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How Democracies Die

by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

This book is about democracies worldwide and it focuses on how democracy in the US is supposed to work, with checks and balances and institutional forbearance, in other words, "patient self-control; restraint and tolerance."

Levitsky and Ziblatt are professors of government at Harvard University — two scholars but not like that old joke about a camel being a horse created by a committee.

The authors begin with establishment politicians handing power to a demagogic celebrity outsider with a following. (Two most famous examples: the king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, made Mussolini prime minister, and President Paul von Hindenburg was talked into making Hitler chancellor although he disliked him.) The point by Levitsky and Ziblaatt is the abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation's first step toward authoritarianism." (There was a lot of authoritarianism in Germany during its Weimar Republic, before Hitler won power in 1933.)

The authors tell us that some democracies, including Britain, Belgium, Costa Rica, and others have faced challenges from demagogues and managed to keep them out of power. The authors describe many as believing that the fate of a government lies in the hands of its citizens, that if the people hold democratic values, democracy will be safe. But this, they write, "assumes too much of democracy ... keeping authoritarian politicians out of power is more easily said than done." One of the difficulties: mainstream political parties putting aside their differences and forging a united front.

The United States has had its demagogues. The authors cite Huey Long, and they don't care much for Senator Joe McCarthy or George Wallace. They write of Donald Trump and "The Great Republican Abdication." They write of Trump's inability to win the support of the establishment: "He lacked "political experience ... had switched his party registration several times and had even contributed to Hillary Clinton's campaign for the US Senate ... even after Trump began to surge in the polls, few people took his candidacy seriously."

But for Trump, the authors contend: "The world had changed." There was a dramatic increase in the availability of outside money. Now even marginal presidential candidates (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, et cetera) could raise large sums of money. And there was "the explosion of alternative media, particularly cable news and social media." For someone like Trump there was "Fox News and influential radio talk-show personalities, Limbaugh, Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Anne Coulter. There were the rightwing evangelicals who had "entered politics en masse in the late 1970s."

But looking at how US politics is supposed to work, the authors write:

For generations, Americans have retained great faith in their Constitution ... The US Constitution is, by most accounts, a brilliant document. But the original Constitution — only four pages long — can be interpreted in many different, and even contradictory, ways.

They ask about variation in interpretaton:

What, exactly, does "advice and consent" entail when it comes to the US Senate's role in appointing Supreme Court justices? What sort of threshold for impeachment does the phrase "crimes and misdemeanors" establish? Americans have debated these and other constitutional questions for centuries.

Here the authors bring up mention something they believe is "critical" to democracy's survival: institutional forbearance, restraint from exercising a legal right that would be politically excessive. They write:

...institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.

An example:

After the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments formally established universal male suffrage, Democratic-controlled legislatures in the South came up with new means of denying African Amercans the right to vote ... clearly designed to counter its spirit.

They are writing about politicians viewing themselves in a desperate war to win against malevolence. They write of the Democratic Party during the Great Depression holding on to a degree of forbearance. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt found his reforms being blocked by what he viewed as a backward-looking Supreme Court justices (men who had completed their educations in the 19th century). In 1937, two weeks into his second term, Roosevelt launched his scheme to appoint to the Supreme Court six justices of a younger age. The authors write:

The Court would have become hyperpoliticized, its membership, size, and selection rules open to constant manipulation, not unlike Agrentina under Perón or Venezuela under Chávez. Had Roosevelt passed his judicial act, a key norm — that presidents shuld not undermine another coequal branch — would have been demolished ... Within months, the proposal was dead — killed by a Congress dominated by Roosevelt's own party. Even amid a crisis as profoud as the Great Derpession, the system of checks and balances had worked.

Levitsky and Ziblatt continue:

The American system of checks and balances ... requires that public officials use their insitutional prerogaties, judiciously. US presidents, congressional leaders, and Supreme Court jutices enjoy a range of power that, if deployed without restraint, could undermine the system ... their weaponization could easily result in deadlock, dysfunction, and even democrataic breakdown.

The authors mention Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for the first time in US history leading the Senate in refusing "to even consider an elected president's nominee for the Supreme Court." They mention Newt Gingrich establishing "politics as warfare" and "the era of politics as warfare moving "into full gear after the Republican landslide 1994 election." (Some Republicans, of course, and some Democrats, view "politics as warfare" as a correct view, and some believe that those with their views should be waging politics not so much by any high-minded devotion to frankness and honesty but instead with whatever BS works.)

Levitsky and Ziblatt write of people using the expression "real Americans," and some say "real America is disappearing," which goes well with the slogan "take our country back" or "Make American Great Again". The authors write: "The danger of such appeals is that casting Democrats as not real Americans is a frontal assault on mutual toleration. (It puts some of us into a category of outsiders or enemies. Levitsky and Ziblatt add that "Republican politicians from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump learned that in a polarized society, treating rivals as enemies can be useful...."

Levitsky and Ziblatt describe our constitutional system as "older and more robust than any in history," but that this system (our republic) is "vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. Ultimately, them, American democracy depends on us — the citizens of the United States ... Democracy is a shared enterpirse.

I've been wrong, but it's my view that we can temper our fears regarding Donald Trump taking us into a new dictatorial United States. There are enough of us who wouldn't tolerate it. All of us believe that many people are easily misled (people on the other side of issues from us). But we still have freedom of expression and freedom of the press, and Trump has been suffering a 60 percent disapproval rating. But there is in the distant future the possibility of war, environmental distater or other great threats to life that could inspire social upheaval, a great intolerance and political change.

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.