This is the title of a book written by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, that will be published next week. They found out, there are two ways democracies can die, the quick one with a bang—in a revolution or military coup, or with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms.
I`m still confident that the Trump presidency will turn out to be a phase rather than a turning point in American history. But it would be light-minded to dismiss the threats to the American system of government. They’re greater than we ever expected to see.
Two political scientists specializing in how democracies decay and die have compiled four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian:
1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules. 2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents. 3. He or she tolerates violence. 4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.
“A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in their important new book.
“With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century,” they say, which sounds reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Donald Trump met them all.”
We mostly think that the threat to democracies comes from coups or violent revolutions, but the authors say that in modern times, democracies are more likely to wither at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections. That’s what happened, to one degree or another, in Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, Venezuela, Ecuador, Hungary, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Poland and Peru.
Venezuela was a relatively prosperous democracy, for example, when the populist demagogue Hugo Chávez tapped the frustrations of ordinary citizens to be elected president in 1998.
Likewise, the authors say, no more than 2 percent of Germans or Italians joined the Nazi or Fascist parties before they gained power, and early on there doesn’t seem to have been clear majority support for authoritarianism in either Germany or Italy. But both Hitler and Mussolini were shrewd demagogues who benefited from the blindness of political insiders who accommodated them.
The US are sure at the moment far away from Germany 1933, but I do see in Trump these authoritarian tendencies — plus a troubling fondness for other authoritarians, like Vladimir Putin in Russia and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Nevertheless I still assume US institutions are stronger than Trump.
It’s true that he has tried to undermine institutions and referees of democratic system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. But to his great frustration, American institutions have mostly passed the stress test with flying colors.
“President Trump followed the electoral authoritarian script during his first year,” Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude. “He made efforts to capture the referees, sideline the key players who might halt him, and tilt the playing field. But the president has talked more than he has acted, and his most notorious threats have not been realized. … Little actual backsliding occurred in 2017.”
That means: The system worked.
Yet, Levitsky and Ziblatt warn of the unraveling of democratic norms — norms such as treating the other side as rivals rather than as enemies, condemning violence and bigotry, and so on. This unraveling was underway long before Trump, but Trump accelerated it.
It matters when Trump denounces the “deep state Justice Department,” calls Hillary Clinton a “criminal” and urges “jail” for Huma Abedin, denounces journalists as the “enemy of the American people” and promises to pay the legal fees of supporters who “beat the crap” out of protesters.
But how to resist Trump`s aggressive tactics. The advice of the authors for Trump opponents is not to demonize the other side or to adopt scorched-earth tactics, for this can result in “a death spiral in which rule-breaking becomes pandemic.” It’s also not terribly effective, as we’ve seen in Venezuela.
They think alliances are necessary in defense of rights and institutions, not just against the ruler. They emphasized that it’s critical to build coalitions, even if that means making painful compromises, so that protests are very broadly based.
“If these actions are limited to blue-state progressives, the risk of failure and/or deeper polarization is very high,” Levitsky says. “Extraordinary measures are sometimes necessary to defend democracy, but they should rest on extraordinary coalitions — coalitions that include business leaders, religious leaders and crucially, as many conservatives and Republicans as possible.”
The German Weimar Republic was destroyed and an anti-Hitler coalition was unthinkable because of fundamental differences of his opponents.
I think an anti-trump coalition should include all people who still remain capable of genuine moral revulsion of authoritarian leaders.