“If, twenty-five years ago, someone had described to you a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal supreme court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania,” write Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. “You probably would not have thought of the United States.”
So how did this happen here? What led to the election of an authoritarian ruler who “subverts democratic rules, denies the legitimacy of opponents, encourages violence and indicates a willingness to curtain the civil liberties of opponents, including the media”?
According to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book “How Democracies Die,” it mainly comes down to the erosion of gatekeepers and the dereliction of social and cultural norms that have preserved American democracy since its founding.
It comes down to things like the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which opened the presidential nomination system from party leaders to people who directly voted for Democratic and Republican delegates loyal to presidential candidates in state primaries.
It comes down to people like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who wrote the GOP handbook on aversion to compromise, encouraged Republicans to play “constitutional hardball” and fanned dangerous rhetoric like “traitors,” “pathetic,” “sick,” “corrupt” and “unAmerican” to be applied to their Democratic counterparts. (Extreme partisan politics like how Republican leaders backed Donald Trump and normalized his candidacy over supporting opponent Hillary Clinton contributed to Trump’s presidency, write Levitsky and Ziblatt.)
It comes down to the rise of alternative media sources from cable news to Facebook, which further polarized voters and stripped power away from traditional media gatekeepers.
Mostly, write Levitsky and Ziblatt, it comes down to the decisions of political leaders to forego governing traditions like forbearance, “the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives,” and mutual toleration, “the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book is a systematic explainer of how Trump became the President of the United States and why that’s a danger to American democracy.
“We fear that if Trump were to confront a war or terrorist attack, he would exploit this crisis fully — using it to attack political opponents and restrict freedoms Americans take for granted,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt.
It’s happened before with Hugo Chavez’s in Venezuela, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Adolf Hitler in Germany and others with leaders dismantling democracies while promising to protect it.
“Would-be autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats — wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks — to justify antidemocratic measures,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt. Then with “no single moment, no coup, declaration of martial law or suspension of the constitution” democracy is dead.
So could that also happen here? Are we living through the fall of the American democracy?
It’s a distinct possibility, write Levitsky and Ziblatt. “People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.”