How Democracies Die (2018), a book by two Harvard political scientists, is a sober view of liberal democracy’s vulnerability in today’s world. The book has achieved attention for focusing on the troubling political forces now at work in the United States. What were once taken as safe assumptions about American democracy seem no longer so certain under the shadow of Trump’s year-old administration.
Key among these assumptions was the notion that the U.S. was a beacon for humanity, a dependable advocate for democratic values, a leader of the free world. This confidence in American uniqueness rested in good part on the historical premises of the American Republic, enunciated first in the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which expressed the rights-based values of the founders, and then in the Constitution of 1787, which purported to form a republican government with checks and balances and provisions to ensure the rights of citizens. The model of government so produced was instilled in generations of Americans, giving them the assurance that they had a layer of protection that other countries did not have. The danger of a rogue demagogue seemed a distant hypothetical.
But was this confidence of uniqueness only an allusion? The two authors, Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, waste no time in showing how fragile even the most celebrated of democracies with the most water-tight of constitutions can be under extreme stress. Before turning to the U.S., the authors draw on examples of other democracies, with constitutions often directly modeled on the U.S., that were overturned when an authoritarian leader found a way to corrupt the system. Among these examples were the Philippines in 1972 under Ferdinand Marcos and Argentina at various times in the 19th and 20th century.
According to the authors, what was lacking in these countries was not so much the constitutional and legal framework of democracy, but rather certain informal rules and understandings that make democracy work in practice. The authors distill these informal rules, or “guardrails of democracy,” down to two essential ones: “mutual toleration” and what they term “institutional forbearance.” If these simple standards are not shared by all political competitors, democracy easily becomes corrupted.
By “mutual toleration,” the authors mean treating political opponents as essentially legitimate, where winning is important but would exclude attempting to fundamentally discredit or destroy one’s opponents. “Institutional forbearance” means not pushing one’s legal prerogatives to the extreme, that is, by following not just the letter but the spirit of the law.
Donald Trump’s abuse of such “guardrails” during his campaign for president and in his presidency has raised numerous red flags in the minds of most Americans. In terms of intolerance, Trump from the beginning has belittled, disrespected, and bullied those who oppose or disagree with him. He has made the delegitimizing of opponents into an art form, casting doubt on Obama’s citizenship, connecting Ted Cruz’s father with Lee Harvey Oswald, and calling Hillary Clinton a criminal who deserved to be locked up. He has encouraged violence against his opponents’ supporters at campaign rallies and on one occasion suggested equivalency between anti-Nazis and Nazis. And he has often threatened legal action against critics, both in the opposing party and the news media, which he has famously labeled an “enemy of the people.”
Trump’s lack of institutional forbearance has been egregious in numerous areas. His tendency to treat government as his own personal domain is a prime example. Without explicitly breaking the law, he has felt in no way obliged as head of government to demonstrate transparency about his financial affairs, e.g. via his tax returns, to accept reasonable separation of his businesses from matters of state, to treat the Department of Justice as a professional entity distinct from his own interests, or to keep his children from taking personal advantage of the trappings of power. His carelessness regarding security clearances for appointees, often chosen for frivolous reasons, and his requirements that they sign non-disclosure agreements is further evidence of his placing personal whimsy over accepted process. Trump has also explicitly encouraged the Republican Congress’s ongoing contempt for process as it rushes through judicial appointments and passes critical legislation with no hearings or transparency.
Is there hope of changing the direction of a polarized democracy that seems headed in an authoritarian direction under current leadership? Solutions are easier formulated than achieved since there are fundamental issues that have given rise to the polarization, including racial friction, status insecurity of whites, economic inequality, urban-rural disparities, and the like. For those, Democrats in particular, who wish to strengthen our democracy, it is essential to work to address these underlying issues.
From a policy standpoint, this means supporting things that are inclusive and have universal appeal, including social security, medicare, generous family policy (e.g. paid parental leave), public schools, and programs that do not have means-testing or carve-puts for particular groups. Democrats must think long and hard before taking a strong lurch to the left and thereby risking alienating moderates disgusted by Trump. Strategically, this would mean making alliances with a wider assortment of groups, including mainstream religious and business leaders, and moderate Republicans where they exist. According to the authors, adopting Republican slash-burn tactics and being partisan is the wrong way to go.
On the other hand, moderate Republicans may have to think long-term for solutions on their side of the aisle, given the extremist behavior of Trump and the current Republican Party. At some point, Republicans will have to disown Trumpism, condemn white nationalism, and disassociate itself from the Hannities and Coulters of the world. It looks to the authors like this is too much of a reach, however, given the current complexion of the party base. Only a few good drubbings at the polls may have any effect in stirring the Republicans onto the right path.