The election of Donald Trump has sparked a great deal of discussion about the fate of American democracy. Does the election of a figure like Donald Trump—an inexperienced outsider with obvious authoritarian instincts—suggest that democracy in the US is backsliding? Are we doomed to suffer the fate of other 21st-century democracies, like Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey, where true democracy ceased to exist? By what processes was democracy killed in those and other countries, and how might we prevent it here?
These are the questions that How Democracies Die seeks to answer. Authors and Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore the historical processes by which democracies came to extinction in other countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, while examining the rise of anti-democratic forces in American politics during the same time period.
By identifying the specific tactics that autocrats employ in their efforts to dismantle representative government and outlining the political conditions that give rise to authoritarian movements, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s work serves as a warning for imperiled democracies—and a blueprint for how to save them.
To prevent authoritarians from taking power and begin dismantling democracy, it is important to be able to identify them first. There are four warning signs of authoritarians. Such politicians:
Mainstream political parties act as democracy’s gatekeepers, helping to keep authoritarians who exhibit these traits from attaining power. There are four main strategies that political parties use to act as gatekeepers:
A good example of parties responsibly exercising their gatekeeping function comes from Austria. There, in 2016, a left-right coalition of parties in Austria helped to defeat the far-right Freedom Party and its presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. Prominent conservative politicians, in particular, crossed party lines to endorse Hofer’s left-wing rival—with whom they certainly had profound ideological disagreements, but who they knew would safeguard democratic ideals.
An example of failed political gatekeeping can be seen in the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in the 1990s. Chávez was a political outsider and rabble-rouser who became a hero to many Venezuelans for his fiery rhetorical attacks on what he portrayed as a corrupt and decadent political establishment.
The former president Rafael Caldera, seeking to regain his own hold on power, saw that Chávez could have a useful electoral appeal and sought to co-opt it. In 1993, Caldera was elected to the presidency as an anti-establishment independent candidate, mimicking Chávez’s message and rhetorical style during the campaign—boosting the latter’s standing as a legitimate political figure.
In 1998, Chávez himself was elected to the presidency and began the work of dissolving democracy and a free press in Venezuela, thanks largely to Caldera’s role in legitimizing him.
Political parties long played the same role in American politics, blocking potential extremists and authoritarian populists from attaining power. Traditionally, party insiders selected presidential nominees from a roster of well-known politicians.
This crucial gatekeeping function is why political outsiders with no connection to parties fared poorly throughout most of American history. We can see this in the failed candidacy of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace. Considered unacceptable and unelectable by the leadership of both major parties, Wallace was forced to mount a third-party bid for the presidency in 1968 under the American Independent Party banner. Given America’s two-party system and the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College, this doomed his longshot presidential bid to failure.
But party insiders lost this crucial gatekeeping power in American politics, beginning in the late 1960s. Following the turbulent events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention—in which the party was forced to install a nominee with no support from the rank-and-file, amid the divisive context of the Vietnam War—the Democratic Party moved its presidential nomination process to a system of state-level primaries, giving voters direct control over the party nomination process for the first time. Similar rules were adopted by the Republican Party at this time as well.
What this meant in practice was that the old party gatekeepers were mostly gone. There were no more bosses or insiders who could veto the people’s choice for the nomination or install their own favorite. Anyone could now run for the nomination and completely circumvent the traditional gatekeepers.
The new system rendered the parties vulnerable to hostile takeovers by outsiders with little institutional support within the party. They were especially vulnerable to outsiders who had the right combination of pre-existing fame and money—in other words, celebrities.
In 2015, Donald Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination. The new system gave a famous, media-savvy, and wealthy outsider like Trump a decisive advantage and proved once and for all that the old system of party gatekeeping was truly gone.
Although Trump failed to win major endorsements from establishment Republican figures or contributions from mega-donors, his ability to generate free media coverage through his outlandish and extreme public statements and his popularity with influential figures in right-wing media proved to be far more powerful weapons. He caught on with the Republican base, and GOP leaders found that they had no formal mechanisms to block his nomination once he won enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee.
The GOP, however, failed the most crucial test of its gatekeeping role as a responsible political party when they chose to stand by him in the general election against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Republican leaders were unwilling to pay the short-term political price that responsible democratic gatekeeping often entails. They chose party over country and party over democracy in 2016.
Once they are in power, authoritarians use three main tactics to dismantle democracy:
These changes may all technically be within the bounds of the law, but they all represent grave threats to a free democratic system. As we’ll explore later, the Trump administration has attempted to use all of these tactics since coming to power in 2017, with varying degrees of success and pushback. Let’s look at how they’re applied generally.
Judges, state prosecutors, police, and civil servants are the referees of politics. Their role is to enforce laws and regulations in a neutral and disinterested manner, without regard to partisan politics. Authoritarian leaders, however, often seek to politicize these functions. In doing so, they transform the bureaucracy into an arm of the regime.
They can fire civil servants from key agencies and fill those agencies with loyalists, or force judges out of office and pack the courts with reliable cronies. Alternatively, they can wield the intelligence and espionage powers of the state to surveil and harass officials who refuse to knuckle under. These tactics can be applied against bureaucrats in the tax and regulatory agencies, the law enforcement system, and even the courts themselves.
By stacking the courts, tax and regulatory authorities, law enforcement apparatus, and intelligence agencies with loyalists, the authoritarian can wield the power of the state to reward his friends—and punish his enemies.
There are several tactics authoritarian governments use to sideline potential opponents. These can include privileged access for pliant media outlets and use of the legal and regulatory apparatus of the state to harass and intimidate opponents. For example, the regime can offer lucrative state broadcasting contracts only to those media outlets that promise favorable coverage; or it can selectively apply antitrust laws to target businesses that it perceives to be unfriendly.
Lastly, authoritarians seek to change the rules of democratic competition to neutralize their opponents. One effective way to do this is through gerrymandering—the redrawing of the electoral map to lock in a political advantage for one party or faction. This makes it extremely difficult for the opposition party to ever win a majority of seats, even when they win a majority of votes.
Authoritarian governments can also directly prevent the other party’s voters from voting through legal disenfranchisement via poll taxes or literacy tests. This is how Southern Democrats wrested control of the region back from Republicans in the late 19th century, terrorizing and disenfranchising African-American voters and transforming the region into a one-party authoritarian state.
Countries avoid succumbing to authoritarian parties through strong democratic norms. Norms are the unwritten rules that govern political conduct. They are guardrails that prevent political competition from getting too intense or the stakes of elections from getting too high, thus turning every election contest into a winner-take-all battle that justifies winning at any cost. There are two norms that deserve special consideration—mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.
Mutual toleration is the idea that one’s opponents have a right to govern, as long as they win fair elections and agree to play by the system’s written and unwritten rules. Fundamentally, it means treating competitors as rivals, not enemies.
Institutional forbearance is the unwritten rule that political actors will not weaponize their control of institutions to marginalize opponents or hamper effective day-to-day democratic governance—even if such behavior is technically allowed under the constitution.
Constitutional hardball is what results when politicians abandon restraint and abuse their institutional prerogatives to maximize their advantage over their opponents. Thus, a congress might start routinely blocking the president from appointing members of the cabinet; an executive might routinely issue executive orders that bypass the legislative branch; and a supreme court might declare all laws passed by the opposition as unconstitutional.
Throughout most of the 20th century, American political culture was marked by strong bipartisan adherence to democratic norms that proved able to withstand robust challenges by powerful political figures. Franklin Roosevelt’s 1937 plan to pack the Supreme Court was blocked by bipartisan supermajorities in both houses of Congress; Richard Nixon’s illegal espionage against his political opponents was exposed and he was forced to resign. The system appeared to be functioning well.
But it rested on a shaky foundation. The long era of cooperation between the two parties was based on a mutual agreement to bury the issue of civil rights for African-Americans. When Republicans agreed to stop their push for civil rights shortly after the Civil War (Republicans were generally the more progressive of the two parties on these issues during this era), Southern Democrats ceased viewing their rivals as grave existential threats to the southern system of racial segregation.
This was the real source of bipartisan toleration and forbearance during this era. This era of low-intensity partisanship unraveled once the civil rights movement began challenging the system of racial discrimination in the decades after the Second World War. This sparked a transformation in the composition of the two parties that carries into the present day.
For much of the 20th century, both major parties were big-tent coalitions, with their support cutting across religious, ethnic, geographic, and ideological lines. This arrangement began to unravel...
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The election of Donald Trump has sparked a great deal of discussion about the fate of American democracy. Does the election of a figure like Trump—an inexperienced outsider with obvious authoritarian instincts—suggest that democracy in the US is backsliding? Are we doomed to suffer the fate of other 21st-century democracies, like Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey, where true democracy ceased to exist? By what processes was democracy killed in those and other countries, and how might we prevent it here?
In How Democracies Die, authors and Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore the historical processes by which democracies came to extinction in other countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, while examining the rise of anti-democratic forces in American politics during the same time period.
By identifying the specific tactics that autocrats employ in their efforts to dismantle representative government and outlining the political conditions that give rise to authoritarian movements,...
One of the primary means by which authoritarians come to power in democratic states is through alliances with establishment politicians. In this chapter, we’ll explore how such alliances come to be, the basic characteristics that are shared by anti-democratic politicians, and the mechanisms by which mainstream political parties have traditionally kept such figures from attaining power.
We’ll also explore some real-world examples of how democracy benefits when political elites successfully perform their gatekeeper role—and the consequences that befall democracy when they don’t.
If we want the political system to reject authoritarians, we need to be able to identify them first. What are some of the warning signs of an anti-democratic figure or movement? The political scientist Juan Linz identified four warning signs of authoritarianism. They single out politicians who:
Now that we know how to identify authoritarians, we can start to think about ways to neutralize them. The institutions best-positioned to safeguard a free society and form of government are mainstream political parties—democracy’s gatekeepers.
By refusing to join in political coalitions with anti-establishment, populist extremists and rooting them out of their own ranks when such figures arise, mainstream parties can greatly limit the growth of anti-democratic forces.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. It is often very difficult for politicians and parties to resist the temptation to forge short-term alliances with popular demagogues—particularly if those demagogues are adept at delivering votes. Moreover, it is difficult for mainstream parties to work with their rivals in order to close ranks against a demagogue.
What are the specific mechanisms by which political parties can keep would-be dictators from ever attaining power? There are four main strategies that political parties can use to act as gatekeepers:
To better illustrate these principles, let’s look at some historical examples of times when political parties acted responsibly to protect democracy, as well some unfortunate cases when they failed to do so.
In 2016, a left-right coalition of parties in Austria helped to defeat the far-right Freedom Party and its presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. Prominent conservative politicians, in particular, crossed party lines to endorse Hofer’s left-wing rival—with whom they certainly had profound ideological disagreements, but who they knew would safeguard democratic ideals. The evidence from the election shows that the united front strategy was effective in defeating Hofer, as many voters from rural and traditionally conservative regions voted for his left-wing rival—following the clear signals sent by party elites that Hofer was unacceptable.
Unfortunately, the opposite dynamic played out in Venezuela in the 1990s with the rise of Hugo Chávez. Chávez was a political outsider and rabble-rouser, a former military officer who had been jailed for insurrection after leading a failed coup. But he became a hero to many Venezuelans for his fiery rhetorical attacks on what he portrayed as a corrupt and decadent political establishment.
The former president Rafael Caldera, seeking to regain his own hold on power, saw that Chávez could have a useful electoral appeal and sought to co-opt it. In 1993, Caldera was elected to the presidency as an anti-establishment independent candidate—all the while mimicking Chávez’s message and rhetorical style during...
So far, we’ve identified the main political traits of authoritarians and how mainstream political parties can successfully curb their influence—provided they exercise the political courage to do so. But we’ve only looked at such political developments outside the United States.
In this chapter, we will look more closely at how these same developments also apply to American politics. We’ll examine homegrown American authoritarians and how the political system used to be able to marginalize them. We’ll then explore the historical processes by which American political parties lost their crucial gatekeeper function.
Extremists have been able to garner the loyalty and support of large swathes of the American population in the past. The 20th century saw the rise of several such figures.
In the run-up to the 1924 presidential election, the great industrialist Henry Ford was overwhelmingly the top presidential choice of respondents to a series of polls conducted by Collier’s magazine in 1923. Unfortunately, Ford was also a notorious conspiracy theorist and rabid anti-Semite, who published an anti-Jewish newspaper in Dearborn, Michigan.
Later, in the 1960s, Alabama Governor George Wallace positioned himself as the defender of white America’s racial interests. Wallace, an ardent supporter of segregation and racial apartheid in America, was believed by many contemporary observers to have a political appeal limited to the South. But he shocked the political world when he garnered over 13 percent of the popular vote in his independent run for the presidency in 1968.
But despite their clear popular appeal, neither Ford nor Wallace ever got close to capturing a major-party nomination, let alone winning a presidential election. What stopped them?
To answer that question, we need to look at how major political parties traditionally shaped American politics. For most of American history, party insiders played a decisive role in choosing nominees for the presidency. These were the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” of party conventions and caucuses.
A candidate had to win over such party insiders to even have a chance of winning a major-party nomination. This crucial gatekeeping function is why outsiders like Henry Ford and George Wallace, for all their popularity with voters, never had much of a chance as presidential candidates. In the 1920s, both Republican and Democratic party insiders found the idea of the inexperienced and ideologically extreme Ford as president to be absurd.
Over a generation later, George Wallace suffered a similar fate. Considered unacceptable by the leadership of both major parties, he was forced to mount a third-party bid for the presidency in 1968 under the American Independent Party banner. Given America’s two-party system and the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College, this doomed his longshot presidential bid to failure. While he did manage an impressive showing in the popular vote, he finished with only 46 electoral votes—far short of the 270 needed to win.
In American politics today, party insiders play a far less decisive role in controlling presidential nominations. How did this come to be? We can trace the demise of the old party gatekeeper system to the turbulent events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Party delegates, deeply divided over the Vietnam War, entered the convention with no clear consensus on who the nominee should be, as no candidate had secured a majority of delegates during the primaries. At the convention, party insiders installed Hubert Humphrey—a candidate who had not run in any primaries—as the nominee.
But this was to be the last such presidential nomination carried out in this fashion. At a time when people were taking to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and popular candidates like the recently slain Robert F. Kennedy had helped open the door to a more representative form of party politics, the installation by a handful of party insiders of Humphrey at the top of the ticket was no longer considered acceptable. The circumstances under which Humphrey was selected dealt a crushing blow to the old party boss system and prompted calls for reform.
Those calls for reform resulted in the McGovern-Fraser Commission, a panel within the Democratic Party that was tasked with revising the rules governing its nomination of candidates for the presidency.
The commission shifted the party to a system of state-level primaries for the 1972 presidential election. Rank-and-file party members would directly elect delegates to the national convention, giving voters direct control over the presidential nomination process for the first time. Similar rules were adopted by the Republican Party before the 1972 presidential election.
What this meant in practice was that the old party gatekeepers were mostly gone. There were no more bosses or insiders who could veto the people’s choice for the nomination or install their own favorite. Anyone could now run for the nomination and completely circumvent the traditional gatekeepers.
At first, the new nomination system appeared to work quite well. Party insiders may no longer have been in direct control of the delegates on the convention floor, but the parties were initially successful at defeating the campaigns of insurgent outsiders. Such candidates generated lots of enthusiasm, but they fell far short of party presidential nominations.
This was because running a state-by-state primary campaign operation was a daunting and expensive task. A candidate would still need money, endorsements, media coverage, and television...
Examine the push-and-pull between party insiderism and demagoguery.
Do you believe the shift to the primary system has benefitted democracy? Explain why or why not.
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In the last chapter, we explored how American political parties traditionally played a decisive role in keeping dangerous autocrats out of power, and how they lost this ability beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In this chapter, we’ll look at perhaps the most significant consequence of this destruction of the gatekeeping power of major parties—the nomination and election of Donald Trump in 2016. We’ll explore why Trump was such a dangerous figure, why party leaders failed to stop his nomination, and how they enabled his success in the general election.
Early insurgent candidates like Pat Robertson and Steve Forbes failed to win the Republican nomination when they ran in 1988 and 2000, respectively. But in running, they exposed how vulnerable the new system truly was to hostile takeovers by outsiders with little institutional support within the party.
These candidates garnered high name recognition and earned a great deal of coverage from the media, which greatly boosted their national profiles. Robertson was a famous televangelist, who boasted a built-in audience of millions of loyal viewers before he launched his presidential bid.
Forbes, meanwhile, was a famous businessman with billions of dollars of his own money to spend—he could bypass the network of traditional GOP donors, because he didn’t need to raise money from them.
The rise of alternative media like Twitter and Facebook, as well as explicitly ideological and partisan media (especially on the conservative side of American politics) also served to weaken the parties as institutions. Through these channels, an outsider celebrity candidate could get their message across far more easily and communicate directly with their supporters. Media and technology, like the nomination process itself, had become democratized.
All of these factors were in place by 2015, when Donald Trump launched his bid for the Republican nomination. They were to give his campaign, at first considered a longshot, a decisive advantage and prove once and for all that the old system of party gatekeeping was truly gone.
When Donald Trump launched his campaign for the Republican nomination in June 2015, he was widely considered to be a novelty candidate who stood no chance of actually winning. He was a total outsider to GOP politics—he’d never held elected office, had no close institutional ties to the party, and seemed to lack the most basic grounding in conservative ideology.
Trump also seemed to do himself no favors with his outlandish rhetoric and extreme statements—including calling Mexican immigrants “murderers” and “rapists” and mocking US Senator and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain (R-AZ) for having been captured and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.
But Trump had critical advantages that party insiders overlooked. He was already a household name, having been a famous New York real estate developer since the early 1980s. On top of this, Trump was the host of The Apprentice, a popular reality television contest show, which exposed him to an even wider audience and boosted his image as a successful businessman.
The Trump campaign launched at a point in history where the Republican Party as an institution was in the weakest possible position to stop him from getting real traction and possibly capturing the nomination. We need to explore the specific ways in which the Republican Party failed to exercise its role as a gatekeeper. In general, the inability to stop Trump can be attributed to three distinct Republican Party shortcomings:
This shows us how an authoritarian demagogue rose to the top of the American political system thanks to the inability and unwillingness of a major party to exercise its proper gatekeeping function.
One of the most important aspects of the invisible primary is the winning of endorsements from party elites. These endorsements send a signal to donors and voters that a candidate is serious and worthy of support. On this score, Trump failed miserably. He secured no major endorsements before the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and picked up hardly any even after winning early primaries and emerging as a clear frontrunner.
But the lack of endorsements turned out not to matter much at all. Trump had assets as a candidate that were far more valuable than endorsements. He had the loyalty of influential right-wing media figures like Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, and the popular website Breitbart News. Combined with his high name recognition, this enabled him to communicate with his supporters directly, get his message out, and earn far more coverage than high-profile endorsements or campaign donations ever could.
Trump also excelled at generating enormous quantities of free coverage in the mainstream media (as opposed to paid campaign ads). He achieved this thanks to 1) being a major celebrity before he launched his campaign and 2) generating controversy—and thus, coverage—through outlandish and extreme statements. In effect, the media system rewarded him for his extremism. One study done after the election showed that Trump’s antics generated approximately $2 billion worth of free media coverage—something that all the endorsements in the world couldn’t buy.
Thus, boosted by name recognition and an uncanny ability to generate media coverage through extreme statements, Trump emerged as the clear frontrunner for the nomination, to the shock of many GOP insiders. Some party activists organized plots to change the rules at the convention to “unbind” delegates and let even those pledged to Trump vote instead for another candidate on the...
Think about how partisan loyalty influences political behavior.
Identify and explain two ways in which the Republican Party failed to stop the rise of Donald Trump.
So far, we’ve looked at how aspiring autocrats have come to power. In this chapter, we will look at the specific steps such figures take once they’re in power. As we’ll explore, authoritarians use three main tactics to dismantle democracy:
These changes may all technically be within the bounds of the law, but they all represent grave threats to a free democratic system.
In a team sport, the role of the referee is to act in a neutral manner and never to selectively apply the rules to favor one side over the other. Politics also has referees—non-political, neutral actors who can sanction the behavior of politicians. Typically, they are judges, state prosecutors, police, and civil servants. Their role is to enforce laws and regulations in a neutral and disinterested manner.
To an aspiring authoritarian, however, these upholders of political norms represent a threat. Because such officials are usually career civil servants, and not party loyalists or cronies, they are unlikely to have particular allegiance to him. If the authoritarian is looking to increase his own power, these officials have the ability to stand in his way. Therefore, the goal of the authoritarian is to neutralize them.
There are several ways that this can be achieved. One tactic is to simply fire civil servants from key agencies and pack those agencies with loyalists. If any bureaucrats object, an aspiring dictator can use the power of impeachment to forcibly remove them from office.
Alternatively, they can wield the intelligence and espionage powers of the state to surveil and harass state officials who refuse to knuckle under. These tactics can be applied against officials in the tax and regulatory agencies, the law enforcement system, and even the courts themselves.
In Argentina in 1946, President Juan Perón engaged in court-packing, working with his partisan allies in the congress to impeach and remove conservative members of the supreme court who opposed his left-wing agenda. Perón then replaced these justices with loyal partisans.
In Hungary in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party did their own twist on court-packing. They used their supermajorities in parliament to enlarge the size of the constitutional court and then filled the new seats with loyalists.
In the 1990s in Peru, President Alberto Fujimori used his executive control of the intelligence agencies to secretly record opposition politicians breaking the law by accepting bribes and visiting prostitutes. Fujimori then used this footage to blackmail these figures into standing aside while he consolidated his own power. If he couldn’t blackmail his opponents, Fujimori would simply bribe them, delivering direct cash payments to buy their acquiescence.
Once an authoritarian has captured the referees and ensured that there will be no meaningful checks on his power from within the government, he can turn his attention to his opponents —typically politicians from opposition parties, but also business leaders, media outlets, and journalists.
The previous step of capturing the referees plays a crucial role here. By stacking the courts, tax and regulatory authorities, law enforcement apparatus, and intelligence agencies with loyalists, the authoritarian can wield the power of the state to reward and protect his friends—and punish and intimidate his enemies.
There are several tactics authoritarian governments use to sideline potential opponents. These can include privileged access for pliant media outlets and the use of the legal and regulatory apparatus of the state to harass and intimidate opponents.
In Peru, President Alberto Fujimori used the power of the purse to force television stations into giving him and his regime favorable coverage. He made it standard practice to award lucrative state broadcasting contracts only to friendly media outlets that promised to present his government in the most favorable light—creating a strong financial incentive for private media to collude with the regime, which many ultimately did.
Authoritarians can also take matters a step further, using their now-captured referees to investigate opponents on trumped-up charges and intimidate them into silence.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa used his control of the prosecutorial and judicial system to win a massive libel settlement against an opposition newspaper, forcing the enterprise into bankruptcy. This exerted a chilling effect on other media outlets in the country as they realized their only choices were to either coddle the regime or face financial ruin.
Alternatively, the government can abuse its tax and regulatory authority to break up businesses that they fear might provide campaign funding for political opponents. This has been a favorite tactic of Vladimir Putin, President of Russia. Alleging financial impropriety, Putin has ordered politically motivated investigations of large media and oil conglomerates who refuse to align with him. These investigations result in the break up of such businesses, after which they are sold off to friendly businessmen at below-market value—thus rewarding Putin’s allies and punishing his opponents.
The final step in the authoritarian consolidation of power is to change the rules of democratic competition to neutralize opponents. The most effective tactics are gerrymandering and restricting who is eligible to vote.
Gerrymandering is the redrawing of the electoral map to lock in a political advantage for one party or faction. This is done through “cracking and packing”—diluting the other party’s voting power by spreading their voters across a large number of...
We’ve already seen how authoritarians come to power through irresponsible political parties that abandon their gatekeeping role, and we’ve explored some of the main tactics used by authoritarians as they dismantle democracy.
But political parties exercising their gatekeeping function is not the only way that democratic systems maintain themselves. In this chapter, we’ll explore some of the other guardrails that keep democracy from backsliding into authoritarianism—and what happens when political actors decide to remove those guardrails.
Constitutions and written rules are not, by themselves, enough to protect democracy. There is always potential for political leaders to act in bad faith in selectively interpreting the constitution to suit their own agenda. They can remain within the letter of the constitution, while violating its spirit. Worse, anti-democratic measures might still bear the stamp of technical legality, creating the veneer of democratic legitimacy for acts that are actually grave threats to representative government.
In fact, it is political norms, not laws, that provide the best protection for democracy. Norms are the unwritten rules that govern political conduct. When political actors adhere to norms, they are agreeing to engage in political competition according to a shared understanding about what is and is not acceptable. Even if some act of extreme aggression against one’s opponents is technically permitted by the written rules, responsible politicians do not engage in such conduct, lest they undermine the proper functioning of the democratic system. It is useful to think of norms as guardrails that prevent political competition from getting too intense or the stakes of elections from getting too high, thus turning every election contest into a winner-take-all battle that justifies winning at any cost.
For the purposes of our analysis, there are two norms that deserve special consideration—mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.
In a democratic political system, mutual toleration is the idea that one’s opponents have a right to govern, as long as they win fair elections and agree to play by the system’s written and unwritten rules. If we look back to our rules for identifying authoritarians, it is closely tied to the second such rule—accepting the legitimacy of political opponents.
It means treating competitors as rivals, not enemies. They are people with whom you might have strong disagreements on matters of public policy, but their election does not constitute an existential threat to you or to the overall political system. Without mutual toleration, opponents may feel that they are justified in taking extraordinary steps to keep their enemies from attaining power.
The demise of democracy in Spain in the 1930s provides a good example of what can happen when political competitors abandon mutual toleration. After the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, Spain was deeply afflicted by extreme political polarization. Ultra-Catholic conservatives on the right and socialists on the left viewed one another as mortal enemies and existential threats.
These were the sorts of disagreements and mutual hostilities that were impossible to resolve through the normal democratic process. After the fascist-aligned CEDA Party won the elections in 1933, centrist and leftist forces refused to accept the result. They formed their own parallel government and called for a nationwide general strike—extraordinary measures that greatly escalated political tensions.
This ushered in a dangerous tit-for-tat cycle, in which each move and counter-move hammered another nail into the coffin of Spanish democracy. The rightists responded to the general strike with a brutal and violent repression of their own. The country was in full-blown civil war by 1936, paving the way for the decades-long dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
The second crucial norm is institutional forbearance. Institutional forbearance is the unwritten rule that political actors will not weaponize their control of institutions to marginalize opponents or hamper effective day-to-day democratic governance—even if such behavior is technically allowed under the constitution.
We can look to the United States for a positive example of institutional forbearance. There was a longstanding American political custom of having presidents serve only two terms—a norm that lasted for over 150 years, from Washington to Franklin Roosevelt. Even popular two-term presidents who may well have won third terms had they chosen to run refrained from doing so, lest they violate what was widely considered an unwritten law. The norm was so strong that it was later codified into law by the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution.
Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance reinforce one another. Parties that practice mutual toleration do not view their rivals as existential threats. Therefore, they believe they have less to fear from these rivals attaining power. Accordingly, they are less tempted to abandon institutional forbearance and play hardball against them. This refusal to play hardball, in turn, generates more goodwill and further strengthens norms of mutual toleration. Thus, a virtuous circle develops that continually strengthens and reinforces democracy.
Institutional forbearance, however, can fall apart in presidential systems like the United States, where the executive and legislative branches are elected independently of one another.
Under these systems, the chances of divided government—where the executive and legislative branches are controlled by different parties—are quite high. Without mutual forbearance in such a system, politics can rapidly devolve into gridlock, dysfunction, and tit-for-tat escalation by the opposing sides, each...
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Examine how norms influence behavior.
Are there norms or unwritten codes of conduct in your organization? Briefly describe and explain them.
Having established mutual toleration and institutional forbearance as the two main governing norms that uphold democracy, we’ll explore how these democratic norms have played out in American politics. We’ll look at how they evolved, the historical challenges posed to them by anti-democratic politicians, and how those challenges were overcome in the past.
How have mutual toleration and institutional forbearance operated in the context of American politics? At first, they hardly operated at all. Immediately after the ratification of the US Constitution, the political system was characterized by intense partisan warfare between America’s two original parties—the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
The two parties viewed each other with mutual hostility. Both parties engaged in constitutional hardball, most notably through manipulating the size of the Supreme Court (whose size is not fixed by the Constitution) to maximize partisan advantage and censorship laws that targeted newspaper editors sympathetic to the other party.
This tit-for-tat cycle only subsided when a new generation of politicians rose to prominence in the 1820s and 1830s. These leaders had come of political age under the Constitution and were not defined by the bitter struggles of the early public. They accepted the give-and-take of democratic politics.
Partisan tensions escalated once again in the 1850s during the struggle over the future of slavery in the United States. The rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party in the northern states during this time prompted a harsh reaction from the more southern-based Democratic Party, which viewed the Republicans as an existential threat to the South’s racial, social, and economic order. Mutual toleration was dead once again, paving the way for the US Civil War.
After the northern victory in the war, the Democrat Andrew Johnson succeeded to the presidency following Lincoln’s assassination. Congressional Republicans, angered by Johnson’s insufficient commitment to protecting the civil rights of formerly enslaved people, began a new cycle of hyper-partisan brinkmanship. They used their veto-proof majorities to pass acts severely curtailing the president’s authority. This culminated in 1866 with Johnson’s impeachment in the House of Representatives and near-removal by the Senate.
Clearly, the Constitution hadn’t prevented American democracy from spiraling into civil war and dangerous partisanship. What the political system needed was better norms to guide politicians’ behavior.
The political system would develop the democratic norms it needed to survive—but at a terrible price. In the late 19th century, the Republican Party began abandoning its historical commitment to black civil rights (the Republicans were generally the more progressive of the two parties on these issues at this time).
Following the contested presidential election of 1876, Republicans and Southern Democrats came to an agreement known as the Compromise of 1877. This agreement let the Republicans take the White House, in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South. After the removal of the troops, white Southern Democrats rewrote state constitutions and systematically disenfranchised black citizens, a process we explored in Chapter 4.
This was the basis for the great 20th-century era of cooperation, when mutual toleration and institutional forbearance held strong and major legislation, Supreme Court appointments, and even constitutional amendments regularly passed with strong bipartisan majorities. Racial apartheid, sadly, was the glue of bipartisanship in the 20th century.
Given this brief overview of the ups and downs of democratic norms throughout American political history, it makes sense to look at how the political system is supposed to function. The US Constitution established a series of checks and balances across the three branches of government. The checks and balances are meant to operate regardless of which party happens to control which branch.
Each branch of government has a role to play in upholding these norms. By the same token, each branch has the ability to violate them if it so chooses. Let’s look briefly at norms within the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
The Constitution does not clearly set the limits of presidential power. This can leave open gaps that can be exploited by a creative and unscrupulous executive. For example, presidents can issue executive orders on a range of policy matters, which enables them to effectively sidestep Congress and legislate on their own.
Because of this potential for abuse, norms are extremely important. Presidents must exercise some self-restraint, lest they set a dangerous precedent. And, for much of the 20th century, this is indeed what they did. Presidents generally resisted the opportunity to use the powers of their office to gain an advantage over the other two branches, even when adhering to such norms came at a political cost.
Strong norms also govern behavior in the legislative branch. In the US Senate, the filibuster is a procedural device that can allow the party in the minority to require a ⅗ majority vote (60 votes) to end debate on a bill and proceed to a full vote.
In theory, this rule is in place to ensure that the minority party plays a role in governance and that the other party can’t exercise undiluted power with just a bare majority. But the filibuster can also be abused, giving the minority party extraordinary power to grind the business of government to a halt. It is a norm of institutional forbearance that prevents the minority party from abusing the filibuster to obstruct ordinary legislation—and for most of...
Democratic norms of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance operated successfully throughout most of the 20th century, despite robust challenges. But, as any observer of politics today can plainly see, these norms are under siege and may be slipping away entirely.
In this chapter, we’ll explore some of the key structural transformations in US politics over the past few decades that have pushed norms to the brink and examine some of the key players—particularly within the Republican Party—who have driven this process forward.
A good place to start is with the rise of Newt Gingrich as a major political player. In 1978, Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, was elected to the US House of Representatives. But Gingrich was no ordinary Republican. He had a view of politics as warfare, believing that defeating one’s enemies was its ultimate purpose—not working with rivals or seeking to find common ground with them. As he rose through the ranks, Gingrich formed the political-action committee GOPAC to train up-and-coming Republican politicians in these new attack messaging strategies, labelling Democrats as “sick,” “traitors,” and “anti-flag.”
Gingrich rose through the ranks of the GOP’s congressional wing throughout the 1980s, remaking it in his image and systematically destroying norms of mutual toleration. By 1994, Gingrich had transformed the party into one deeply committed to social and economic conservatism, opposed to compromise, and scornful of its opponents.
The next step along the road to destruction for democratic norms was the GOP’s fierce reaction to the election of Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to the presidency in 1992. The party, egged on by Gingrich and other advocates of a no-holds-barred approach to politics, subjected the new Democratic president to immediate constitutional hardball tactics.
After Gingrich’s Republicans won majorities in both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterms, they had even more power to damage Clinton. They tore up the unwritten rules of mutual toleration by abusing the congressional oversight prerogative to launch partisan and highly dubious investigations into Clinton. The goal of these investigations was never to uncover truth or investigate misdeeds; they were designed solely to generate negative media coverage of Clinton, drive up his unfavorable ratings, and cast a cloud of suspicion over a Democratic White House.
The culmination of Republican hyper-partisanship during the Clinton years was the December 1998 impeachment of the president on spurious and petty charges related to an extramarital affair. That the articles of impeachment passed on a near party-line vote showed how politically motivated they truly were.
This was a major breach of institutional forbearance and a blatant abuse of the impeachment power. Clinton’s behavior clearly did not come close to meeting the standard for impeachment. The Republican majority cheapened the constitutional power of impeachment and turned it into a mere partisan tool.
By the time Republican George W. Bush succeeded Clinton in 2001, the political game was being played on an entirely new field. Although Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” and pledged to be a “uniter, not a divider,” in reality, he pursued a hard-line, right-wing ideological agenda while in office.
With a Republican in the White House, congressional Democrats pursued obstruction tactics similar to those that had been used against them during the Clinton years, using filibusters and other arcane Senate rules to slow down the Bush agenda. They also began regularly using the filibuster to block Bush’s appointments to the federal courts.
Congressional Republicans, for their part, showed extraordinary deference to Bush. They violated institutional forbearance by entirely abandoning even the pretense of congressional oversight (which they had pursued zealously while Clinton was in office) to protect a president of their own party. They coddled Bush, even in the face of real scandals like the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the Bush administration’s catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina.
The political winds shifted again in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama was elected to the presidency. As the first African-American president, Obama’s rise was a historic moment in the history of the nation. But once in office, he encountered a radicalized Republican Party that was openly committed to his political delegitimization and destruction from the first day of his administration.
During the 2008 campaign, right-wing media stars and prominent Republican politicians darkly hinted that Obama was a radical Marxist and secret Muslim. These charges were echoed most effectively by that year’s Republican vice-presidential nominee—Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska. Palin whipped crowds of rank-and-file Republicans into a frenzy by baselessly accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” Mutual toleration had crumbled to a shocking degree, with prominent Republicans encouraging their voters to view the opposition party as an alien, illegitimate entity.
Obama won the election, but the viciousness of the campaign carried over into his presidency. Once in office, the GOP-led Tea Party movement formed to oppose Obama. Although the Tea Party often presented its concerns as having to do with fiscal policy, much of its energy came from birtherism—the belief that Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore ineligible to serve as president.
What was most alarming was that birther rhetoric was not just confined to the fringes of the party. Mainstream Republicans were publicly casting suspicion on Obama’s origins, including figures like former New York City Mayor Rudolph...
Now that we’ve explored the history of democratic norms in US politics and the assault waged on them over the past four decades by an increasingly radicalized Republican Party, it’s time to bring our discussion to the present day.
From his nepotistic appointments of family members to important advisory positions in the White House to his refusal to divest himself from his personal business interests to his seemingly endless stream of lies about matters great and small, Trump has emerged as a serial norm-breaker. The democratic guardrails are coming down, with political behavior once believed to be unthinkable now fully normal within Republican politics.
In this chapter, we’ll delve further into how President Donald Trump has degraded democratic norms while in office and explore the key factors that will determine the survival of democracy in America.
In Chapter 3, we saw how candidate Donald Trump exhibited all four signs of anti-democratic authoritarianism. How has he behaved since taking office in 2017?
To answer that question, we’ll need to recall the three main tactics used by authoritarian leaders as they move to dismantle democracy. To recap, they are:
As president, Donald Trump has attempted all three. We’ll explore each in greater detail below.
We can see Trump’s attempt to capture the referees of the American political system—law enforcement officials, judges, and civil servants—in several high-profile incidents. Early in his administration, Trump demanded that FBI Director James Comey—sworn to uphold the Constitution—pledge his personal loyalty and drop the FBI’s ongoing investigation into collusion between the Rusian government and the Trump campaign.
After Comey refused, Trump took the extraordinary step of firing him. This was a move nearly without precedent in US politics and a clear signal that Trump did not intend to respect the customary barrier between politics and federal law enforcement.
Trump also attempted to sideline his opponents through his attacks on the mainstream media. Trump routinely labelled mainstream media, which tended to give unfavorable coverage to his administration, as “fake news.” He argued that the media was inflexibly biased against him and that voters should disregard what outlets like CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times reported about his administration.
He viewed the media as his opponents and saw launching these attacks on them as a way to discredit them—and signal to his supporters that he was the only source of truth. This conditions GOP voters to live in an alternative-facts universe, while raising support for various forms of media repression among these same voters.
Trump has attempted to rewrite the rules of the democratic game through the Presidential Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity, run by Kansas GOP operative Kris Kobach. The commission’s ostensible aim was to root out in-person voter fraud and clean up America's election system.
Part of the impetus for this commission sprang from Trump’s oft-repeated (and demonstrably false) claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the 2016 election and that he was the true winner of the popular vote (a belief now shared by nearly half of all Republican voters, demonstrating a disturbing distrust of democracy among the GOP base).
The problem was that there was zero evidence for Trump and his GOP allies’ claims of widespread voter fraud. The true purpose of the commission was to promote the false Republican narrative of voter fraud, encourage the adoption of state voter ID laws, and push for state election authorities to purge voter rolls.
State voter ID laws, passed almost exclusively by Republican-controlled states, have been shown to make it disproportionately harder for poorer and non-white voters to exercise the franchise—i.e., voters more likely to support Democrats. Because voters must go to the trouble of acquiring and paying for these forms of identification, they amount to a 21st-century version of the poll taxes favored by Southern Democrats during the Jim Crow era.
(Shortform note: Trump disbanded the commission in January 2018, after nearly all states refused to hand their voter data over to it. While this was a victory for voting rights, the very existence of the commission speaks to Trump’s willingness to broach democratic norms and attempt to rig the rules in his party’s favor.)
Based on Trump’s behavior in office, it is clear that American democracy is going to be facing strong challenges—in the Trump era and beyond. There are three key factors that will determine whether or not democratic norms survive in American politics. They are:
Let’s explore these in greater detail.
As we’ve seen, political parties are the best gatekeepers of democracy. The options party leaders face when dealing with an authoritarian in their own ranks are loyalty, containment, and confrontation.
There are a few ways that parties remain loyal to authoritarian leaders. They can actively enable the autocrat by willingly repeating his lies, amplifying his attacks, and vigorously defending him against opponents. Or they can more passively empower him, either by remaining silent on his most aggressive violations of democratic norms, or issuing only mild criticisms without taking any concrete action.
Alternatively, party leaders might opt for a containment strategy, in which they side...
We’ve explored the grave threats facing American democracy today—increasing polarization, no-holds-barred electoral competition, and the abandonment of traditional democratic norms. Worse still, the weakened state of domestic democracy has only emboldened autocratic leaders around the world in countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Russia.
In this chapter, we look at what might lie ahead for American democracy and explore some of the structural reforms that can help rescue and strengthen it.
What lies ahead for American democracy? Although we cannot know the future with complete certainty, there are three possible scenarios for representative government in the United States:
Let’s explore what each of these scenarios might look like.
This is the most optimistic vision for American democracy. This is a world in which the Trump era proves to be short-lived and leaves behind few lasting effects. It might entail him losing reelection (possibly in a landslide that wipes out Republicans at the federal, state, and local levels) or even being removed from office via impeachment or resignation.
Under this scenario, Trump and the authoritarian forces he represents are swiftly replaced by new pro-democratic reforms that strengthen the republic. Future historians might look back on the Trump years as a brief aberration, a period during which America stared into the brink of authoritarianism and decided to step back.
However, this scenario is unlikely. As we’ve explored, the forces within the Republican Party that enabled Trump long preceded him—and they are likely to be in place long after he is gone from the political scene. Unfortunately, Trump may be more of a symptom than a cause of the current democratic crisis.
The next scenario for the future is certainly the grimmest. This would be a world in which the Republican Party continues to score electoral success with its shrinking and increasingly radicalized white Christian base. This is certainly a real possibility—throughout history, dominant ethnic and religious majority groups haven’t typically yielded their dominant political and social status willingly and peacefully.
This is a future in which the Republican Party uses its majorities at the federal and state levels to rig the rules in its favor and reshape the courts, gerrymander the electorate, and systematically disempower non-whites through voter ID laws, mass deportations, and harsh immigration restrictions.
The third and perhaps most likely scenario is one of continually worsening polarization. We can catch a glimpse of this future in North Carolina. When Republicans took control of the state legislature there in 2010, they passed one of the most aggressive and racially discriminatory gerrymanders in the country. The new electoral map locked in Republican supermajorities at the state and federal levels, even in election cycles where the party was outvoted by Democrats.
This Republican majority worked with the Republican governor to pass some of the harshest voter ID laws in the nation, while reducing early voting and ending voting pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds. These were nakedly partisan and anti-democratic maneuvers, done solely to make it more onerous for their political opponents to exercise the franchise.
When voters elected a Democratic governor in 2016, the Republican legislature continued its hardball tactics, using its veto-proof majority to strip powers from the incoming governor, allowing them to pack the state executive branch with their partisans—even after losing the election. These measures were extreme violations of institutional forbearance.
If American democracy is under siege, what should its defenders do to preserve it? Those who wish to preserve democracy should use legitimate institutional channels—especially elections—rather than extra-constitutional means to defeat authoritarians. This strengthens faith in democracy. For them to be truly effective, however, pro-democratic forces must overcome the deep structural divisions that have proven so destructive to American democracy.
One strategy is the forging of broad, pro-democratic coalitions that cut across racial, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic lines. It is not enough to simply build interest groups of like-minded activists. A broad coalition would entail liberals reaching out to conservative businesspeople, evangelicals, gun owners, and other traditional opponents. These groups all have sharp disagreements with one another on a range of issues, but would all potentially stand to lose if authoritarianism and lawlessness gained a stranglehold over the country.
For such a coalition to come together, activists must resist the temptation to impose “litmus tests” on controversial issues like gun rights and abortion. This does not mean abandoning one’s commitment to these ideals, but it does mean putting them aside temporarily to come together and fight for democracy. Today’s allies can be tomorrow’s opponents once normal democratic conditions are restored.
Such coalitions can be enormously beneficial. By their very nature and composition, they can appeal to a broader slice of the country and transcend the partisan divide that is consuming our politics. This partial defusing of partisan tensions can lead to depolarization, which in turn, strengthens democratic norms of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.
Extreme partisan polarization is a key driver of the destruction of American democratic norms like mutual respect and institutional forbearance. Much of why the Republican Party is in such a deeply dysfunctional state can be attributed to its ethnic and religious homogeneity. It is overwhelmingly a...
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