Book Review of “How Democracies Die” – Guardians at the Gate

how democracies die

“The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

In my last post, I discussed how authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, show how certain democracies have failed worldwide (e.g. those in Germany, Italy, and Venezuela).  Some countries, however, have successfully prevented democratic decay when threatened by authoritarianism.

Belgium is one. In the economically depressed 1930s, Belgium resisted an urge to swing toward fascism. Two far-right parties, the Rex Party and the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, surged in Belgian polls. (The leader of the Rex Party later collaborated with the Nazis.) Belgian centrist parties appeared to be in retreat. The mainstream Catholic Party was partly sympathetic with the popular Rexists, and could have joined with them. Instead, it went in the opposite direction.

The Catholics weeded out pro-Rexist candidates.  They also employed Rexist-style propaganda techniques, and created an anti-Rexist “Catholic Youth Front.” Their most effective gatekeeping technique, however, was to ally with the Belgian Socialist Party and Liberal Party behind leader Paul van Zeeland, to create a robust coalition that sidelined the Rexists. (At least, until the Nazis invaded Belgium.)

Similar gatekeeping occurred in Finland, when an extreme-right Lapua Movement surfaced in 1929. Finland’s more moderate conservatives pulled together to snuff out this “brief burst of fascism.”

More recently, in 2016 in Austria, the main center-right party (Austrian People’s Party) had an opportunity, but refused to ally with the ideologically similar but anti-immigrant, radical-right Freedom Party of Austria, ultimately defeating it.

(Notice how these various right-wing extremists were all toppled, not by their ideological opposites – liberals and socialists – but by moderates and fellow conservatives who were ideologically similar.)

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Emblem of Finnish Lapua Movement

And America has its own laudable record of squelching extremists. Henry Ford, radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace were all enormously popular with certain segments of America. But Ford, Coughlin, and Lindbergh were virulent anti-Semites, Wallace was a Southern racist and segregationist, and McCarthy was a rabid and reckless Red-baiter. (Long was assassinated, but some historians claim the “Kingfish,” who claimed he was the Constitution, had all the characteristics of a demagogue.) All of these men had political ambitions, and some succeeded at the state level. None, however, were able to progress beyond their current stations, chiefly due to a strong U.S. party system that prevented it.  (McCarthy was ultimately censured and disgraced. He began drinking heavily, became addicted to heroin, and died at age 48.)

As mentioned earlier, America’s best gatekeepers are our political parties. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that, ironically, the oft-citicized “smoke-filled room” of party bosses serves to weed out extremists that otherwise might threaten democracy. They say there’s always a tension between “will of the people” (which Alexander Hamilton warned about, and which has resulted in figures like Long, Wallace, and Trump) and too much gatekeeping, such as elite party leaders.

But democratic gatekeepers aren’t limited to political parties; they also include political institutions and non-political figures. To illustrate this, the authors draw parallels between democracy and a soccer game. A fair soccer game involves referees, rules, and equal opponents. When any one of these gatekeepers is debilitated, the game can tilt.

Referees: Who are the referees in politics? The judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Without strong referees, the authors argue, “The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured.” He can buy off opponents (including those in the media), pack the courts, and threaten impeachment of justices.

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Anti-Semitic radio host Father Charles Coughlin (photo Detroit Free Press)

Opponents: Once referees are in tow, autocrats then turn to their opponents. However, the authors say that most contemporary autocrats don’t wipe out all dissent, such as Mussolini or Castro did, but merely sideline “key players” opposed to their government. These players include opposition politicians, business leaders, and cultural or religious figures who have good standing with the populace.

Rules: To entrench power, autocrats must also change the rules of the game, such as altering constitutions and electoral systems to tilt the playing field against opponents. Example: post-Reconstruction Southern states. To circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Southern white Democrats used anti-democratic poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting, which consolidated white power in the South for a hundred years.

“Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled—even as it happens before their eyes.”

How Democracies Die points out that autocrats often take advantage of national crises, which allow them to break free from democratic institutions, often legally. Defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.

Example 1: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, was an outright subversion of democracy, and a black mark in an otherwise exemplary presidency.

Example 2: after 911, the controversial USA Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, “never would have passed had the September 11 attacks not occurred the previous month.” But Americans, including a bipartisan Congress, gave Bush a pass.

And then there are those leaders that invent crisis, like Adolf Hitler. No one knows for certain whether, as Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed, a communist Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. Some historians believe the Nazis did it themselves. Nonetheless, it ushered in a thunderstorm of Nazi barbarism that didn’t end until a dozen years later.

(To be continued)

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Burning of the German Reichstag

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”

how democracies die

Two posts ago I previewed a book I was reading called How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (see “Tolling Bells?”). I finished the book, and now want to share my thoughts.

I’ll offer one more preface, though. In my view, since the election of Donald Trump, the American electorate can be separated into three groups: those who will support Trump no matter what, based on one or more narrow ideologies that they view Trump as upholding; those who are disgusted with Trump’s personal and/or political behavior, yet who, in the words of writer Sinclair Lewis, believe “it can’t happen here”; and people like me, sickened by what they see, and who also believe democratic principles in America are eroding now, and have been for a while.

How Democracies Die has only reinforced my feelings about the road America is traveling down.

It’s a small book, but contains many ideas. Therefore, it’s probably best I break the book into digestible bits:

Fateful Alliances.  Most authoritarian leaders ascend not through violent coups, but through legitimate elections, and alliances with established political figures. The most well-known are, of course, Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler exploited a reeling German economy and infighting between the major German parties, and an alliance with conservatives who believed they could “contain” him. Mussolini used the power of theatricality, his party’s 35 parliamentary votes, divisions among the political elite, fear of socialism, and the threat of violence by his own Blackshirts to gain premiership. Political order was restored, and the Italian stock market soared.  Mussolini became a rock star…but only briefly.

While Nazism and Fascism were the two most horrific examples of democratic breakdown, the authors discuss a more recent example. Military leader Hugo Chávez in Venezeula was assisted to power by democratic President Rafael Caldera, whose popularity was waning, and who saw an alliance with Chavez as a political lifeline. He considered the demagogic Chavez a passing fad. He was mistaken. In 1998, Chavez was elected by a majority of voters.

Levitsky and Ziblatt ask “(W)hat kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often populist outsiders do.” They cite five of 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012 as being populist outsiders who ultimately weakened democratic institutions.

They also provide four indicators of authoritarian behavior:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

They argue that all democratic societies require “gatekeepers” to prevent authoritarians from gaining power, and the greatest gatekeepers are political parties and their leaders. Keeping extremists off party ballots, resisting alliances with extremist parties, resisting the urge to “normalize” extremists (as Caldera did with Chavez), and uniting with parties of opposing ideologies to block such extremists are all effective gatekeeping techniques.

They conclude “Fateful Alliances” with this:

For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures on their fringes, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.

(To be continued)

Fascism for Beginners, Part 2: Feeding the Beast

On February 24, 1926, leading NSDAP (aka National Socialist, or Nazi) officials met in the town of Bamberg in southern Germany. Hitler attended. In the crowd sat a skinny young man with blazing eyes and a crippled leg named Joseph Goebbels.

The Bamberg conference would be a defining moment for Goebbels and the Nazis. Until now, the well-educated but impressionable Goebbels had supported a northern German Nazi leader named Gregor Strasser.

Strasser was a typical Nazi: nationalistic, militaristic, and racist. But he was strongly opposed to Hitler’s 25-point Program (see previous post), and he competed with Hitler for party leadership. At the Bamberg assembly, Hitler delivered a withering two-hour speech. Any opposition to his extremist program was quickly smothered.

After Bamberg, Goebbels, like an adoring schoolgirl – and like so many other Germans – began to fall under Hitler’s spell. He would eventually rise to become Nazi Minister of Propaganda, one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen, and, next to Hitler, the person most responsible for bamboozling an entire country. Strasser would later be executed by Hitler.

Two days after this meeting, just 213 kilometers west of Bamberg, in the beautiful city of Frankfurt, a Jewish girl named Margot Frank was born. Exactly 19 years later she would die of starvation, exposure, and disease, along with her younger sister, Anne, in a concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

***

Historians and writers have been scratching their scalps for over 70 years over how a Western democracy, albeit a fragile one, could elect a dictatorship, then permit a bunch of misfits and sadists to start a global conflict, rape their nation, and commit the greatest act of genocide in history. There’s more than one reason, and they’re all very complex. But William Shirer discusses some of them in his book, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. I lack the space to adequately cover them, but I’ll try to graze the surface:

Margot Frank. Like her sister, Margot kept a daily diary while her family was in hiding. It’s never been found.

Sonderweg: “Sonderweg” is a German word meaning “special path.” It’s a theory that German peoples’ values developed differently from other Western nations due to the nature of their leaders, as well as the writings and teachings of certain German philosophers and thinkers. Before WWII, historians looked at Sonderweg in a positive light. But after the war, they viewed it as having hindered development of liberal democracy, and helping give rise to fascism.

Shirer discusses Sonderweg and proposes that Nazism was a logical evolution of a national character that dates to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther is famous for his “Ninety-five Theses,” which broke from Roman Catholic dogma and helped initiate the Protestant Reformation. But Luther also openly hated Jews and advocated violence against them. His anti-Semitic writings, needless to say, were circulated widely in Nazi Germany.

Shirer cites a number of Germans after Luther whose beliefs (Shirer claims) contributed to a rising German nationalism and sense of Aryan superiority. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, and composer and writer Richard Wagner are the most well-known. While these cultural giants undoubtedly influenced 20th-century German thought and attitude, Nazi propaganda skillfully selected only those ideas of theirs which helped promote its cause, then twisted them for its own purposes. For example, although Nietzsche is famous for his philosophy of the “Übermensch” (a superior human who creates new values in the absence of God), he also spoke out against anti-Semitism, and he didn’t intend his humanistic philosophies to imply Aryan racial or German national superiority.

But did many Germans in the Depression look beneath the surface of the Nazi propaganda?

The THIRD Reich: Hitler and Goebbels sold many incredible fictions to the country during their moment in history’s spotlight. One of them was that Nazi rule represented a third realm, following the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) and German Empire (1871-1918), and it would last a thousand years. It lasted less than a baker’s dozen, but enough gullible Germans became convinced that Hitler followed a line of great rulers that began with Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and continued with Otto von Bismarck.

Both Frederick and Bismarck have mixed legacies. They made Germany strong, but they did so through relentless militarism and imperialism. Additionally, Frederick marginalized Jews and despised the Poles, referring to them as “vile apes.”

Frederick II (Frederick the Great)

Hitler kept a miniature portrait of Frederick up through his final days cowering in his Berlin bunker.

Treaty of Versailles: Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors in World War I. After it was defeated by the Allies in 1918, Germany was required to accept responsibility for starting the war, disarm its military, relinquish large tracts of territory, and pay reparations (the equivalent of $442 billion U.S. dollars today) under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Many, including some in the Allied sphere, considered the penalties too harsh (although not the French, who suffered most during WWI).

Every political party in the Weimar Republic, from the liberal Social Democrats to the Catholic Centre Party to the conservative German National People’s Party, railed against the treaty, but none more so than conservatives, nationalists, and ex-military leaders. Many of them – especially the far-right National Socialists – found a convenient scapegoat in socialists, communists, and especially Jews, who had been successful as business leaders and were thought to have benefited from a weakened Germany.

Hitler was very skilled at gaining traction for his extremist ideas by appealing to Germans’ patriotism and racial heritage and demonizing “the other.” Hitler knew that once you can convince enough people of a shared enemy, and create an impression that this enemy is sub-human and has devious motives… it’s extremely easy to get people behind you. Hitler’s most fanatical adherents were young people who could be easily indoctrinated (“Hitler Youth”), and the lower educated, who could be easily duped. Although the Nazis took the tactics of demonization to unparalleled lengths, such behavior has been exhibited over and over throughout history by people in power seeking political gain. The strong preying upon the weak. It happens in dictatorships, as well as democratic republics… including the U.S.

But I digress.

Once the Jews, Bolsheviks, and intellectuals could be purged from Germany, Hitler argued, “Der Vaterland” would be purified. It could then unify its many independent provinces, regain its lost territories, and expand on them (providing Germany its “Lebensraum,” or “living space”). Then, once again, it could bask in the greatness for which it was preordained.

As jobs became ever scarce and German exports slowed to a trickle in the first years of the Depression (1929-1933), citizens hungered for quick and easy solutions… even if some of the solutions made them a little queasy, or might be temporarily “uncomfortable.”

Hitler and the National Sadists provided these solutions with gusto.

***

(Thanks for sticking with me in this unsavory topic. In the next installment of my “Fascism for Beginners” series, I’ll discuss how German citizens weren’t the only ones who contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany).

 

 

 

Fascism for Beginners

WWII Map

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which – George Orwell

I’m reading a very good book right now. It’s called THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH by William Shirer. I bought it a few years ago in honor of the 50th anniversary of its publication, but until recently it’s been sleeping on my bookshelf. I’m reading it now because, like many people since the November election, I’m pretty deflated, and I’m thinking this book will be a good antidote. Maybe it will put things into perspective. As low as America is right now, it would have to claw a lot more dirt out of the pit to reach the depths of 1930s-40s Germany.

RISE AND FALL is considered the definitive history of the Nazi Party. It’s a 1,150-page book of small print, so reading it is a long haul. I’m just past the rise and starting on the fall. Churchill has replaced Chamberlain in England. Germany’s vaunted army has finally been repulsed, on the icy Eastern front, by Russia. The U.S. has reluctantly been pulled into the war following the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I’ve never been much of a WWII buff. As far as historical conflicts go, I’ve always preferred the more antiquated and seemingly altruistic slaughter of the American Civil War. My wife loves the Second World War. Any time one of those black-and-white newsreels about WWII is broadcast on television, she grabs the remote. I can’t watch them. Inevitably, there are clips of that shrieking madman with the greasy hair and Charlie Chaplin mustache. I usually leave the room. The sight of him makes my skin crawl.

So until recently, I was probably like most Americans, in that my knowledge of Nazi Germany was limited to a few names, dates… and one monumental atrocity. But Shirer’s book has made it abundantly clear that Nazi philosophies and practices were aided and abetted many years prior to the war and the Holocaust. The war and the Holocaust were just fascism brought to its logical and horrifying conclusion.

Charlie Chaplin spoofing Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator” (1940). Hitler was considered a big joke in the beginning. After the clown makeup came off, the world saw something else.

What’s the definition of fascism? The “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” defines it as follows:

A political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

That’s a mouthful. But let’s look at the first part: “…exalts nation and often race above the individual.”

The Nazi Party was founded by a man named Anton Drexler and three other far-right Germans in Munich on January 5, 1919. At that time, it was called the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP). By 1921, a onetime vagabond and former Austrian colonel named Adolf Hitler had, through boundless energy, skillful oratory, and not a little fanaticism, wrested control of the party.

Anton Drexler, founder of the Nazi Party

Hitler added the words “National Socialist” to the name, making it NSDAP, or “Nazzy” (Note: the word “Socialist” here was merely used rhetorically and had little to do with the philosophies of various leftist parties in Germany at the time, which Nazism eventually extinguished). Hitler and other party leaders also delivered a 25-point manifesto. Two of the manifesto points were as follows:

Point Number 4: “Only a member of the race can be a (German) citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently, no Jew can be a member of the race.”

(This ignorant stipulation mistakenly assumes that precious “German blood” equates with race, when Germanic heritage is actually an ethnicity. And note the casual singling out of one particular group for discrimination: Jews. Evidently there were few Arabs in Germany at the time – at least, any that had social or economic significance).

Point Number 8: “Any further immigration of non-citizens is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich.”

(August 2, 1914 is the day Germany mobilized for WWI, which it ultimately lost. The 1918 Treaty of Versailles required the country to make reparations for its aggression, including a substantial loss of territory. This left a lingering bitterness throughout the prideful nation. The date of August 2, 1914 was probably significant to the most nationalistic Germans, but totally arbitrary to most immigrants).

Nation and race. Nationalism and eugenics. Always choice ingredients in a recipe for disaster. Remember, this Nazi “Program” was drawn up in 1921: eighteen years before Germany invaded Poland to start the next world war. Although NSDAP was still only a radical fringe group in Germany, the party principles had already taken root. Hitler and his henchmen would adhere to these two points, and all 23 others – and expand on them – until their empire of sadism finally toppled.

My stomach’s starting to churn, so I’ll break off. But please check back for the second part of my “Fascism for Beginners,” where I’ll be examining how citizens allowed a political party and its leader to turn their country into a pigsty.

The State of Donald Trump

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The other night a voice came to me, and it turned out it was the late, great, ‘60s protest singer, Phil Ochs. He said “Pete, wake up, this is Ochs here. Over.”

I said “You’re putting me on, of course, God.”

He then sang a few verses about the Vietnam War, and I realized it actually was Phil Ochs.

“I need you to do me a big favor,” he said.

I told him I was a huge admirer, have heard all his music, and that I’d do anything he asked. He told me he was concerned about the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted me to update his 1965 anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (which he himself later revised during the Nixon years).

Of course, I was flattered. But I explained that I was a terrible singer, and not much better as a guitarist.

“I know, I know. But you’re a boy in Ohio who likes old movies, like me, and you have a blog. I want you to use the framework of my song, but instead of Mississippi or Nixon, I want you to substitute Donald Trump. I’m really worried he might get elected.”

I told him it was impossible someone like Trump could be elected in America. I told him that, ever since I was a kid, the news media and politicians had assured me “The American people are smarter than that.” (Whatever “that” might be).

He laughed. “You don’t believe that line, do you? Ha ha, Pete, you’re so funny. Listen, Americans may know the maximum characters in a Tweet. But do they know the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

“Uh, nine, right?” I asked.

“Well, normally. Only eight right now,” he said with a tone of disgust. “Which proves my point. Where’s the outrage??”

I remembered that, despite a treasure chest of brilliant songs, Ochs was denied even one hit.

“Yeah, I think you’re right, Phil.”

“I want you to do this thing for me, Pete. And after this new lyric has been seen by your readers – all six of them – I’m hoping one of them will sing it, put it on YouTube, and it will then go viral and prevent a national catastrophe.”

I told him I’d do my best, then asked him if he thought my puny efforts would make a difference. But he said he had to go, and muttered something about “Bobby Dylan” and “squandering his talent.”

So here it is. Please, if anyone can sing, and can put this thing on YouTube so it will go viral and prevent a national catastrophe, Phil and I will be very grateful.

fascist killing machine

Here’s to the State of Mr. Trump (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” by Phil Ochs)

Here’s to the state of Mr. Trump
For behind the flashy suit there’s a tyrant with no heart
An egotist, a con man bent on tearing us apart
A bully spreading poison in a country that he’s bought
And the GOP supports him ‘cause he’s really all they’ve got
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the party of Mr. Trump
Republican officials have discovered it’s too late
So now he’s not that bad, and he’ll be their party’s face
Though he’s a sexist and a bigot, he’ll make their country great
The party of wealth and power has endorsed a man of hate
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
GOP, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the rallies of Mr. Trump
If you dare to criticize him you’ll be shown the door real fast
And everything is “beautiful,” at least as long as winning lasts
And he’s fawned on by reporters ‘cause he brings them lots of cash
His supporters stretch their arms like the Germans from our past
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the foes of Mr. Trump
The ones who disagree will get labeled with a name
And anyone unlike him is where he’ll lay the blame
The politics of slander are used for his own gain
Derogatory insults are how he plays his game
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the victims of Mr. Trump
It’s the many he’s offended, it could be you or me
Immigrants and disabled who are seeking dignity
P.O.W.s and women, our purple mountains majesty
Forget about our green fields, he’ll strip and drill us clean
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the money of Mr. Trump
His tax return’s a mystery, it’s locked behind closed doors
His accountants smile and plot on how to move his cash offshore
Four billion that he’s bankrolled and you’re a “moron” if you’re poor
Now he’s bought the next election and the voters must endure
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the priorities of Mr. Trump
Corporations with his name are weighted down with lies
He claims he’s for the people but he’s wearing a disguise
Instead of tackling issues he talks about hand size
When he starts discussing women you’d better shield your ears and eyes
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the legacy of Mr. Trump
A country now a punch line, an embarrassment to the globe
Hypocrisy and ugliness, each day a newer low
He’s used our flag to wipe his rear, the Constitution to blow his nose
If Pete and Woody and Phil were here they’d tell Trump where to go
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

***

A free society without a free press is like a table with no legs. Yet Mr. Trump has already banned, from his events, a number of major media outlets that he perceives as being critical of him. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate, and it’s not a good sign.

He may never visit this humble corner of the blogosphere. But I’d like Mr. Trump to know one thing:

“When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

(Many thanks to Sonny Ochs).

source of our liberty