“How Democracies Die”, authored by two government professors at Harvard – Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, has drawn a lot of mainstream media attention recently for the warning it has for American democracy. Almost immediately I remember a conservative group, the Center for the American Experiment from my days in Minneapolis almost two decades ago. The book tagline is “A bracing, revelatory look at the demise of liberal democracies around the world – and a road map for rescuing our own.”
The authors give a lot of comparative case histories (with charts) of democracies that failed in Europe and then Latin America (and places like Turkey), related in some way in most cases to what we call populism. Comparisons may be incomplete: Europeans generally have more than two major parties, and generally have Parliamentary rather than presidential governments. We should add that commentators like Fareed Zakaria and Vox’s Ezra Klein have often written about the advantages of parliamentary systems for stability.
The authors do spend most of this relatively brief book on analyzing the US. No, our problems didn’t start with Donald Trump, or even Richard Nixon. The authors note that in the US two-party system, generally there was some crossover of ideologies and some limit on the cultural homogeneity of both parties that made bipartisan compromise possible. Two “unwritten rules” were always followed: mutual toleration, and forbearance. The latter comes up particularly in the way the Senate can use the filibuster.
The authors note that until the 1960s, southern segregationists were often Democrats. Overcoming them was indeed a challenge for Lyndon Johnson as he pushed the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. But after the gradual success of the Civil Rights movement in breaking down segregation and creating a culture where employment and housing discrimination (for starters) could no longer be acceptable, the old “coalition” within the Democratic party started to break down. By the time of Reagan, they had moved to the Republicans, especially in the South, and tended to comprise white evangelical Christians with traditional, multi-child families.
The authors don’t go into gay rights, which would follow, but it seems that the same ideas would follow. Consider, for example, that in World War II, we fought effectively with a segregated military. Truman ended that in 1948, and six decades later we could to the same for gay people when ending DADT (and now we have a skirmish over transgender).
It was the economic and technology changes that would accompany Reaganism (almost a pre-libertarianism in some ways) that would help set up the divide. The overall standard of living rose, and personal computers and soon the Internet developed. But employment became more captive to short term corporate profits and (for public companies) stock prices. A “winner take all” culture developed. That was very good for talented people, who in the beginning were mostly white men, but soon included many women. But less well-educated people were relatively less well off and less competitive personally. That gradually helped to drive political polarization. In particular, evangelical Christians, especially away from the two coasts and from university secular intellectual culture, felt that they were losing ground and began to see themselves as a “group”. I think the evolution of gay rights may have polarized them further (with the final legalization of gay marriage in 2015, after ending sodomy laws in 2003, both at the Supreme Court), making traditional family life and biological lineage less meaningful and more “private” in nature, as if a personal afterthought. At philosophical levels, life was unsettling: everything had to be “rational”, simple faith was demeaned, and existentialism grew.
The country united after 9/11, but then seemed to fracture again, as “The Cheating Culture” (David Callahan’s 2004 book), with the excesses that led to 2008. But once Barack Obama became president, partisanship really went into full boil, although Obama was allowed to guide the country out of the immediate financial crisis (Bush had started to do so). The idea that white evangelicals were forced to sacrifice for blacks (and maybe gays) in a zero-sum world was taking hold. But 2011, hardliners almost blew up the economy with partisan bickering over the debt ceiling. Other unprecedented behavior occurred, as the unwillingness of Republicans to allow Obama to confirm a moderate Supreme Court judge.
The authors explain that the polarization is more pronounced in the Republican Party (and the embedded Tea Party). By early 2016, furthermore, the “pre-primary” vetting of presidential candidates by party elites had been undermined by the asymmetry of the Internet. The authors put out the book before the scope of Russian hacking in stoking divisions further was fully understood.
I have been personally shocked by the “zombie” like tribal behavior of some Trump supporters – the “lock her up” chants, and outrageous social media trolling and conspiracy theories. I had no idea that a credible white supremacist movement could even be organized until Charlottesville happened in August 2017. The idea of white nationalism makes no sense to me, but that’s for another discussion of tribalism.
Trump’s threats to jail political opponents (“Crooked Hillary”) and journalists have not really come to pass. He is more afraid of the established media rather than individual bloggers (if anything, he seems to like some of my tweets, like on national security). But I think Trump sees journalists as “spectators” who don’t put their own skin in the game. But then ask Bob Woodruff, or even Anderson Cooper (who paid his dues in southeast Asia as a young man).
Zakaria has often said, we have weak parties and strong partisanship. Parties have to be repaired structurally because tribalism is in the genes of most of us (but not me).
|Author:||Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt|
|Title, Subtitle:||“How Democracies Die“|
|Publication:||Crown, 312 pages, hardcover, heavily endnotes, indexed|
(Posted: Friday, February 23, 2018 at 1 PM EST)