The Democracy Doomsayers Consider 2020
ITHACA, N.Y. — Each prognosis was bleaker than the next.
One academic told of a future where the Senate refused to consider Supreme Court justices from the opposing party, leaving the bench size to fluctuate with partisan whims for years to come.
Another imagined violence breaking out between white supremacists and Antifa groups in the capital, if President Trump lost the popular vote for a second time but was returned to the presidency by the Electoral College. Armed militias might emerge in the suburbs, as they once did in Ireland.
Valerie Bunce, a scholar on post-Soviet politics at Cornell University, told her fellow social scientists, gathered in Ithaca to discuss the future of American democracy, that she saw something that smelled like the fall of Communism in the last century.
“We were looking at this in the 1980s — and if you said then the Soviet Union would break up, people didn’t believe you,” she told two colleagues, who responded with an uneasy laugh. “I’m just trying to give you an idea of the kind of things that can happen here.”
Four years ago, when the political establishment remained convinced that Donald J. Trump would not triumph, the researchers at the conference could see the reasons he would. And after Mr. Trump became president, they predicted that he might break democratic norms and spur an impeachment. That seemed extreme to some.
“Joe Scarborough once came on MSNBC with a copy of a piece we’d written and said that we were ‘laughable,’” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University professor who has spent the last several years arguing that American democracy is facing challenges similar to those that brought down Latin American democracies in coups during the last century.
The consensus among the scholars is that modern America has never produced a president like Mr. Trump, but that other countries have. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela pioneered using Twitter to attack his enemies and hosted a TV show called “Alo, Presidente.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s current strongman, used the term “deep state” decades before Mr. Trump did.
The field of comparative politics — a discipline that contrasts the formation and fall of political systems around the globe — has long been an obscure realm of the ivory tower. But now it is selling books and has become fodder on cable news, and scholars say they’ve found themselves explaining American political upheaval to bemused diplomats of foreign embassies.
Though these scholars do paint a grim picture for the future of democracy, no one sees an American dictatorship in the offing. Many point to the 2018 midterm elections as signs that the Democrats — known in academic lingo as “the opposition” in these scenarios — remain a potent force. In this view, impeachment itself shows American checks and balances are still intact.
“Today democracies don’t die at the hands of generals, but at the hands of elected leaders — presidents, prime ministers,” began Mr. Levitsky in front of a packed lecture hall at Cornell last week. “Many citizens are not fully aware of what’s happening until it’s too late.”
For democracy to work, in Mr. Levitsky’s view, it’s best to see the system as a kind of a game in which both sides’ ultimate goal is to keep playing for indefinite rounds. While everyone wishes to win, it’s more important that neither side is ever completely defeated or has demoralized its opponents to the point that they no longer want to play.
In Venezuela, Mr. Levitsky recalls, polarization between the leftist Mr. Chávez and the opposition boiled over into a coup and a general strike against him, both of which failed. Mr. Chávez responded by packing the courts, closing media outlets and jailing his opponents. The country’s democratic fabric has been in tatters ever since.
A key turning point for many democracies was the moment when political rivals began to see themselves as enemies rather than competitors, losing a key norm Mr. Levitsky calls “mutual toleration.” In his opinion, American politics lost that early in the Trump era when the president referred to his rivals as “traitors” and “scum.”
The story, or some variation of it, is Mr. Levitsky’s bread and butter, with similar patterns of democratic breakdown seen in Chile, Hungary, Turkey, Spain before the Spanish Civil War, and Germany and Italy before World War II.
“I never thought I would be seeing it in the U.S.,” Mr. Levitsky said.
Not all scholars agree with that the United States is seeing this kind of breakdown. Hadas Aron, a faculty fellow at New York University, said she admired Mr. Levitsky’s work and even teaches it to students, but said there were large differences between the democratic crises in countries like Hungary or Poland and what is going on in the United States. Those countries were far more polarized to begin with, she said.
“Democracy dies when there is no support for democracy, when people don’t believe in it,” she said. “Here, Trump is meeting with resistance by institutions at every step.”
No matter how one analyzes it, the troubled times have brought a boom for these scholars. “How Democracies Die,” written by Mr. Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, also a professor at Harvard, became one of the rare books to make it both to best-seller lists and the undergraduate political science syllabus circuit. And many of his colleagues saw their careers buoyed by current events, too.
At the recent conference in Cornell on the topic of democratic resilience in America, Robert Lieberman, the former provost of Johns Hopkins University, couldn’t resist the urge to pull up a mock-up of his new book cover with the title “Four Threats.” It featured a minimalist landscape of dark, foreboding waves.
“The book wouldn’t exist if Trump weren’t president,” he said of his manuscript, an analysis of breakdowns of American democratic norms after the republic’s founding including the 1790s, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Great Depression and Watergate.
The Trump presidency, in some ways, was the reason for the conference itself, giving a kind of urgency to those gathered around the table rarely seen at academic gatherings.
Jennifer McCoy, a professor at Georgia Sate who spent years monitoring Mr. Chávez’s elections in Venezuela, presented charts of discontent with democracy in Zimbabwe, comparing them with downward trends among Americans. Kenneth M. Roberts, who teaches comparative Latin American politics at Cornell, showed research that the Republican Party had swung further to the right than most right-wing parties in Europe.
A sense of disbelief seemed to take hold of the room when Lilliana Mason, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, began to show the results of a survey she had conducted among voters on the issue of political violence around the 2018 midterms. While 77 percent had said they were against violence of any sort, around 20 percent appeared willing to tolerate some kind of violence in politics.
She flipped to another survey. Twenty-five percent of respondents had said they favored the country being broken up along party lines into separate nations.
“What are they … ” she paused, but no question followed. “This just looks so bad.”
Another thing these scholars think looks bad: the Supreme Court. Specifically, these scholars of democratic dysfunction could not get over the fact that Judge Merrick B. Garland never got a confirmation hearing in the Senate, something that hadn’t happened since 1866.
Over dinner at an upscale restaurant near campus, Thomas M. Keck, a professor at Syracuse who studies the history of the Supreme Court in previously divisive times — it changed size seven times during 19th century partisan warfare — said he thought drastic measures might be needed. He floated some options, like term limits for new justices and keeping open the possibility of expanding the court’s size.
Many of his colleagues seemed convinced by the time the entrees were served. “It may be our least-bad option in restoring the court’s role as a democratic guardrail,” Mr. Keck said.
Last year, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, invited Mr. Levitsky and Mr. Ziblatt to Washington to discuss their book with a group of senators. During the conversation, Mr. Levitsky said one of the lawmakers told him that Mr. Garland’s blocked appointment was likely to become the norm.
He described the meeting with the senators as a “discombobulated discussion,” the lawmakers struggling to understand the political polarization Mr. Levitsky understood through his studies of democratic breakdown in Latin America.
“They kept asking, ‘Why are Republicans behaving this way?’” he said, noting how unfamiliar the American lawmakers were with the polarization taking root around them. “These were smart people who knew a lot about politics, but they didn’t have an explanation.”
These kinds of questions have left Mr. Levitsky feeling somewhat vindicated since the days some saw him as too alarmist.
Earlier this year, Mr. Levitsky and Mr. Ziblatt appeared on Mr. Scarborough’s show, “Morning Joe,” to discuss the paperback version of their book.
“How have the institutions held up? How is the democracy doing?” Mr. Scarborough asked, this time in seeming agreement that there was a threat to both.
Yet Mr. Levitsky can be shy in offering solutions to the crisis he sees.
During Mr. Levitsky’s public lecture at Cornell this month, Tracy Mitrano, who is running as a Democrat for the congressional seat that includes Ithaca, asked him for any wisdom ahead of her campaign.
“What advice would you give to a congressional seat candidate from this district?” Ms. Mitrano asked, as the audience, which included some would-be constituents who recognized her, began to chuckle.
Mr. Levitsky thought for a moment.
“Political science is very good at uncovering problems,” he said, saying that it was up to the politicians to figure out how to solve them. “I’m going to shut up now, because I don’t know.”
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