Donald Trump supporters
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Like the prospect of a hanging, Donald Trump’s presidency concentrates the minds of America’s political scientists. Why is no mystery. Trump treats his opponents as illegitimate. Failure to clap during the State of the Union ranks as “treason.” He bridles at the rule of law and seems especially intent on weakening the Department of Justice and the FBI. Russia interfered in our elections? So what? Hey, it might be nice to have a “major event” that would “unify” the country. Short of that, let’s have a military parade in the District of Columbia.

But, of course, the shock to political science is not just about the man in the Oval Office. On election day, Trump won 90 percent of the voters who identified themselves as Republicans to exit poll workers. On inauguration day, 89 percent of Republicans approved of him, per Gallup. Exactly a year later, 87 percent still approved. Given these numbers (roughly replicated across other polls), congressional Republicans have accommodated or even enabled Trump’s transgressions. Only those who know that this is their last Congress dare to question him.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Crown, 320 pp. Credit:
The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It
by Yascha Mounk
Harvard University Press, 400 pp. Credit:

For a growing number of political scientists, a startling question flutters in the wind: Are we witnessing the end of the world’s oldest democracy? At conferences and in working papers a host of new nouns swirl about: backsliding, decay, erosion, deconsolidation. They evoke processes that might result in things like one-party dominance, a corrupt judiciary, a politicized military, the disorganization of independent media, and the end of administrative meritocracy. No one predicts such a disaster confidently—and many place bets on American democracy’s resilience. Nonetheless, there are lot of political scientists living in their own version of a Roz Chast cartoon.

Americanists are generally the most sanguine. These are the people who study our system’s many moving parts—for instance, coding oral arguments before the Supreme Court or figuring out whether Americans can discern ideological differences between the parties. They have deep knowledge of one national case, ours. To be sure, leading Americanists do worry about the damage that Trump and his enablers have done to informal rules of the game. But they tend to agree that our system of checks and balances will blunt his worst impulses. They take comfort, too, from Trump’s abysmal overall approval ratings, which powerfully constrain him.

Turn, however, to scholars who think about systems of governance, plural, and one finds more anxiety. Comparativists ask why some countries are democracies and others are not. They think about the conditions under which different kinds of regimes emerge, persist, and diffuse across the globe, or, instead, fail, shrink, and recede. They know the warning signs that prefigure serious trouble for any democracy.

The comparativists tend to deliver bad news these days. Two stories are on offer. One is a “wolf at the door” account. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die fits into that category. The other, exemplified by Yascha Mounk’s more recent The People vs. Democracy, is more of a “termites in the basement” tale.

Mounk usually works as a theorist—that is, someone who keeps his lamp on for the likes of Aristotle and Arendt. But in 2015 and 2016, he collaborated with Roberto Stefan Foa, a principal investigator of the World Values Survey, to test the concept known as “democratic consolidation”—the thesis that once a nation has established a strong democracy, it is unlikely to revert back to its previous system. The results deeply troubled Mounk.

Searching the survey, Foa and Mounk found that the attitudinal foundations of affluent democracies have shifted markedly. The younger you are, the less you care about living in a democracy and the more likely you are to think that a “strong leader” or even “army rule” might be okay. Foa and Mounk call this phenomenon “democratic deconsolidation.” The details vary from place to place, but, they have claimed, every democracy’s rising cohorts are filled with people who pretty much shrug their shoulders about the importance of democracy.

Foa and Mounk attracted sharp critics, who accused them of exaggerating their findings. The issues are technical, but they boil down to whether the term “democracy” means the same thing to different people, and whether Foa and Mounk visually scaled the shifts to look especially alarming. The critics might have added that there is a problem with what social scientists call “face validity.” The same X-ray hit all the democracies with roughly the same effects? Really? In most circles we call that a tall tale.

Mounk does not give any ground in his book, however. On the contrary, he argues that democratic deconsolidation reveals a deep truth about contemporary democracy: that in a variety of ways, governance and policy no longer respond to what ordinary people want. Affluent democracies have become highly technocratic. The return of plutocracy—last seen in the 1920s—invites legislators to accommodate the policy preferences of the best off. Economies no longer grow as quickly and workers are much more exposed to foreign wage competition thanks to the neoliberal consensus in favor of free trade. Migration seems to threaten demographic majorities. Online “information bubbles” increase atomization. Everywhere the door is open for a politics that consciously aims to restore social cohesion and the sovereignty of the “real” people.

For Mounk, the rise of populism in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America thus portends a new regime type: “illiberal democracy.” Here he accepts the claim of Hungary’s Viktor Orban that there actually is such a thing as illiberal democracy, that substantial popular sovereignty can exist even as rulers curtail freedoms and pluralism just enough to entrench themselves. In sketching this prospect, Mounk aims to sit us up, to make us realize that we must reinvent liberal democracy. The stakes are just that high.

Mounk gives us a sobering book. But Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book packs much more punch in shorter compass. Unlike Mounk, who mines mass attitudes toward democracy and connects them to a general crisis of representation in Europe and the U.S., Levitsky and Ziblatt trace thrust and parry by national elected officials. Their focus is very tight: what party elites are willing to do, and what they are willing to avoid. The power of their book is that they make a very strong case that nothing else matters.

Democratic breakdown, they show through historical vignettes, happens in one of three ways: when a party can no longer tolerate the uncertainty of fair combat and its officials decide that they must rig the game so that they always win (Hungary under Orban); when people who should know better make a Faustian bargain with an autocrat (Rafael Caldera and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela); or when one side convinces itself that the other side is the anti-system side and that, therefore, the rules of the game must be suspended one way or another (southern Democrats during Reconstruction).

Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that we can see early signs of all three breakdown scenarios in the United States. The Pence-Kobach “electoral integrity” commission failed, but it certainly aimed at election rigging, as do strict voter ID laws and voter roll purges. Meanwhile, Republicans grimly stick with Trump as if they’d never heard of Faust, exploiting the current spell of unified government as they try to enact unpopular policies and tee up an assault on Medicaid and Social Security. And the president continues to flirt with shutting down Robert Mueller’s investigation into his ties to Russia, as his lackeys in Congress try to undermine their own investigation.

How did we get here? Trump’s presidency, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, coincides with the advanced erosion of democracy-maintaining norms, especially “forbearance” and “mutual toleration.” Who has eroded them? Our party elites.

Forbearance is best understood in contrast to its opposite: “constitutional hardball,” a term coined by Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet. Constitutional hardball is claiming the right to pardon oneself. It is years of slow-walking judicial nominations during presidential election years, and then one year inventing a rule against considering a nomination for an open seat on the Supreme Court altogether. It is threatening to impeach state judges who strike down overly gerrymandered congressional districts. It is holding the debt limit hostage in exchange for draconian cuts in social policy. It is unilaterally making policy through executive order, as an impatient Barack Obama did after 2010.

Forbearance, the opposite of hardball, refers to the practice of “underenforcing” potential sanctions, or holding back from using the most extreme tactics allowed by the rules. You could accept a shellacking and bide your time until your party does better in congressional elections, so you do, rather than plan to make policy unilaterally. You could save Antonin Scalia’s seat for a talented originalist, but you don’t; you accept that it is hardly the end of the world that the Court has a liberal majority for the first time in forty years.

Forbearance interacts with the second critical norm: mutual toleration. One side does not infer that the other side is an intolerable presence. It does not deem it worthy of prosecution or bankruptcy. The opposition does not deserve a change in election administration that will guarantee its electoral lockout.

When the norms of forbearance and mutual toleration are strong, they also foster “gatekeeping.” Periodically, democracies will face an anti-system movement or figure (or both) that reaches the gates of power. How do we know that they are anti-system? They say so. Their words are not just cheap talk, but an indication that, given the big chance, they will act on their contempt for democracy.

Comparativists ask why some countries are democracies and others are not. They know the warning signs that prefigure serious trouble for any democracy. And they tend to deliver bad news these days.

Gatekeeping is party elites knowing what to do—and doing it—when the wolf shows up. But gatekeeping requires solving very knotty problems of trust and coordination within a party or across party lines. Rather than weaken their own position by allying with rivals to box out the autocrat, people on one side can convince themselves that they can tame the autocrat all by themselves, that they can co-opt him or her and the angry masses. The temptation, in other words, is to capture the energy behind a Trumpian figure and use it to immediate policy advantage—to, say, repeal hated health care legislation or roll back the welfare state that you have despised since you read Ayn Rand.

The counterfactual implication of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s gatekeeping concept is that a large fraction of Republican politicians should have broken their own party apart, temporarily, and blocked Trump’s nomination in Cleveland. Failing to do that, they should have openly campaigned with the much-hated Hillary Clinton during the general election. Failing to do that, congressional Republicans should have announced a national unity government with congressional Democrats and placed President Trump on notice.

You may have noticed the bothersome recurring formulation here: “should have.” Yes, of course they should have! But where does that sort of thing happen? The answer is: in democracies where party elites recognize their rivals as guardians of democracy when the stakes are high. Yes, taking the hit to defend democracy from an authoritarian can shatter your party. But there are worse things than a party splitting apart. One of them is democratic breakdown. Levitsky and Ziblatt sketch several cases where key players clearly understood that. In the 1930s, Belgian Catholics formed a united front with socialists and liberals against a protofascist Catholic leader, formerly one of their own, who received support from Hitler and Mussolini. In 2016, much of Austria’s center-right lined up behind the left-leaning Alexander Van der Bellen to block an extreme-right candidate who winked at anti-immigrant violence. Van der Bellen became president in January 2017.

Plainly, Republicans didn’t see the situation in those terms, not even “Never Trumpers” like Bill Kristol and Evan McMullin. But, reflecting on Levitsky and Ziblatt, one sees that national Republicans have faced again and again a dreadful choice: damaging their own party versus enabling frighteningly poor, illiberal governance. In issuing their grave warnings, Mitt Romney, then Bob Corker, and then Jeff Flake have all testified to the power of the party’s dilemma. Others have evaded it by splitting hairs, offering the occasional tsk-tsk at Trump’s lack of civility, saying nothing of substance, and grasping at some trivial evidence of normal presidential behavior. Yet others have solved the dilemma by simply becoming lapdogs, such as Devin Nunes.

Fair warning: reading Levitsky and Ziblatt will leave you very, very unsettled. They make a powerful case that we really and truly are in uncharted territory, living in a moment when the line between difficult times and dark times has blurred. It turns out that Mounk agrees. He ends his book by candidly confessing that he doesn’t know where we’re headed.

Many Americanists, however, are betting on the durability of our institutional design. Two prominent comparativists, Kurt Weyland and Raúl Madrid, have just agreed with that bet, stressing in an article for the American Interest that Trump is caught in “a web of limitations and constraints.” Would-be imitators, such as Roy Moore or Joe Arpaio, are not gaining any traction. Steve Bannon is fading into insignificance.

In political science this is called “path dependence.” It’s not that institutional age alone is the secret. Rather, it’s that everyone has invested, again and again, in one way of doing business—and ripping that all up and taking a leap in the dark is out of the question.

On the other hand, it is obvious that we are living through a real test of our institutions. Unpredictable contingencies may buffet us, such as the final showdown between the president and Special Counsel Mueller, or the nuclear-edged tension between the U.S. and North Korea. A major terrorist attack could trigger harsh repression. We cannot know, in other words, whether the test will suddenly intensify.

With luck we may avoid havoc and muddle through electorally. But even that will be arduous and uncertain. The GOP’s marked taste for extreme constitutional hardball shows no sign of waning. Trump feeds the style literally every day. Thus containing and taming the Republican Party—while not further degrading democratic norms—are the historic tasks that lie ahead for Democrats as they rebuild themselves. In effect they are not just a political party now; they must also shoulder system-maintaining responsibilities.

The larger lesson is that we the people are not quite sovereign. For all that we may wish for a simple or quick way out of our current crisis, we cannot summon the solution on demand. Instead we must be patient, for it is our political parties that regulate and engage our citizenship. Indeed, we are actually, as the great political scientist E. E. Schattschneider put it, semi-sovereign. In the upcoming election cycles, that semi-sovereignty will be deeply tested.

Rick Valelly

Rick Valelly is Claude C. Smith ’14 Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and author of American Politics: A Very Short Introduction.