How Democracies Die

Post Reply
Tony.Williams
Posts: 726
Joined: Mon Jul 25, 2016 8:05 am
Location: Still somewhere in England
Contact:

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.

Tony.Williams
Posts: 726
Joined: Mon Jul 25, 2016 8:05 am
Location: Still somewhere in England
Contact:

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

Tony.Williams
Posts: 726
Joined: Mon Jul 25, 2016 8:05 am
Location: Still somewhere in England
Contact:

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.

User avatar
bindeweede
Site Admin
Posts: 3305
Joined: Sun Oct 25, 2015 3:45 pm
Location: Hertfordshire, UK

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.

User avatar
chaggle
Posts: 2260
Joined: Mon Oct 26, 2015 10:01 am

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

Matt
Posts: 853
Joined: Sun Oct 25, 2015 7:50 pm

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.

Tony.Williams
Posts: 726
Joined: Mon Jul 25, 2016 8:05 am
Location: Still somewhere in England
Contact:

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...

Tony.Williams
Posts: 726
Joined: Mon Jul 25, 2016 8:05 am
Location: Still somewhere in England
Contact:

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?

Post Reply