Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—More Unraveling

how democracies die

Longtime readers of this blog probably know that I lean leftward politically. So maybe I should offer a disclaimer now: my intention here isn’t to “stab” Republicans and conservatives. (I’m a middle-aged white male, so most of my peers and friends—those few that I have—are Republicans.  If that means anything.)

But I’m offering a synopsis of a book.  Also, I’ve never subscribed to today’s fashionable tendency toward “equalization” in all things, especially regarding political parties.  Political parties exist because their members differ on the issues, and they often differ radically. And while they share certain behaviors, in many ways they also behave differently.  And I don’t think this can be disputed.

History has shown numerous examples of political parties around the globe that cease to exist because they overextended themselves.

How Democracies Die illustrates how and why the Republican Party has shifted so far to the political fringe, much more so than the Democratic Party, and I touched on this in my last post. In this post, I’ll briefly list more examples of why authors Levitsky and Ziblatt feel both parties have abandoned their roles as democratic gatekeepers, yet conservative Republicans have far exceeded Democrats in an “unraveling” of democracy in the United States.

2000 Presidential Election: a U.S. presidential election was determined, not by voters, but by a court, when the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 conservative opinion) to cease a recount of votes in a too-close-to-call election in the state of Florida.  The end of the vote recount resulted in a narrow Electoral College victory by Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore (Gore won the popular vote).

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Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh (photo Huffington Post)

Tom DeLay and Karl Rove: while Bush promised to be a bipartisan president, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reportedly told him “’We don’t work with Democrats. There’ll be none of that uniter-divider stuff.’” Bush’s political consultant, another Texan named Karl Rove, pushed Bush to govern “hard to the right.”

Senate Democrats: Democrats responded to the Bush presidency’s hard-right governing by “routinely filibustering Bush proposals they opposed” and rejecting or ignoring Bush’s judicial nominations. The 110th Congress filibustered “an all-time high of 139—nearly double that of even the Clinton years.” Later, during the Obama presidency, Senate Democrats responded to Republicans’ obstructionism of a Dem president by voting for a so-called “nuclear option” that eliminated the filibuster for most presidential nominations. Obama himself engaged in norm-breaking with unilateral executive actions in the face of “an increasingly dysfunctional Congress.”

House Republicans: “If Democrats eschewed forbearance to obstruct the president (Bush), Republicans did so in order to protect him.” The Republican House of Representatives essentially abandoned the practice of “regular order” which allowed minority parties to amend legislation, and began introducing bills under “closed rules.” The authors point out that the GOP-ruled House “conducted 140 hours of sworn testimony investigating whether President Clinton had abused the White House Christmas card list,” yet didn’t once subpoena the Bush White House, even during the controversial Iraq War.

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Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (photo AP News)

State redistricting: the longstanding norm of state redistricting every ten years to maintain equal populations was shattered by Texas Republicans (led by DeLay) when, in 2003, they gerrymandered in order to isolate black and Latino voters and ensure Democratic defeat. It worked. “Six Texas congressional seats changed hands from Democrats to Republicans in 2004, helping to preserve Republican control of the House.” Racial gerrymandering by Republicans continues today, most notably in the state of North Carolina, which contains what one NC pastor called “apartheid voting districts.” It worked there, too. In 2012, although more Democrats than Republicans cast votes statewide, nine of North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats were won by Republicans.

Conservative media: during the Clinton years, “the emergence of Fox News and influential radio talk-show personalities—what political commentator (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum calls the ‘conservative entertainment complex’—radicalized conservative voters, to the benefit of ideologically extreme candidates.” While the authors give Bush credit for not questioning his Democratic rivals’ patriotism during anti-Muslim hysteria following 911, they point out this was not the case with conservative commentators. “Commentators began at times to link Democrats to Al Qaeda—as Rush Limbaugh did in 2006, when he accused Senator Patrick Leahy of ‘taking up arms for Al Qaeda’ after Leahy probed Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito on the Bush administration’s use of torture.”

Conservative writer Ann Coulter joined the hue and cry with books featuring simplistic and melodramatic titles that portrayed Democrats and liberals as an existential threat: Slander, Treason, and Guilty. Not satisfied with these histrionics, she employed religion to emphasize her point: Godless and Demonic.

The authors say this “right-wing media ecosystem” reached a watershed with Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency. He was cast, by Fox News and others, as “Marxist, anti-American, and secretly Muslim” and linked with terrorists like Chicago professor and ex-Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, because Ayers had hosted a gathering for Obama in 1995. Fox News filled its programming with “at least sixty-one different episodes during (Obama’s) 2008 campaign” discussing the Ayers story.

McConnell (Reuters)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (photo Reuters)

Levitsky and Ziblatt say that the most disturbing aspect of this “right-wing media ecosystem” isn’t so much the extremism of the media itself, but its enormous popularity amongst right-leaning voters, and that its influence has, more now than ever before, seeped into the words and actions of powerful and influential Republican politicians:

Newt Gingrich: Obama is “the first anti-American president.”

Tom DeLay: “…unless Obama proves me wrong, he’s a Marxist.”

Iowa GOP Congressman Steve King: Obama is “anti-American” and will lead America into “totalitarian dictatorship.”

Sarah Palin: Obama has been “palling around with terrorists.”  (Words that elicit, from her fawning crowds, cries of “Treason!,” “Terrorist!,” and even “Kill him!”)

Rudy Giuliani: “I do not believe that the president (Obama) loves America.”

Ted Cruz: Obama is a “threat to the rule of law.”

Donald Trump: “I have people who have been studying (Obama’s not being born in America).”

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has admitted that “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.”

The combination of slanted conservative media coverage (read: propaganda) and reckless statements by conservative political leaders has been shown to profoundly effect voters:

According to a 2011 Fox News poll, 37 percent of Republicans believed that President Obama was not born in the United States, and 63 percent said they had some doubts about his origins. Forty-three percent of Republicans reported believing he was a Muslim in a CNN/ORC poll, and a Newsweek poll found that a majority of Republicans believed President Obama favored the interests of Muslims over those of other religions.

Even during a time of national crisis, such as the 2008 recession, Republican leaders refused to exercise bipartisanship. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, immediately following Obama’s election, the “single most important thing we want to achieve (in the Senate) is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

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Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (with President Obama)

And after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, 2016, the GOP-ruled Senate refused to hold nomination hearings for Obama’s replacement choice, Merrick Garland—a moderate with more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history—claiming it was too close to the November presidential election. It was an unprecedented act, yet another partisan maneuver to give Republicans an edge, this time to maintain a 5-4 conservative majority on the Court.  And it worked. Republican Donald Trump was elected, he nominated conservative Neil Gorsuch, and Gorsuch was confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.

***

Recall that, at one time in America, the two major parties were able to restrict extremists, such as Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and John Birch Society leaders, to the fringes of the political landscape. Political gatekeeping, mutual toleration, institutional forbearance, and a respect for norms and unwritten rules were the order of the day. Political leaders exhibited moderation, restraint, and civility (in varying degrees).

By the election of 2016, however, “open attacks on President Obama’s legitimacy (and later, Hillary Clinton’s) were carried out by leading national politicians.” Also recall that such questioning of the legitimacy of one’s opponent is one hallmark of democracies that have crumbled elsewhere in the world. This disturbing trend has allied itself with an almost total abdication of institutional forbearance, as exemplified by the Senate’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination.

Enter Donald Trump.

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.)

Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—Unwritten Rules of the Game

 

how democracies die

For those of you late to the game, I’ve been reviewing a recently released book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called How Democracies Die. The gist of this book is that democracies usually don’t die via military coups, but instead crumble from within, via legitimate elections and failures of “gatekeeping” measures, and that conscientiousness on the part of political parties is the best guarantor of maintaining democracy.

***

Americans are justly proud of their Constitution, which frames our government, and stipulates a federal separation of powers, the rights and responsibilities of state governments, and which includes 27 important amendments (the first ten of which are known as the Bill of Rights). I’ve talked with a few people who feel America’s constitution (our written “rules of the game”—see previous post) is so strong, that our country is impervious to democratic breakdown.

But Levitsky and Ziblatt say that America’s constitution is often vague and ambivalent and susceptible to radically different interpretations. Also, the U.S. Constitution has been used as a model, almost verbatim, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines, yet those nations nonetheless plunged themselves into dictatorships (under Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Ferdinand Marcos, respectively). Germany’s Weimar Republic had a constitution “designed by some of the country’s greatest legal minds,” yet it “collapsed rapidly in the face of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of power in 1933.”

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Franklin D. Roosevelt

The authors argue that, while written rules of the game are important, along with referees to enforce them (e.g. judiciary), these work best in conjunction with unwritten rules, or basic norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration is the idea that “we may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate.”

And institutional forbearance means “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.”

Think of democracy as a game that we want to continue playing indefinitely. 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….In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play.

The authors cite certain powers held by the executive and legislative branches that are vaguely addressed in the U.S. Constitution, or not at all, but both branches have adhered to certain unwritten rules regarding them. For example, the Constitution doesn’t limit the number of terms during which a president can preside. However, all U.S. presidents since George Washington, other than one, have limited themselves to two terms in office.

The Constitution also does not limit the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court. However all presidents (again, other than one) have adhered to the unwritten rule of limiting the court to nine justices.

Additionally, the U.S. Congress has the power to filibuster (which the framers designed to assist minority parties in the Senate), block presidential court and cabinet appointments (“advice and consent”), and impeach. But for most of the country’s history, Congress has exhibited institutional forbearance, courtesy, and “reciprocity” regarding these powers.

How Democracies Die highlights that, excluding the Civil War era, on only three occasions since 1776 have democratic norms (checks and balances) been seriously violated in America:

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U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt at court packing, his issuance of 3,000 executive orders, and his decision to seek a third term in office. (However, FDR never slipped into autocracy due to bipartisan resistance. Also—due to the dire situations of the Great Depression and WWII, most historians have given FDR a pass, similar to what occurred with Lincoln’s violation of habeas corpus during the Civil War.);
  2. McCarthyism and red-baiting in the 1950s;
  3. Richard M. Nixon’s authoritarianism and illegal activities in the 1970s, which resulted in a looming impeachment and his eventual resignation.

On all three occasions, guardrails held due to bipartisan cooperation. “Episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of ‘death spiral’ that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But the authors state that, beginning with civil rights legislation in the 1960s, things began to slowly change in the United States. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, which have held our democracy together like cement on brick, have increasingly become passé.

And over the past few decades, our unwritten rules of the game have been violated at an alarming rate, creating a toxic atmosphere that has allowed a Donald Trump to attain the highest office in the land. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss this trend in a powerful chapter entitled “The Unraveling.”

I’ll tackle that chapter next time.

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

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“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)

Tolling Bells?

how democracies die

A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, there have been a number of books about the ramifications of his election. Some are “celebrity” memoirs, such as those by former FBI Director James Comey and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper. But one book that has jumped out of the pack, for me, is How Democracies Die (Crown Publishing) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

It goes without saying that the provocative title might be construed as advertising a book-length opinion editorial. This book does point a firm finger at the current government in D.C. (How could it not?) But it goes deeper and analyzes how a demagogic figure like Trump could have been elected in the U.S., and what this means for the future of American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt aren’t partisan propagandists, but professors of government at Harvard University who have studied democratic breakdowns in Europe and Latin America, independently publishing books and articles related to world governments, including the U.S.

I’m partway through the book, and hope to share a review in a coming longitudes post. But for now, here’s a teaser, taken from the Introduction to How Democracies Die:

Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all of these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 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?

Maybe this book can offer some valuable insight into a troubling time in the U.S. I’ll try to share what I learn.

Stay tuned…

Martin Luther King and “The Other America”

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(Photo Santi Visalli / Getty)

The March for Our Lives students are presently receiving death threats and profanity-laced tirades, from so-called adults, for their campaign against American gun violence.  However – between pop quizzes and learning how to drive – they’re undeterred.

Someone else experienced a similar backlash for his activism.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to end segregation, poverty, and war.  He was ridiculed, threatened, jailed, beaten, and ultimately assassinated… 50 years ago today.

In a speech at Stanford University on April 14, 1967 (known as “The Other America” speech), he said something that could be equally applicable to today’s debate over gun control laws:

Although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from (killing) me… And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and does change the habits of men.

King followed this by observing that, once habits change, attitudes and hearts will follow suit.  Based on the behavior of many of our current (elected) leaders, history has yet to render a verdict on this.

On this dark anniversary, it’s good to remember we had a leader of integrity, who was also unafraid to dream.

(To hear King, click the link above, and scroll to 30:00 for the quote)

(Photo Agence France Presse)

Thoughts of Mary Jane

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Last Christmas I visited my 25-year-old son, who lives in the Mile High City. He picked me up in his car at the airport terminal. After we settled into our seats, he tossed an innocuous looking paper sack in my lap. “Welcome to Colorado,” he said, in his characteristic deadpan manner. I opened the bag and pulled out a long, white cigarette. I didn’t need to ask what it was.

“Memories are made of this!” I laughed, echoing an old Dean Martin song. If you’d have told me 25 years ago that my boy would one day present me with a welcoming gift that, in some parts of the U.S., is still a felony to possess… I’d have suggested you were smoking something.

Ohio is not Colorado, and not only because it lacks mountains. Recently, however, my home state waded a few centimeters beyond the shallow end of the gene pool when it passed a law permitting use of cannabis sativa (marijuana) for medical purposes. Pardon me for sounding derisive. But this is like America finally determining that, after 250 years of colonial and post-colonial slavery, emancipation of humans might be a good thing.

I’m perplexed why it’s taken so long for government officials (some of them, anyway) to concede that ingesting a plant may provide relief to people undergoing chemotherapy or suffering chronic pain. Maybe these politicos have been too preoccupied with weakening gun laws and deregulating industries that spew pollutants into our atmosphere. Again, pardon me for sounding derisive.

Marijuana plants contain a chemical called tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can reduce pain, induce relaxation, and heighten one’s senses. For you free-market conservatives, THC also promotes capitalism by expanding the tax base and helping to sell Big Macs and records like Pink Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON.

Unlike many foods legally sold in grocery stores, marijuana contains no toxic preservatives like MSG, BHA, BHT, or sodium nitrite, not to mention trans fats. It’s been a popular “vegetable of choice” amongst musicians since the early days of jazz.

Marijuana has not yet been proven to be physically addictive. There is some evidence of psychological dependence. But I’m betting there will always be people who have a predisposition toward overdoing things. My wife is psychologically dependent on low-fat fudgsicles. I’m psychologically dependent on watching Lawrence Welk reruns.sticker

There’s also no evidence that marijuana leads to harder drugs, despite decades of critics trying to prove otherwise. I smoked pot in college. I had opportunities to drop LSD and snort cocaine, but I turned them down. Just my opinion, but if a person wants to do hard drugs, he or she will find ways to do them, whether or not marijuana is involved.

Here’s another thought: morphine, a highly addictive opiate derived from the poppy plant, is a prevalent painkiller used in hospitals. Codeine, another addictive poppy product, is used in cough syrup, and sold over the counter. Why has it taken so long for non-addictive marijuana to be considered a therapeutic drug? Was REEFER MADNESS that powerful a movie? Was Nancy Reagan that influential?

Pardon me for being derisive about Nancy Reagan’s simplistic and failed Just Say No campaign.

And with apologies to my fellow inebriates, but no argument in defense of pot can ignore discussion of our one legal recreational drug. Our favorite social lubricant and liver enhancer was at one time used as a medical anesthetic. That’s the good news. During this same period in U.S. history, it was also doled out like candy to mollify the natives of this country so we could more easily steal their land. This popular recreational and physically addictive drug is now instrumental in exacerbating statistics for vehicular fatalities, divorce, homelessness, depression, and suicide. Other than contributing to temporary stupidity, marijuana doesn’t come close to creating this kind of societal havoc.

From my own experience, the worst thing about using marijuana is that it may cause mild anxiety, lethargy, and caloric escalation from eating junk food. And poor grades. Take it from me, it’s hard to study organic chemistry when flowers are blooming, the sun is smiling, “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” is in stereo, and McDonald’s is serving. And since marijuana affects the nervous system, it’s probably good that people are tested for specific dangerous professions, or where employees are assigned to protect public welfare.

But I can’t shake the nightmare of being tested by a certain squalid employment agency and being mistakenly accused of having pot in my system. It was shameful enough submitting to their breathalyzer b.s. in the first place. But after being accused, and even after they apologized and suddenly altered their erroneous “findings,” I swore off drug tests forever. I may have compromised most of my youthful ideals by this point in life, but I do have a little dignity left.

One final thought: there are pockets of people who still believe, despite tangible evidence to the contrary, that our government knows what’s best for us. For example, I know a very sweet but naïve and hyper-religious woman whose daughter has struggled with polycystic kidney disease. Despite having a successful kidney transplant, the girl still experiences pain. Recently, I ran into both at the grocery store. After hearing about the poor girl’s suffering, I suggested the possibility of medical marijuana. I forget what the mother said. But her look told me “Well, we don’t care for hippie drugs and would never do anything dangerous.”

Ok. Fair enough. We ended the conversation with smiles and a hug. I wished them the best of luck, as I headed to the checkout line, and Mom rolled their grocery cart toward the wiener section.

Not to sound derisive, or anything.

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