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)

A Liberal Nod to Richard M. Nixon

nixon1

Here’s to the government of Richard Nixon
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always boggin’ down
And criminals are posing as advisors to the crown
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sound
And the speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of

Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of

Phil Ochs, from his song “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”

 ______________

In my 5th grade class I volunteered for a mock presidential debate. It was 1968, and the U.S. presidential election was nearing. The candidates were Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

I didn’t know anything about politics. I supported Nixon’s candidacy only because Joe Devereaux and some girl had already picked Humphrey. It was me and Kurt Carson in Nixon’s corner. I don’t remember much about Kurt, except that he was nearsighted and sported a crew cut. I do remember our parents were happy that we were stumping for Nixon.

Long story short, Kurt and I lost the debate. But only because most of the kids had parents who were Democrats.

It was the first and last time I stumped for Nixon.

 ________________

I don’t like to disparage the dead. Most of us already know Nixon’s legacy. He abused his power multiple times in attempting to cover up clandestine and illegal activities by members of his administration. Staring impeachment in the face, he resigned in disgrace, the only American president to do so. Had he not resigned, his forced removal from office would have been deserved.

Nixon’s resignation was 40 years ago this weekend. nixon resignsIt seems our media loves to drag out the details of Watergate every time its anniversary rolls around. Certainly, it was one of the severest crucibles in American history. But it was also a high point, and turning point, of American journalism. It ushered in an age of so-called “gotcha journalism.” And every time the word “Watergate” is mentioned, the precocious microphone-fondling progeny of Woodward and Bernstein begin to salivate.

Had Watergate never happened, Nixon’s presidency would’ve received mixed reviews. He ended the Vietnam War, but only after escalating it. He expanded Johnson’s progressive Great Society domestic reforms, but his war policy stimulated inflation and caused large budget deficits. Nixon had a golden opportunity to unite a country plagued with a generational and ideological gap. But his paranoia prohibited him from reaching out to his opponents. Instead, he did just the opposite: he compiled an “Enemies List” to target his critics.

But here are four areas in which Nixon deserves high marks:

Conservation: Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed into law the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He was the first president to make environmental protection a priority.

Foreign Affairs: Nixon normalized relations with China. His tentative friendship with the Communist nation forced the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, resulting in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Civil Rights: Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 to prevent gender discrimination, and ushered in large-scale, racial integration of public schools in the South.

Health Care: Long before Obamacare, Nixon proposed health insurance reform, including mandated health insurance by employers and federal funds to create Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs).

Nixon also deserves praise for resurrecting himself after he left office. He was a tireless American statesman, meeting with numerous foreign leaders, including those in the Third World. Along with Jimmy Carter and John Quincy Adams, he was one of our greatest “ex-presidents.”

nixon4

Just a guess, but if Nixon were around today, I’m not sure he’d gain traction with the Republican Party. Not because of his “dirty tricks,” but because he’s closer to the center than the fringe. He’d probably end up like Jon Huntsman during the 2012 Republican primaries: the first to end his candidacy, after being accused of moderation, and for being bold enough to utter the word “compromise.”

Nixon may have been morally vacant, but he wasn’t dumb. I can’t see him surviving in the current political climate, where nearly half the voting public views climate change as a vast liberal hoax, and universal health care as an idea hatched in the bowels of Hades.

Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon included the famous phrase “Our long national nightmare is over.”

But looking around today, isn’t there a different sort of national nightmare?

nixon2

U.S. Election 2012

The results of the 2012 U.S. presidential election are in.  Just a few thoughts before moving on to a more subdued topic.

This was the most expensive election in history.  According to the non-partisan Center for Responsible Politics, the presidential and congressional campaigns raised a total of $6 billion – $700 million more than the previous record in 2008.  This thanks in part to an abominable Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that said that government restriction of political expenditures from individuals, corporations, and labor unions was a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (popularly known as the “right to free speech”).  Why Super PACS (Political Action Committees) being allowed to dump millions into the candidate of their choice is considered “speech” is a question for the ages.  Regardless, all that money shifted just a few seats in the House and Senate.

President Barack Obama won election to a second four-year term, while Democrats gained some seats in the Senate, which they control, and also in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.  Obama was handed an awful mess in 2008, and in four years he did an extraordinary job of putting the U.S. back on track, while facing unrelenting hostility and vitriol.  The housing market is stabilizing; unemployment is still high but down to the level of when he took office; the Iraq debacle is over; we’re winding down in Afghanistan.  His signature achievements were killing Osama Bin Laden and stifling terrorism, rescuing the U.S. auto industry, and the historic passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), designed to enable countless Americans access to quality, affordable health care (and is not the “government takeover” claimed by his critics – there’s not even a “public option”).  And we finally have a leader who isn’t timid about pushing for green energy.

But America is still at roughly 8 percent unemployment, there is still a large budget deficit, and there are still tax and immigration dilemmas.  The president needs to find a way to bridge the gap with stubborn Republican House members, who have signed a “pledge” not to raise taxes – even on the wealthiest Americans.  And Republicans will want Dems to address entitlements.  House majority leader John Boehner has promised his GOP members will work with the president to somehow find compromise, which is a good sign.  We’ll see.

The election was a resounding victory for Democrats and a thundering disappointment to Republicans.  If the GOP is going to maintain viability in the 21st century, it will need to embrace a changing demographic, one that includes blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, gays, young voters, and women.  It will also need to re-examine its ideologies.  Is active government necessarily “big government,” or can it improve the lives of Americans?  Is regulation of business and industry such a dirty word?

If the economy continues to improve and the president can somehow find common ground with an intransigent Congress – and this country can stay out of another war – I think history will view Obama’s presidency with kindness. 

Forward.