Tuesday, March 13, 2018

How Democracies Die

As Trump takes the world by storm, I've wondered whether there is a real reason to worry that America could become a politically unstable country, or whether that kind of talk is just fear-mongering. On the one hand, he has done some things which you would not expect from a democratic leader (e.g. attack the press, appoint family members to prominent roles, blur the lines between the presidency and personal business relationships, politicize institutions like the FBI etc.). But on the other hand, it seems improbable that we should live in exceptional times; considering America has been around for 240+ years, surely this kind of demagoguery has come and gone before...right? So it was with these ideas in mind that I read the fantastic book How Democracies Die.

This book changed my mind about a lot of things. I used to think that one of the things protecting America from erosion of its democracy was its constitution. This book set me straight on that right off the bat. Other countries have actually almost word-for-word tried to copy the US constitution, without the results. The US Constitution is actually very vague on a lot of matters (as a lot of future arguments could not have been foreseen), but somehow the US has still gotten by. What actually keeps the various US institutions in check are norms.

I also didn't understand the important role played by political parties, which actually go a long way in protecting the country from extremists and demagogues. Parties know they have to win elections, and so the establishment of a popular party often works together to keep the scariest guys out. Establishment guys also want to be able to work with the leader, and so people who don't fit the mould get pushed to the fringes. The parties act as a filter. Countries that let their populations directly choose their leaders often get demagogues. It never made sense to me that Americans are more stupid than the citizens of other countries; that explanation just doesn't hold water. It makes far more sense to me that what appears to have failed here is the filter.

The authors argue that this is because the parties have become more polar. This is another argument that I've heard a lot of, but have had a hard time accepting at face value. Again, this is a 241 year old country that has gone through a civil war. Someone living today who talks about how polar the country is relative to history sounds to me like someone duped by exceptionalism. But once again, these authors changed my mind about this. They not only demonstrate the polarization with data (e.g. the increased use of Presidential decrees, as compromise with opposing parties has become more difficult), but tie it into a plausible theory about why that polarization has occurred (hint: it has been incrementally increasing since the 1960s).

Trump violates a lot more of the norms than we are accustomed to seeing from a President, which is what makes him scary to some. Some of his threats and/or actions, like trying to pack the FBI with loyalists, can be compared to those of other dictators that have gone on to destroy their countries' democracies. But as I guessed, Trump is not the first US Presidential demagogue.

Previous US Presidents have done everything from packing the Supreme Court (by increasing the number of judges, that they of course get to appoint, in order to "own" it) to running for third terms. But eventually, legislators got back to protecting rather than violating norms.

So how does the US get back there? The authors argue that a one-party impeachment or some other legal means of removal would only exacerbate the polarity, kicking the can out into the future. The key is democratic alliances between groups that are not accustomed to teaming up. Bi-partisan efforts that find common ground in democracy (rather than focuses on differences) can return legislators to seeing the other side as worthy leaders rather than as those who want to destroy the country. This is how norms were re-applied following previous US bouts with political polarization.

I can't recommend How Democracies Die enough.

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