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.”

FDR

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:

mccarthy

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.

nixon

This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon

Anti-Government Protestors Occupy National Wildlife Refuge In Oregon

There’s been a lot in the news lately: a record blizzard in the eastern U.S.; President Obama’s controversial executive action on guns; Vladimir Putin’s reputed involvement in the assassination of a former Russian spy; the Middle East; the death of David Bowie; and the whacked 2016 presidential horserace, which the U.S. news continually obsesses over.

But there’s also an ongoing, “B-grade” story playing out in rural eastern Oregon at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Like a shy prairie dog, the story keeps poking its head out of its hole. On the surface, it doesn’t seem all that significant (thus far, nobody’s been killed). But it’s a tinderbox loaded with the stuff that makes many Americans salivate: domestic terrorism, the potential for violence, land rights, and (supposedly) the U.S. Constitution.

First, some background:

Theodore_Roosevelt_laughing

Teddy Roosevelt established the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Did he violate the U.S. Constitution?

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a 293 square mile area located in Harney Basin in southeastern Oregon. It was created in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. For thousands of years, the land had been occupied by Northern Paiute Indians.

White settlers began farming and ranching this land in the late 19th century. In 1872, President Grant issued a presidential order that all Paiutes in southeastern Oregon be herded onto a reservation there. But the farmers and ranchers insisted the reservation boundaries be shrunk, and after the Bannock War of 1878, most Paiute were exiled to land in Washington State.

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built roads and buildings on the refuge. Over time, federal purchases increased the size of the refuge. Since 1935, cattle grazing has been allowed on portions of the land. But such grazing has potential for doing harm to sensitive wildlife, and for decades a low-grade tension has existed between cattle ranchers and wildlife managers.

In addition to providing a haven for 320 species of birds and 58 species of mammals, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge also encompasses volcanic fields and geologic strata containing Pleistocene-era fossils.

Malheur_Wildlife_Refuge_(Harney_County,_Oregon_scenic_images)_(harDA0014)

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge: a diverse habitat (photo courtesy Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives).

In 2013, a compromise was reached between the cattle ranchers and refuge managers, where limited grazing is allowed in certain areas that do not threaten wildlife.

Then came Ammon Bundy and a group of armed militants. On January 2, they seized the refuge headquarters at Burns, Oregon, to protest the sentences of two ranchers who were convicted of arson on public property in an attempt to hide their poaching activities. But Bundy and his sycophants have a higher calling:

We warn federal agencies, federal judges and all government officials that follow federal oppressive examples that the people are in unrest because of these types of actions.

fdr

Franklin Roosevelt established the CCC, which created jobs at the refuge. Did he violate the Constitution?

Bundy obviously likes – or doesn’t like – the word “federal.” He’s also used the word “Constitution” a number of times. But it’s unclear to what part of the Constitution he’s referring to at any given moment.

Bundy is the son of 67-year-old Nevadan Cliven Bundy, who made news in 2014 when he took up arms against the U.S. government over $1.1 million in unpaid grazing fees. Bundy Sr. became a hero to conservatives who are opposed to what they perceive as federal overreach (though, like frightened rabbits, many quickly scurried after he made a remark that “the Negro” may have been “better off as slaves, picking cotton…”).

Ammon Bundy is a Mormon, and occasionally invokes his religion to defend his militant actions: “I ask you now to come participate in this wonderful thing in Harney County that the Lord is about to accomplish.”

If the Lord is supposed to accomplish “this wonderful thing,” why do Bundy and his bunch feel the need to wrap themselves in artillery? Bundy’s Lord evidently approves of armed insurrection.

The Bundy occupation began three weeks ago and is ongoing. The initial protesters have been joined by other militant groups who are drawn to the spectacle like wolves tearing into red meat. The FBI has been reluctant to use force on the several dozen still remaining because it understandably doesn’t want outright violence, like that which occurred at Ruby Ridge (1992) and Waco (1993). But Oregon Governor Kate Brown, after initially keeping mum at the FBI’s behest, finally went public with a plea for an end to the occupation:

3% gunman

Have gun, will travel.

“The very fabric of the Burns community is being ripped apart by this occupation…the situation is absolutely intolerable.” Brown also plans to demand that feds reimburse the state of Oregon for the costs being incurred, which currently hover around a half million dollars.

The fact that the occupiers – and let’s be honest, they are domestic terrorists – have been allowed to come and go as they please, including making uninvited and unconcealed-carry appearances at a town meeting at the high school gymnasium… well, it’s surreal to the point of nausea. Kind of like “Twin Peaks”  meets “A Clockwork Orange.”

burns residents

Many Burns residents agree with the terrorists’ anti-government politics, if not their tactics. But they now want the feds to intervene and kick them out.

The confrontation in Oregon is an example of right-wing extremism gone awry. Angry, under-educated white males who are caught in the crevasses of a changing American demographic and its values, and who stubbornly cling to a warped idea of what constitutes “individual freedom” and invoke the Constitution (and sometimes God) to defend their often violent actions.

At its ugliest, it’s Timothy McVeigh. At its more genteel, it’s opportunistic politicians like Matt Shea (R-Wash), who sympathize with the militants and, over objections from local officials, actually meet with them.

Maybe we should just turn Harney Basin back over to the people who knew best how to manage it, and who did so for thousands of years without either wrecking the environment or once uttering the word “Constitution”: the Paiute Indians.

Recurvirostra_americana_-_Malheur_National_Wildlife_Refuge,_Oregon,_USA_-adult_and_chicks-8

American avocet and chicks at the refuge (photo courtesy Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives).