Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—The Unraveling

how democracies die

Young people today might have difficulty with this: at one time in America, the two main political parties shared similarities, and actually showed civility to one another.

As the late, great Lou Reed once sang, “Those were different times.”

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, describe an America in which many conservatives actually voted Democratic, and many liberals actually voted Republican. The conservative South voted solidly Democrat, a tradition that dated to Reconstruction. And the urban Northeast was populated by fiscal conservatives, many of whom were fairly liberal on social issues. (My dad was one of them.) And—hard to believe, now—but white evangelical Protestants actually leaned Democratic.

This era encompassed 100 years of American history. But there was a dirty caveat to this calm bipartisanship: African-Americans were excluded from the democratic process.

With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which brought black citizens into that process, a sea change occurred in American politics. Previously, heterogeneity characterized both parties. Whereas they divided on the issues of taxes, federal spending, government regulation, and unions, they did agree on race. But with these two Congressional acts, the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights, while the Republican Party became the party of a white status quo.

“In the decades that followed, southern white migration to the Republican Party quickened. The racial appeals of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and, later on, Ronald Reagan’s coded messages about race communicated to voters that the GOP was the home for white racial conservatives.”

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Newt Gingrich in 1979 (AP Photo)

And while this was occurring, blacks (and, later, other minority groups) not surprisingly supported the party that emphasized human rights.

This is significant, because “for the first time in nearly a century, partisanship and ideology converged.” (The bold type is mine.) Today, the two parties are divided not only by policy, but they also represent, as How Democracies Die aptly displays, “different communities, cultures, and values.” This polarization was exacerbated by religion, especially after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and Ronald Reagan’s outreach in the 1980s to the so-called “Moral Majority”: white Christians opposed to legalized abortion, gay marriage (later), and who advocated school prayer.

How Democracies Die says that this ideological separation occurs in other Western nations, such as Britain, Germany, and Sweden. However, these nations don’t have parties exhibiting the same hostility as in the U.S. Part of this may be due to America’s long history of only two major parties, so the “anger” is less diffused. But that doesn’t explain all of it.

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while both parties have shifted closer to the fringes, this polarization has been “asymmetric, moving the Republican Party more sharply to the right than it has moved Democrats to the left.” They cite a 1964 essay by historian Richard Hofstadter that discusses “status anxiety,” which occurs “when groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat. This leads to a style of politics that is ’overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic.’” The authors conclude that Hofstadter’s essay is far more relevant today than when it was written.

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Bill Clinton

What is the “existential threat”? It is the changing demographic landscape in America. Blacks, Latinos, gays, non-Christians, and other once- disenfranchised groups (most of whom vote Democratic) are growing, and Christian Caucasians (most of whom vote Republican) see their numbers slipping.

The authors cite many events and trends since the Nixon administration’s “Enemies List” and illegal wiretaps—the latter condemned and punished via bipartisan gatekeeping—that indicate with clarity why political “mutual toleration” and “institutional forbearance” (recall that these are the unwritten rules, or the glue that binds democracies) have become obsolete. I’ll highlight a few of them:

Newt Gingrich: the former GOP Speaker of the House began his Congressional career in 1978 in Georgia with a “cutthroat vision of politics” that “questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism.” His team actually distributed memos to Republican candidates encouraging them to use pejorative descriptors to characterize their Democratic opponents, such as “pathetic, sick, bizarre, betray, anti-flag, anti-family, and traitors.” Gingrich encouraged a no-compromise style of political hardball, and “was one of the first Republicans to exploit” severe polarization as a political tactic.

Filibuster abuse: before the 1970s, the annual number of filibuster attempts never exceeded seven, but “by 1993-94, the number had reached eighty,” under a GOP minority in Congress hostile to the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Clinton hostility: “Senate Republicans…pushed aggressively for investigations into a series of dubious scandals, most notably a Clinton 1980s land deal in Arkansas (the so-called Whitewater investigation).” They followed this by appointing independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate. When Gingrich became Speaker in a GOP landslide in 1994, the party “adopted a ‘no compromise’ approach—a signal of ideological purity to the party base—that brazenly rejected forbearance in pursuit of victory by ‘any means necessary.’” This bore fruit with a five-day government shutdown in 1995; a 21-day government shutdown in 1996; and reached its “apogee” with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in December 1998 for lying to a grand jury about extramarital sex. It was a strictly partisan maneuver by a Republican House to bring down Clinton.

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Tom DeLay (photo Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

“In an act without precedent in U.S. history, House Republicans had politicized the impeachment process, downgrading it…to ‘just another weapon in the partisan wars.’”

Tom DeLay: Gingrich left Congress in 1999, but his brutal style of no-compromise politics was inherited by a Texan, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay “shared Gingrich’s partisan ruthlessness,” packing lobbying firms “with Republican operatives” (the K Street Project) and starting a “pay-to-play system that rewarded lobbyists with legislation based on their support for GOP officeholders.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt accuse DeLay of carrying “routine norm breaking into the twenty-first century.”  Longitudes accuses him of idiocy, based on statements like “God wrote the Constitution.”

(I’ll pick up with the 21st century next time…there’s sadly much more, starting with the explosion of propagandistic conservative media outlets that began during the Clinton years.)

The March on Washington

50 years

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Wednesday, August 28 is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.  The 1963 gathering at the Washington D.C. mall was one of the largest rallies for human rights in history.  Most of us associate it with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered (supposedly impromptu) in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s perhaps the most celebrated speech in America after Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, memorable not only for its noble precepts, but the oratorical power and grace of its deliverer.

The march was conceived as a rally for jobs, specifically better job opportunities for African Americans.  Through the influence of civil rights leaders Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, both of whom in the 1940s had pressured President Roosevelt to end discrimination in the U.S. military, it evolved into a mass protest for civil rights.

Originally it was conceived of as a march for jobs, but as 1963 progressed, with the Birmingham demonstrations, the assassination of Medgar Evers and the introduction of the Civil Rights Act by President Kennedy, it became clear that it had to be a march for jobs and freedom.

(Rachelle Horowitz, aide to Bayard Rustin, from Smithsonian Magazine article “A Change is Gonna Come”)

Until the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, blacks had been oppressed under the stasis of “Jim Crow” statutory legislation – essentially, legalized bigotry and segregation, mainly in the Southern states.  The March on Washington was intended to publicize these injustices nationally.  It ultimately drew 250,000 people, both blacks and whites, and included luminaries like singers Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary; actors Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman, and Ossie Davis; and comedian/activist Dick Gregory.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Although there was a large contingency of police, there was no violence.  According to Julian Bond, then communications director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Dr. King’s speech was the centerpiece:

When Dr. King spoke, he commanded the attention of everybody there.  His speech, with his slow, slow cadence at first and then picking up speed and going faster and faster… you saw what a magnificent speechmaker he was, and you knew something important was happening.

Andrew Young, aide to King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), recalls that the march helped broaden the civil rights struggle by illuminating exactly why blacks down South were being beaten, hosed, and even murdered: these weren’t rabble-rousers, but non-violent men, women and children trying to gain some dignity and basic human rights:

(News reports) didn’t say they put the dogs on us because (we) were trying to register to vote.  That never came through.  Or (we) were in places trying to apply for jobs and they ran (us) out with dogs and fire hoses.  Everybody had a 90-second view of the movement from the 6 o’clock news.  And (the march) gave (us) an opportunity, especially in Martin’s speech, to put it in the context.

After the march, organizers met President Kennedy at the door of the Oval Office where, according to John Lewis, chairman of SNCC and now a 13-term Georgia congressman, “He greeted each one of us, shook each of our hands like a beaming, proud father.”

Over the last 50 years, civil rights have come a long way.  Today, minorities and women have unprecedented economic and political clout.  But the human rights movement is forever pushing against those who would denigrate and deprive people living on society’s fringes.  One can still see it in those 90-second bits on the 6 o’clock news:  state constitutions banning same-sex marriage and unions; xenophobic congressmen stonewalling against immigration reform; the Supreme Court striking down sections of the Voting Rights Act; red states engaged in redistricting and devising creative, new, illogical barriers to voting.

But the March on Washington is proof that, when enough oppressed people organize and loudly proclaim “We have our rights!,” society can progress just a little.

(quotations courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine, July issue)

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March organizers meeting President John F. Kennedy