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How Democracies Die And How To Save Them (A Journey Through Books)

Teri Kanefield takes us on a journey through books exploring democracy's fragility and the strategies to preserve it. Exploring the work of Ziblatt, Levitsky, and others, she analyzes democratic norms, transitions, and Biden's response to challenges.
Published:January 25, 2024

*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

This week, I will address these questions:

  • How do democracies thrive and how do they die?
  • How can backsliding democracies be saved?
  • How can nations begin a (peaceful) progression from an authoritarian government to a more democratic government?

My method will involve a journey through the work and writings of the following:

  • Steven Levitsky, political science professor at Harvard
  • Daniel Ziblatt, political science professor at Harvard
  • David Pozner, law professor at Columbia University
  • Susan Hyde, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, political science professors at Stony Brook University
  • Dannagal Goldwaithe Young, professor of political science and communication at the University of Delaware

I will use, as an example of how to do democracy right, Biden’s response to what we might call the Garland Hecklers.

How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018)

The authors, who study the rise and fall of democracies around the world, open with these words:

Over the past two years, we have watched [American] 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.

They explain that while 20th-century autocrats often came to power through military coups, today’s would-be dictators generally come to power through legal means (often by winning elections) and then, once in power, they batter the democratic institutions to solidify their power.

Put another way, extremists today prefer to destabilize and defeat democracy through chaos, disinformation, and cyber wars. It’s less bloody and safer for the would-be autocrats. It’s also a more gradual process.

The authors explain that democracy and constitutions are maintained not only by formal institutional mechanisms but by informal “guardrails,” which they define as remaining within accepted norms. Norms, they say, are the unspoken rules and conventions that hold a democracy together.

They blame the decline in American democracy on hardball tactics used by the Republican Party. Thirty years ago Newt Gingrich instructed his allies to call Democrats “traitors” and refuse to compromise. In 2008, Palin and others told their followers that Obama (and Democrats) were not real or “true” Americans.

McConnell’s refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. “Since 2008, the GOP has at times behaved like an anti-system party in its obstructionism.”

As a result, “democratic norms in the U.S. have been unraveling for decades.”

The Republican Party, whose base is largely white and Christian, are watching their demographics shrink. Then, from desperation, they are using hardball tactics.

“In 1950, nonwhites constituted barely 10 percent of the U.S. population. By 2014, they constituted 38 percent, and the U.S. Census Bureau projects that a majority of the population will be nonwhite by 2044.”

Before the 1950s, all of our institutions–governor’s mansions, state legislatures, Congress, the White House, universities, and industries–were dominated by white men. Laws largely benefitted white men. (For an example, see this post about the history of rape laws.)

We are now undergoing a transition as people who are not both white and male move into positions of power. As a result, the laws are changing so that they no longer primarily protect the interest of white men.

From How Democracies Die: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities gave up their dominant status without a fight.” In other words, an ethnic majority in the United States is losing their majority status, and they’re fighting back.

As of the time of this lecture in 2018, Levitsky concluded while we were not sliding into autocracy because democratic institutions were holding out, we were sliding into dysfunction, which can destabilize democracy.
Levitsky and Ziblatt offer this key insight: Democracy is “grinding” work. It requires negotiation, compromise, and give and take.

Finally this key insight: If one party plays hardball, and the other party responds in kind, democracy can go into a “death spiral.”A Political Earthquake

Levitsky, in this lecture, describes what we are experiencing as a “political earthquake” as the United States transitions from a democracy in which democratic institutions almost entirely benefited white men to a multi-racial and multi-cultural democracy. We’re feeling the shocks and tremors of the transition and the rattling of GOP hardball tactics.

As long as the Republican Party clings to the policies that cater to the desires of a shrinking portion of the electorate, the long-term prospects of the Republican Party are not good. In contrast, the Democratic Party—the party of urban intellectuals, minority communities, and women—is expanding and has excellent medium and long-term prospects.

From Levitsky: We don’t respond to earthquakes by applying more pressure to weakened structures. Instead, we move quickly to strengthen the weakened structures to prevent them from collapsing further.
Because the Democrats have excellent medium and long term prospects, it’s in their best interests to preserve (not further stress) the institutions.

By the time Ziblatt and Levitsky were writing How Democracies Die, the mantra that “Democrats need to fight like Republicans” was so widely repeated on left-leaning social media and by left-leaning political commentators that the authors, in their book, addressed it:

In the wake of the 2016 election, many progressive opinion makers concluded that Democrats needed to “fight like Republicans.” If Republicans were going to break the rules, the argument went, Democrats had no choice but to respond in kind. Acting with self-restraint and civility while the other side abandoned forbearance would be like a boxer entering the ring with a hand tied behind his back. When confronted with a bully who is willing to use any means necessary to win, those who play by the rules risk playing the sucker. (p. 213).

Ziblatt and Levitsky call the approach of fighting like Republicans “misguided.” Copying authoritarian tactics plays into the hands of would-be authoritarians and weakens democratic institutions.

They stress that this doesn’t mean Democrats should be passive, acquiescent, or abandon vigorous opposition. Instead, Democrats should use what Georgetown Law professor David Pozen calls Anti-Hardball Reform.

Anti-Hardball Reform

Pozen, in a piece called Hardball and/as Anti-Hardball, suggests what he calls “anti-hardball” responses as a way to blunt Republican power grabs without putting additional pressure and stress on the democratic institutions.

An anti-hardball tactic is a good-government rule that the party creating it would agree to if the other side suggested it. Anti-hardball tactics seek to blunt norm-breaking power grabs without further stressing the institutions and without inviting retaliation.

Anti-hardball tactics “forestall or foreclose tit-for-tat cycles and lower the temperature.”

As an example, Pozen suggests that voters should respond to GOP voter suppression and voter roll purges by mobilizing volunteers to re-register voters and drive people to polls. Kamala Harris, at a fundraiser held remotely on August 12, 2020, said something similar. Someone asked her the best way to respond to the widespread voter intimidation tactics being used in certain states. She said, “I view it as a challenge,” and then added that Americans are “strong” enough to go around whatever barriers the opposing party erects.

In this video that went viral on Tiktok, Belinda Varnado explains how she uses anti-hardball tactics to blunt Republican efforts to discourage her from voting. (I am having trouble linking to the original video, but this link should work.)

It turns out that most voters don’t like being told they can’t vote or their votes shouldn’t count. Despite voter suppression attempts, 2020 saw a spike in voter turnout among Democrats.

The example of Chile

As an illustration of how a country can go from a democracy to an authoritarian government and back, Ziblatt and Levitsky offer the example of Chile.

Before 1970, Chile was the oldest and most stable democracy in South America. When left-wing Allende was elected president in 1970, members of the far right launched a hate campaign against him. They called him a communist who wanted to turn Chile into another Cuba.

Allende’s enemies vowed to block his programs by any means necessary. They completely stonewalled him.

Frustrated, Allende tried to push his agenda through by means beyond what the Constitution allowed.

In 1973, right-wing General Augusto Pinochet led a coup against Allende. The military generals stormed the presidential palace, murdered Allende, and seized control of the government.

Pinochet’s ruthless dictatorship lasted 17 years. Why so long? Even after all sides grew to despise Pinochet, the parties so distrusted each other they couldn’t bring themselves to talk.

Then, after “staring into the abyss” of dictatorship for years, enough Chileans came to understand that the only way to reestablish democracy was to begin talking. Enough key leaders from the various sides came together, opened a dialogue, and agreed to commit themselves to “consensus politics”—negotiating key decisions.They formed a solid majority, and could thus topple Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Thus, while Pinochet’s dictatorship was bloody and violent, he was toppled through democratic means.
Afterward, the Chileans returned to a stable democracy.

(A personal note about why often quote the example of Chile: My husband’s family experienced the Pinochet dictatorship. My husband had to carry a card to prove that he voted for Pinochet. I have thus heard first-hand accounts.)

Democracies are thus restored or preserved when a coalition of people on opposites sides of the political spectrum but with a shared abhorrence of authoritarianism work together. Another example was in Belgium in the 1930s, when rising fascism was defeated by the willingness of the rightwing Catholic party to join ranks with the liberals.Competitive Authoritarianism (it isn’t all or nothing)

I was so impressed with How Democracies Die that I looked for other works by the same authors. That was how I learned that there is a thing called competitive authoritarianism.

Because the slide from a democracy to an autocracy often happens gradually, the world has seen a rise in hybrid political regimes that combine aspects of authoritarianism with aspects of democratic governance.

In a competitive authoritarian government, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority, but because incumbents so often violate the rules and norms of democracy that these regimes fail to meet the minimum standards for democracy.

(Competitive authoritarianism is different from a facade democracy, which has elections and the trappings of democracy, but elections have no meaning: Regardless of how people vote, the “results” are determined by the government.)

For a government to be democratic, it must meet these four criteria:

  1. Executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair;
  2. Almost all adults have the right to vote;
  3. Political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected;
  4. Elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary control of military or clerical leaders

A democratic government can at times violate one or more of these four, but (to remain a democracy) the violations cannot be systematic enough to entirely diminish the power of opposing political parties. A government classified as competitive authoritarian, however, violates these four often enough to create an uneven playing field between the government and opposition to the government.

Competitive authoritarian regimes can come about in two ways: An autocratic government can move toward a democratic one and transition into a competitive authoritarian regime, or a democratic government can backslide into competitive authoritarianism.

While democracies can be unstable and can backslide, given modern communications and media, a totalitarian government is difficult to maintain.

A Backsliding Democracy

According to the European think tank International IDEA, the United States was labeled a backsliding democracy in 2021. The cause of the backslide was Trump’s refusal to admit he lost the election, the refusal of his supporters to admit or believe that he lost, and the attack on the capitol resulting from the refusal of Trump and his supporters to admit that he lost the election.

Susan Hyde, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, responded to the finding that America is a backsliding democracy by saying the outlook isn’t all bleak for American Democracy.

We’ve seen increasing levels of electoral participation in the U.S., particularly in the last elections.”
And we saw a 7% increase of voter turnout, which marks the highest turnout in any federal election in the U.S. since at least 1980. So that’s one very positive development — that there is more political engagement and more participation in elections.”

“There were also more women appointed to Congress than ever before. . . We’ve seen a 50% increase of women’s representation compared to a decade ago, the highest percentage in U.S. history now with 27% of members of Congress being women,” Silva-Leander said. . . . “It’s still low compared to many other countries, but it’s an increase compared to where the U.S. was a decade ago.

Professor Hyde also said, “The U.S. is most effective at promoting democracy when it admits that democracy requires maintenance and is an ongoing struggle.”

The Garland Hecklers

This brings me to what we might call the Garland Hecklers who promoted a version of the ‘Democrats should fight like Republicans’ mantra. I am using this example because I’ve already chronicled the progression of the Garland Hecklers, including debunking their claims.

The Garland Hecklers were a vocal and highly visible group on the left side of the political spectrum who heckled Garland all through 2021 and into 2022 claiming, among other things, that he was “deliberately slow walking” the Trump investigations. Some demanded that Garland announce that he was investigating Trump. Failing that, they demanded an “overt action” to show that Garland was “going after” Trump. (For citations, see this post.)

Some insisted that an extensive evidence-gathering investigation was not necessary. Some even claimed that Trump should have been “arrested” within months of the January 6 attack. One well-known TV lawyer wanted Garland to “flip some tables” and behave the way Republicans would have behaved. He cited examples of Republicans defying norms and playing hardball by using prosecutors to do the bidding of the president.

(If you agree with the above statements, first read this post and then click here and start reading for why you fell for this misinformation.)

Prosecutorial independence is one of our democratic institutions. In an autocratic government, the autocrat decides who should be investigated and prosecuted. In an era of mob rule (lynchings) the mob decides. The way our government is structured, an independent prosecutor decides by following the rules and guidelines in place.

Garland explained repeatedly that what the hecklers were demanding was contrary to the established norms of how investigations are conducted and that it was important to follow the rules. (For an example of Garland’s response, click here.)

In response, the hecklers mocked his words as “weak.” (Citations here.)

Note: Not all the lawyers who jumped onto the Garland Heckling bandwagon were advocating rule breaking and norm busting. Many can be described as reflectors: They were simply reflecting back and amplifying what others were saying. (For more on legal pundits who act as reflectors, see this post.)

Both Garland and Biden ignored the hecklers. Given what I’ve written thus far, it should be obvious why, but let’s march through a few reasons for fun. (This is fun, isn’t it?) Besides, exploring other reasons gives me the excuse to talk about another interesting book.

Reason #1: Giving in to the Garland Hecklers would have further deteriorated the DOJ 

We know that Biden read How Democracies Die. It was reported that, in 2018, Biden — who generally reads biographies — “became obsessed with two books: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” by Joan C. Williams. “He carried both everywhere, scrawling notes on the pages and pulling out well-worn copies to share passages.”

When Biden introduced his leadership team for the Justice Department, including Judge Merrick Garland as his choice to be U.S. attorney general, he said, “We need to restore the honor, the integrity, the independence of the Department of Justice that has been so badly damaged.” By “badly damaged,” he was, of course, referring to the way Trump had tried to weaponize the Justice Department to do his bidding.

The way to restore the integrity of the department is to follow the rules and norms. This means conducting the investigation the way the DOJ traditionally investigates complex crimes, which in turn means, among other things, not announcing the targets or subjects of investigations. This protects the civil rights of people being investigated and protects the integrity of the investigation and insures that all people under investigation are treated the same.

Reason #2: Giving in to the hecklers would have meant making the same mistake that the Republicans made: Biden would have been catering to a small portion of the population while alienating the majority.

Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan’s book, in The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics, offers this insight: The biggest divide in America isn’t a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. The divide is in how engaged Americans are with politics.

For what follows I will also draw on conclusions from Prof. Dannagal Goldwaithe Young’s book, Wrong: How Media, Politics, and Identity Drive our Appetite for Misinformation, which I talked about at length here.
Let’s talk about the “other” divide.

Before the Internet and the current information disruption, most voters got their news once or twice daily, perhaps a morning newspaper read over breakfast or on the way to work, an evening paper, or a 30 minute evening news broadcast typically with someone like Walter Cronkite reciting the facts of what had happened that day. The presentation was neutral and dull. The temperature was low.

The rise of right-wing talk radio, the advent of cable news shows, and the Internet created an information disruption and changed how people get their news. With the advent of partisan media (Fox and MSNBC) the temperature went up.

Nonetheless, despite the information disruption, most Americans have about the same engagement with politics. They check the news once or twice daily and then go about their day. They dislike partisan bickering and constant rage. They avoid political arguments, political postings on social media, and while they dislike the leadership of the opposing party, they have no ill feelings about the other party’s voters.

Meanwhile, the Internet and social media created a much smaller group who are plugged into a 24-hour news cycle. These are hyper-partisans who are more likely to raise their voices on social media and are more likely to get into heated arguments with people from the opposing party. In fact, many of them seek out social media fights with members of the other party.

The majority of Americans (68% in 2019) were reporting “news fatigue” and were weary of the partisan bickering.

From Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan: The hyper-partisans are “so deeply involved” and “so strongly believe in the potential benefit of a given political outcome that they are willing to support processes that break with political rules and norms.”

How small are these hyper-partisan deeply involved groups? Fox had 1.7 million viewers in November of 2023, which is a lot of people, but a fraction of the 137.5 million Americans who voted in 2020.

From Krupnikov and Ryan, in 2019, only 15% of people actually liked seeing political posts and discussions on social media.

Okay, let’s do some math. If roughly 15% of people like seeing political posts, and if this number is divided between right wingers and left wingers (or Trump critics and Trump supporters—however you want to classify the partisan division) that leaves 7.5% on each side.

The Garland Hecklers do not represent all of the people in the left leaning highly-involved group. A significant percentage pushed back.

Given the research provided by Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, it seems that the number of Garland Hecklers and the approving Garland Heckler audience is less than 5% of the population. While it is a lot of people (we have a large population), and if you move in those circles, you will see a lot of hyper-partisans, they represent a small fraction of the voting population.

This small group seems larger to the general population because mainstream media, which has an incentive to promote divisive, emotionally-laden views, amplifies their voices. This is from Dannagal Goldwaithe White:

The phenomenon of the “partisan pundit” is a useful television (especially cable) news routine that embraces the conflict frame while offering emotionally evocative performances of partisan identity. Pundits are talking heads who appear on the news not to “report” news but to talk about the news.

Cable news programs frequently assemble panels of pundits (for example, journalists, experts, and partisan commentators) who argue about the topic, tie that topic to broad themes in the culture war, and typically do so with the “in your face” interpersonal conflict style that increases viewer engagement while also increasing viewers’ hostility toward the other side.

Thus, had Biden or Garland done the bidding of the Garland Hecklers, they would have been making the same mistake that the Republicans made in catering to a small portion of the population while alienating the majority.

Reason #3: Meeting the demand of the Garland Hecklers would have undermined the legitimacy of any resulting indictments and prosecutions.

Imagine if Garland had done the bidding of the Garland Hecklers and given signs that he intended to prosecute Trump. Or imagine if Biden had done their bidding, fired the rule-following Garland, and appointed someone who would “flip a few tables” and announce an investigation into Trump himself.

Had Biden given in, by all appearances, he would have been directing the DOJ to go after his political opponent, which is what autocrats do. This cannot be justified by saying “But our political opponent is a criminal,” because in a rule of law democracy, we don’t start from the premise of a person’s guilt. All people (even people who you know are lying cheating scoundrels) are presumed innocent until proven guilty in court.

If the public believed that Biden and Garland set out to “get” Trump, any resulting prosecutions would lack credibility in the eyes of much of the public, including Democratic, left-leaning voters, and Trump-despising voters.

As an aside, this is why public pressure campaigns on prosecutors are, in general, a bad idea. If a pressure campaign succeeds in swaying the prosecutor, the pressure campaign fails in that it helped delegitimize the results they were trying to bring about.

Reason #4: Meeting the demand of the Garland Hecklers would have invited retaliation.

Republican voters will then expect their leaders to direct prosecutors to investigate Democrats. Both parties would end up looking the same, which plays into the hands of those trying to topple American democracy.The conclusion is common sense

The way to destroy democracy is by breaking norms and the way to save an ailing democracy (or rescue an autocracy) is with more democracy.


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