How Democracies Die
Harvard professor Steven Levitsky has a worrisome prognosis for the state of democracy.
BEFORE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, MOST DEMOCRACIES DIED BY THE GUN. FROM PINOCHET’S CHILE TO FRANCO’S SPAIN, AROUND THREE OF EVERY FOUR DEMOCRATIC BREAKDOWNS TRANSPIRED WITH THE MILITARY SEIZING POWER.
It was pretty black and white, and what happened next was foreseeable: the constitution would be dissolved, the elected government dispensed with, and the democratically installed leader jailed, exiled or killed.
But since the end of the Cold War, democracies have tended to be killed from within rather than without – and their executioners have usually been the leaders elected by these very democratic processes. It’s more effective to dismantle a democracy than overthrow it, because working within democracy’s architecture lets you customise your power. Done subtly, the populace won’t even notice what’s happening until it’s too late. For instance, as late as 2012, over a decade after Chávez was first elected, most Venezuelans still believed their country to be a democracy.
You can’t always identify an aspiring autocrat in advance, but there are four warning signs to look for. The first is that a leader looking to establish authoritarian rule tends to question the rules of the game. They might say they’ll not accept the outcome of an election, for example. The next is that they’ll often state their intent to violate basic civil liberties, promising to lock up their political rivals or contrary journalists. The third sign is the promotion, acceptance or condoning of violence on the campaign trail. Fourth is their open denial of their political opponent’s right to run for office. A fundamental norm of democracy is accepting the legitimacy of one’s rival, so denying that in a campaign is a serious overstep.
Of recent elected leaders, Chávez and Trump have ticked boxes on all of these counts, and Turkey’s Erdogan would qualify on some of them. It’s not a hardboiled rule – Hungary’s Orbán is a tougher case, as he started off on a fairly liberal path – but most autocrats show signs of authoritarian intent before being democratically elected. Correa in Ecuador and Ortega in Nicaragua are other examples. Indira Gandhi is virtually the only example of an autocratically inclined woman.
Once in power, almost all of these leaders make an effort to ‘capture the referees’. That is, they try to make the institutions of law – the courts, the intelligence agencies, the law enforcement authorities – answerable to them. This is a great strategy for a tyrant, because if you control the state’s investigative bodies, you and your government have effectively secured legal protection. It also means you have the law as a weapon to use against your rivals. In the era of international scrutiny and NGO surveillance, it’s more valuable to have a judge in your pocket than a general.
It can be very tempting to regard such men as little more than power-hungry, self-serving despots, but we can never really know the mix that’s in anybody’s heart – and that goes for tyrants too. Some recent leaders have ended up authoritarian because they were politically inexperienced, felt besieged and weren’t overly committed to democracy (Fujimori of Peru and Trump would fit this model). But there is also a chance they do genuinely believe that what they’re doing is in the national interest. If you look at the current suite of autocrats, every one of them has presented themselves as pursuing the public good. They might claim to be packing the courts because the courts are corrupt, re-jigging the electoral system because it’s flawed, arresting the media because they lie or going after certain folk because they’re terrorists.
Questionable as these claims may be, it’s important to recognise that substantial components of the population have bought in to them. Because, like it or not, these leaders have been elected, and for that to happen, voters must first have grown disillusioned with the status quo. It could be discontent with the way democracy is working, discontent with the political parties or discontent with the economy. A populist leader detects and feeds off this discontent, promising to take a wrecking ball to the system as a means of solving these problems. Which, invariably, populism is not equipped to do. And that’s when the real troubles start. •