A Republic — If You Can Keep It

Legend has it a woman asked Benjamin Franklin a question as he exited Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

As I’ve expressed before, I keep looking around at what’s happening in this country, both in our government and among our society, and I’m not liking what I see in either place.  I see a nation divided, one in which half the population is increasingly bigoted, intolerant of those who either don’t look, act, or think in the same manner as they do.  I see a nation in which violence is becoming an accepted norm.  I see a situation that is untenable, that must either be resolved by peaceful means, by acceptance and mutual cooperation, else will be resolved by violent means.  With the Big Lie that began even before the 2020 election results were finalized, and the resultant attempted and failed coup on January 6th, 2021, I see red lights flashing, warning that this is anything but “business as usual.”

There are many ways in which an authoritarian government can gradually take over a nation whereby people don’t even realize what is happening until it’s too late.  The first and most obvious, of course, is “divide and conquer.”  Tell people lies long enough and loud enough, and ultimately they will believe the lies.  Another, more subtle one, is to ‘dummy down’ the populace, keep them from learning true history or the role of government, keep them from learning how to think for themselves, and educate only the children of the wealthiest and most powerful.  But it is the people in a nation who have the most power over whether a democracy can remain so, or whether it will transform into an autocracy.

In their 2018 book, How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write about about how elected leaders can gradually subvert the democratic process to increase their power.  The book warns against the breakdown of “mutual toleration” and respect for the political legitimacy of the opposition. This tolerance involves accepting the results of a free and fair election where the opposition has won, in contrast with advocacy for overthrow or spurious complaints about the election mechanism.  Sound familiar?

The authors also assert the importance of respecting the opinions of those who come to legitimately different political opinions, in contrast to attacking the patriotism of any who disagree, or warning that if they come to power, they will destroy the country.  Other threats to democratic stability cited by the authors include economic inequality and segregation of the political parties by race, religion, and geography.  Sound familiar?

Published during Trump’s second year in office, the authors dedicate a number of chapters to the study of the United States, Trump, and the 2016 presidential election, and end with predictions for three potential scenarios for the post-Trump United States.

Levitsky and Ziblatt, both Harvard professors, have spent 20 years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe that democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms.  Again, sound familiar?

I bought and skimmed this book shortly after it first came out, but I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t give it much credence at the time.  Back then, I thought Donald Trump was simply a stupid, arrogant buffoon who, while I despised him and his every move, I didn’t think he posed a serious, enduring threat.  I’m still not sure that he, in and of himself, poses a threat, but the movement that he started, the “maga” cult he created, has permeated the halls of Congress, the Supreme Court, and even state governor’s mansions and legislatures.  Not only that, but it has riled a large portion of this nation, largely those with less education, less ability to understand the real issues the nation faces.  So yes, now I see that as a very real threat.  Levitsky and Ziblatt were prescient and saw the threat long before I did.

This week, I plan to read, not just skim, How Democracies Die, with a sharper eye, for I believe the authors are on to something here.  I’ll let you know my conclusions, may even write a review of the book, when I am done.

How Democracies Die …

democracies die -3There is a new book coming out on Tuesday, 16 January 2017.  No, this one isn’t a juicy tell-all like last week’s Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, but rather a. provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.  The book is written by two Harvard professors of political science, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America.

In the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four criteria that warn a leader is on a path toward authoritarianism:

  1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules.
  2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents.
  3. He or she tolerates violence.
  4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.

“A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century. Donald Trump met them all.”

The authors posit that today, the biggest threat to a democracy comes from within, at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections.

“This is how democracies now die. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

One of the biggest safeguards of our democratic republic is built into the Constitution:  3 independent branches, and most especially the independent judiciary.  Look back, if you will, at that list of four warning signs, and think about how Trump has attempted to undermine the institutions the independence of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. Think how he rallies and rants against anyone … anyone … who disagrees with him.  Remember how he has been quietly padding the judiciary with ultra-conservative judges, starting with Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court. Think of how he has questioned the legitimacy of judges who interfered with him. Remember how just a couple of weeks ago he referred to the U.S. Department of Justice as a “deep state”?  And how he referred to the mainstream media as the “enemy of the American people”?

Trump has largely failed in his attempts to undermine the Constitution, and the dam has, for the most part, held back the floodwaters, but for how long? Constitutions must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms, or unwritten rules of toleration and restraint. Rules, for example, that say no matter what your platform or ideology, violence, racism and bigotry are always to be condemned.  Rules that say an opponent is just that – an opponent – not an enemy and not somebody to be taunted, harassed and bullied, nor called a criminal and jeered with chants of “Lock her up!”

democracies dieAmerican conservatives lacked courage. Once he was nominated, the only way to stop Trump was to endorse Hillary Clinton, and for a number of reasons, none sound, republicans were not about to do that!. Every senior Republican opposed Trump because he ticked the boxes on the authoritarian leader checklist. He talked the language of civil war: Clinton was not just an opponent but a criminal. Trump despised democratic liberties and said he wanted to remove restrictions on public figures suing for libel.

Trump incited violence at his campaign rallies. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato,” he told supporters, “knock the crap out of them, would you?” In power, he has fired the head of the FBI for doing his duty, just as Putin, Orbán, Chavez and Erdoğan have fired public officials they could not control.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue from gaining the nomination.

“Yet, when it came to it, every serving Republican leader – McCain, McConnell, Rubio, Ryan and Cruz – put party before country and endorsed a demagogue they knew was a threat to free institutions.”

The authors note that protest is of significant value in holding up the institutions, but that protest needs to be targeted against injustices, in defense of civil rights and institutions, not merely against the ruler and his followers.  In essence, exactly what we all know we should do, what I have duly noted, but often failed to do.  Anything else simply adds to the divisiveness, the polarization, and that is not beneficial to the protection of our democracy.

I found this book relevant, thought-provoking, and spot on in the authors’ analysis of how we came to be where we are, and what we can do to stop the downward spiral.   Nicholas Kristof over at the New York Times interviewed the authors last week, and you might find his take interesting. There is also a review of the book by Kirkus Reviews, in case you’d like a bit more.