Harvard Prof. Steven Levitsky on two nightmare scenarios for the U.S.
Is our democracy in danger?
So begins How Democracies Die, the 2018 New York Times bestselling book by Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The authors have studied the collapse of democracies in Latin America and Europe. As they look at the U.S. under Donald Trump, they see ominous warning signs. The book, despite being several years old, reads like an unsettling roadmap to current American politics.
I recently spoke with Steven Levitsky on The Vermont Conversation, the public affairs radio show that I host; you can listen to our discussion here. Steven Levitsky is Professor of Government at Harvard University. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
David Goodman: You begin How Democracies Die with a question: is our democracy in danger? What is your answer to that today?
Steven Levitsky: I think it is. The events in the two years since have only reinforced those fears. The Trump administration has been a little bit worse than we expected. Looking back at the book, we were slightly optimistic.
This does not mean that we are on the verge of fascism or even that we’re on the verge of autocracy. But I think our democratic institutions as they exist are being seriously challenged and are at serious risk of crisis. You can slide into a democratic crisis and fall into a period of instability without consolidating an authoritarian regime. But we face a real threat to our democracy.
I don’t think of How Democracies Die as being overly optimistic. What were you too optimistic about?
The Republican Party. We stated that when we look forward, we expected that a faction of the Republican Party, especially in the Senate, would act as a constraint on Trump. We did not foresee the rapid and total Trumpization of the Republican Party. We expected that the establishment Republicans, the relatively moderate Republicans in the Senate, would stand up to Trump and kind of draw a red line. And that didn’t happen. In fact, every Republican who stood up to Trump saw his or her political career ended. And because of that the entire party fell in line. That raises the danger to a new level.
Donald Trump engaged in exactly the kind of behavior that our founding fathers anticipated when they designed the institution of impeachment : an egregious abuse of power for his own personal and political ends. And yet, we couldn’t impeach him. Republicans from the outset declared that they were going to acquit. So the complete Trumpization of the Republican Party has meant that Congress as an institution of accountability has become effectively useless.
You identify key indicators of authoritarian behavior in How Democracies Die. Could you review what those indicators are, particularly the ones that you think are in play today?
These indicators are meant to identify potential autocrats before they come to power so the voters and politicians can make sure not to elect them. The four indicators are: First, denying the legitimacy of opponents using language that treats opponents as enemies, as criminals, as subversives, rather than legitimate opponents in a democracy. Second, a willingness to abandon key democratic rules of the game, such as not recognizing election results . Third, toleration or promotion of violence of any kind. And fourth, the willingness to curtail civil liberties of opponents and rivals, including in the media.
Trump checked all four of these boxes during the campaign before he was ever president. So we were forewarned.
You argue that democracies die today not in spectacular ways like the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany that propelled Hitler to power, or planes bombing the presidential palace such as happened in Chile in 1973 when Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power, but “by elected leaders.” Explain what you mean.
The predominant way of democracy dying was at the hands of some military group. Usually the high command of the Armed Forces seizes power, dissolves the constitution, and puts the President on a plane or in jail or kills them. So you get a very quick and often very dramatic destruction of democracy. Since the end of the Cold War, coups have become less common. Militaries have become more reluctant to seize power. Democracies die much more frequently at the hands of elected prime ministers and elected presidents who wound or kill democracy by much more subtle means. The reason for this change is that democracy has become much more legitimate in most societies in the world. Openly walking away from electoral politics or from constitutional rule is much harder than it used to be. So leaders have to find more subtle ways.
The guy who’s pulled this off better than anybody else in the contemporary era is Viktor Orban in Hungary. He is undermining democracy by essentially legal means by passing legislation in Parliament using this parliamentary supermajority to reform the constitution, pack the bureaucracy, pack the courts, and eventually tilt the playing field against the opposition. Sometimes they use things like anti-corruption laws or tax audits to legally investigate opponents. So instead of locking your opponent up for treason as you did in the “good old days,” now you find a tax violation. You bust your opponent on more seemingly legitimate grounds. That is the strategy that’s been employed by most of the autocrats in the last 25 to 30 years.
Our American system, as we all have been inculcated since elementary school, is built on a three legged stool of checks and balances between the executive, judiciary and legislative branches. One of the most confounding things to me is why one branch would cede its own power. And that’s what we’re seeing when the Senate is giving the president more powers — at its own expense. How do you explain that?
The founders didn’t anticipate the existence of political parties when they created our system of checks and balances. For most of U.S. history, the political parties were internally divided: there would be a faction that might line up with the president, but another faction that that didn’t. So no president could count on the 100 percent discipline of his party in Congress.
What’s changed? It’s one of the few times in U.S. history that the level of polarization has led parties to close ranks. If you view the other party as a dangerous enemy that’s going to destroy the American way of life, you’re going to close ranks when things get rough. That’s one reason.
Another reason is that Donald Trump is extraordinarily popular among Republicans. A 93 percent approval rating among Republicans and the threat of a primary is sufficient to get every single senator in line up behind Trump. And when a party is lockstep 100% closed ranks behind the president, it ceases to be an independent check on the president’s power. And that’s what we see in the U.S. now.
We are seeing a lot of warning signs as Trump keeps raising the issue of electoral fraud. Spin this forward. What do you worry will happen come November?
There’s a lot to worry about. Two scenarios especially worry me. One of them is Florida 2000 on steroids. This election could be close to a tie, very similar to 2016, with 2, 3, or 4 states with razor thin margins. Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan, Florida — all these states are going to be really close. So a scenario in which there’s a recount, and maybe absentee ballots are coming in late, and maybe disagreements between the parties over the procedure for the recount as we saw in Florida in 2000. This is not fantasyland. This easily could happen.
In 2000, the parties were less polarized. Al Gore was unbelievably statesman-like. And the Supreme Court, even though it may have issued a politicized ruling in Bush v. Gore, still had a lot of legitimacy. So when the Supreme Court ruled, people accepted it.
None of those things are true today. The parties are much more polarized than they were 20 years ago. God knows Donald Trump is not Al Gore. And arguably the Supreme Court majority was stolen by Mitch McConnell in 2016. So if the Supreme Court steps in and rules on Trump’s behalf, a huge number of Americans are not going to accept the legitimacy of that outcome. If there’s a close election and there’s any sort of dispute, particularly if Trump loses, Trump is going to cry fraud. And you’ll see Fox News screaming fraud, and the entire Republican party will line up behind Trump. So that’s one crisis.
The other one is related to the coronavirus. It’s quite possible that there will be pretty severe infection rates in at least parts of the country in November and it will be hard to vote in person. Our elections are staffed by volunteers, many of whom are elderly, and they may decline, for their own safety, to work on the election. So we may have what we saw in April in Wisconsin, and in Georgia in June: a real shortage of polling places and huge lines of people fearful for their health. All of which could easily lead to a chaotic Election Day. So you can have a situation, if it’s bad enough, where Trump is clearly behind in the polls, but a chaotic low turnout election legally gives him the election.
Those are two nightmare scenarios. And they are not far fetched.
You’re a scholar of authoritarian regimes, particularly in Latin America. As you look around the world, what would a second Trump term look like? What would an authoritarian leader do with another four years?
The United States really hasn’t had anything remotely like this. There are very, very few rich democracies that have broken down in this way. If Trump were to get reelected, he would almost certainly do so in a very contested way, with public support almost certainly in the low 40s and with a really angry, quite mobilized and well resourced opposition. So you would see greater efforts by the state to do what Trump has been doing over the last three or four years, which is purge and then pack with loyalists the key institutions of the state that enable him to tilt the playing field in his own favor. Trump’s effort to personally control and corrupt our institutions and deploy them for his own protection and punish his critics and rivals would continue.
Where I continue to be more optimistic than some is that it’s not clear how much you can get away with. I think it would lead more to chaos and instability than to a kind of Hungary-like stable authoritarianism, because I think Trump would be resisted.
So what’s the solution? How does America pull back from the brink?
There are short and medium term solutions. In the short term, a tremendous amount unfortunately is riding on this 2020 election. If Donald Trump gets reelected in 2020, there are basically two options: either we spin into chaos, or we spin into authoritarianism. Chaos is the better scenario of the two. And if Trump is defeated, it does not solve our democracy’s problems. It’s a necessary first step that Trump must be removed from the presidency if we’re going to start to rebuild our democracy.
The second most important thing is that the Republican Party has to change. The Republican Party is increasingly a party of almost exclusively white Christians — and that matters. Not long ago, white Christians controlled the presidency, senators, governorships, they were the CEOs, they were the TV newscasters, they were the celebrities. All that has changed over the last 50 years. Losing an electoral majority and losing one’s dominant social status is a really threatening thing. Many Republican voters feel like the country that they grew up in has been taken away from them. If you had to point to one factor that is driving our country’s polarization, it is the anger and fear of a declining white Christian majority. And as long as the Republicans represent only that group, I think they’re going to be a quite radical and dangerous party because it’s they’re increasingly a party that can’t win national elections. That is leading them to play dirty.
The Republicans need to be a party that can win votes in cities, among young people, among secular voters, and among nonwhite voters. As soon as the Republican Party can do that and is comfortable with competing in elections across all of the United States in what is essentially the 21st century American society, I think that they will de-radicalize.
The other thing that we can do to defend our democracy is take steps to ensure that everybody in this country has easy access to the ballot. The tactics that we’ve seen — purging of voter rolls, elimination of polling sites, voter ID laws that make it more difficult for people to vote — are a major threat to democracy. There are basic steps that can make it much easier for everybody to vote. That’s really important.