Democracy on Life Support

As tempting as it is to get caught up in the daily news cycle, taking a step back for perspective has become increasingly valuable. So I turned off the news and grabbed a paper copy of How Democracies Die.

The break from the daily back and forth reinforced how ridiculous American political discourse has become. Unfortunately, the authors only offer uncomfortable conclusions — for instance that US democracy began to erode in tandem with the civil rights movement — and precious little in terms of concrete steps to walk back from precipice. Despite shortcomings of omission, the authors provide a wide historical perspective and enough points to ponder that make the book a worthwhile read for any American worried about saving our democracy.

Defining terms

To simplify: when I say democracy, I mean liberal democracy. This is in contrast to illiberal democracy, a term rejected by Steven Levitsky, one of co-authors of How Democracies Die. It’s too optimistic, too Pinkerian, to suppose that 51% or more of any population would never back an authoritarian.

When I write democrat (small d), this refers to a politician that, regardless of political party, supports liberal democracy. For instance, Jeff Flake and Hillary Clinton are both democrats. For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the American political party the Democratic (big D) Party.

The uncomfortable conclusions

American democracy isn’t unique and is vulnerable to lapses into illiberal democracy and authoritarianism just like the fragile democracies of Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. Most of Latin America used constitutions that were near clones of the US constitution. It would be naïve to hope our constitution is enough to stop a populist dictator.

Instead, Levitsky and Ziblatt point to three mechanisms that have historically held American democracy intact:

  1. The parties were effective filters on populists achieving national office;
  2. Unwritten rules governed politics;
  3. Opposition and disagreement weren’t tantamount to illegitimacy.

The party filters and too much democracy

As repugnant as smoke filled backrooms are, they kept populists from ever landing on top of either party’s ticket until 2016. That’s why Henry Ford, widely popular with fascist leanings, was unable to run for president.

When you have to wheel and deal with party insiders, you have no choice but to make compromises and project a broad appeal. These are hallmarks of a typical democrat. Filtering kept Ford out of national politics. When filtering broke down in Venezuela, Chavez got in. As the filters came off of the GOP, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump rose to prominence.

The counter argument naturally falls to Bernie Sanders. Even though I supported Sanders, filtering has a place. A populist going viral is just as poor of a politician as a company relying on VC metrics. If the Democratic Party is to move from being a centrist party towards social democracy, the change needs to happen through building consensus within the party and repeated electoral success.

As unintuitive as it seems at first glance, having filters and slowing down change is important to preserving democracy over the long haul. A few great democrats like Sanders may remain outsiders, but the likes of Chavez would never even get the chance to run.

The unspoken rules

Decorum, honor and tradition can never be fully codified into law. A healthy democracy needs them to thrive informally. The unspoken rules meant that Nixon era Republicans were prepared to remove him from office and that the Democratic party rejected FDR’s power grab over the supreme court. Now everything has become partisan.

When both parties flex their muscles in perfectly legal obstruction, the government grinds to a halt. McConnell blocked legitimate appointments and legislation, so Obama turned to ruling by executive order. Both of these of constitutional, yet the seeds for a non-functional government have been sowed. Both sides need to back away from what they can do unilaterally and instead work via consensus.

In a healthy democracy, Republican leaders should have openly endorsed the only democrat running in 2016. There was brow furrowing and blank ballots, but nobody had the chutzpah to endorse Clinton. The book detailed many cases of democrats on the opposite end of the spectrum working together to keep non-democrats out of power. This happened as recently as 2016 in Austria: the right-wing candidate endorsed the Green candidate in order to block the non-democratic far-right candidate.

The loyal opposition

Democrats squabble over things where multiple opinions are valid. What’s the optimal tax rate, what should be overseen by the federal government versus local governments and the like. I have my views on these sorts of issues, but I respect that a reasonable person can come to a different conclusion. Democrats view their opponents as legitimate.

As the demographics of the parties have shifted, the GOP consistently questions the legitimacy of the Democratic Party. As the Republicans have become the Evangelical Party, there’s no longer policy debates. We’re left with dictates and opponents that are heathens to be defeated by any means.

Rather than framing debates along the lines of “We’d like to support policies that reduce the number of abortions,” the attack is that Democrats are baby killers. Or, “Is immigration driving domestic wages down and happening too rapidly” has morphed into “Democrats support rapists and murders.” These aren’t points that can be debated in good faith.

Republicans have turned politics into a zero-sum game and made any compromise a sign of betrayal. This isn’t sustainable in a democracy.

Civil rights and identity politics

The civil rights movement brought an enormous shift to US politics that hasn’t settled yet. From the end of Reconstruction to LBJ, the South was a single-party entity, using endless shenanigans to keep African-Americans from voting. Civil rights and desegregation would upend this.

Before civil rights, both parties had a wide geographical and socio-economic appeal. This would change as the GOP became the bastion of white Southerners and Evangelicals while slowly squeezing out the rest of the party.

I grew up in a family with two Republican parents, and we had a family friend that was an openly gay Republican. In the 90s this made perfect sense. They were all for the government staying out of people’s private lives and fiscal responsibility. Such a diverse, values-based coalition is almost unthinkable now in the party of White Nationalism and Evangelical Christianity. My parents and the family friend have subsequently left the GOP.

Identity politics is toxic for democracy. You can’t compromise with someone that sees their platform as an existential issue. The book is thin on recommendations for backing out of identity politics.

The missing sections

Levitsky and Ziblatt assume that everyone is acting in good faith. It’s hard to come to this conclusion when looking at how recent politics have played out.

Call me cynical, but the ultra-wealthy are using hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage and immigration to keep the GOP in power. In exchange, the billionaires pay almost no tax. Without Super-PACS, Fox News, the NRA and intense lobbying, I don’t think working class whites would be supporting billionaires. A generation ago they were staunch Democrats and union members.

The book simply ignores the role of billionaires and oligarchs buying elections through media manipulation. It’s hard to underestimate the role of actors such as the Koch Brothers and see a politically active billionaire class as democratic.

Even more nefarious is the issue of Russian interference. It’s too insular to look only at internal politics when talking of the withering of democracy. It’s hard to imagine Trump, Brexit and Catalonia without Russian shenanigans.

The very things that make people invulnerable to sensational news, such as a robust liberal arts education and tighter regulation of the tech industry are themselves political issues. I don’t see a way out.

Misplaced optimism

The situation is more grave in the US than many Americans are willing to admit. The 2016 election was a symptom of a democracy that has been ailing for decades. Removing Trump from office would be little more than a cosmetic change. The larger problems of identity politics, the breakdown of previous norms and the undue weight of billionaires are far more difficult to solve than swapping out a single president.

The conclusion suffers both from misplaced optimism and ‘both-sides-ism’. One party has demonstrated a deep aversion to democracy and has enjoyed minority rule — consistently receiving fewer votes yet still winning election. The authors fault Obama for ruling via executive orders, yet when faced with a hostile congress that refused to consider any judicial nominees, what should the president have done?

Simply accommodating in the name of keeping the peace isn’t a viable strategy. The pundit types keep saying that Ukraine should appease Russia for the sake of peace. Yes, the war has been costly, but the alternative is to look at Belarus. In order to never upset the Kremlin, Belarus has always done Putin’s bidding. As a result their sovereignty is a fiction and their language is nearly lost.

I don’t see a happy ending to this, and like Levitsky and Ziblatt, envision the US becoming a macrocosm of North Carolina. This would entail bitter partisanship, constant power grabs, winner take all politics and gridlocked government.

Personal steps

What everyone can change is their own lives and their interactions. Getting off of social media and stepping away from daily news has helped me calm down and see the bigger picture. Read books and take a step back. That’s the first way to de-escalate the discourse.

In my experience, reasonable people turn into trolls over online discourse. I find I’m much less likely to have negative interactions in person.

The key thing to remember when talking to the other side is that legitimacy is the goal, not agreement. A healthy democracy has a public debate, but we need to see our opponents as part of the loyal opposition. In the grand scheme of things, it’s small, but having one respectful conversation at a time is my contribution to American democracy.