Levitsky Comes to Trinity; Talks GOP, Trump's Future


Steven Levitsky, a political scientist at Harvard and co-author with Daniel Ziblatt of the New York Times bestseller “How Democracies Die”, recently gave a talk about his book at Trinity. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s basic argument is that there is something wrong with American democracy, and that we are in the early stages of democratic collapse. The decay can be gradual and difficult to discern, but the authors define dead democracies as artificially, outwardly democratic, but lacking the substance that makes them functional democracies. They give Turkey under autocratic strongman Recep Erdogan as an example of these hollow democracies. The failure of, and decline in, what they deem political ‘gatekeepers’ in democracies play a large role in democratic death.

In the United States, primary nominations removed the role of party bosses in weeding out demagogic politicians. As the authors argue, demagogues only get into power in democracies because of the support of major parties—the examples of Hitler, Mussolini, and Chavez are indicative of this fact. The ‘checks and balances’ taught in classrooms the nation-round cannot themselves prevent democratic death. In an interview with NPR, Levitsky stated that “the rules themselves… can never fully guide behavior. Our behavior needs to be guided by informal rules, by norms.” The two main norms identified by the authors are mutual tolerance—recognition of legitimacy in a rival—and what they call “forbearance.” By that they mean restraint in use of power; there are norms against using the full powers of the presidential office. Restraint in use of powers like executive orders, or court-packing, or running for a third term (before that was made unconstitutional), is key in forbearance.

Integral in cultivating democratic norms in the United States has been the role of race. As they write, Southern white Democrats viewed abolition as an existential threat, and Republican Reconstruction post-bellum only succeeded because the North overlooked Jim Crow laws—mutual tolerance was achieved at the cost of democratic rights, what they themselves call a “tragic paradox.” Erosion of this tolerance had its roots in the Civil Rights movement but began in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich. Republicans began playing what Levitsky and Ziblatt call “constitutional hardball,” the rejection of forbearance. The twenty-one-day government shutdown in 1995-96, the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton, as well as the “theft” of a Supreme Court seat from Merrick Garland. Underlying the increasing extremism on the part of the Republican party is the demographic revolution taking place in the United States. The Grand Old Party has centered around a white Christian base, formerly the dominant ethno-religious group in the country. A deep feeling of loss informs the opinions of many Republicans, especially among Trump supporters. The ability of the Republican party to win elections is in danger, the authors claim, by representing a reactionary minority. That fact goes together with constitutional hardball and the sacrifice of democratic norms for political expediency. Once again, the ethnic diversity forwarded by an opposing party represents an existential threat to a political party’s life. Donald Trump represents the culmination of these trends.

The president has apparent disregard for democratic norms, calling for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton, claiming that multiple elections were ‘rigged’ by political opponents, and what they call the “weaponizing” of law enforcement agencies like the FBI. The delegitimization of American electoral and media institutions have had damaging effects on our democracy, “convincing a fairly large segment of our society that… the establishment media is conspiring to bring his government down.” Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that party extremism is contagious, and point towards other examples of democratic death spirals, wherein extremism on the part of one party sparks extremism in its opponents, the effect being government dysfunction—not a difficult thing to imagine in the U.S. Levitsky ended his talk with cautious advice. He asked that neither party should fight fire with fire, and that, moreover, the Democratic party serves to win over the long-term from the demographic changes that are shaking the Republican party. It is in the interest of not only American democracy—a goal that Levitsky admits is not compelling for most—and the Democratic party not to engage in the same hardball style. His argument is very compelling. The coordination of trends and historical precedent is highly appealing. But as a liberal, I feel prejudiced to accept what Levitsky offers. The future of Donald Trump, and perhaps American democracy, may come down to Republicans, and whether they accept Trump’s hardball as a political necessity.  Are conservatives convinced?

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