How Democracies Die

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Tony.Williams
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How Democracies Die

Post by Tony.Williams » Tue Jan 30, 2018 11:00 am

A new book by Americans Levitsky and Ziblatt, subtitled 'What History Tells Us About Our Future'. I haven't read it - only a long review by Andrew Marr, so this is a second-hand review of a few key points:

The authors address the issue of the way in which democracies fail, and are replaced by an authoritarian government. They are of course particularly interested in Trump's presidency, but the analysis is world-wide and history-deep and as well as covering the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, is particularly relevant at present to countries like Turkey, Venezuela and Russia. It even contains some warnings for the UK.

The four key characteristics which identify leaders with authoritarian tendencies are:

1. They reject, or have a weak commitment to, the democratic rules of the game.

2. They deny the legitimacy of their opponents.

3. They tolerate, and even encourage, the use of violence.

4. They are ready to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

They regard Trump as being guilty on all counts, posing a significant threat to US democracy. Which reminds me that a "future history" novel published in 1935 has recently seen something of a revival: Sinclair Lewis's 'It Can't Happen Here' about a populist president who bypasses Congress, criminalises dissent and subverts the constitution to introduce a form of corporatist totalitarianism...

The book makes an interesting point about the present US political situation: that the split between right and left has very little to do with policies or philosophies, but is to do with identity. Trump supporters see the identity of the US - their identity - being steadily diluted by the inflow of immigrants and the ideas of the liberal elite. This is why revelations of how awful Trump is, or how his polices actually benefit the rich far more than anyone else, are just shrugged off. If I can adapt a phrase: "Trump may be a monster, but he's our monster." That's a difficult attitude to change.

The authors stress the importance to a healthy democracy of tolerance and moderation, civility and restraint, in the conduct of politics, and point out that any reduction in that is a warning signal. As Marr says of the UK: "An online political atmosphere in which words such as 'vile' and 'loathsome' are regularly thrown around, and a political culture that now tolerates threats (and worse) of violence against mainstream MPs, is in danger from the authoritarian contagion."

On the plus side, the UK's political system is difficult to subvert, since a prospective dictator would first have to get voted into Parliament, then elected leader of a party, and then win a general election, which is a lot of hurdles to jump compared to the US, where you can come from nowhere and just have to win one election.

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by Tony.Williams » Tue Jan 30, 2018 11:57 am

P.S. I just looked up that novel by Sinclair Lewis, and this is written on the back cover:
A vain, outlandish, anti-immigrant, fearmongering demagogue runs for President of the United States - and wins. Sinclair Lewis's chilling 1935 bestseller is the story of Buzz Windrip, 'Professional Common Man', who promises poor, angry voters that he will make America proud and prosperous once more, but takes the country down a far darker path. As the new regime slides into authoritarianism, newspaper editor Doremus Jessop can't believe it will last - but is he right? This cautionary tale of liberal complacency in the face of populist tyranny shows it really can happen here.
I wonder if Trump has read it? Oh no, of course not, he doesn't read books....maybe he got someone to read it to him...? :fp

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by Tony.Williams » Wed Jan 31, 2018 10:01 am

One afterthought on this review, which I think is worth stressing. It's a quote from US President Benjamin Harrison (1889-93), who said that God had never endowed any statesman or philosopher "with wisdom enough to frame a system of government that everybody could go off and leave".

In other words, it is important to the preservation of democracy that all those involved in politics should be conscious that they have a "gatekeeper" role, to ensure that political developments should not be allowed to undermine the democratic system.

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by bindeweede » Wed Jan 31, 2018 11:51 am

A very interesting thread, Tony. Thank you. Just wish I had something useful to contribute.

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chaggle
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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by chaggle » Wed Jan 31, 2018 12:10 pm

Likewise - reading with interest,

There should be a way of indicating this - something like a 'like' button - but different.
Don't blame me - I voted remain :con

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by Matt » Wed Jan 31, 2018 2:49 pm

chaggle wrote:
Wed Jan 31, 2018 12:10 pm
Likewise - reading with interest,

There should be a way of indicating this - something like a 'like' button - but different.
I think you just have.

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by Tony.Williams » Fri Feb 02, 2018 9:09 pm

I've now seen at least three reviews of this book, and it was discussed in last night's This Week programme. Some interesting points came up in that discussion:

1. During the Cold War it was taken for granted that the face-off was between nominally communist dictatorships on one side and capitalist democracies on the other. More recently, it has become clear that not only are democracy and capitalism not necessarily combined, they are in some ways opposed. Democracy implies a relatively egalitarian society able to change its government at regular intervals, while capitalism (unless firmly controlled) tends towards increasing inequality and weak government in the face of the strength of major corporations, as the IT giants are currently demonstrating (and financial institutions did a decade ago).

2. Democracies are always tempted to promise jam today and worry about paying for it some other time - hence the popularity with politicians of the PFI schemes which are now becoming unstuck. This is not a new thought, of course. Lord Thomas MacCauley said in 1857:
A democracy cannot survive as a permanent form of government. It can last only until its citizens discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority (who vote) will vote for those candidates promising the greatest benefits from the public purse, with the result that a democracy will always collapse from loose fiscal policies, always followed by a dictatorship.
3. We have tended to assume that authoritarianism is just a temporary phase and that all countries will eventually evolve towards democracy. However, some countries appear to be deciding that they would rather have an authoritarian government which protected them, provided stability and allowed them to prosper. China is the classic case of course, but Russia is in some ways similar, as is Turkey.

At the end of the discussion, opinion was divided as to whether the present trend towards authoritarianism is a temporary blip, or will continue indefinitely. Food for thought...

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by Tony.Williams » Thu Feb 08, 2018 8:53 am

Another new book out on a related theme: Trumpocracy - The Corruption of the American Republic, by David Frum.

From the review: "This is a book about a culture, not a politician, about a political system, not a president... [Frum's] interest is not in racist tweets, narcissism or even incompetence... but in a project to rip up the American state and steal from it."

Apparently the Trump clan are not nearly as well-off as they like to portray. Yes, they have valuable assets but they also have huge debts. But the money has been pouring in to his businesses since Trump became president.

One quirky side-issue, concerning how Trump managed to win the election: we hear a lot about Muslims been radicalised over the net but something similar seems to be happening among young white men in the USA. Many of them are out of work and disconnected from normal social life - "the percentage of Americans under 25 who report zero sexual contacts since turning 18 has risen to levels not seen until the early 1960s". So they spend their time online, watching porn and playing video games, and getting angry. They were never going to vote for Hillary.

One saving grace identified by the reviewer is that Trump will never become a "strong man" leader in the Putin/Erdogan/Xi mould, because he isn't a strong man. As one commentator put it: "He is weak and snivelling... He's whiny, weepy and self-pitying."

It's far too early to judge what the legacy of Trump's presidency might be - but who replaces him becomes a key issue. Will his election just be a bizarre blip, or the start of a trend towards a different style of government?

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by Tony.Williams » Sat Dec 08, 2018 10:02 am

Here's another one, originally published in 2017 on the BBC website: How Western civilisation could collapse, by Rachel Nuwer: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/2017041 ... d-collapse . Some extracts to cheer you up:
The political economist Benjamin Friedman once compared modern Western society to a stable bicycle whose wheels are kept spinning by economic growth. Should that forward-propelling motion slow or cease, the pillars that define our society – democracy, individual liberties, social tolerance and more – would begin to teeter. Our world would become an increasingly ugly place, one defined by a scramble over limited resources and a rejection of anyone outside of our immediate group. Should we find no way to get the wheels back in motion, we’d eventually face total societal collapse....

Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at the University of Maryland, uses computer models to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that can lead to local or global sustainability or collapse. According to findings that Motesharrei and his colleagues published in 2014, there are two factors that matter: ecological strain and economic stratification. The ecological category is the more widely understood and recognised path to potential doom, especially in terms of depletion of natural resources such as groundwater, soil, fisheries and forests – all of which could be worsened by climate change....

That economic stratification may lead to collapse on its own, on the other hand, came as more of a surprise to Motesharrei and his colleagues. Under this scenario, elites push society toward instability and eventual collapse by hoarding huge quantities of wealth and resources, and leaving little or none for commoners who vastly outnumber them yet support them with labour. Eventually, the working population crashes because the portion of wealth allocated to them is not enough, followed by collapse of the elites due to the absence of labour. The inequalities we see today both within and between countries already point to such disparities. For example, the top 10% of global income earners are responsible for almost as much total greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90% combined. Similarly, about half the world’s population lives on less than $3 per day.

For both scenarios, the models define a carrying capacity – a total population level that a given environment’s resources can sustain over the long term. If the carrying capacity is overshot by too much, collapse becomes inevitable. That fate is avoidable, however. “If we make rational choices to reduce factors such as inequality, explosive population growth, the rate at which we deplete natural resources and the rate of pollution – all perfectly doable things – then we can avoid collapse and stabilise onto a sustainable trajectory,” Motesharrei said. “But we cannot wait forever to make those decisions.”

Unfortunately, some experts believe such tough decisions exceed our political and psychological capabilities. “The world will not rise to the occasion of solving the climate problem during this century, simply because it is more expensive in the short term to solve the problem than it is to just keep acting as usual,” says Jorgen Randers, a professor emeritus of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, and author of 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. “The climate problem will get worse and worse and worse because we won’t be able to live up to what we’ve promised to do in the Paris Agreement and elsewhere.”

Homer-Dixon predicts that Western societies’ collapse will be preceded by a retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands. As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states. Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing.
and finally:
Western civilisation is not a lost cause, however. Using reason and science to guide decisions, paired with extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill, human society can progress to higher and higher levels of well-being and development
Phew! For a moment I was worried, but surely reason, science, extraordinary leadership and exceptional goodwill are what our civilisation possesses in abundance.....right? :???:

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chaggle
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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by chaggle » Sat Dec 08, 2018 10:14 am

Shit. :shock:
Don't blame me - I voted remain :con

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Re: How Democracies Die

Post by Croydon13013 » Sun Dec 09, 2018 12:20 pm

Tony.Williams wrote:
Tue Jan 30, 2018 11:00 am
A new book by Americans Levitsky and Ziblatt, subtitled 'What History Tells Us About Our Future'. I haven't read it - only a long review by Andrew Marr, so this is a second-hand review of a few key points:
Worth noting that Andrew Marr has never been a fan of democracy.

In his youth he was a Maoist before flipping across to the right. More recently he was one of the rich scumbags who used a "superinjunction" to block reporting of the existence of an injunction regarding his behaviour with/towards a junior female colleague.
thIS sIGnaTure iS an

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