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.