious danger than I’d first thought.
Over the past year I have returned again and again to this book, written by a pair of Harvard political science professors whose specialty is comparative governments. Now that the report of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has been filed with the Justice Department and made somewhat public, the authoritarian commentary only increases. Recently I heard our president refer to that investigation as “an attempted coup,” a failed attempt “to take down a president” - this about a report he had, just a few days earlier, praised as completely exculpatory.
Shortly thereafter we saw this same president imprudently addressing the NRA, again citing an “attempted coup” and going so far as to proclaim: “I didn’t even need a gun for this one.” Such words to a group whose entire existence is based on owning guns, shooting guns, selling guns! That’s inflammatory! While it has been clear for years that Donald Trump will say whatever he believes might serve his immediate personal desires, language that was previously just selfish and snide has risen to the level of irresponsible, possibly even demagogic.
Trump’s words drive me back to How Democracies Die and raise my stress level immeasurably. What Livitsky and Ziblatt make perfectly clear is that democracies now die without a shot having been fired. Now they die at the hands of an elected leader. Some “erode slowly, in barely visible steps,” the authors tell us. Backsliding begins at the ballot box, as “elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”
Having read How Democracies Die several times, I see clearly the breakdown of political norms and a strong, consistent movement in the direction of authoritarianism. The authors warn that government efforts to subvert democracy are often legal, approved by legislature, and accepted by the courts – portrayed as efforts to improve democracy.
So, in such a bewildering situation, when about one-third of the nation’s voters cling to the hope that the president is leading them out of “the swamp,” and the other two-thirds are holding their collective breath, afraid to speak in such an incendiary environment, it might be wise to calmly inform ourselves. Let’s start with the “four warning signs of an authoritarian leader”:
· Throws out the rules and the referees
· De-legitimizes opponents
· Condones or even encourages violence
· Tilts the playing field in his own favor
The authors’ description of such an elected leader is chillingly close to what we have been witnessing ourselves in our own USA: He punishes opponents while protecting allies; uses tax and intelligence authorities to his own ends; fires civil servants and replaces them with loyalists; sues the media for defamation. (This is all straight out of How Democracies Die.) He denies the legitimacy of his opponents; works to undermine the role of the media in democracy; encourages or turns a blind eye to anti-Semitism and white nationalism; embraces physical assault as a political option; employs violent language and images; encourages or directs gerrymandering; seizes real or imagined “crises” as “rally ‘round the flag” moments to gain popularity and massive power.
Folks, I’m not making this up. This is not me leveling charges against President Trump. These are the warnings Livitsky and Ziblatt give about how democracies die – and have died around the world - at the hands of elected leaders. Do you see any resemblance to what’s happening in our country?
Remember that this is the president who questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and refused to say he’d accept the election results if defeated. He referred to his opponents as “little… lying… crooked… criminal.” He was the first major candidate in a century to embrace and even encourage supporters who physically assaulted protesters – even offered to pay their legal fees! He appealed to “you Second Amendment people” in reference to methods of defeating Hillary Clinton – “gun” talk already back in the campaign!
A would-be autocrat, we are told in this book, is willing to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics and will not tolerate criticism of himself. Remember when Trump asserted his opponent should be imprisoned and so roused his followers to chant “lock her up”? Remember when he called the media (the fourth estate, one of the pillars of a free society) “among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met”? He promised to change the libel laws “so we can sue them and win lots of money.” Does this not concern you?
It concerns Livitzky and Ziblatt, who wrote, “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century... Donald Trump met them all.” The eventual result of such an assault on democracy, with the guardrails of political parties ineffectual or nonexistent, is polarization. Who can deny this is the most polarized America in which you’ve lived? I can’t, and I remember all the way back to Eisenhower.
In a polarized country, we are told, worldviews are now so different as to be mutually exclusive – and people become wedded to these incompatible worldviews. Parties cease interacting with each other and are tempted to try to win at all costs. The leader begins to bully our legislative branch by attacking individual congresspersons or sidestepping Congress to take his appeal directly to the people. And, in retaliation, impeachment becomes a partisan tool, no longer a thoughtful, balanced process to protect the nation from high crimes and misdemeanors.
Can you possibly deny the paragraphs above describe exactly the U.S. of today? So what comes next, if we don’t stop the train hurtling toward authoritarianism? The authors spell out the imminent dangers to watch for: anti-system groups rise, rejecting democracy’s rules altogether; the opposition is seen as an existential threat; democratic institutions are weaponized; checks and balances are circumvented in a dysfunctional, gridlocked government; duties are abdicated as violence begins to surface, eventually within the halls of government itself. And then, military rule is imposed – and perhaps even an actual “coup.”
Livitsky and Ziblatt have much more to say, based on numerous examples of democracies on several continents having gone down this road – and having died. How Democracies Die also details the long struggle of democratic processes in our country, and how the guardrails of our two-major-parties political system have always steered us back to safety and sanity. Those guardrails are no longer effectively working, the authors tell us, and so we are actually in danger of seeing this drama play out as it did in Italy in 1922, in Germany in 1933, in Peru in 1991, and in Venezuela in 1998.
Don’t fall into the delusion that it can’t happen here. Although I, personally, do not believe Donald Trump ever intended to become president, nor do I believe he took the office for the purpose of killing our democracy, I do believe he is just inept and self-centered enough to charge blindly in that direction, losing himself along the way and probably introducing a dark and violent era such as we have not seen since 1865. When that happens, your party affiliation or family ties or zip code will no longer protect you. Read this book by mainstream, thoughtful educators and engage in positive, productive conversation about the state of our democracy before it is too late. And please feel free to leave a comment. (Yes, I do remove comments that I believe are unproductively mean-spirited or threatening.)
If you are ready for more - but still not ready for the whole book - go to my longer article, a full précis of How Democracies Die.