Letter to the Editor: Warning lights on our democracy are flashing

To the Editor:

Even though democracies around the world, including our own, are experiencing growing pressures from globalization, immigration, racial/ethnic discord, economic inequality, and political gridlock, until recently, I had little doubt that our political systems could withstand these forces. After reading a new book How Democracies Die by two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, I am not so certain. The authors examine the demise of democratic societies around the world and raise frightening questions about our own society in the time of Trump. Since the end of the Cold War, most democracies that have become authoritarian have done so not through military coups, but through the actions of elected government officials subverting the democratic processes.

In many of the cases studied - such as, Hitler in Germany, Vargas in Brazil, Fujimori in Peru, and Chavez in Venezuela - the path to authoritarianism began with the rise to power of a politician outside the political mainstream. Although the appeal of these leaders to the masses was a significant factor in their rise to political dominance, the authors found that in many cases the reactions of the political elites and parties were more important. Instead of keeping the potential authoritarian restricted to the political fringes, they often allowed him to gain power with the expectation that they could coop, control, or use his popularity for their own purposes. So, for example, even though electoral majorities opposed Hitler, he was asked in 1933 to form a government as Chancellor, combining his extreme right-wing party with more moderate conservatives, to break a political stalemate. That proved to be a fatal mistake for German democracy for once he was in power, he moved the country to totalitarianism.

The authors identified four dangerous signs in politicians who became authoritarians. The leaders 1) rejected in words or deeds the democratic rules of the game - such as attempting to undermine  the legitimacy of elections, 2) denied the legitimacy of opponents - as in baselessly claiming that their rivals were criminals, 3) tolerated or encouraged violence - as in praising or refusing to condemn acts of political violence, and 4) indicated a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media - as in threatening legal action or other punitive actions against the media. As the authors document and discuss, Donald Trump has exhibited examples of all four categories of behavior.

The authors also make the critical point that having strong democratic constitutions were not sufficient to prevent many of these societies from sliding into authoritarianism. Societies also need strong democratic norms which are unwritten but which prevent would-be authoritarians from abusing the political process. In America’s past, two unwritten rules have been particularly important: mutual tolerance, the understanding that competing political parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, the belief that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their constitutional prerogatives.

The authors review the manner in which these unwritten understandings have worked in America’s past to prevent polarization and keep the democratic processes working. They also discuss the recent abandonment of these norms, including the refusal of the Republicans to allow President Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy that occurred after Antonin Scalia’s death, something that had never happened in the past 150 years. The violation of these norms has led to the current deadlock and the inability of Congress to solve any problem.

The authors also examine the manner in which the Republican Party allowed Trump (an outsider widely viewed by the party as unsuited for the Presidency) to become the party’s nominee and President. As they point out, even though many leaders refused to endorse him, none had the courage to openly support Hillary Clinton. Had they done so, their endorsements likely would have changed the election’s outcome.

Since becoming President, Trump has continued his authoritarian behavior: lying to the public; calling the media the “enemy of the people”; undermining the rule of law by attacking the courts, the FBI and the Justice Department; inflaming racial/ethnic tension; supporting White nationalists’ positions; using his office for private enrichment; and undermining long-standing alliances with democratic allies. A notable element during his tenure so far has been the reluctance of Republican leaders to oppose his behavior and agenda. This acquiescence coupled with the rise of social media and the role of Fox News serving as a propaganda arm of Trump’s administration should be signs of alarm for our democracy.

One poll of Republicans found that 52% were willing to delay the 2020 presidential election if President Trump said it should be postponed until we can be certain that only citizens can vote. Another poll found 45% of Republicans were willing to let the courts shut down media outlets for presenting information that is biased or inaccurate.

I am convinced that all Americans, but especially Republicans and Trump supporters, need to read this timely book and contemplate its message. Our democratic institutions and unwritten norms only keep us free until they do not.
 
Thomas W. Hill
Lansing

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