In 2018, two Harvard political scientists, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, released a book outlining the paths to democratic decline based on incidences around the world such as in Venezuela, Turkey, and Russia, and how these paths link us to the current political climate in the US.

Their messages are clear and obvious, that the breakdown of the role of norms, including acceptable behaviors, and the abdication of the role of parties, i.e. party elites, to control the whims of the majority, have led America down a dangerous path. The aspect here, which focuses on institutional elites and their role in acting as the gatekeepers of power, is not new. Neither is the aspect on the breakdown of norms, both in terms of institutional behavior as well as presidential actions. Yet, this book packages the messages well into an accessible format that reads as a popular political science book should, free from delineating complex theories or charts.

Notwithstanding its great readability, for the purposes of making it a popular read, their overgeneralizations, and take on the future seem problematic, and the issues will be lain out here.

Regarding the normalization of the use of impeachment. There is a suggestion that the Democrats should not overplay their hand regarding impeachment, a tool only to be used as a last resort. However, while mentioning the scandal-fishing that took place in the 1990s and the impeachment of Bill Clinton over the proceeding and criminalization of a sex scandal, of which this White House has been embroiled in several, the norm of impeachment was forever tarnished for all of past and future American history. This was such an egregious misuse of the power that that it sets a precedent for impeachment in the face of such public constitutional malfeasance as practiced by Trump – publicly asking two foreign enemy states, Russia and China, on two separate occasions to commit crimes to harm his rival’s campaign. Both of these statements were televised, and Trump later claimed that these were, “jokes,” minimizing words that ultimately constitute high treason. This on its own an impeachable offense, without even touching the litany of other crimes in his handbook.

By utilizing impeachment, even failing to get a majority in the Senate, congress would take a step in labelling this behavior as criminal, instead of passively allowing high treason to stand as another shifted norm. This is a point of high contention that I have with the book, although it was published long before some of these events were made clear.

The second is about the role of race in politics, and the embrace of identity politics. The book makes an excellent point, its thesis, that American political stability for the last hundred years was based on a two party system in which the members of both parties were diverse ideologically and culturally, but the majority of both were white and Christian, and the modern changes have shaken up the system. While this may have been true for much of American history, and may even still be true today, the authors make a critical mistake in suggesting that this is the future. To be clear, the book does not suggest that parties should be divided amongst racial lines, it suggests the opposite, that the parties should be internally diverse.

What I suggest, however, is that race should no longer be relevant in politics in any way. To suggest that ethnic identity or cultural identity should drive party identification is one of the very reasons America has split the way it has.

The policies, the issues that the American electorate most care about are economic, they are geopolitical, and they are regarding American values and identity, but there need not be a racial element in any one of those. This is other than perhaps those regarding American policing, which itself, for better or for worse, is not a national issue, as policy and governance is almost entirely controlled by state, city, and county governments. The future of our crumbling cesspool of our healthcare system, American foreign policy, taxes, these issues truly should have no connection to race or ethnicity at this point, and while different ethnic groups may cleave on individual issues, overall, this should make no difference to how are parties define themselves.

The reason that these cleavages occurred started when the Republicans closed ranks on the issue of segregation and trying to suppress the civil rights in the mid-century, splitting the democratic party into the party of minorities and their civil rights supporting urban liberal allies, including Northerners and Catholics, and segregationists and their socially conservative allies, including mostly Southerners, rural voters, and evangelicals after Roe v Wade. Those division lines, it is true, have never really faded. Yet, to suggest that these dividing lines should remain is also a mistake. Republicans drew lines in the sand regarding their own party in the 1970s, but Democrats need not follow suit.

The civil rights era is over, and voter suppression based on demographic gerrymandering and selectively limiting voting opportunities, is appalling. Yet, it should be appalling to responsible citizens of all races. By acting as if these racial cleavages on modern policies still exist, to pretend that there are any major issues that only minorities care about is not an honest argument. Therefore, acting as if identity politics within the Democratic party is helpful instead of pernicious and divisive is a misunderstanding. By far, the largest cleavages between democrats and republicans are not simply on the basis of race, but on the basis of worldview, something deeply psychological and not easy to quantify, and unspecific to any racial group. The democratic party need not cater to racial cleavages and deepen them, it should focus instead on the drivers of these differing world views: education, and economic circumstances. They can can focus on issues important to minorities, without labelling itself as a party especially for minorities – it should be a party for all Americans. They can do this by staying focused on the primary cleavages that disproportionately affect minority voters, economic inequality and equal democratic rights.

The final point rests on their elite-centric view of American power. While it is absolutely true that party elites and high institutional figures are one of the the last line of defense in preventing the rise, blocking the implementation, and shattering the legitimacy of the worst of authoritarian excesses, this dismisses the role of the masses, and also shows us that elites can not be trusted. The masses have a responsibility, too, to vote for figures who will uphold democracy, and if they willingly choose to undermine democratic institutions, then this is indicative of a cultural collapse of values that perhaps spells the end of the United States as a civilization. It has not yet reached this point yet, however.

As the book points out in a quote by E. B. White, “democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.” The masses do make mistakes some of the time, as do elites in their cowardice and their thirst for continued power. We can rely on our elites to defend us no more than on the wisdom of our electorate. In the end though, it likely won’t be Republican senate leaders who dig us out of this decline in the prestige and greatness of our country and institutions, it will be the voters. As long as the institution of free and fair elections hold, the voters are free to purge Trump and his accessories to treason from office in 2020, and for a decade after. This may be the greatest lesson of all: a recalibration of the American political order by the masses.

This book carries deep echoes of De Tocqueville, who as a Frenchman nearly two hundred years ago travelled America and commented on its democracy pointed out the role not only of elites and institutions, but the masses and our civil society as the defender of democracy against the “tyranny of the majority.” Perhaps these elite power structures are not what we should rely upon, perhaps what we need is in fact more democracy and a vibrant civil society. More open elections with easier registration, more mail-in voting, more referendums and citizen-led initiatives, more direct democracy, these tools may help us save our democracy from the gerrymandering heathens and traitors who would feed our democracy to the Russians to keep power for another two years.

Let us also not forget, the reason that 2016 was Donald Trump against Hilary Clinton, and not versus the far more popular Bernie Sanders was the fundamentally elite driven superdelegate system in the democratic party that handed the nomination to the less electorally viable candidate. Elites may have helped Donald Trump win, but they also helped the Democrats lose. This is without even mentioning the antiquated electoral college and how it has awarded the white house to the loser repeatedly. We should not forget that the results of the 2016 election was the result of too little democracy, not the unbridled masses.

In summation, this book is an excellent read to remind us how the norms we have are being broken down rapidly, but also to remind us that this is neither the first nor last time this has happened. It is up to us to respond, to remove a senile fool, a pervert ghoul, a serial liar and adulturer, sycophant to murderous dictators, and enemy-appeasing traitor to the American people and its very constitution, from the highest office in our land. He has destroyed American norms, but we should hope that we don’t need Senate elites to help us preserve our institutions, we need a referendum at the ballot box in 2020, because it is fundamentally our democracy, of the people, by the people, and for the people and when our leaders fail us, it is ultimately up to us to remove them from power.

Staff writer: Ari B

One thought on “How Democracies Die: A Review”

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