Book review: How Democracies Die

Preface.  This is a book review with excerpts from the first half of “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. A few main points:

We tend to think of democracies dying at the hands of men with guns. But democracies may die at the hands of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany.  Or erode slowly, in barely visible steps.  Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.

We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place—by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates. Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.

Political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.  Today the guardrails of American democracy are weakening. The erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary. Donald Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it. The challenges facing American democracy run deeper. The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.

The convention system was once an effective gatekeeper, in that it systematically filtered out dangerous candidates. Party insiders provided what political scientists called “peer review.” Mayors, senators, and congressional representatives knew the candidates personally. They had worked with them, under diverse conditions, over the years and were thus well-positioned to evaluate their character, judgment, and ability to operate under stress. Smoke-filled back rooms therefore served as a screening mechanism, helping to keep out the kind of demagogues and extremists who derailed democracy elsewhere in the world. American party gatekeeping was so effective that outsiders simply couldn’t win. As a result, most didn’t even try.

Trump, even before his inauguration, tested positive on all four measures on our litmus test for autocrats.  With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.

  1. A weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game. Trump met this measure when he questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and made the unprecedented suggestion that he might not accept the results of the 2016 election.  Trump insisted that millions of illegal immigrants and dead people on the voting rolls would be mobilized to vote for Clinton.
  2. The denial of the legitimacy of one’s opponents. Authoritarian politicians cast their rivals as criminal, subversive, unpatriotic, or a threat to national security or the existing way of life.
  3. The third criterion is toleration or encouragement of violence. Trump not only tolerated violence among his supporters but at times appeared to revel in it. In a radical break with established norms of civility, Trump embraced—and even encouraged—supporters who physically assaulted protesters
  4. The final warning sign is a readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics. Donald Trump displayed such a readiness in 2016. He said he planned to arrange for a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton after the election and declared that Clinton should be imprisoned. Trump also repeatedly threatened to punish unfriendly media.

For would-be authoritarians judicial and law enforcement agencies pose both a challenge and an opportunity. If they remain independent, they might expose and punish government abuse. It is a referee’s job, after all, to prevent cheating. But if these agencies are controlled by loyalists, they could serve a would-be dictator’s aims, shielding the government from investigation and criminal prosecutions that could lead to its removal from power. The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured. With the courts packed and law enforcement authorities brought to heel, governments can act with impunity. Capturing the referees provides the government with more than a shield. It also offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies. Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses, and media outlets. The police can crack down on opposition protest while tolerating acts of violence by progovernment thugs. Intelligence agencies can be used to spy on critics and dig up material for blackmail.

Most often, the capture of the referees is done by quietly firing civil servants and other nonpartisan officials and replacing them with loyalists.

Several people have commented that I should stick to energy and not mention politics. Well hello! When oil declines, who is in power really matters. If Republicans control either the house or senate and the presidency, when times get hard you can forget about a fair rationing plan, oil and food will go to whoever can afford it and perhaps whoever voted Republican…

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Levitsky, S & Ziblatt, D. 2018. How Democracies Die. Broadway Books.

Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for 15 years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession. But now we find ourselves turning to our own country.

Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places.

We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?

How democracies die

The military police who guarded the palace had abandoned him; his broadcast was met with silence. Within hours, President Allende was dead. So, too, was Chilean democracy. This is how we tend to think of democracies dying: at the hands of men with guns.   During the Cold War, coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns. Democracies in Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey, and Uruguay all died this way. More recently, military coups toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. In all these cases, democracy dissolved in spectacular fashion, through military power and coercion.

But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany.

More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps. In Venezuela, for example, Hugo Chávez was a political outsider who railed against what he cast as a corrupt governing elite, promising to build a more “authentic” democracy that used the country’s vast oil wealth to improve the lives of the poor.    Blatant dictatorship—in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule—has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means. Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.

Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal,” in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy—making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process. Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy.

There is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship,

We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place—by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates. Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.

America failed the first test in November 2016, when we elected a president with a dubious allegiance to democratic norms. 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 within its own ranks from gaining the nomination.

Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. These two norms undergirded American democracy for most of the 20th century. Leaders of the two major parties accepted one another as legitimate and resisted the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage. Norms of toleration and restraint served as the soft guardrails of American democracy, helping it avoid the kind of partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies elsewhere in the world, including Europe in the 1930s and South America in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today the guardrails of American democracy are weakening. The erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary. Donald Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it. The challenges facing American democracy run deeper. The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.

Political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.

Convinced that “something must finally give,” a cabal of rivalrous conservatives convened in late January 1933 and settled on a solution: A popular outsider should be placed at the head of the government. They despised him but knew that at least he had a mass following. And, most of all, they thought they could control him. On January 30, 1933, von Papen, one of the chief architects of the plan, dismissed worries over the gamble that would make Adolf Hitler chancellor of a crisis-ridden Germany with the reassuring words: “We’ve engaged him for ourselves….Within two months, we will have pushed [him] so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.” A more profound miscalculation is hard to imagine. The Italian and German experiences highlight the type of “fateful alliance” that often elevates authoritarians to power. In any democracy, politicians will at times face severe challenges. Economic crisis, rising public discontent, and the electoral decline of mainstream political parties can test the judgment of even the most experienced insiders. If a charismatic outsider emerges on the scene, gaining popularity as he challenges the old order, it is tempting for establishment politicians who feel their control is unraveling to try to co-opt him.  If an insider breaks ranks to embrace the insurgent before his rivals do, he can use the outsider’s energy and base to outmaneuver his peers. And then, establishment politicians hope, the insurgent can be redirected to support their own program.

Despite their vast differences, Hitler, Mussolini, and Chávez followed routes to power that share striking similarities. Not only were they all outsiders with a flair for capturing public attention, but each of them rose to power because establishment politicians overlooked the warning signs and either handed over power to them (Hitler and Mussolini) or opened the door for them (Chávez). The abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism. Years after Chávez’s presidential victory, Rafael Caldera explained his mistakes simply: “Nobody thought that Mr. Chávez had even the remotest chance of becoming president.

If authoritarians are to be kept out, they first have to be identified. There is, alas, no foolproof advance warning system. Many authoritarians can be easily recognized before they come to power. They have a clear track record: Hitler led a failed putsch; Chávez led a failed military uprising; Mussolini’s Blackshirts engaged in paramilitary violence; and in Argentina in the mid–twentieth century, Juan Perón helped lead a successful coup two and a half years before running for president. But politicians do not always reveal the full scale of their authoritarianism before reaching power. Some adhere to democratic norms early in their careers, only to abandon them later.

We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. What kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often, populist outsiders do. Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.” This discourse should be taken seriously. When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions.

In The Plot Against America, American novelist Philip Roth builds on real historical events to imagine what fascism might have looked like in prewar America. An early American mass-media hero, Charles Lindbergh, is the novel’s central figure: He skyrockets to fame with his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic and later becomes a vocal isolationist and Nazi sympathizer. But here is where history takes a fantastic turn in Roth’s hands: Rather than fading into obscurity, Lindbergh arrives by plane at the 1940 Republican Party convention in Philadelphia at 3:14 A.M., as a packed hall finds itself deadlocked on the twentieth ballot. Cries of “Lindy! Lindy! Lindy!

Lindbergh, a man with no political experience but unparalleled media savvy, ignores the advice of his advisors and campaigns by piloting his iconic solo aircraft, Spirit of St. Louis, from state to state, wearing his flight goggles, high boots, and jumpsuit. In this world turned upside down, Lindbergh beats Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the incumbent, to become president. And Lindbergh, whose campaign is later revealed to be linked to Hitler, goes on to sign peace treaties with America’s enemies. A wave of anti-Semitism and violence is unleashed across America.

The reason no extremist demagogue won the presidency before 2016 is not the absence of contenders for such a role. Nor is it the lack of public support for them. To the contrary, extremist figures have long dotted the landscape of American politics. In the 1930s alone, as many as 800 right-wing extremist groups existed in the United States. Among the most important figures to emerge during this period was Father Charles Coughlin, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest whose fiery nationalist radio program reached up to forty million listeners a week. Father Coughlin was openly antidemocratic, calling for the abolition of political parties and questioning the value of elections. His newspaper, Social Justice, adopted pro-fascist positions in the 1930s, naming Mussolini its “Man of the Week” and often defending the Nazi regime. Despite his extremism, Father Coughlin was immensely popular. Fortune magazine called him “just about the biggest thing ever to happen to radio.” He delivered speeches to packed stadiums and auditoriums across the country; as he traveled from city to city, fans lined his route to see him passing by. Some contemporary observers called him the most influential figure in the United States after Roosevelt.

The Depression also gave rise to Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, The Kingfish was a gifted stump speaker, and he routinely flouted the rule of law. As governor, Long built what Schlesinger described as “the nearest approach to a totalitarian state the American republic has ever seen,” using a mix of bribes and threats to bring the state’s legislature, judges, and press to heel. Asked by an opposition legislator if he had heard of the state constitution, Long replied, “I’m the constitution just now.” Newspaper editor Hodding Carter called Long “the first true dictator out of the soil of America. Long built a massive following with his call to redistribute wealth. Long planned a presidential run, telling a New York Times reporter, “I can take this Roosevelt….I can out-promise him. And he knows it.

Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the Cold War fear of communist subversion to promote blacklisting, censorship, and book banning, enjoyed wide backing among the American public. At the height of McCarthy’s political power, polls showed that nearly half of all Americans approved of him. Even after the Senate’s 1954 censure of him, McCarthy enjoyed 40 percent support in Gallup polls.

Wallace’s message, which mixed racism with populist appeals to working-class whites’ sense of victimhood and economic anger, helped him make inroads into the Democrats’ traditional blue-collar base. Polls showed that roughly 40% of Americans approved of Wallace in his third-party run in 1968.

In short, Americans have long had an authoritarian streak. It was not unusual for figures such as Coughlin, Long, McCarthy, and Wallace to gain the support of a sizable minority—30 or even 40% of the country.

The real protection against would-be authoritarians has not been Americans’ firm commitment to democracy but, rather, the gatekeepers—our political parties.

Nobody likes smoke-filled rooms today—and for good reason. They were not very democratic. Candidates were chosen by a small group of power brokers who were not accountable to the party rank and file, much less to average citizens. And smoke-filled rooms did not always produce good presidents—Harding’s term, after all, was marked by scandal. But backroom candidate selection had a virtue that is often forgotten today: It served a gatekeeping function, keeping demonstrably unfit figures off the ballot and out of office. To be sure, the reason for this was not the high-mindedness of party leaders. Rather, party “bosses,” as their opponents called them, were most interested in picking safe candidates who could win. It was, above all, their risk aversion that led them to avoid extremists.

The 1787 Constitution created the world’s first presidential system. Presidentialism poses distinctive challenges for gatekeeping. In parliamentary democracies, the prime minister is a member of parliament and is selected by the leading parties in parliament, which virtually ensures that he or she will be acceptable to political insiders. The very process of government formation serves as a filter. Presidents, by contrast, are not sitting members of Congress, nor are they elected by Congress. At least in theory, they are elected by the people, and anyone can run for president

Our founders were deeply concerned with gatekeeping. In designing the Constitution and electoral system, they grappled with a dilemma that, in many respects, remains with us today. On the one hand, they sought not a monarch but an elected president—one who conformed to their idea of a republican popular government, reflecting the will of the people. On the other, the founders did not fully trust the people’s ability to judge candidates’ fitness for office. Alexander Hamilton worried that a popularly elected presidency could be too easily captured by those who would play on fear and ignorance to win elections and then rule as tyrants.

The device the founders came up with was the Electoral College, made up of locally prominent men in each state, would thus be responsible for choosing the president. Under this arrangement, Hamilton reasoned, “the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” Men with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” would be filtered out. The Electoral College thus became our original gatekeeper.

This system proved short-lived, however, due to two shortcomings in the founders’ original design. First, the Constitution is silent on the question of how presidential candidates are to be selected. The Electoral College goes into operation after the people vote, playing no role in determining who seeks the presidency in the first place. Second, the Constitution never mentions political parties. Though Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would go on to pioneer our two-party system, the founders did not seriously contemplate those parties’ existence.

The rise of parties in the early 1800s changed the way our electoral system worked. Instead of electing local notables as delegates to the Electoral College, as the founders had envisioned, each state began to elect party loyalists. Electors became party agents, which meant that the Electoral College surrendered its gatekeeping authority to the parties. The parties have retained it ever since.

Parties, then, became the stewards of American democracy. Because they select our presidential candidates, parties have the ability—and, we would add, the responsibility—to keep dangerous figures out of the White House. They must, therefore, strike a balance between two roles: a democratic role, in which they choose the candidates that best represent the party’s voters; and what political scientist James Ceaser calls a “filtration” role, in which they screen out those who pose a threat to democracy or are otherwise unfit to hold office.

What if the people choose a demagogue? This is the recurring tension at the heart of the presidential nomination process, from the founders’ era through today. An overreliance on gatekeeping is, in itself, undemocratic—it can create a world of party bosses who ignore the rank and file and fail to represent the people. But an overreliance on the “will of the people” can also be dangerous, for it can lead to the election of a demagogue who threatens democracy itself. There is no escape from this tension. There are always trade-offs.

The convention system was also criticized for being closed and undemocratic, and there was no shortage of efforts to reform it. Primary elections were introduced during the Progressive era; the first was held in Wisconsin in 1901, and in 1916, primaries were held in two dozen states. Yet these brought little change—in part because many states didn’t use them, but mostly because elected delegates were not required to support the candidate who won the primary. They remained “unpledged,” free to negotiate their vote on the convention floor. Party leaders—with their control over government jobs, perks, and other benefits—were well-positioned to broker these deals, so they remained the presidency’s gatekeepers. Because primaries had no binding impact on presidential nominations, they were little more than beauty contests. Real power remained in the hands of party insiders The system wasn’t very democratic. The organization men were hardly representative of American society. Indeed, they were the very definition of an “old boys” network. Most rank-and-file party members, especially the poor and politically unconnected, women, and minorities, were not represented

On the other hand, the convention system was an effective gatekeeper, in that it systematically filtered out dangerous candidates. Party insiders provided what political scientists called “peer review.” Mayors, senators, and congressional representatives knew the candidates personally. They had worked with them, under diverse conditions, over the years and were thus well-positioned to evaluate their character, judgment, and ability to operate under stress. Smoke-filled back rooms therefore served as a screening mechanism, helping to keep out the kind of demagogues and extremists who derailed democracy elsewhere in the world. American party gatekeeping was so effective that outsiders simply couldn’t win. As a result, most didn’t even try.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company used his Dearborn Independent as a megaphone, railing against bankers, Jews, and Bolsheviks,  and publishing articles claiming that Jewish banking interests were conspiring against America. His views attracted praise from racists worldwide. He was mentioned with admiration by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf and described by future Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler as “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters.  That summer, the popular magazine Collier’s began a weekly national poll of its readers, which suggested that Ford’s celebrity, reputation for business acumen, and unremitting media attention could translate into a popular presidential candidacy. As the results rolled in each week, they were accompanied by increasingly reverential headlines: “Politics in Chaos as Ford Vote Grows. But if Ford harbored serious presidential ambitions, he was born a century too soon. What mattered far more than public opinion was the opinion of party leaders, and party leaders soundly rejected him. Senator James Couzens called the idea of his candidacy ridiculous. “How can a man over 60 years old, who…has no training, no experience, aspire to such an office?” he asked. “It is most ridiculous.

The end of the party insider system to pick Presidents

Meanwhile, the Democrats grew divided between supporters of Johnson’s foreign policy and those who had embraced Robert Kennedy’s antiwar position. This split played out in a particularly disruptive manner at the Democratic convention in Chicago.  The party insiders who dominated on the convention floor favored Vice President Hubert Humphrey, but Humphrey was deeply unpopular among antiwar delegates because of his association with President Johnson’s Vietnam policies.

Humphrey was hardly the first presidential candidate to win the nomination without competing in primaries. He would, however, be the last. The events that unfolded in Chicago—displayed on television screens across America—mortally wounded the party-insider presidential selection system. Even before the convention began, the crushing blow of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the escalating conflict over Vietnam, and the energy of the antiwar protesters in Chicago’s Grant Park sapped any remaining public faith in the old system.

The Chicago calamity triggered far-reaching reform. Following Humphrey’s defeat in the 1968 election, the Democratic Party created the McGovern–Fraser Commission and gave it the job of rethinking the nomination system. The commission’s final report, published in 1971, cited an old adage: “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy

Beginning in 1972, the vast majority of the delegates to both the Democratic and Republican conventions would be elected in state-level primaries and caucuses. Delegates would be preselected by the candidates themselves to ensure their loyalty. This meant that for the first time, the people who chose the parties’ presidential candidates would be neither beholden to party leaders nor free to make backroom deals at the convention; rather, they would faithfully reflect the will of their state’s primary voters.

The Democrats, whose initial primaries were volatile and divisive, backtracked somewhat in the early 1980s, stipulating that a share of national delegates would be elected officials—governors, big-city mayors, senators, and congressional representatives—appointed by state parties rather than elected in primaries. These “superdelegates,” representing between 15 and 20% of national delegates, would serve as a counterbalance to primary voters and a mechanism for party leaders to fend off candidates they disapproved of. The Republicans, by contrast, were flying high under Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. Seeing no need for superdelegates, the GOP opted, fatefully, to maintain a more democratic nomination system.

Just before the McGovern–Fraser Commission began its work, two prominent political scientists warned that primaries could “lead to the appearance of extremist candidates and demagogues” who, unrestrained by party allegiances, “have little to lose by stirring up mass hatreds or making absurd promises.” Initially, these fears seemed overblown. Outsiders did emerge: Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic Party nomination in 1984 and 1988, while Southern Baptist leader Pat Robertson (1988), television commentator Pat Buchanan (1992, 1996, 2000), and Forbes magazine publisher Steve Forbes (1996) ran for the Republican nomination. But they all lost. Circumventing the party establishment was, it turned out, easier in theory than in practice. Capturing a majority of delegates required winning primaries all over the country, which, in turn, required money, favorable media coverage, and, crucially, people working on the ground in all states. Any candidate seeking to complete the grueling obstacle course of U.S. primaries needed allies among donors, newspaper editors, interest groups, activist groups, and state-level politicians such as governors, mayors, senators, and congressmen.

In the 23 years between 1945 and 1968, under the old convention system, only a single outsider (Dwight Eisenhower) publicly sought the nomination of either party. By contrast, during the first two decades of the primary system, 1972 to 1992, eight outsiders ran (five Democrats and three Republicans), an average of 1.25 per election; and between 1996 and 2016, 18 outsiders competed in one of the two parties’ primaries—an average of three per election, with 13 of them Republicans. The post-1972 primary system was especially vulnerable to a particular kind of outsider: individuals with enough fame or money to skip the “invisible primary.” In other words, celebrities.

Forbes, an extraordinarily wealthy businessman, was able to buy name recognition, while Robertson, a televangelist who founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Buchanan, a television commentator (and early Republican proponent of white nationalism), were both colorful figures with special media access. Although none of them won the nomination, they used massive wealth and celebrity status to become contenders

Party gatekeepers were shells of what they once were, for two main reasons. One was a dramatic increase in the availability of outside money, accelerated (though hardly caused) by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. Now even marginal presidential candidates—Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders—could raise large sums of money, either by finding their own billionaire financier or through small donations via the Internet. The proliferation of well-funded primary candidates indicated a more open and fluid political environment. The other major factor diminishing the power of traditional gatekeepers was the explosion of alternative media, particularly cable news and social media. Whereas the path to national name recognition once ran through relatively few mainstream channels, which favored establishment politicians over extremists, the new media environment made it easier for celebrities to achieve wide name recognition—and public support—practically overnight.

This was particularly true on the Republican side, where the emergence of Fox News and influential radio talk-show personalities—what political commentator David Frum calls the “conservative entertainment complex”—radicalized conservative voters, to the benefit of ideologically extreme candidates.

Trump finished dead last in the invisible primary. When the actual primary season began on February 1, 2016, the day of the Iowa Caucus, he had no endorsements among Republican power brokers. Measured by the backing of governors, U.S. senators, and congressional representatives at the time of the Iowa Caucus, Jeb Bush won the invisible primary with 31 endorsements. Marco Rubio finished second with 27. Ted Cruz finished third with 18, followed by Rand Paul with 11. Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and Carly Fiorina all won more endorsements than Trump. By all standard wisdom, then, Trump’s candidacy was a nonstarter. If history were any guide, his lead in the polls would inevitably fade. Trump’s performance in the first state contest, Iowa—24 percent, good for second place—did little to alter these expectations. After all, outsiders Pat Robertson (25 percent of the vote in 1988), Pat Buchanan (23 percent in 1996), and Steve Forbes (31 percent in 2000) had all finished second in Iowa but faded away soon thereafter.

Then Trump did something no previous outsider had done: He easily won subsequent primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Still, he was shunned by the party establishment. On the day of the South Carolina primary, Trump did not yet have a single endorsement from a sitting Republican governor, senator, or congressperson. It was only after winning South Carolina that Trump gained his first supporters: congressional backbenchers Duncan Hunter (California) and Chris Collins (New York). Even as he proceeded to rout his Republican rivals at the polling stations, Trump never gained a substantial number of endorsements

Undoubtedly, Trump’s celebrity status played a role. But equally important was the changed media landscape. From early on in the campaign, Trump had the sympathy or support of right-wing media personalities such as Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage, as well as the increasingly influential Breitbart News.

Trump also found new ways to use old media as a substitute for party endorsements and traditional campaign spending. A “candidate with qualities uniquely tailored to the digital age,” Trump attracted free mainstream coverage by creating controversy. By one estimate, the Twitter accounts of MSNBC, CNN, CBS, and NBC—four outlets that no one could accuse of pro-Trump leanings—mentioned Trump twice as often as his general election rival, Hillary Clinton. According to another study, Trump enjoyed up to $2 billion in free media coverage during the primary season. As the undisputed frontrunner in free mainstream coverage and the favorite son of much of the alternative right-wing media network, Trump did not need traditional Republican power brokers. The gatekeepers of the invisible primary were not merely invisible; by 2016, they had left the building entirely.

After Trump’s Super Tuesday victories, panic set in among the Republican establishment. Prominent insiders and conservative opinion leaders began to make the case against Trump. In March 2016, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a high-profile speech at the Hinckley Institute of Politics in which he described Trump as a danger to both the Republican Party and the country.

Other party elders, including 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, warned against Trump. And leading conservative publications, including the National Review and the Weekly Standard, rejected Trump in blistering terms. But the #NeverTrump movement was always more talk than action. In reality, the primary system had left Republican leaders virtually weaponless to halt Trump’s rise. The barrage of attacks had little impact and possibly even backfired where it counted: the voting booth.

Trump, even before his inauguration, tested positive on all four measures on our litmus test for autocrats. 

The first sign is a weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game. Trump met this measure when he questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and made the unprecedented suggestion that he might not accept the results of the 2016 election. Levels of voter fraud in the United States are very low, and because elections are administered by state and local governments, it is effectively impossible to coordinate national-level voting fraud. Yet throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump insisted that millions of illegal immigrants and dead people on the voting rolls would be mobilized to vote for Clinton. For months, his campaign website declared “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary from Rigging This Election!

And Trump’s words mattered—a lot. A Politico/Morning Consult poll carried out in mid-October found that 41% of Americans, and 73% of Republicans, believed that the election could be stolen from Trump. In other words, three out of four Republicans were no longer certain that they were living under a democratic system with free elections.

The second category in our litmus test is the denial of the legitimacy of one’s opponents. Authoritarian politicians cast their rivals as criminal, subversive, unpatriotic, or a threat to national security or the existing way of life. Trump met this criterion, as well. For one, he had been a “birther,” challenging the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency by suggesting that he was born in Kenya and that he was a Muslim. During the 2016 campaign, Trump denied Hillary Clinton’s legitimacy as a rival by branding her a “criminal” and declaring repeatedly that she “has to go to jail.” At campaign rallies he applauded supporters who chanted “Lock her up!

The third criterion is toleration or encouragement of violence. Partisan violence is very often a precursor of democratic breakdown. Prominent examples include the Blackshirts in Italy and Brownshirts in Germany.  Trump not only tolerated violence among his supporters but at times appeared to revel in it. In a radical break with established norms of civility, Trump embraced—and even encouraged—supporters who physically assaulted protesters. He offered to pay the legal fees of a supporter who sucker-punched and threatened to kill a protester at a rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

In August 2016, Trump issued a veiled endorsement of violence against Hillary Clinton, telling supporters at a Wilmington, North Carolina, rally that a Clinton appointee to the Supreme Court could result in the abolition of the right to bear arms. He went on to say, “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks….Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.

The final warning sign is a readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics. Donald Trump displayed such a readiness in 2016. He said he planned to arrange for a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton after the election and declared that Clinton should be imprisoned. Trump also repeatedly threatened to punish unfriendly media. At a rally in Fort Worth, Texas he attacked Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, declaring, “If I become president, oh, do they have problems. They are going to have such problems.” Describing the media as “among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met,” Trump declared: I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money….So that when the New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace—or when the Washington Post…writes a hit piece, we can sue them….

With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.

For Republicans entering the general election of 2016, the implications were clear. If Trump threatened basic democratic principles, they had to stop him. To do anything else would put democracy at risk, and losing democracy is far worse than losing an election. This meant doing what was, to many, the unthinkable: backing Hillary Clinton for president.

Leading national Republican politicians such as Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz endorsed Donald Trump. The only Republican figures of any prominence who endorsed Hillary Clinton were retired politicians or former government officials—people who were not planning to compete in future elections, who, politically, had nothing to lose. On the eve of the election, the Washington Post published a list of 78 Republicans who publicly endorsed Clinton. Only one of them, Congressman Richard Hanna of New York, was an elected official. And he was retiring. No Republican governors were listed. No senators. Despite their hemming and hawing, most Republican leaders closed ranks behind Trump, creating the image of a unified party. That, in turn, normalized the election. Rather than a moment of crisis, the election became a standard two-party race.

Trump’s defeat would have required the defection of only a tiny fraction of Republican voters.

For outsiders, particularly those of a demagogic bent, democratic politics is often intolerably frustrating. For them, checks and balances feel like a straitjacket. Would-be authoritarians have little patience with the day-to-day politics of democracy.  

For would-be authoritarians judicial and law enforcement agencies pose both a challenge and an opportunity. If they remain independent, they might expose and punish government abuse. It is a referee’s job, after all, to prevent cheating. But if these agencies are controlled by loyalists, they could serve a would-be dictator’s aims, shielding the government from investigation and criminal prosecutions that could lead to its removal from power. The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured. With the courts packed and law enforcement authorities brought to heel, governments can act with impunity. Capturing the referees provides the government with more than a shield. It also offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies. Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses, and media outlets. The police can crack down on opposition protest while tolerating acts of violence by progovernment thugs. Intelligence agencies can be used to spy on critics and dig up material for blackmail.

Most often, the capture of the referees is done by quietly firing civil servants and other nonpartisan officials and replacing them with loyalists.

Institutions that cannot be easily purged may be hijacked, subtly, by other means.  Judges who cannot be bought off may be targeted for impeachment.  Governments that cannot remove independent judges may bypass them through court packing.

The easiest way to deal with potential opponents is to buy them off. Most elected autocrats begin by offering leading political, business, or media figures public positions, favors, perks, or outright bribes in exchange for their support or, at least, their quiet neutrality. Cooperative media outlets may gain privileged access to the president, while friendly business executives may receive profitable concessions or government contracts.  Players who cannot be bought must be weakened by other means. Whereas old-school dictators often jailed, exiled, or even killed their rivals, contemporary autocrats tend to hide their repression behind a veneer of legality.

Governments may also use their control of referees to “legally” sideline the opposition media, often through libel or defamation suits.

The Erdogan and Putin governments also wielded the law with devastating effectiveness. In Turkey, a major victim was the powerful Dogan Yayin media conglomerate who was fined nearly $2.5 billion—an amount that nearly exceeded the company’s total net worth—for tax evasion. Crippled, Dogan was forced to sell off much of its empire, including two large newspapers and a TV station. They were purchased by progovernment businessmen.

In Russia, after Vladimir Gusinsky’s independent NTV television network earned a reputation as a “pain in the neck,” the Putin government unleashed the tax authorities on Gusinsky, arresting him for “financial misappropriation.” Gusinsky was offered “a deal straight out of a bad Mafia movie: give up NTV in exchange for freedom.” He took the deal, turned NTV over to the giant government-controlled energy company, Gazprom, and fled the country.

As key media outlets are assaulted, others grow wary and begin to practice self-censorship. When the Chávez government stepped up its attacks in the mid-2000s, one of the country’s largest television networks, Venevisión, decided to stop covering politics. Morning talk shows were replaced with astrology programs, and soap operas took precedence over evening news programs.

Elected autocrats also seek to weaken business leaders with the means to finance opposition. This was one of the keys to Putin’s consolidation of power in Russia. In July 2000, less than three months into his presidency, Putin summoned 21 of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen to the Kremlin, where he told them that they would be free to make money under his watch—but only if they stayed out of politics.

Most of the so-called oligarchs heeded his warning. Billionaire Boris Berezovsky, the controlling shareholder of ORT television station, did not. When ORT coverage turned critical, the government revived a long-dormant fraud case and ordered Berezovsky’s arrest. Berezovsky fled into exile, leaving his media assets in the hands of his junior partner, who “graciously put them at Putin’s disposal.” Another oligarch who ignored Putin’s warning was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, head of the giant Yukos oil company. Russia’s wealthiest man (worth $15 billion, according to Forbes), Khodorkovsky was believed to be untouchable. But he overplayed his hand. A liberal who disliked Putin, Khodorkovsky began to generously finance opposition parties. He was imprisoned for nearly a decade. The message to the oligarchs was clear: Stay out of politics. Nearly all of them did. Starved of resources, opposition parties weakened, many to the point of extinction.

When powerful businesspeople are jailed or ruined economically, as in the case of Khodorkovsky in Russia, other businesspeople conclude that it is wisest to withdraw from politics entirely. And when opposition politicians are arrested or exiled, as in Venezuela, other politicians decide to give up and retire. Many dissenters decide to stay home rather than enter politics, and those who remain active grow demoralized.

Finally, elected autocrats often try to silence cultural figures—artists, intellectuals, pop stars, athletes—whose popularity or moral standing makes them potential threats.

Once key opposition, media, and business players are bought off or sidelined, the opposition deflates. The government “wins” without necessarily breaking the rules.

Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals. These reforms are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents. And because they involve legal and even constitutional changes, they may allow autocrats to lock in these advantages for years and even decades.

Between 1885 and 1908, all eleven post-Confederate states reformed their constitutions and electoral laws to disenfranchise African Americans. To comply with the letter of the law as stipulated in the 15th Amendment, no mention of race could be made in efforts to restrict voting rights, so states introduced purportedly “neutral” poll taxes, property requirements, literacy tests, and complex written ballots.

One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion. Would-be autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats—wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks—to justify antidemocratic measures.

Wars and terrorist attacks produce a “rally ’round the flag” effect in which public support for the government increases—often dramatically; in the aftermath of September 11, President Bush saw his approval rating soar from 53 to 90%—the highest figure ever recorded by Gallup.

Because few politicians are willing to stand up to a president with 90% support in the middle of a national security crisis, presidents are left virtually unchecked. The USA PATRIOT Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in October 2001, never would have passed had the September 11 attacks not occurred the previous month.

After Pearl Harbor, more than 60% of surveyed Americans supported expelling Japanese Americans from the country.

Most constitutions permit the expansion of executive power during crisis. As a result, even democratically elected presidents can easily concentrate power and threaten civil liberties during war. In the hands of a would-be authoritarian, this concentrated power is far more dangerous. For a demagogue who feels besieged by critics and shackled by democratic institutions, crises open a window of opportunity to silence critics and weaken rivals. Indeed, elected autocrats often need crises—external threats offer them a chance to break free, both swiftly and, very often, “legally”.

The combination of a would-be authoritarian and a major crisis can, therefore, be deadly for democracy. Some leaders come into office facing crisis. For example, Fujimori took office amid hyperinflation and a mounting guerrilla insurgency, so when he justified his 1992 presidential coup as a necessary evil, most Peruvians agreed with him. Fujimori’s approval rating shot up to 81 percent after the coup. Other leaders invent crises. There was a backstory to Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972: His “crisis” was largely fabricated. Acutely aware that he needed to justify his plan to skirt the constitution’s two-term limit in the presidency, Marcos decided to manufacture a “communist menace.” Facing only a few dozen actual insurgents, President Marcos fomented public hysteria to justify an emergency action.

A security crisis also facilitated Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian turn. In September 1999, shortly after Putin was named prime minister, a series of bombings in Moscow and other cities—presumably by Chechen terrorists—killed nearly three hundred people. Putin responded by launching a war in Chechnya and a large-scale crackdown. As in the case of Nazi Germany, there is some debate over whether the bombings were committed by Chechen terrorists or by the Russian government’s own intelligence service. What is clear, however, is that Putin’s political popularity received a major boost with the bombings. The Russian public rallied behind Putin, tolerating, if not supporting, attacks on the opposition over the months and years that followed.

Erdogan responded to the coup by declaring a state of emergency and launching a massive wave of repression that included a purge of some 100,000 public officials, the closure of several newspapers, and more than 50,000 arrests—including hundreds of judges and prosecutors, 144 journalists, and even two members of the Constitutional Court. Erdogan also used the coup attempt as a window of opportunity to make the case for sweeping new executive powers.

But are constitutional safeguards, by themselves, enough to secure a democracy? We believe the answer is no. Even well-designed constitutions sometimes fail. Germany’s 1919 Weimar constitution was designed by some of the country’s greatest legal minds. Its long-standing and highly regarded Rechtsstaat (“rule of law”) was considered by many as sufficient to prevent government abuse. But both the constitution and the Rechtsstaat collapsed rapidly in the face of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of power in 1933.

Or consider the experience of postcolonial Latin America. Many of the region’s newly independent republics modeled themselves directly on the United States, adopting U.S.-style presidentialism, bicameral legislatures, supreme courts, and in some cases, electoral colleges and federal systems. Some wrote constitutions that were near-replicas of the U.S. Constitution. Yet almost all the region’s embryonic republics plunged into civil war and dictatorship.

If constitutional rules were enough, then figures such as Perón, Marcos, or Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas—all of whom took office under U.S.-style constitutions that, on paper, contained an impressive array of checks and balances—would have been one- or two-term presidents rather than notorious autocrats.

Finally, the written words of a constitution may be followed to the letter in ways that undermine the spirit of the law. One of the most disruptive forms of labor protests is a “work to rule” campaign, in which workers do exactly what is asked of them in their contracts or job descriptions but nothing more. In other words, they follow the written rules to the letter. Almost invariably, the workplace ceases to function.

Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern. We may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate.

As commonsensical as this idea may sound, the belief that political opponents are not enemies is a remarkable and sophisticated invention. Throughout history, opposition to those in power had been considered treason, and indeed, the notion of legitimate opposition parties was still practically heretical at the time of America’s founding. Both sides in America’s early partisan battles—John Adams’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans—regarded each other as a threat to the republic.

The Federalists saw themselves as the embodiment of the Constitution; in their view, one could not oppose the Federalists without opposing the entire American project. So when Jefferson and Madison organized what would become the Republican Party, the Federalists regarded them as traitors, even suspecting them of harboring loyalties to Revolutionary France—with which the United States was nearly at war.

Partisan conflict was so ferocious that many feared the new republic would fail. It was only gradually, over the course of decades, that America’s opposing parties came to the hard-fought recognition that they could be rivals rather than enemies, circulating in power rather than destroying each other. This recognition was a critical foundation for American democracy.

End of review

The book continues – buy it!

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2 Responses to Book review: How Democracies Die

  1. Marty McCorkle says:

    I have read all your articles that end up on this site’s human nature category:
    http://energyskeptic.com/category/collapse/human-nature/
    Keep up the good work. Commenters here on Energy Skeptic are few, often posting unrelated or baselessly contrarian opinions. I figure I’d do no damage to the comments section by stepping from the readership shadows to express my appreciation for all your reading and summarizing of books that spotlight right wing extremism in America.
    How energy collapse unfolds teeters on politics at this moment. The idea that decline will be untouched by right wing politics and extremist religions is a profoundly wishful perspective. I’d much rather go over Niagara Falls in a barrel than going over in a tied sack containing a snake, a monkey and a dog (an ancient Roman gag). I’ll pick the barrel over the sack of crazy-makers ten out of ten times. Similarly, I’ll pick potentially problem-aware governance facing collapse over dogmatic or theocratic leadership facing collapse, though many won’t.
    I read comments on Energy Skeptic expressing desire for reports on energy decline and collapse that is 100% pure, that is, untainted by reviews of neo-fascism and Christian fundamentalism, which may step into collapse to make it even worse. I wish such readers good luck in finding a collapse that is fascist-free and theocracy-Lite, though such a blissful collapse in the U.S. seems an unlikely find.
    So keep sharing your surveys of the extremist veins of American culture, religion and politics, a gang who every day in every way shares its anti-science, anti-reality and anti-human rights fixes to any and every crisis. They are a batch worth keeping close tabs on as we approach energy Niagara.

    • energyskeptic says:

      I expect autocrats and evangelists will not just be part of, but hasten the crash, already are with Trump’s deliberate mishandling of covid-19. Probably because he likes that it kills old people, just like he’d like to kill Medicare. I really hope Democrats are in power when the crash gets serious so that there is rationing of food, fuel, garden plots (as in WWII when my father’s family had land between tennis courts at the University of Chicago), and so on is instituted. If the Trumpian Republicans are in power, and I see no reason why the party will change a bit, those who can pay, and are Republicans are most likely to receive aid, and I shudder to think of what they’ll do to everyone else.

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