Thursday, March 8, 2018

Democracy’s Fraying Fabric?

“[T]he difference between Republicans and Democrats? Republicans know they’re right; Democrats entertain the possibility that they might be wrong… And that’s why you see liberals drawn to the arts because it’s more of an open-minded type of thing.”
—Filmmaker/actor Rob Reiner, speaking to Laura Ingraham on her Fox News Channel show, January 21 
“While #Liberals scream about the 50’s blacklist, my #Repub actor friends are terrified of losing their ability to provide for their families”
—Tweet from actor James Woods, August 22
Last June I made an admittedly unlikely comparison between President Trump and former Chilean president Salvador Allende. My point was not that the two men were anything at all alike in their politics or their character. Rather, the similarity was in how, from the moment each came to power, the entrenched political establishments of their respective countries immediately began working to cleanse the system of the unwanted interloper.
How Democracies Die
It turns out that I am not the only one to whom it occurred to draw a parallel between Chile in the early 1970s and the United States in the late 2010s. A couple of months ago a book called How Democracies Die was published. The authors are Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of Government at Harvard University. Their tome is clearly meant to be a stark warning. The book’s cover consists entirely of its alarming title in large white letters on an intensely black background. In the introduction they write, “[I]n 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?” So we definitely know at the very outset where the authors are coming from.

Their approach is to examine failed democracies—notably Europe in the 1920s and 1930s and Latin America in the 1970s—and look for warning signs that can flag dangers to democratic institutions. In the first chapter, they list the four main warning signs—rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. They emphasize the importance of shared understandings among all sides about what is and is not acceptable, calling these understandings “the guardrails of democracy.” They point out that some of “history’s most tragic democratic breakdowns were preceded by the degrading of basic norms,” giving Chile under Allende as an example. After his election, partisan hostility intensified—exacerbated by the fact that Allende had won with only 36 percent of the popular vote and had no majority in Congress. His opponents dug in, in a way that one might call The Resistance, while Allende found inventive ways to implement his policies that did not require legislative votes. Thus Chile’s guardrails of democracy failed, and “the military seized power. Chileans, who had long prided themselves on being South America’s most stable democracy, succumbed to dictatorship.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt see a similar situation in Trump’s first year as president. While their thesis is that breakdown occurs because of failure on both sides of a political divide, they mostly find fault with the president. Interestingly, though, their indictment of him relies more heavily on his rhetoric than on his actions. They tend to assume that the president actually means—and would act on—every utterance and tweet. So far, at least in my estimation, his behavior has been much more moderate and conventional than his all-too-numerous off-the-cuff statements and infamous late-night tweets. For example, while Trump’s rhetoric about building a wall is highly provocative, the notion of enhanced border security was entirely mainstream just a few years ago. His aggressiveness on tariffs has economists and journalists in a tizzy, but in the last presidential election no candidate (including Hillary Clinton) was defending major free-trade agreements.

The authors’ solution for reining in the president and saving democracy requires Republicans to hold him in check and for voters in general to withhold support. While Democrats do not escape criticism, it is clear the writers consider Republicans most responsible for the nation’s polarized state. They seem to consider the mere fact of Trump being in office as a democratic failure. But look again at their four warning signs. Weak commitment to democratic rules? President Obama had many executive orders overturned by the courts, suggesting he was not entirely immune to the same temptation to inventiveness as Allende. Trump too has been rebuked by courts, mainly because of his immigrant ban, but to date he has always respected the courts’ rulings. Denial of legitimacy of political opponents? Democrats and the press have been casting doubts on the validity of Trump’s election since November. There has been persistent talk of impeachment and/or declaring the president medically incompetent, sounding not unlike the urging for a coup. Toleration of violence? Curtailing civil liberties of opponents? Of people invited to give a political speeches on campuses these days, the ones more likely to need security—or have their speech canceled due to safety fears—tend to be conservative. Yes, you can find examples on the other side as well, but that is my point—and ostensibly Levitsky and Ziblatt’s as well: the democratic breakdown involves all sides, not just one.

In the end, the authors run into the same problem in the academic debate as do participants in the political debate. It is impossible to present yourself as an unassailable authority or a reasonable arbiter when you so clearly identify with one of the sides. And you always wind up putting the onus of responsibility on the other guy.