Taking the Threat to Democracy Seriously
46 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2019
Date Written: 2019
During the summer of 2018, I had occasion to write a book review of How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The book has its flaws, including practicing the kind of partisanship that it highlights and claims to deplore. But, whatever the book’s flaws, Levitsky and Ziblatt clearly demonstrate that it can happen here — our democracy can actually die — by contrasting the decline of democratic norms in America over the past forty-five years with countries in which similar experiences led to dictatorial rule. According to the authors, the fundamental change that explains the end of democratic systems is the decline of tolerance for rule by the other side and the resulting end of forbearance against using all legal means to prevent that outcome. When political competition becomes unremitting warfare, democracy may come to an end.
Who can doubt that this describes America today? Levitsky and Ziblatt demonstrate the various ways that American politicians do everything in their power to stymie effective government when the other side is in power and to entrench their rule when they are in office.
The flaw in the book is the authors’ tendency to associate all or most such actions with Republicans in the beginning of America’s democratic decline and to ascribe to Democrats mere reaction. This partisanship in outlook is surely irrelevant today. The Democrats retook the House of Representatives in the 2018 congressional elections, and they will probably eventually impeach President Donald Trump, however much or little actual evidence there is of his wrongdoing. If Democrats retake the Senate, they will block any Trump Administration, or other Republican Administration, Supreme Court nominees from confirmation. These actions would be clear violations of the norms of tolerance and forbearance. Whoever started it, this is where we are now.
Keywords: Democracy, politics and government, partisanship, dictatorship, constitution
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