Democracy Diary: How Democracies Die
Spoiler: R's did it, D's helped, and the proposed solution involves rainbow-pooping unicorns
I finally had a chance to finish How Democracies Die, by Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Spoiler: The Republicans did it, and the Democrats helped.
Basically, the authors outline what needs to happen for democratic institutions to stand, and they give examples from other countries. When a potential autocrat arises (and they lay out a four-point litmus test to identify such folks, all of which the immediate past president meets), it falls to that person’s party to use their gatekeeping role to deny them mainstream platforms and legitimacy, keep them off the ballot, and, if they do get on the ballot, do whatever it takes to keep them from being elected.
This didn’t happen in the US, obviously, though in Austria in 2016, it did. A far-right candidate and a Green candidate ended up on the ballot for a second-round runoff. Then, “several leading politicians, including some from the conservative OVP, argued that (far right candidate) Hofer and his Freedom Party had to be defeated. Hofer had appeared to encourage violence against immigrants, and many questioned whether an elected Hofer would privilege his party in ways that violated long-standing norms of the president remaining above politics. In the face of this threat, some important OVP leaders worked to defeat Hofer by supporting their ideological rival, the left-leaning Green candidate, Van der Bellen. The OVP’s presidential candidate, Andreas Kohl, endorsed Van der Bellen, as did Charman Reinhold Mitterlehner, Cabinet Minister Sophie Karmasin, and dozens of OVP mayors in the Austrian countryside” (30-31).
In Austria’s case, this kept the far-right candidate from power. Who knows what might have happened in 2016 had Republican leaders supported Clinton.
So what do you do once the autocrat is already there? The authors argue against focusing on the autocrat, or “fighting like Republicans” using scorched-earth tactics. “Where possible, opposition should center on Congress, the courts, and, of course, elections. If Trump is defeated via democratic institutions, it will strengthen those institutions.” (218).
Now, the book was published in 2018, after the long coup began but before the insurrection. Democrats did focus on Congress, to some extent - or at least Fair Fight did, electing Senator Raphael Warnock (as well as other Democratic senators) to give Democrats the majority in the Senate as well as the presidency in the 2019 election. Many of our guardrails held: the Secretaries of State then in office refused to commit vote fraud or lie about the results of the election.
Since 2018, Republicans have continued their focus (in progress for years, but intensified in 2010 once the white nationalist/white power base was energized after the election of Barack Obama) of packing the courts with right-wing judges. This leads to situations like Justice Thomas voting against a requirement to turn over records that turn out to implicate his wife in the attempted coup, and policies that and turn elections themselves into engines of autocracy through gerrymandering and voter suppression.
Biden does seem to be focusing on judicial appointments where he can. The National Democratic Redistricting Commission and Fair Fight are working to get fair maps and reduce voter suppression, though from where I sit, their results have been woefully inadequate so far.
Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that a broad coalition is best to defeat the forces of authoritarianism, coalitions that bring together those with dissimilar or opposing views on many issues, one that would “forge alliances with business executives, religious (and particularly white evangelical) leaders, and red-state Republicans. Business leaders may not be natural allies of Democratic activists, but they have good reasons to oppose an unstable and rule-breaking administration.)” I didn’t see much of that when the autocrat was in office.
However, they say, the fundamental problem in American politics is extreme polarization. They argue that changing this requires
that the Republican party be reformed, “if not refounded outright.” “It must marginalize extremist elements; they must build a more diverse electoral constituency, such that the party no longer depends so heavily on its shrinking white Christian base; and they must find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism, or what Republican Arizona senator jeff Flake calls the ‘sugar high of populism, nativism, nad demagoguery.’” They give an example of how a major center-right party like the Republicans were was refounded in Germany after reunification. (223)
that Democrats focus on policies that reduce inequality and benefit everyone. Dems seemed poised to do this, but the fatal miscalculation, or perhaps downright idiocy, of allowing Manchin’s treachery scuttled it.
I don’t know how plausible these ideas seemed in 2018, when the book was published. But in 2022, it seems to me, these suggestions are so unrealistic that the authors could just as well have said. “The best solution to the problems of democracy will involve unicorns pooping rainbows.”