“Is our democracy in danger?” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write at the beginning of their new book “How Democracies Die” (Crown). “It’s a question we never thought we’d be asking.”
But the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president changed that. The Harvard professors—who will speak about their book at Brookline Booksmith on Jan. 22 and at Cambridge’s Harvard Book Store on Jan. 31—write, “Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize in having been precursors of democratic crisis in other places.”
“Trump exhibits many more of the central traits of an authoritarian leader. His instincts are very similar to authoritarians we’ve studied in Latin America or historically in Europe,” Levitsky tells me. “His personality, his inclinations, are more authoritarian than any figure we’ve elected [in the U.S.]—with the partial, possible exception of Nixon—in over a century.”
“We don’t see the demise of American democracy as imminent. We just think it’s much more at risk than we would have thought five years ago, 10 years ago,” Levitsky tells me. “The difference between the United States and other countries is our institutions are stronger. … What’s troubling is to see their slow erosion. They’re still there, but they’re weaker, and that’s what frightens us.”
Based on their studies of Latin America (Levitsky) and Europe (Ziblatt), the authors say there are four key predictors that candidates will be authoritarians:
• The politicians reject democratic “rules of the game.” For example, Trump wouldn’t commit to accepting the results of the 2016 election (before he won).
• The politicians deny the legitimacy of opponents. Such as Trump and his supporters claiming President Barack Obama was not an American citizen and calling for Hilary Clinton to be jailed with the slogan “lock her up.”
• The politicians “tolerate or encourage violence.” Such as Trump encouraging supporters to “knock the crap out of” protestors and pledging to “pay for the legal fees.”
• The politicians express a willingness to curtain civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Again, Trump calling for Clinton to be locked up. And more recently, Trump’s effort to stop the publication of the Michael Wolff’s critical book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”
Ziblatt and Levitsky write, “Trump, even before his inauguration, tested positive on all four measures on our litmus test for autocrats.
The authoritarian style in American politics
“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves,” Ziblatt and Levitsky warn. The great danger they identify is of a slowly creeping authoritarianism. “Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously ‘crosses the line’ into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells.”
Levitsky says, “There’s been an authoritarian streak in the American electorate for a very long time.” They point to the disenfranchisement of African-Americans after the Civil War Reconstruction. They point to Father Charles Coughlin, Louisiana Governor Huey Long, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Alabama Governor (and presidential candidate) George Wallace. “Many of them had the same amount of public support—38, 45, 40 percent—that Trump has. The difference is party leaders never nominated one of them before.”
Levitsky says, “What’s new is the Republican party lining up behind an authoritarian leader.”
The checks and balances built into our system may not be strong enough to protect our democracy. They note that constitutions—even those modeled on the U.S. Constitution—have not kept Germany, the Philippines and several Latin American nations from falling into authoritarianism.
It’s not our Constitution that’s most preserved our democracy, they write, but our large middle class, our “vibrant civil society” and “strong democratic norms.”
“Not only did Americans elect a demagogue in 2016, but we did so at a time when the norms that once protected our democracy were already coming unmoored,” Ziblatt and Levitsky write.
They diagnose “extreme partisan division” as “the fundamental problem facing American democracy.” As examples, they cite Republicans’ impeachment of President Bill Clinton and their refusal to fund Clinton and Obama’s governments. They point to Republicans refusing to vote on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland so they could, in effect, steal the seat on the court. “That was the single most egregious violation of democratic norms that we’ve seen in the last five years,” Levitsky says. “That was before Trump.”
They write, “The Republican Party has been the main driver of the chasm between the parties.”
Underlying the divisions, they say, has been racial and religious realignment as well as economic inequality. “Some of the polarization is the Democrats have absorbed new voters”—African-Americans, immigrants—over the past half century, “and the Republican Party has remained mainly a white Christian party. And it’s come to represent people who believe society is being taken away from them,” Levitsky says.
“That leads to pretty extremist thought,” Levitsky says. “Perceiving that your country is being taken away from you is a pretty radicalizing perception.”
Long term, Ziblatt and Levitsky recommend addressing racism and inequality by approving comprehensive health insurance, a minimum wage, paid parental leave, subsidized daycare, pre-kindergarten education. And Levitsky says, “Republican leaders have to insist that the party open up and become a diverse party.”
“There really have not been any successful truly multi-ethnic democracies in the world,” Levitsky notes. “The U.S. is poised to be the first.”
‘Republicans are in the best position to stop Trump’
What can be done to reduce Trump’s danger to our democracy?
“First and foremost the responsibility lies with the Republican party,” Levitsky says.
Party “gatekeepers” must keep authoritarian candidates like Trump off the ballot (despite the temptations to ride their popularity), Ziblatt and Levitsky write. They need to isolate and root out extremists from their own ranks. They need to avoid alliances with “anti-democratic” politicians. They need to avoid legitimizing them. They need to unite with other mainstream parties—even traditional opponents—to keep authoritarians out of power. Trump’s “rise to the presidency is, in good measure, a story of ineffective gatekeeping,” Ziblatt and Levitsky write.
Part of the problem, Levitsky says, is “Who is the Republication establishment at this point?” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? Speaker of the House Paul Ryan? “It’s almost nonexistent. There’s not a single moneyed interest that’s taken over. A handful of billionaires, the Koch brothers, etc., have tremendous influence, but they can’t win [presidential] primaries. They didn’t back Trump.”
But Trump is already president. So what can be done to stop his authoritarian actions now? “Republicans are in the best position to stop Trump, to contain him or if necessary remove him,” Levitsky says.
They don’t seem much inclined to do that, though. “That could change,” Levitsky says. “We’re going to be out there saying this is vital.”
“Lots of Republicans are deeply worried by the direction of the Republican Party. A lot of Republican voters are deeply, deeply disaffected. Hardcore Trump voters tend to think the system is not listening to them” so they’re inclined “to take a wrecking ball to the system,” Levitsky says. “In many respects, it’s a last gasp strategy of a party that’s in danger of losing its popular majority.”
Ziblatt and Levitsky encourage peaceful protest. They recommending building broad pro-democratic coalitions with membership that goes beyond the parties’ usual allies.
“It’s really important that opposition to Trump be norm-enhancing rather than norm-breaking,” Levitsky stresses.
“Think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely,” Ziblatt and Levitsky write. “To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow.”
Adopting extreme tactics, they argue, gives license to authoritarians to crack down, to be even more extreme. “That’s probably only going to accelerate the process of norm erosion,” Levitsky says. Also, authoritarians tend to be better at being extreme than those who take extreme measures to try to overcome them.
“It’s very important to take advantage of the institutions that are still there, to use them,” Levitsky says. “At least to date, elections are still fair and the courts are still viable.”
“I’m not calling for a radical change in strategy,” Levitsky says. “The most important thing opponents of Trump can do is win control of one house of Congress in 2018.”