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

The Trump Wall: A Progress Report

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As a candidate for U.S. president, some of Donald Trump’s most notorious campaign platform items were his controversial ideas on foreign travel and immigration. One was his so-called “Muslim ban” (ultimately Executive Order 13769, which was blocked by the courts and superseded by Executive Order 13780, which was blocked by the courts then supplemented by Presidential Proclamation 9645, currently undergoing more litigation along with La La Land ). Another bright idea consisted of building a “great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal Mexican immigration.

In 2015, I interviewed then-candidate Trump and touched on his wall policy. Now that Trump has (illogically) begun the second year of a presidential administration, I thought it might be worthwhile to visit with him for a status update on this wall. I’m curious to find out how big a priority the wall still is, and if the idea will lose air like so many other balloons the right-wing floats prior to every election (such as “locking up” Hillary Clinton for perceived “crimes”).

The United States of Amnesia deserves to be informed of how its elected officials are carrying out the duties for which they were elected. After all, “we” elected Trump, so “we” obviously deserve to know when and how this wall will be built. Has our government yet interviewed any landscape architects? Have we been privy to any blueprints? Will Mexico ever agree to finance construction? Will the wall extend all 2,000 miles of the border, or will Mother Nature assist in our exclusion effort? Will graffiti be permitted? If so, may we spray-paint obscenities at Trump, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan without being tossed into Guantanamo?

Trump and I met on the back nine of one of his many golf courses. I was shocked at his appearance. The bags under his eyes were heavier, and his trademark scowl was even more hideous. Nonetheless, he proved to be an ingratiating host, kidding me about my frequent shanks and divots, and interrupting our interview only 22 times to tweet angry reprisals at his critics (who seemed to multiply as we neared the 19th hole).

I’ve tried to reconstruct the interview as best I can. However, it was difficult to record the conversation, since Trump and his favorite Secret Service agent (Special Agent Rocco Infante) sat in the golf cart, while I had to cling to the back, sharing space with the golf bags (Trump’s bag was a typically garish monstrosity and took up most of the area). Also, I think he was still mad at me for dissing his juvenile reality show in favor of PBS during our first interview.

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longitudes: Thanks for meeting with me again, Mr. Trump.

Trump: My pleasure. I always enjoy mingling with the little people. Please call me “President” Trump.

longitudes: Speaking of which, how do you like your new job?

Trump: It’s not as easy as I thought! I have all these meetings and stuff. You’re also supposed to know stuff. Know what I mean? Covfefe.

longitudes: Uh… what?

Trump: Nothing. Hey, look at that hu-u-u-u-ge sand trap! C’mon, betcha ten grand that your ball lands in the dirt, Skippy.

longitudes: Please call me “greenpete.” I’m not a betting man, and those aren’t my kind of stakes. I’m not a golfer, either. But I’d like to ask you about your wall.diaper

Trump: Uh… (Trump feverishly taps something into his favorite toy). Uh… what wall is that?

longitudes: The one along the Mexican border you promised to build if elected.

Trump: Oh. That wall. Uh… you didn’t think I was serious, did you? Such a thing would be impossible. Even with a Congress loaded with short-sighted, hypocritical Republicans, believe me.

longitudes: Yes, I tried to tell you that in our last interview.

Trump: Don’t get smart, Skippy, or I’ll tell Mike Pence you’re gay.

longitudes: Your few meetings with Mexican President Peña Nieto haven’t gone well. Are you concerned that your supporters will get impatient that you honor your campaign promise?

Trump: My supporters? You mean those white nationalists and old ladies with dementia? They’d support me even if I defaced the Lincoln Memorial while wearing the American flag as a diaper. All they care about is that Hillary isn’t president, believe me.

longitudes: So you don’t think some will turn their backs on you in 2020?

Trump: That’s right. Anyway, any Democratic victory will be rigged. Fake news, baby. I’ll make sure I float that balloon, believe me. The Electoral College will come through for me again. Thank God for underpopulated red states like North Dakota.

longitudes: But even if the United States of Amnesia forgets about your promise to build the wall, aren’t you concerned about your…um… legacy?

Trump: Look, ok? Look. I’m no worse than your buddy Obama, the worst president in the history of presidents in every country in the history of the whole universe, believe me.

longitudes: I believe history will show Obama as a great president.  What evidence do you have that he’s the “worst”?

Trump: I don’t need evidence. Rush Limbaugh and FOX News say he is. I’m the executive now, and my job is to slash taxes for people like me! I keep telling people, I DON’T NEED TO KNOW STUFF!

longitudes: Well, Mr. Trump, on that illuminating note, I’ll bring our interview to a close and hop off.

Trump: Hey, aren’t you going to join me on the 19th hole for, like, refreshments? Or supper with Mike Pence? (No chicks, of course… Mike’s a traditionally married man).

longitudes: I’ll pass. I have a WordPress deadline to meet. But before I leave, let me just say that, in our last interview, you called me a “loser.” You’ve also disparaged certain immigrants. On behalf of us losers and immigrants, and the many that you’ve insulted over the years, including, as president, Puerto Ricans and the family of the woman who was run over in Charlottesville, I just have three words: shame on you. Covfefe ?

But Trump doesn’t hear me. He’s stepped out of the presidential cart and is twirling his 9-iron while strolling toward the water hazard, where agent Infante just lifted from the muck, and repositioned, the bright orange golf ball emblazoned with his profile.

Only God, Allah, and agent Infante know how many more “mulligans” this man will be allowed.

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(Disclaimer: this was a fantasy interview.  The only real interviews I’ve done are with people I like.)

A Walled Mind: My Interview with Donald Trump

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I will build a great wall – and nobody builds a wall better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Let’s ignore the poor English (referring to his single great wall as “them”) and the economic and political unreality of constructing such a monstrosity. This is a man who refers to people he dislikes as being “stupid,” “fat,” “ugly,” “lazy” (easier to sling playground insults than conduct a thoughtful debate). He’s neatly packaged all Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. He’s also insulted American P.O.W.’s by saying that his heroes “don’t get captured.”eyes

One would think that, at minimum, this last remark would alienate Trump from conservatives. Instead, Trump has skyrocketed in polls. He currently leads his closest Republican presidential competitor (Ben Carson) by a huge 16 percentage points, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll (http://wwlp.com/2015/08/27/donald-trumps-poll-numbers-on-the-rise/).

What does this say about today’s Republican Party? Toto, are we not in Kansas anymore?

I thought it would be interesting to conduct a fantasy interview with “The Donald.” After all, he is one of the reigning kings of fantasy television (generally referred to, oxymoronically, as “reality TV”). So before his circus act gets old with voters – and it will – here’s my mock interview with one of the most bloviating megalomaniacs ever to enter American politics. And that’s saying a lot.

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longitudes: Thank you for allowing me to interview you, Mr. Trump.

Trump: It’s my pleasure.  I’m more than happy to speak with small people such as yourself.

chinlongitudes: Why do you think you’re currently leading Republican presidential contenders by such a large margin?

Trump: What’s so surprising about that? Look at my competition! An African-American who picked the wrong political party. A coupla inexperienced Hispanics. A coupla Bible-thumpers. And a Bush.

longitudes: Your remarks about some people, especially women and minorities, might be considered insulting.

lipsTrump: Look, the problem with this country is it’s too thin-skinned! Look, whatever happened to freedom of speech!

longitudes: Well, nobody’s denying your First Amendment right to say racist, narrow-minded things. But don’t you think a presidential candidate should behave more professionally?

Trump: “Professionally?” I’ve been at the top of my profession all my life! Do you know my net worth?? Can your small mind even grasp how important I am??

longitudes: You promise, if elected, to build a “great wall” along the America-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration. How do you plan to do this?

Trump: With bricks and mortar, you idiot!

longitudes: How will you get this expensive bill through Congress? After all, this isn’t exactly a pork-barrel legislature.

Trump: I don’t need Congress.  Do you know my net worth??  I’ve got the money!

longitudes: Do you plan to also buy the 2016 election?

Trump: I already have. With a little help from the Citizens United decision.

longitudes: You once claimed that Barack Obama shouldn’t be president because he wasn’t born in America.

Trump: That’s right.  He produced a “Certificate of Live Birth.”  That’s not the same as a “Birth Certificate.”  Anyway, I don’t consider Hawaii as being part of America.

longitudes: Are you serious??

Trump: I certainly am!  And a lot of so-called “birthers” agree with me.  They may not be the best and the brightest.  But they will be, once they elect me.

longitudes: What do you say to critics who have called you an egomaniac and a xenophobe?

Trump: Look, I happen to think a healthy ego is a good thing. You could probably use a little more ego, you two-bit pseudo-journalist. What kind of question is this, anyway? What hole did you crawl out of? Look, do you know how important I am??? What the hell’s a xenophobe, anyway??finger

longitudes: A xenophobe is someone who’s afraid of people of foreign origin.

Trump: Hey, I’m not afraid of anyone!! How did you think I got as far as I did? Do you know my net worth?? I love foreigners! I hire them all the time. They’re great on TV, too. They add color.

longitudes: One last question, Mr. Trump. Longitudes is a big proponent of environmental stewardship. What is your stance on climate change?

Trump: (Hey, I was just joking about that “color” remark). What… climate change?? I love climate change! How can you not love the four seasons?

longitudes: No, you don’t understand, what I’d like to know is…

Trump: Look, all climate change is is a hoax created by China to give them an edge in manufacturing. Dammit, it’s China, China, China!

longitudes: You were once quoted as saying “It doesn’t matter what the media writes, as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” Do you ever wish you hadn’t said that?

Trump: Look, you go write whatever you want, Skippy. I’ve got more…mouth1

(Trump is interrupted by an aide, who whispers in his ear)

Trump: …Look, I’ve gotta go. Jeb Bush’s wealthy donors are dropping like flies. I feel a speech coming on.

longitudes: Well, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule, Mr. Trump.

Trump: Hey, my pleasure. You’re alright, kid. If you ever want a slot on “The Apprentice,” let me know.

longitudes: Well, thanks, but I’ve never even seen your show. I usually watch PBS.

Trump: Typical liberal. Have a nice life, loser.

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