‘How Democracies Die’ Authors Say Trump Is A Symptom Of ‘Deeper Problem’
January 22, 20181:25 PM ET
Heard on Fresh Air
Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are experts in what makes democracies healthy — and what leads to their collapse. They warn that American democracy is in trouble.
How Democracies Die
by Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Hardcover, 312 pages purchase
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who’s off today. If watching President Trump and listening to American political discourse these days makes you feel something’s gone wrong, our guests today will tell you it’s not your imagination. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent years studying what makes democracies healthy and what leads to their collapse. And they see signs that American democracy is in trouble.
In a new book, they argue that Trump has shown authoritarian tendencies and that many players in American politics are discarding long-held norms that have kept our political rivalries in balance and prevented the kind of bitter conflict that can lead to a repressive state. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are both professors of government at Harvard University. Levitsky’s research focuses on Latin America and the developing world. Ziblatt studies Europe from the 19th century to the present. Their new book is called “How Democracies Die.”
Well, Stephen Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, you write that some democracies die in a hail of gunfire. There’s a military coup. The existing leaders are imprisoned or sometimes shot. Not – this is not the kind of death of a democracy that you think is most relevant to our purposes. What’s a more typical or meaningful scenario?
STEVEN LEVITSKY: Well, the kind of democratic breakdown that you mentioned was more typical of the Cold War era, of a good part of the 20th century. But military coups, although they occur occasionally today in the world, are much, much less common than they used to be. And, in fact, the primary way in which democracies have died since the end of the Cold War, over the last 30 years or so, is at the hands of elected leaders, at the hands of governments that were often freely or close to freely elected, who then use democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy. And we’re very hopeful that America’s democratic institutions will survive this process. But if we were to fall into some kind of crisis, surely it would take that form.
DAVIES: And it doesn’t typically happen the week or month after the elected leader takes power, right? It unfolds gradually.
DANIEL ZIBLATT: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, that’s one of the things that makes it so difficult, both to study and also as a citizen to recognize what’s happening. You know, military coups happen overnight. I mean, they’re sudden instances – sudden events. Electoral authoritarians come to power democratically. They often have democratic legitimacy as a result of being elected. And there’s a kind of gradual chipping away at democratic institutions, kind of tilting of the playing field to the advantage of the incumbent, so it becomes harder and harder to dislodge the incumbent through democratic means.
And, you know, when this goes through the whole process, you know, at the end of the process – this may take years, it may take a decade. You know, in some countries around the world, this has taken as long as a decade to happen. At the end of that process, the incumbent is firmly entrenched in power.
DAVIES: And just to define what we’re talking about, we’re talking – when we say a democracy dies, we mean there is a circumstance in which there are relatively freely elected leaders and, at the end, what?
ZIBLATT: Yeah, so at the end of this process, it’s hard – it becomes harder and harder – it takes different forms in different countries. I mean, so what’s happened in Turkey over the last 10 years, essentially President Erdogan has entrenched himself in power, weakened the opposition, and so it’s become harder and harder to dislodge him. So there may continue to be elections, but the elections are tilted in favor of the incumbent. The elections are no longer fair.
Through a variety of mechanisms, the president’s able to stay in power and to withstand criticism, although public support may not fully be there. Media is – you know, there’s kind of a clampdown on media and sort of a variety of institutional mechanisms that an incumbent can use to kind of keep himself in power.
LEVISKY: Right. As Daniel said, very often these days, the kind of formal or constitutional architecture of democracy remains in place, but the actual substance of it is eviscerated.
DAVIES: And does that describe Russia today? Is its democracy essentially dead?
LEVISKY: Yeah, well, I…
LEVISKY: Russia was never really much of a democracy. If it was a democracy, it was one very, very briefly, so Russia’s really at the other end of the spectrum in terms of the strength of its democratic institutions. But yes, Russia has the trappings of democracy. They still hold elections. They’ve got a Parliament. But in practice, it’s an outright autocracy.
DAVIES: You have a chapter called “Fateful Alliances,” and it’s about circumstances – cases where a populist demagogue, who turns out to be an authoritarian, got help along the way from mainstream political figures or political parties. Do you want to give us an example of that?
ZIBLATT: Yeah, so in our book, we recount a couple of these kinds of scenarios. And it turns out that often the way elected authorities get into power is not just through elections and appealing to the public but by allying themselves with establishment politicians. The most kind of recent example of this that we – and we have this – describe this in greater detail in the book – is the case of Venezuela where Hugo Chavez, kind of with the aid of President Caldera, who was a longstanding politician and establishment politician in Venezuela, was kind of aided along the way in some sense by being freed from jail by President Caldera and his – he kind of gained in legitimacy and then eventually was able to come into power.
A similar story can be told about the interwar years, as well – and interwar years in Europe. So these are the most prominent cases of Democratic collapse, really, in the 20th century – Italy, Germany in the – Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s. In both of these cases, you have Mussolini coming along, who didn’t really – you know, he had some support. But he was able to kind of increase his profile by being put on a party list by a leading liberal statesman Giovanni Giolitti, who included him on his party’s list. And he gained in legitimacy. And suddenly, you know, here he was, a leading statesman, Mussolini himself.
And a similar story – this – you know, Hitler came to power in a similar alliance with mainstream conservative politicians at the end of the 1920s and into the 1930s – was famously placed as chancellor of Germany by leading statesmen in Germany. In each instance, there’s a kind of Faustian bargain that’s being struck where the statesmen think that they’re going to tap into this popular appeal of the demagogue and think that they can control them. I mean, this is this incredible miscalculation. And this miscalculation happens over and over. And in each instance, the establishment statesmen are not able to control the demagogue.
DAVIES: And you note that there have been figures in American political history that could be regarded as dangerous demagogues and that they’ve been kept out of major positions of power because we’ve had gatekeepers – people who somehow controlled who got access to the top positions of power – presidential nominations, for example. You want to give us some examples of this?
LEVISKY: Sure. Henry Ford was an extremist, somebody who was actually written about favorably in “Mein Kampf.” He flirted with a presidential bid in 1923, thinking about the 1924 race, and had a lot of support, particularly in the Midwest. Huey Long obviously never had the chance to run for president. He was assassinated before that.
DAVIES: He was the governor of Louisiana, right?
LEVISKY: Governor of Louisiana, senator and a major national figure – probably rivaled really only by Roosevelt at the end of his life in terms of popularity. George Wallace in 1968, and again in 1972 before he was shot, had levels of public support and public approval that are not different – not much different from Donald Trump. So throughout the 20th century, we’ve had a number of figures who had 35, 38, 40 percent public support, who were demagogues, who didn’t have a strong commitment to democratic institutions, in some cases were quite antidemocratic, but who were kept out of mainstream politics by the parties themselves.
The parties never even came close to nominating any of these figures for president. What was different about 2016 was not that Trump was new or that he would get a lot of support but that he was nominated by major party. That’s what was new.
DAVIES: Right. And you say that there were effectively, for most of American history, gatekeepers at the top of the political party – a process that tended to exclude these people that were more extreme. Describe what that process was like.
ZIBLATT: Yeah, so you know, through the 20th century, even going back to the 19th century, the way presidential candidates were selected has – this has changed over time. And really, only beginning in 1972 have primaries, which we now are all so accustomed to – where candidates are selected by voters – that’s when that began is 1972 to be a really significant system. Before 1972, the system throughout the 20th century has often been described as dominated by smoke-filled back rooms where party leaders got together and tried to figure out who would be the best candidate to represent the party and who they thought could win.
You know, there’s a lot to be criticized about this pre-1972 system. It was very exclusive. It, you know – it’s often picked mediocre candidates. I mean, you can think of President Warren G. Harding, who looked like a presidential candidate but wasn’t much of a president. This was somebody who was selected through the smoke-filled backroom. But the virtue of this system – if there is a virtue of it – is that it kept out demagogues.
DAVIES: So in – starting in 1972, there are multiple primaries in states that lead to the party’s nomination. There are different state rules. But voters get some say in a lot of it. And you’re right that there – but there was always sort of the invisible primary. That is to say you tended to be taken seriously if the party leaders gave you their nod or at least their approval to get in the game. So take us to Donald Trump in 2016. How did this pave the way for Trump?
LEVISKY: Well, the belief among political scientists – and I think it was true for a while – was that winning primaries was hard. This was particularly before the days of social media, when you needed the support of local activists. You needed the support, maybe, of unions in the Democratic Party. You needed the support of local media on the ground in each state in order to actually win primaries. You couldn’t just get on CNN and expect to win a primary somewhere in the West because of what you – or what you tweeted.
You had to have some kind of an infrastructure on the ground. I’m talking about the 1970s, 1980s, even the 1990s. And so the belief among political scientists was you still needed the support of party insiders to win the primaries, to win – to cross the country and accumulate enough delegates, winning state by state by state. You really needed to build alliances with local Democratic or Republican Party leaders, committees, senators, congresspeople, mayors, et cetera.
That became less and less true over time in large part because the nature of media – the rise of social media and the ability of outsiders to make a name for themselves without going through that process, without going through that invisible primary. So Donald Trump demonstrated, you know, beyond any doubt in 2016 that at least if you have enough name recognition, you can avoid building alliances with anybody, really, at the state or local level. You can run on your own. You can be an outsider and win.
ZIBLATT: Yeah. I would add to that what’s an interesting – differences exist between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has superdelegates. And so there is built into the Democratic Party presidential selection process – continues to exist – this kind of element of gatekeeping. The Republican Party does not have superdelegates. And so one of the interesting kind of things to think about is, you know, had there been superdelegates in the Republican Party, would have Donald Trump actually won the nomination?
Would’ve he run? Would’ve he won? And so, you know, I think that’s kind of an interesting thing to think about. And, you know, superdelegates are now up for debate within the Democratic Party after the Bernie Sanders-Hillary showdown. And so there’s a lot of people who think superdelegates should be eliminated so that – this is kind of an ongoing issue of debate.
DAVIES: Right. And superdelegates are – they’re typically elected officials or very prominent leaders or fundraisers in the party. But in the Democratic Party, there are – what? – like, 15 percent of the total delegates of the convention – something like that.
LEVISKY: Right. It’s about 15 percent.