That’s the title of the book authored by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (copyright 2018, published by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York). Politics is not my kind of read. When a friend had told me about this book, I was skeptical at first. The long weekend was a perfect time to pour over the 312 pages of discourse on “how democracies die“.
It’s an interesting read, and yes, hard to put down. The historical data were on point (with appropriate references). It comes at a time when populism is on the rise, not only in the United States, or the Philippines, but with reference to the world. How fragile democracy is in the hands of a few. Who the gatekeepers and players actually are. And the destruction of not only an institution, but a nation and its people.
In their introduction alone, the argument that many of us think of the “death of democracies in the hands of men with guns” through military power are only one end of the spectrum. These are cases where democracies “dissolve in spectacular fashion”.
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.
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, combatting corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process. Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticise the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realise what is happening. Many continue to believe that they are living under a democracy…
Because 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, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.
If these few lines sound familiar to you, it should interest you in purchasing the book in order to get a clearer grasp of power and how rulers use existing laws to change the world.
The first litmus test of a democracy is “not whether figures emerge but whether political leaders, 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.” Why do you think there are new alliances and dalliances that we have to contend with? “Isolating population extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.
The second test is once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power. “Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them? Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended — by political parties and organised citizens, but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not.
This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy — packing and “weaponising” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy — gradually, subtly, and even legally — to kill it.
How does one detect an authoritarian?
Political scientist Juan Linz in a small but seminal book published in 1978 entitled The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes highlights the role of politicians, showing how their behaviour can either reinforce democracy or put it at risk.
There are four (4) behavioural warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. We should worry when a politician:
- rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game
- denies the legitimacy of opponents
- tolerates or encourages violence
- indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents
A politician who meets even ONE of these criteria is cause for concern.
It’s an interesting discourse on what kind of political candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism.
Very often, populist outsiders do. Populists are antiestablishment politicians — figures who, claiming to respect the voice of “the people”, wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite…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.
Recognizing the issue is the first step at reckoning the problem. The second step is addressing — how to avoid it.
At any point in our history, or even in the future, there will be players who will want to kill democracy. Today, technology plays an important role. Nevertheless, no matter how one looks at the means — people will always be behind the political ploy in the death of democracy.