How Democracies Die

The book “How Democracies Die,” written by Harvard Professors of Government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, is a wide-ranging study of how democratic governments come into being and how they die.

Many of the more current examples cited are South American countries, but Turkey and Hungary are also cited as well as the nations that propelled us into World War II. And then there is the United States under President Donald Trump.

The following material is found on pages 192 and 193 of the book.

The higher President Trump’s approval rating, the more dangerous he is. His popularity will depend on the state of the economy, as well as on contingent events. Events that put the government’s incompetence on display, such as the Bush administration’s inept response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, can erode public support. But other developments, such as security threats, can boost it.

That brings us to a final factor shaping President Trump’s ability to damage our democracy: crisis. Major security crises — wars or large-scale terrorist attacks — are political game changers. Almost invariably, they increase support for the government. Citizens become more likely to tolerate, and even endorse, authoritarian measures when they fear for their security. And it’s not only average citizens who respond this way. Judges are notoriously reluctant to block presidential power grabs in the midst of crises, when national security is perceived to be at risk. According to political scientist William Howell, institutional constraints on President Bush disappeared in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, allowing Bush to “do whatever he liked to define and respond to the crisis.”

Security crises are, therefore, moments of danger for democracy. Leaders who can “do whatever they like” can inflict great harm upon democratic institutions. As we have seen, that is precisely what leaders such as Fujimori, Putin and Erdogan did. For a would-be authoritarian who feels unfairly besieged by opponents and shackled by democratic institutions, crisis opens a window of opportunity.

In the United States, too, security crises have permitted executive power grabs, from Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus to Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese Americans to Bush’s USA PATRIOT Act. But there was an important difference. Lincoln, Roosevelt and Bush were committed democrats, and at the end of the day, each of them exercised considerable forbearance in wielding the vast authority generated by crisis.

Donald Trump, by contrast, has rarely exhibited forbearance in any context. The chances of a conflict occurring on his watch are also considerable. They would be for any president — the United States fought land wars or suffered major terrorist attacks under six of its last twelve elected presidents. But given President Trump’s foreign policy ineptitude, the risks are especially high. We fear that if Trump were to confront a war or terrorist attack, he would exploit this crisis fully —- using it to attack political opponents and restrict freedoms
Americans take for granted. In our view, this scenario represents the greatest danger facing American democracy today.