Thoughts On: “How Democracies Die”

I instinctually avoided this book until I could arrive at my own conclusions. Once I posted “The End of America,” I dove into this frightening little tome. The credits are funny. The authors are academics who thank their editor for stopping them from sounding like the college professors they are. I think the editor mostly won that battle. The book is readable and in sections feels like the scariest thriller you have ever picked up. It is important to keep telling oneself that they wrote this book after Trump won and published in 2018. Even these prescient authors could not expect what would happen next.

The first surprise was the about 50 pages that relate the history of political and social polarization in America. I have studied and written about the topic since I saw the Reagan revolution up close in DC in 1980. If you genuinely want to understand the deep roots of our current crisis, that history alone makes the book worth the price. They rightly trace our current divide to two pieces of legislation that began to right the greatest American flaw: The 1964 Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act of 1965. That legislation flipped the South from Democrat to Republican and turned Black voters into Democrats thus turning the party into an urban entity. Add the politics of the Vietnam War and the lasting division of the two parties was set in stone.

The authors compare America to several countries that have slipped into authoritarian regimes. They don’t merely focus on Germany of the 1930s. They spend most of their time with Central and South America. Yes, it is now simple to compare us to the classic “banana republic.” There is a predictable pattern to how democracies fail. In a clear 4-part chart, the authors create check boxes for authoritarianism. 1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. 2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. 3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. If that list didn’t put a chill down your spine, then you are not paying attention.

History tells us that democracies rarely die in a single dramatic event. More likely, is the relentless erosion of norms. Our constitution has always depended on unwritten rules, what the authors call “guardrails,” that act as the glue to keep the system running. How many times have you heard the media say, “Trump is defying all norms?” Authoritarians save the direct assault on the written constitution for last. First comes the erosion of the rules that make government work. And the most important, maybe final assault: removing public faith in the results of elections. Remember, they wrote this in 2018. The authors still believed, or hoped, that we could keep this last boundary intact. They were wrong.

One guardrail is the actions of the political parties. They assumed that, given history, the Republicans would eventually turn on Trump and reject the path to authoritarian government. What we know now is that Republicans looked down into the abyss and said, “Okay, that’s fine by me.” Democrats do not have a partner to stop the end of democracy. They have a dedicated foe.

While the book captures the importance of the right-wing media sphere in keeping the Republican base angry, it completely miss the power of the internet and social media. I made this the core of my previous essay. Remarkably, these academics seemed to miss this one as Trump’s Twitter was raging for years before he was elected. A piece struck me this week in the Oregonian about the “Greater Idaho” movement to divide Oregon by ideology. Even in that article people were quoted as saying the real problem was when folks went home and spent the night staring at  Facebook groups and YouTube videos. We are sealed into thought worlds now.

This is an important book. If you love America, it is a frightening book. But if you are already concerned, knowing what exactly to look for is essential. What is happening now for most Americans is the classic frog boil. Raise the temperature of the pot slowly enough and lull the frog to death.

The book ends with 3 possible outcomes. I am not sure I completely agree, but I think they could have nailed the possibilities. First, Trump fails and is rejected. We know this is not the case. With a willing Republican party, one with a goal of a permanent minority rule, Trump is mostly unscathed. Second, Trump and the Republican win outright. They take congress again and Trump runs and wins a second term. If that happens, it is game over. However, I don’t think they go far enough here. The mini-Trumps waiting in the wings are smarter and more committed to the cause of authoritarianism that Trump. As bad as he is, we escape some of the worst outcomes because he is lazy and a narcissist. The next Trumpist won’t have those flaws. Finally, we live in a democracy without guardrails. The tribal warfare of the polarized parties and electorate is relentless. We bounce from one set of governing principles to another. The frog boil.

How Democracies Die tries to end with some encouragement. It makes a call to restore the norms, our essential guardrails. They call on Democrats to deal with the economic inequity to regain the trust of part of white, blue collar America. Biden was seen with a dogeared copy of this book. He gets it. They caution against doing what many Democrats want now and be just as evil and tough as McConnell and his henchmen. History tells us that road only hardens the opposition. Get rid of the filibuster now and when the power flips, it’s game over. I wondered if the authors had painted themselves into a logical corner and realized that they had no way out. My take is that we have one shot. Republicans continue to build structural ways to maintain power at the state level. Democrats lost the last election. That’s right. Biden’s victory was lipstick on a pig, as was the victory of 2 senators in Georgia. Don’t be fooled. Voter suppression can be defeated. Hard to vote still means that everyone can vote. The only way to give our democracy a fighting chance is to crush the Republicans at the polls in 2020 and 2022. Top to bottom, from the local school board to the White House. Democrats need to be ruthless in ignoring all distractions. They are not good at this. To save our democracy, they have to stop playing internal games and focus only on those actions that lead to total electoral victory. In this, they must become Republican-like. To govern, first win.

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