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The rot at the heart of American democracy

A political scientist explains the biggest threats to America’s political stability.

One of the most disturbing global political trends in the last few decades has been the emergence of so-called illiberal democracies.

In countries like Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines, reactionary governments have ascended to power through democratic processes, and then used their popularity to undermine institutional constraints on their power.

The case of the US is somewhat different.

As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias pointed out last year, our problem is not a popular authoritarian using his influence to destroy democracy. (Trump lost the popular vote by a significant margin, and his poll numbers remain historically low.) Instead, we have a major party (the Republicans) refusing to check an illiberal president and presiding over the erosion of critical norms and practices that shape political life.

Whether it’s refusing to give President Obama’s SCOTUS nominee a fair hearing, or suppressing minority voting rights, or enabling a president who withholds foreign aid to an ally in order to force an investigation into his political rival, the GOP is violating all the unwritten rules that make our system work. In a two-party system, such behavior can precipitate a crisis.

So where does this leave us? If America is experiencing a crisis of liberal democracy, how do we get out of it? Can we get out of it?

I put these questions to Harvard politics professor Daniel Ziblatt. Ziblatt was the co-author (along with Steven Levitsky) of 2018’s How Democracies Die, one of the essential books that can help us understand the Trump era. We discussed why democracies collapse, what norms are most essential to preserving a healthy democracy, and what happens when a major party in a liberal democratic system decides to stop playing by the rules.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Your book is about how democracy dies, but a major problem right now isn’t necessarily that democracies are dying. It’s that democracies in places like Hungary, Poland, India, and Brazil are becoming more illiberal.

How do you make sense of that paradox?

Daniel Ziblatt

So outside of the United States, I think you’re right that that is the trend. But I tend to think that liberalism and democracy are not really separable. I mean, conceptually they are, but practically I’m not so sure.

If we think of democracy as a system in which the majority of voters determine politics and liberalism as a set of protections for individual rights and things like freedom of expression and the press, then I’d argue that democracy without those things is kind of an empty shell. Or at least it isn’t what anyone really has in mind when they imagine democracy.

So to the extent that political systems are becoming less liberal, I think they’re also becoming less democratic.

Sean Illing

Let’s grant your premise that democracy and liberalism are necessarily intertwined. Why do those liberal norms and protections you just mentioned collapse in democratic societies?

Daniel Ziblatt

Polarization is a big factor. If political rivals regard each other as existential threats, they’re less willing to grant those protections to their political opponents. And people become polarized for various reasons — sometimes it’s about ideology, sometimes it’s about race or religion. Whatever the emotive issues dividing people happen to be, polarization makes it harder to grant these rights to the “other” side.

A second factor is that political competition works a lot like economic competition. In democratic systems, unrestrained political competition tends toward monopoly, or towards single-party rule. If one side is very successful, like in Hungary or Turkey, they start to set the terms for everyone else. They become dominant and feel like they don’t have to grant rights to the losing side.

Once that happens, you end up in a downward slide towards authoritarianism.

Sean Illing

Let’s focus on the two norms you say are most essential to democratic stability — mutual toleration and forbearance. What are these and what role do they play in a functioning democracy?

Daniel Ziblatt

We tend to think that the written rules matter a lot, and they do. The written constitution, the written law — these are important.

But our point in How Democracies Die is that unwritten rules matter, too.

Mutual toleration, for example, is a precondition for viable competition because if you don’t accept rivals as legitimate, then you will go to any length possible to prevent them from getting into power or ejecting them from power. And so, in a sense, even treating your rivals as rivals and not enemies is necessary in order for there to be disagreement and for the political game to continue.

Forbearance is about self-restraint and really has its origins in a pre-democratic world. Absolute kings needed to show forbearance and not kill everyone in order to keep their systems stable. So forbearance is a norm about stability. In a democracy, people with power also have to act with forbearance and self-restraint.

Again, this rule isn’t written in the Constitution, but it’s a norm, an unwritten rule. If it’s violated by one side, you get this tendency towards monopoly. If it’s violated on both sides, you get institutional warfare and escalation.

Sean Illing

Why are these norms or unwritten rules dying in the American political system? Is it just about polarization or did the structures that enforced these norms gradually break apart?

Daniel Ziblatt

Polarization’s a huge factor. The two parties, increasingly, see each other as enemies, not rivals. So the temptations to violate norms like forbearance are much, much stronger.

But there’s also been a huge transformation of the party system in the US after the Civil Rights era and the clustering of ethnicity into two different parties.

Sean Illing

Can you clarify what you mean there?

Daniel Ziblatt

So previously, the leadership of both parties looked pretty similar — mostly white, mostly Christian. But beginning after 1965, though not really until the 1980s, you have one diverse party — whites and all sorts of people — and another party, the Republican Party, which is now almost 90 percent white.

These stark ethnic divides provide the raw materials for people who want to exploit them for political purposes, to take advantage of them. So that’s a deep structural condition that has really amplified our polarization problem.

Sean Illing

In the book, you argue that establishment parties are “bulwarks” of democracy and when they start to break down, democracies die. Can you say why?

Daniel Ziblatt

Establishment institutions are mechanisms through which people gain power. So you can think of the media and political parties as establishment institutions in that sense — to get power, you have to gain the approval of and access to these groups.

When these things break down, the ability to limit who rises to power and who doesn’t is lost and that can be destabilizing. In a way, you could say this is more democratic because it opens the door to more people, but it can also be deeply problematic because it paves the way for illiberal forces who then attack democratic institutions.

This is sort of the paradox we’re stuck with.

Sean Illing

Well, we’re now in a situation in which one of our two parties (the Republican Party) has forsaken the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. Some of this was evident when you were writing the book, but I think you’d agree that the problem has only gotten worse since it was released.

Where does that leave us?

Daniel Ziblatt

I think we’re much worse off than we were when we wrote our book and we were already very worried at that point. Actually, I remember joking to someone as we were writing our book, “Oh, could you imagine if they just stopped having press conferences?” It was kind of unthinkable that that would actually happen in the White House, but it happened — along with countless other departures from what we’d consider “normal.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders conducts the daily news conference on May 17, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

So what we’ve learned in that last few years is that many things we considered impossible are, in fact, possible. And the norm violations are just getting worse seemingly every day.

But I would say I’m a little optimistic. In the last month, there have been signs that some Republicans are willing to separate themselves from Trump and I think that’s really crucial right now.

There are a couple of ways this thing could go. One is that there’s a Democratic victory so dominant and so overwhelming that it produces a kind of shock and awe model of social change. The Democrats get what they want, implement big changes, and force the GOP to correct course.

The other thing we could hope for is that Republicans finally break from Trump and reorganize themselves in a way that’s compatible with democracy. I’m not saying this is at all likely, but it’s at least possible. I recognize that Trump isn’t an aberration. In many ways, he’s the logical outcome of the Republican Party.

And yet, if we want our two-party system to work, we need both parties committed to the rules of the game. There’s just no other way forward.

Sean Illing

It’s hard to see a way out of this trap. Democratic politics is a game that relies on the good faith of the players involved. If one side decides to ignore the rules for the sake of power, the other side has no choice but to capitulate or respond in kind, which leads to a death spiral of illiberal behavior.

I mean, this is basically our current situation, no?

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah, and the only way I see out of it is for the Republicans to face a series of devastating defeats and realize that the path they’re on is no longer viable. Now I understand all the pitfalls of that as a solution. First, it assumes there can be a series of devastating defeats. Second, it assumes that if those losses occur, the losers will interpret it correctly and realize what they’re doing isn’t working as opposed to just doubling down.

So all of this might be unrealistic, and I get that. But someone has to show me an alternative path forward, because I just don’t see it given the limitations of our system. So if something like this doesn’t happen moving forward, I’d be deeply worried about what comes next.

Sean Illing

Can you think of historical examples of democracies drifting into this illiberal territory and then bouncing back before it was too late to undo the damage to liberal institutions?

Daniel Ziblatt


Sean Illing

Well, shit ...

Daniel Ziblatt

Okay, I’ll make two last points. One is that we’re in the fortunate situation of being able to learn from other countries and, hopefully, avoid their fate. So there’s that.

I also think we understand the stakes of this in a way people just didn’t in the past. In the ’20s and ’30s, for example, Europe didn’t fully understand the fascist threat or how bad things could get. The same was true in Latin America in the ’60s and ’70s — people just didn’t understand the stakes of the conflict.

The great recession of 2008 wasn’t as severe as the Great Depression, and that was no accident because economists and policymakers understand better how to avoid these fates. And so there is room for actual progress. I mean, history’s not totally cyclical. We have pretty robust institutions, we have a good sense of what’s at stake.

So I think there is a very real possibility of learning from our past mistakes and therefore not repeating them.


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