The United States might not be vulnerable to the types of blatant dictatorship we often picture when thinking of the term — the kind involving military coups or other abrupt and violent usurpation of power — but two Harvard University professors of government argue that Americans are facing a gradual yet unmistakable slide into authoritarianism.
This slide begins at the ballot box, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write, and is dangerously deceptive.
> We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace.
> An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them and, when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.
Democracy is imperiled, they write, when political parties fail to muster the courage to keep such demagogues from entering the mainstream. When this occurs, a second critical test is presented: “will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them?”
> Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended – by political parties and organized citizens but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not.
Weaponizing the courts, buying off or bullying the media and private sector into silence, and changing the rules of politics to the detriment of their opponents is how autocrats subvert democracy.
America has failed the first test with the election of Donald Trump and, without intentional action, could be on its way to failing the second, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt.
> Donald Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue within its own ranks from gaining the nomination.
Though many have taken comfort in the constitution, sure it will keep Trump in check, the authors are not so certain:
> Historically, our system of checks and balances has worked pretty well – but not, or not entirely, because of the constitutional system designed by the founders. Democracies work best – and survive longer – where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms.
> Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.
> These two norms undergirded American democracy for most of the 20th century. Leaders of the two major parties accepted one another as legitimate and resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage. Norms of toleration and restraint served as the soft guardrails of American democracy, helping it avoid the kind of partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies elsewhere in the world, including Europe in the 1930s and South America in the 1960s and 1970s.
But the “guardrails of American democracy” continue weakening in America today, after democratic norms began eroding in the 1980s and 1990s, only to accelerate through the 2000s.
> By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans in particular questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.
> Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it. The challenges facing American democracy run deeper. The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization – one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.
> America’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have fueled an insidious reaction and intensifying polarization. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.
It is for these reasons that Levitsky and Ziblatt believe there is true cause for alarm: Americans elected a demagogue at the same time the country’s democratic norms are withering.
> Many Americans are justifiably frightened by what is happening to our country. But protecting our democracy requires more than just fright or outrage. We must be humble and bold. We must learn from other countries to see the warning signs – and recognize the false alarms. We must be aware of the fateful missteps that have wrecked other democracies. And we must see how citizens have risen to meet the great democratic crises of the past, overcoming their own deep-seated divisions to avert breakdown.
> History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes. The promise of history is that we can find the rhymes before it is too late.